Robert Moffat and Mzilikazi Meet

This entry is part 5 of 20 in the series History of the amaNdebele

Coinciding more or less with Mzilikazi’s Bakwena Campaign approval was given by the government of the Cape Colony to a scheme aimed at extending the trade of the colony outwards to the scattered peoples of the interior. Licences were issued and help offered to those who wished to embark on trading expeditions north of the Cape, and one of the first to avail himself of this facility was a mercurial local character by the name of Andrew Geddes Bain.

Bain was a man of many interests, amongst which his biographers list geology, palaeontology, engineering and exploration. The latter was his principal passion, however, and trade largely a means to expedite it. He was also an artist and chronicler and one of the most important explorers and amateur historians of the time. In early 1826 he and a collection of friends and interested parties outfitted a trading expedition, and with wagons laden with barter goods, crossed the Orange River and set off northward into the interior. Collecting two itinerant Wesleyan missionaries along the way Bain for the first time was told of the existence the amaNdebele and their formidable leader Mzilikazi. As the party journeyed northwards along the south bank of the Vaal more and more intelligence regarding the existence and activities of this powerful group was gathered. In mid-July 1826 the party arrived at Moffat’s Kuruman mission station where, amid the usual subjects of conversation, the existence in the north east of a powerful scion of the Zulu horde dominated.

The trading party then struck due north along a route taken decades earlier by naturalist and explorer William John Burchell who had between 1810 and 1815 penetrated as far north in his perambulations as southern Bechuanaland. Ten days of arduous travel later Burchell’s furthest north was bettered, and Bain’s became the first white eyes to gaze on the ruined territory of earlier tribal wars. Bain and his party were also inadvertently drawn into a native skirmish and for the first time north of the Limpopo orchestrated gunfire was both heard and felt. Bain was heavily criticized for this, and to limit blame he later claimed to have only fired over the rooftops, but more important than his interfering in native conflicts was the impression made on local people of the power and potential of firearms.

Needless to say news of the incident very quickly reached Mzilikazi’s royal kraal of enKungwini. This was not the first news that Mzilikazi had received of the existence in the south of a white race with superior imperial powers, and nor perhaps the first intelligence regarding their weaponry, but it was without doubt the first direct report that he could consider of the actual impact and effect of these weapons under circumstances of war.

This was a turning point in his life and in the fortunes of the amaNdebele. Although he had no means then of quantifying the threat, the first penetration into his sphere of influence of any power of this nature would have been disturbing to him, but coupled with it was a deep interest in discovering more about guns and gunpowder with the obvious view of acquiring and using these weapons himself.

Andrew Geddes Bain completed his exploration and returned south without attempting to make direct contact with the amaNdebele. The following year a second Scots hunter/trader by the name of Robert Schoon also penetrated the lovely Marico Valley on the southern fringe of amaNdebele territory, pressing closer to enKungwini, but still avoiding direct contact with the amaNdebele. It was suggested though that Schoon intended to return the following year, upon which Mzilikazi resolved to ensure that he visited enKungwini whether he wanted to or not.

In the meanwhile Mzilikazi’s education in the uses and effects of firearms would continue. Whites were not the only holders of this power, and nor were they the only non-black inhabitants of the region with skills in the mounted application of gunfire as a weapon of war and intimidation. The Griquas who had assisted Robert Moffat in diverting the overrunning of Kuruman by the dreaded Batlokoa hordes of Mantatisi had many cousins and offshoots within the region, all existing under the appellation of Bastaards, and all of mixed racial heritage. Among these were the Bergenaar, or Mountain Men, who had abandoned common law, and the laws of statute of the Cape Colony, and had adopted raiding and banditry on the frontier as a livelihood. Another were the Koranna, and during the general breakdown of order that characterised the Mfecane, these two groups banded together to form one of the most fearsome confederations to stalk an already nervous and agitated land.

A combination of guns and horses gave this relatively small group of raiders a distinct advantage over any of the other warring groups of the interior. Their activities therefore were lucrative, and as cattle was the currency of the times, it was not long before the vast and unmolested herds of the amaNdebele captured their attention. They had so far experienced no defeat, and were intimidated by no native force, and in due course they began a tentative series of raids into Mzilikazi’s territory. Initially the amaNdebele were uncertain of what was afoot, unsure of how to react, and they tended to allow the Bergenaars to escape each time with a considerable amount of loot. This could not continue indefinitely, however, and the raiders were soon intercepted, and except for the cunning of their captain they might have ended their days squatting on a sharpened post as had many before who had unwisely crossed the amaNdebele monarch.

