Robert Hamilton McCleland: With the Pioneer Column to Rhodesia

In line with my philosophy of using The Casual Observer as a platform to propagate my views concerning the events in the world, I also wish it to become a repository of the articles on the McCleland family. We are fortunate in having a printed family history entitled The Reverend Francis McCleland: Colonial Chaplain to Port Elizabeth 1825 to 1853. Hopefully this is the first of many such articles but for that to materialise, I require information on the family from recipients of this blog.

The first in the series highlights the achievements of Robert Hamilton McCleland who was a member of the Pioneer column which occupied Mashonaland in 1890

Main picture: Robert Hamilton McCleland from the Draaifontein Collection

What defines one’s life are often somewhat arbitrary decisions taken early in one’s adult life. So it was with Robert Hamilton McCleland but more on that later. Robert was the son of Captain Francis William Henry McCleland, the first generation of McCleland’s in South Africa. Born on the 12th February 1863 in Port Elizabeth, probably at his parent’s home on Walmer Farm in Walmer, commenced his working, life by working on his father’s farm. It was a Mr. H.B. Christian of Kragga Kamma who motivated him “in the way of enlisting in the Pioneer Column, then being formed in Kimberley, for the historic march into the Kingdom of Lobengula.” Robert enlisted as a Trooper and in 1890 entered the territory north of the Limpopo to be renamed Rhodesia. This was to be the defining period in his life if for no other reason that he participated in an historic event for which he was labelled as one of this band of intrepid pioneers.

The Eastern Province Herald – now called The Herald – published an obituary of RH McCleland in February 1944.

This is a transcript of that article:

A Rhodesian Pioneer

The Late Mr. R.H. McCleland

The dwindling band of survivors of the Pioneer Column which carried out the occupation of Mashonaland in 1890 and won Rhodesia for the British Commonwealth lost another member in the recent death of Mr. Robert Hamilton McCleland of Morning Glory Kragga Kamma. He was in his 82nd year when he had a seizure in the evening after reading his newspaper, and passed away shortly afterwards.

Matilda McCleland - Wife of Robert Hamilton McCleland on left with black hat

Matilda McCleland – Wife of Robert Hamilton McCleland on left with black hat

The late Mr. McCleland came of [sic] a notable Port Elizabeth family, the majority of whom are farmers. His grandfather was the first Rector of St. Mary’s Church and his father, Captain Francis William Henry McCleland of the 6th Warwickshire Regt. The father was born in 1828 and died in 1883. Sensing his love of adventure, the late Mr. H.B. Christian of Kragga Kamma put the late Mr. McCleland in the way of enlisting of enlisting in the Pioneer Column, and more so than many, for he was one of the small patrol which, principally by sheer bluff, stood off a heavily superior Portuguese force intent on marching in from Portuguese territory.

RH McCleland and the Pioneer Column

RH McCleland and the Pioneer Column

There were tense hours while the little British patrol lay ensconced in positions on one side of the river, with the Portuguese milling around on the other side of the drift. The commander of the British patrol had stationed a helio unit in full view of the “enemy” and the signallers occupied their time in sending and receiving messages to and from a mythical strong column coming up from the rear as reinforcements. It was this bluff which persuaded the Portuguese commander that he was too late and had better abandon his enterprise.

Robert Hamilton McCleland as a young man


Rhodesia’s First Hotel

Mr. McCleland spent three years in Rhodesia, being the recipient of the usual grant of land awarded to the Pioneers. In this time he built the first hotel in Southern Rhodesia, an affair of mud walls, reed roof etc. His only tools were an axe and a spade. But fever took [a] heavy toll of his health, and in the end, the medical authorities ordered him back to the Cape Colony, lest his health should become permanently undermined.

Pioneer Corps

Mr. McCleland was one of the Pioneer guests of the Rhodesian Government on the occasion of the 1930 commemoration of the Column’s march, and again in 1940, when the fiftieth anniversary of the event was celebrated. One of his most cherished possessions was an illuminated certificate recording that he “served as a member of the Column which in 1890 occupied Mashonaland and secured its incorporation as part of the British Empire.” It was signed in 1930 by Sir R.J. Hudson, Minister of Defence.

Rhodes Corps Medal

Rhodes Corps Medal

Mr. McCleland is survived by his widow and ten children.

Robert Hamilton McCleland’s role in Rhodesia in his own words

After leaving Mafeking, went on to Fort Tuli [Beit Bridge], where we underwent a lot of training before crossing the border into the enemies’ country.

B Troop was chosen to cross into the enemies’ country under Capt. Hoste. We had to cut open roads through thick forests & make drifts for the Column to follow on. The Column followed us up three or four days later. Eventually we arrived at Fort Victoria, where we built our Fort & gave our cattle & horses a good rest. From Fort Victoria we went on to Fort Charter & built our Fort there, and then we trekked slowly on, making roads to Salisbury, where we again built a Fort.

We were all disbanded in Salisbury & went all over the country in small parties prospecting for gold.

Robert Hamilton McCleland’s account of his experiences as part of the Pioneer Column

Later life

On the extant documents relating to his service as part of the Pioneer Column, Robert stated tersely he was prospecting whereas in the obiturary, it states that he instrumental in establishing Rhodesia’s first hotel, albeit rudimentary. Perhaps it was modesty which led Robert to minimise his role in tricking the Portuguese to withdrawing from Rhodesia or maybe he felt that his personal role was if minor significance which did not merit mention.

Six years after his return to Port Elizabeth in 1893, he married the twenty year old Matilda Anna [Tilly] Beckley – one of three Beckley daughters living in Draaifontein who married three McCleland brothers – on 25th December 1899. After the Rhodesian adventure, Robert settled down to a life of tranquility by farming at Morning Glory along the Kragga Kamma Road.

He died on his farm on the 13th February 1944 and Tilly survived him by six years, dying on the 9th August 1951.

Copies of various documents

Family Tree:

McCleland Family Tree to RH McCleland

McCleland Family Tree to RH McCleland

McCleland Family Tree from Grandfather to me

McCleland Family Tree from Grandfather to me


Obituary from the EP Herald: Mrs Sharon McCleland

Wedding photos which depict Matilda McCleland nee Beckley wife of RH McCleland: Mrs Yvonne Ward-Able

Prominent dates in life of RH McCleland: 1820 Settlers Association web site

Photo of RH McCleland: MyHeritage web site

Genealogy from the book: The Reverend Francis McCleland: Colonial Chaplain to Port Elizabeth 1825 – 1853 by Gabrielle Churchouse.


Photos and copies:

Obituary from the EP Herald

Photograph of RH McCleland

Photograph of Mrs Matilda McCleland nee Beckley together with son Ronald and wife Eva Seaman




To me:

  • The Reverend Francis McCleland – great great grandfather
  • Robert Hamilton McCleland – great uncle

To Yvonne Ward-Able:

  • Robert Hamilton McCleland – grandfather

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