Cross Kopje: Mutare’s architectural ingenuity
WINDING down the Christmas Pass is quite an experience, but towering over the Eastern horizon is an unsung architectural hero — the Cross Kopje.
Sitting quietly on a small hill is the feature that has defined Mutare since 1924.
Cross Kopje is a high rocky hill separated from the vast mountainous terrain of the Eastern border town housing a 10 metre tall cross erected in memory of black soldiers who died in East Africa in World War 1.
Cecil M. Hulley in his fascinating book Memories of Manicaland (1980) states: “Everyone has admired the majesty of the Cross Kopje War Memorial standing on what was once known as Baboon Kopje in Umtali (now Mutare) and many have marvelled at the engineering problems involved and the motive behind such an achievement”.
The Memorial Cross on Cross Kopje, a feature that dominates Mutare, was erected in commemoration of the 269 Africans soldiers of the 1st and 2nd Battalions of the Rhodesia Native Regiment (RNR) from Zimbabwe, Malawi and Mozambique who fought and died in the German East African campaign of the First World War.
During the World War Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) was administered by a private chartered company named the British South Africa Company (BSAC).
As the objective of this company was to return dividends to its shareholders entry into the war of Southern Rhodesia units was inevitably delayed by financial disputes between the company and the British government.
When it had been established that the military recruitment of white soldiers from Southern Rhodesia had exhausted the available supply, attention was turned to the recruitment of Africans. This was not an easy political step to take although Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) and Nyasa-land (now Malawi) recruited Africans for their military units. The white settlers in Southern Rhodesia had always resisted “arming the natives” other than in small auxiliary organisations. But more riflemen were needed for operations on the Nyasaland and Northern Rhodesia borders with German East Africa.
In November 1915 the Rhodesian forces Commandant General, Colonel Alfred H.M. Edwards, proposed that an African battalion be raised in Southern Rhodesia. The war office asked the British South Africa Company to do this, and after several months of negotiating and false promises the company finally agreed to provide the men, subject to reimbursement of all costs involved.
It was planned that the soldiers would be recruited from the Ndebele tribe and the new unit was titled the Matabele Regiment. Officers and senior rank officials were recruited from the Southern Rhodesia Native Affairs Department and the British South Africa Police. It was however, soon realised in May 1916 that the recruitment of 500 Ndebeles was not going to happen as labour was scarce due to the Southern Rhodesian economy having been boosted by the war. European employers producing crops, goods and services for the war effort wanted to keep hold of their African labour and at the same time many Africans preferred to work on their tribal holdings of land rather than work for wages. Men came forward from the Mashona tribe and many others were recruited from mine compounds.
Most of these former miners were migrant workers from Nyasaland, Northern Rhodesia and Portuguese East Africa (now Mozambique). Nearly all the recruits were illiterate as the educated Southern Rhodesian Africans were not interested in military service. The various dialects resulted in the war unit being re-named Rhodesia Native Regiment.
In 1924 minor controversy rose within the colonial government of the day over the construction of a special memorial for the Africans who died during the Great war. Many Africans and Europeans were supportive of this project but high level authorities in Salisbury (now Harare) were not pleased with it.
Some Europeans, especially those who were part of the native units during the war felt that not enough had been done to memorialise the contribution of the African soldiers.
The feat of constructing a memorial for the Africans who died in East Africa however, was completed by a Mutare, then Umtali, firm called the Methuen Brothers owned by Captain Stuart Methuen and his brother Colonel James Allin Methuen.
The military commandment of Umtali district in the Eastern Highlands of Southern Rhodesia and Lieutenant Colonel Methuen collected donations of money and material to construct a 10m high and one metre wide granite and cement cross.
Umtali Town Council provided the necessary stones and sand.
The location of the memorial was a high rocky hill then called Baboon Kopje, (now Cross Kopje) that overlooks the town and sat almost right on the border of Zimbabwe and Mozambique.
A dedication ceremony was held and the then mayor Councillor W. Stevens, unveiled the cross and Bishop of Southern Rhodesia, Right Reverend Bishop Bevan, performed the dedication service in front of guard of honour mounted by BSAP and Portuguese native police from Beira in 1924.
The memorial was originally illuminated by floodlights and owes its existence to the generosity and ingenuity of the Methuen brothers.
The cross is inscribed: ‘LEST WE FORGET’. In memory of the 269 African soldiers who fought and died during World War 1.
The monument is most visible from the low density suburb of Greenside and from the scenic view of Christmas Pass.
Path to the summit leads off Rekayi Tangwena Drive, Greenside, Mutare.
DID YOU KNOW
All streets in the low density suburb of Greenside except Rekayi Tangwena and Chaminuka, are named after birds.
The newly-erected Cross Kopje (Courtsey of National Archives of Zimbabwe)