These however were mainly probing reconnaissance attacks that were intended primarily to establish the whereabouts of the main amaNdebele military and cattle emplacements, and to establish the size of the amaNdebele herd in order to gauge the potential return on a larger and more co-ordinated action. Clearly the potential rewards were huge, but so was the risk, so an alliance was forged between the Koranna/Berganaar leader Jan Bloem, Captain of the Springbok band, and Moletsane, chief of the Bataung, or Lion People.

A combined attack was then launched that, although initially successful, faltered on indiscipline, and then fell apart entirely as groups of horsemen occupied themselves rounding up and mustering cattle abandoned by the amaNdebele. This overruling preoccupation with loot resulted in a predictable a lapse in vigilance which the Bastaards would be quick to learn was a fatal error in any combat with the amaNdebele. A powerful impi returned a counter attack that succeeded in killing many and scattering the remainder. Most of the captured cattle were recovered, but much more importantly a large quantity of firearms were abandoned in the rout that were retrieved by the amaNdebele and presented to Mzilikazi.

In the meanwhile, and true to his word, Robert Schoon returned the following year to trade and hunt in the region of the Marico Valley. This time he travelled in the company of William McLuckie, a fellow Scotsman who had decided to leave for a while his comfortable life as a Grahamstown trader in order to see what opportunities the frontier offered to a man of modest wit and capital.  In early June 1829 the two men crossed the Orange River and continued north until in due course they arrived in the sparse and dusty region of the Malopo River. There they were intercepted by an amaNdebele Induna who informed them that the great Bull Elephant himself had invited them to hunt and trade in amaNdebele territory.

Such an invitation did not bear refusal, and shortly thereafter the two arrived under escort at King’s residence of enKungwini where they set up camp. Within a few hours they were visited by an ebullient and excited Mzilikazi who presumably was meeting a white man for the very first time. He had probably had some brief contact in the past with Portuguese speaking traders, but rarely where these men white in the sense that a pure blood Scotsman was white. Moreover the written recollections of this visit that later surfaced were the first, and among very view authoritative descriptions of a young Mzilikazi to reach the outside world.

The man that was portrayed by Robert Schoon was shorter than average, but very well proportioned and clearly very athletic and physical in outlook. He was described as tending to be pensive, soft spoken, kindly and at times, light hearted and humorous. The first meeting between the three would have been formal, after which the usual procedure of a lengthy stay punctuated by frequent encounters would have followed. During that period the two white men would have had ample opportunity to form a picture of the day to day life of the amaNdebele, and in particular of Mzilikazi, who they concluded was a man of primitive but expansive intellect, constrained somewhat by a lack of exposure, but in every other respect a sage, shrewd and thoughtful leader. They noticed periods when he sat wrapped in melancholy and indifferent to company, and others when he was effusive, friendly and engaging.

What was enigmatic to both men was the iron grip that Mzilikazi clearly held over the minds and bodies of his people. If he was not overtly aggressive or violent in temper, he was nonetheless capable of extraordinary cruelty, and sentences of death were arbitrary and carried out immediately and without question. It is probable that with respect to his guests no scenes of particular horror were enacted, but the aura of fear and tyranny was pervasive, but again offset by the extraordinary discipline that this seemed engender, as well as, in the context of Africa, unusual courtesy and a miraculous degree of honesty.

However the matter at hand was gunpowder and shot, and it was this that Mzilikazi was eager to see demonstrated. A rusty pile of muskets that was all that remained of the Bergenaar haul was retrieved and laid out before Schoon, who was asked what he could make of them. Mzilikazi had had no personal encounter with either the Bergenaars or the Boer, so he had never seen a rifle fired, and had no idea what to expect. He paid careful attention as Schoon selected the most likely weapon from among the pile and loaded it with powder and shot.

The first shot was composed of a mixture of lead and pewter and was fired by a Hottentot servant at a stone that left a bright splash of lead and a bluish impression. This caused Mzilikazi to peer at the damage and remark that he could have done more to the rock by spitting on it. Irritated a little by this Schoon asked Mzilikazi to point out to him an ox that was marked for slaughter, and with one shot placed behind the ear the beast dropped dead. Mzilikazi was horrified, and for a moment stared in disbelief at the dying spasms of the beast before retreating backwards towards his hut, where he tripped at the entrance, and there took refuge for the remainder of the day. He was noticeably curt with his guests for the next few days, and never mentioned guns again.[1]

Thereafter the two traders concluded their business with almost no contact with Mzilikazi, who, in a mood of sombre reflection, bade them farewell as they left and watched as their wagons rumbled slowly westwards. In the aftermath of the demonstration he had asked only two favours of his visitors: first that they encourage other whites of a friendly disposition to visit and trade, and second that they take with them two of his most trusted Indunas who were to be escorted to Kuruman to meet the white missionary that Mzilikazi had of late heard much, and from him learn as much as possible about the customs, habits, and if possible the political intentions of the white man.

Thus it was that Robert Moffat found himself host to two noblemen of the amaNdebele nation, the elder and more venerable being Mzilikazi’s de facto prime minister and regent uMncumbata. ‘On their arrival here with three attendants,’ he wrote later as he gave thought to the implications of the visit, ‘everything astonished and interested them, and they themselves were the objects of still greater astonishment to our people, who stared as though regarding another order of beings.’[ii]

Indeed, as Schoon and McLuckie had observed befor ehim, the amaNdebele were somewhat of another order of beings in the run of the mill context of the region, a region where men like Moffat commented not infrequently on the generally low calibre of humanity. Bearing this in mind the presence at the mission of two distinctly aristocratic noblemen of a powerfully despised nation excited as much discussion as it did fear, and it is likely that more than one person in the vicinity of Kuruman would have murdered the two with pleasure. They however enjoyed the protection of Robert Moffat, and such was his local stature that nothing untoward would be likely to befall the two so long as he vouched for their safety

In the meanwhile the Indunas could hardly have failed to be impressed by what they saw in Kuruman. Moffat was gifted in many ways, with leadership and charisma being only part of this, and such practical skills as carpentry, iron-smithing, building and any number of other mechanical aptitudes all contributing to his ability to both survive and thrive in an isolated wilderness. At Kuruman, straddling as it did the natural spring that fed water up to the arid Karoo, he had created an extraordinary little oasis of comfort and Christian civilisation in a land still reeling from the after-effects of the anarchic Mfecane.

Most importantly though Moffat treated the Indunas with the same respect that they offered him, affording them all the honour and attention due to dignitaries of a powerful nation. This would have left the two with a very favourable impression of whites in general, and of Moffat in particular, but perhaps more importantly it set the tone for the successful entente that would follow between Robert Moffat and Mzilikazi himself.

Robert Schoon had in the meanwhile arranged for a local ‘Hottentot’ servant to escort the two Indunas and their associates back to enKungwini, news that was greeted with some gloom by the Indunas themselves. By then, uMncumbata explained to Moffat, news of their presence in Kuruman had spread, and already word had reached them of a Bechuana plot to waylay and murder them. As Moffat later wrote: ‘In view of the warlike disposition and mighty power of the Matabele (sic), who had already destroyed so many great tribes and deluged the Bakwena country with blood, I could not help fearing the dire results if anything should happen to these peaceful messengers.’[iii]

A wagon was therefore hired, and with much local fanfare Moffat himself set off from Kuruman on 9 November in the direction of Buhurtutseland to escort the two men some part of the way home. Ten days later he prepared to hand the two men over to Mokgatla, the Buhurutse Chief, whose responsibility it would then be to convey them the remaining distance to enKungwini. This did not please the two Indunas. With faultless courtesy, and in the intricate manner common to native diplomacy, Moffat was reminded of the strong relations recently cemented between the amaNdebele and himself; and that the respect and courtesy shown the emissaries of the King was kindness shown to the King himself; and that if Mzilikazi was to hear that Moffat himself travelled as far as Mosega and was not escorted to enKungwini itself the likelihood would be that both men would be executed.

How true this was it is hard to say, but it nonetheless put Moffat in a predicament. He could certainly not allow any harm to come to the men, even it was at the hands of their own king, and if it was a lie, it was a cunning lie, and ultimately effective. Mindful of the fact that by late November the annual rains were more or less upon the land, and that travel back by wagon from the Marico district to Kuruman in conditions of rain would be difficult, if not impossible, Moffat reluctantly set off to deliver his charges to Mzilikazi.

However, once the decision had been made, and the journey begun, Moffat was obviously curious at what he would find when he entered amaNdebele territory, and even more so who he would meet when he was introduced to Mzilikazi. His first impressions were not favourable. He was struck, as Schoon and McLuckie had been before him, at how desolate the amaNdebele invasion had left the beautiful natural landscape of the Magaliesberg, and at how broken were the Bakwena who had so recently fallen under the amaNdebele heel. He wrote later in his journal:

Many an hour I walked pensively among these scenes of desolation, casting my thoughts back to the time when these now desolate habitations teemed with life and revelry, and when the hills and dales echoed with heathen joy. Now nothing remains but dilapidated walls and heaps of stones and rubbish, which form a covert for the game and for the lion.[iv]

Moffats impressions of this and other journeys form the basis of most if not all histories written of the amaNdebele of this period. He made many valuable observations, but was frustrated often in trying to learn more by the fact that, having notable amaNdebele members in his company, he was unable to get reliable information from the victims of the occupation. These were the scattered bands of surviving Bakwena tribesmen, who Moffat termed ‘degraded aborigines’, fearful, evasive and foraging on a landscape claimed in utter totality by their conquerors. Conversations between he and the Bakwena he encountered were muted in content, conducted with eyes downcast, or flickering nervously upwards towards the amaNdebele indunas in Moffat’s company, who ‘now ruled them with a rod of iron.’[v]

In contrast the amaNdebele themselves lived in an environment of plenty, with vast herds grazing in open pastures and a sense of ordered security prevailing among large settlements of healthy, well fed and courteous people. To Moffat this kind of ordered and disciplined living was something he had seen nowhere else in his African travels, and he could not help but be impressed. About everything hung an aura of central command and authority, a fact confirmed in due course as the party of travellers came within sight of enKungwini itself, and Moffat was treated to a spectacle of amaNdebele power that was both fearsome and thrilling.

Having receded the wagons on horseback, we entered the large public cattle-fold, where were ranged in a semicircle about eight hundred warriors in full dress. About three hundred more sat concealed in ambush, perhaps as a precaution or to try our courage. We proceeded to the centre of the fold, when they beckoned us to dismount. We had scarcely reached the ground when those who were secreted at the entrance rushed in, shouting and leaping with the most fantastic gestures, so that our horses, unaccustomed to such fun, tried to break away from us.[vi]

After a profound silence for ten minutes the whole body commenced singing some war songs, slightly moving their bodies and striking with their feet in perfect unison with the music. They continued to sing for some time, no-one approaching us, though all eyes seemed fixed on the strangers. After a brief kind of feu de joie all was silent and Moselekatze (sic) marched out into the centre from behind the lines, with an interpreter and attendants in the rear bearing beer, meal and other food, he gave a hearty salutation and appeared overjoyed.[vii]

As with his predecessors Schoon and McLuckie, Moffat was disarmed to be received, not by some dark and brooding despot with an obvious affliction of madness and megalomania, but a jovial man with a light step and a ready smile who greeted his guest with gaiety, humour and familiarity. Attended thus by a vast sector of the nation, now in utter and respectful silence, Mzilikazi promptly linked armed with Moffat and demanded that he explain the mechanics of wagons that the king was apparently seeing for the very first time (this Moffat states in his memoirs, although of course Mzilikazi would have seen Schoon and McLuckie’s wagons a year earlier). Moffat was abashed, surprised and perhaps a little flattered. Mzilikazi very quickly adopted an almost childlike attitude of supplication in the presence of the missionary, clutching him by the hand and dragging him to and fore as he stood in apparent amazement, watching the wheels of Moffats wagons turning, and these ‘moving houses’ manoeuvring into a laager formation.

Thus began one of the most unlikely relationships ever to bridge the divide in those difficult days of race transition. The bond that formed between the two men was immediate and powerful, and no doubt took both of them by surprise. The phenomenon has also featured very large in almost every biographical account written about the lives of each, but seldom have questions been asked as to why, in particular, a man like Mzilikazi should have come so completely under the spell of a rather conservative, reserved and otherwise unremarkable character like Moffat. Moffat’s fame would have been limited had it not been for this relationship, which most readings of history suggest was often something of a burden for him.

Indeed Moffat unexpectedly became the object of Mzilikazi’s overt affection at the time of this visit, and as a consequence he later found thrust upon himself the role of diplomatic conduit for many agencies of European expansion seeking access to the inner circle of the amaNdebele. That he would rather not have had anything to do with Mzilikazi and the amaNdebele at all is very strongly suggested throughout his memoirs, and that he found the demands of using this relationship to further the political and missionary objectives of others was also something he seemed to find irritating. As a consequence the term ‘friendship’ in regard to his relationship with Mzilikazi would probably have been one that Moffat would only very loosely have applied. It was often more out of political necessity than any personal interest that he found himself in Mzilikazi’s company, and no evidence exists anywhere in his exhaustive personal records, now compiled and edited under the title of Matabele Journals, to suggest that he had any feelings of genuine affection towards the amaNdebele king at all.

From Mzilikazi’s point of the view it can be speculated that matters were very different. For him the relationship seemed to have far more Freudian overtones than anything as simple as an unencumbered alliance of equals. Those other than Moffat who recorded the meetings that took place between the two were struck at how an otherwise aggressively assertive man like Mzilikazi would supplicate himself immediately and totally in the presence of Moffat. As J.P.R. Wallis, the moderator of Moffats Matabele Journals, observed in the preamble to the published volume:

It is interesting to read how immediately Moselekatze (sic) fell under the unconscious influence of Moffat, so that, even in the earliest stage of their acquaintance, he spontaneously deferred to his guests humanitarianism and publicly manifest his readiness to ameliorate the traditional bloodiness of the Zulu-Matabele penal practices. The source of Moffat’s power over the despotic barbarian can only be a subject for speculation, but the genuineness of it lies beyond all dispute.[viii]

Speculation indeed, and anything from repressed homosexuality to an overt father complex could be used to explain the bizarre relationship, but, at least from Mzilikazi’s point of view, the genuineness of it was certainly beyond all dispute.

Meanwhile, upon arrival at enKungwini, Moffat moved his wagons to a spot outside the gates of the capital where he settled in to receive regular visits from Mzilikazi. Wide ranging conversations over many hours and days followed, with Mzilikazi initially explaining his unconditional acceptance of Moffat as gratitude for the exemplary treatment given to his emissaries during their recent visit to Kuruman. ‘My heart is white as milk,’ Moffat reports Mzilikazi as telling him one day early in the visit: ‘I am still wondering at the love of a stranger who never saw me. You have fed me, you have protected me, you have carried me in your arms. I live today by you, a stranger…these [the Indunas] are my great servants whom I love, they are my eyes and ears, and what you did to them you did to me.’[ix]

However there was clearly more to Mzilikazi’s response to Moffat than this, and possibly his immediate devotion reflected a similar desire for human contact in the isolation of power as had earlier catalysed a relationship between he himself and Shaka. In a similar way it might be surmised that Mzilikazi was so overwhelmingly surprised and gratified to come upon a man – and there were precious few of these, white or black – who was prepared to approach him on absolutely equal terms that his response to it was exaggerated and overt. There is also a physicality within African relationships, both platonic and intimate, that Mzilikazi would have expressed with no inhibitions, and that Moffat, as a Scottish religious zealot, would have found extremely unpalatable. This perhaps explains many instances of mild revulsion expressed by Moffat during moments of too-close commerce between he and the amaNdebele king.

However there is no point in his journals when Moffat failed to be impressed by Mzilikazi’s intellectual agility and wide ranging curiosity. Moffat reflected often on numerous long and diverse conversations during which he was challenged to explain many things that at the time of writing his memoirs were not clearly understood even within his own society. He observed, as Robert Schoon had before him, that Mzilikazi could often appear disinterested and distracted, while at the same time it was obvious by the questions that he later asked that he had indeed listened to and absorbed all that had been told him.

An example of this was the interest aroused in Mzilikazi by Moffat’s offhand description of himself as a ‘man of God’ which immediately led to penetrating questions about the principals of Christianity, of the ultimate equalization of all, and of judgment in the eyes of the Creator. This then led to lengthy discourses on matters of western government and royal authority. Mzilikazi, for example, found it difficult to believe that Moffat had left the realm of the British King without his express authority. When he asked if the British King was a king like himself, Moffat was hard pressed to explain the extent and limitations of royal prerogative under a parliamentary system. Moffat explained that he himself had been sent to Africa by the divine authority of God, and that the British King likely neither knew nor cared about the individual affairs of men such as he. It moreover surprised Mzilikazi to learn that huge numbers of British subjects had never even seen their king, even those that lived in the same town.

Most interestingly though were Mzilikazi’s queries and thoughts on the evolution of mankind, and in particular the physiological differences between the Bantu and the San, of whom a few of the latter were still at large in his territory. In the years prior to the publication of Darwin’s evolutionary theories, and even more so from the perspective of a Christian man, these were challenging questions for Moffat to answer. However with surprisingly liberal insights he observed that ‘the physical appearance of man often accords with their way of living and the nature of the country they inhabit(ed).’[x] How did it come to pass that their language was so unique, pressed Mzilikazi, to which Moffat suggested with no less perception that the Nguni tongue owed much to the bushmen, and some degree of intimate commerce must have existed between the two groups in prehistory for there to be so many clicks in the Bantu language of the Nguni.

Meanwhile from Moffats perspective much of what was discussed remained anchored by a predictable moral thread that Moffat consistently used to try and draw Mzilikazi back to one overriding theme. This was Moffat’s firm belief that the amaNdebele method of subjugation, the generally heathen status of the people, and the common use of cruelty and terror as a political tool were all unacceptable in the eyes of God, and therefore unacceptable to he himself. Thus he very clearly marked his position from the onset, a position that did not alter nor diminish in the many years that the two men where to know one another. In this way Moffat hoped that he could make good and Christian use of the influence that he discovered he had over Mzilikazi. On the face of it Mzilikazi was prepared to accept this, as well as Moffat’s constant criticism, even if he never contemplated any real change, or for that matter completely accepted the validity of Moffat’s arguments. His supplication to Moffat was therefore not total, but perhaps on occasions even a little theatrical, and certainly possessed of more political opportunism than many historians have noticed or cared to remark upon. ‘I have come to sit at your feet.’ He once told Moffat. ‘I am a king, it is true, but you must now talk to me as if I was a child, for neither I nor my father knew anything about these wondrous things you told me yesterday.’[xi]

With the innate sense of moral authority common to men of profound faith, and with constant reminders of how far Mzilikazi and his people stood from the Victorian Christian ideal, it is not difficult to see from where Moffat’s point of view originated. He had already seen more than enough to confirm to him that amaNdebele brutality was far in excess of any normal social function, and as might be expected from a missionary he was alert always for avenues of opportunity to influence the morality and faith of those outside the Christian circle. He therefore relentlessly carped and criticised Mzilikazi, never, it seems, missing an opportunity to remind him that the he and his people lived in darkness, and could hope for no redemption without a profound change in moral direction.

In this respect Robert Moffat was as much a victim of his own world view as Mzilikazi was of his, and in many respects perhaps more so. Any formal contemplation of an alternative order of existence, or alternative belief structure, was impossible for Moffat. In order to believe wholly in the concept of Christian salvation it was necessary for him to believe in nothing else. Moffat was as a consequence incapable of evaluating Mzilikazi and his methods in the context of his time and place, but only weighed against the European Christian standards of his own experience. Arguably Mzilikazi was able to view both, for he listened to what he was told, took from it what he wished, but never at any time attempted to judge Moffat in return, or denigrate his message as he himself was constantly being denigrated and judged.

Not unreasonably it was in aspects of amaNdebele crime and punishment that Moffat was most furiously voluble in his opposition and criticism of Mzilikazi. Recognising this Mzilikazi frequently delayed or deferred sentences on the condemned to spare his new friend the unnecessary horror of amaNdebele execution methods. What Moffat did observe, however, and what he subsequently recorded, tends to leave the impression that the amaNdebele were uncompromisingly cruel and arbitrary in their system of justice and application of punishment. In fact the amaNdebele enjoyed a higher standard of formal justice than many other native groups at that time, and although the prerogative of the king was unquestioned, and certainly his word was law, the people in general were less subject to the capricious actions and whims of a cruel dictator than, for example, were the Zulu. A deeper examination of amaNdebele law and justice will follow in a later chapter, but it is quite fair to say that there was nothing arbitrary about Mzilikazi’s view of justice and punishment, and quite often, particularly later in his life, cruel executions were forced upon him by social convention, and were often ordered against his personal preference.

Moffat nonetheless had much to say on this matter, and on one occasion he was astonished to observe that a man spared execution thanks to his own presence in the vicinity was highly indignant that the honour of death by the amaNdebele code was denied him in favour of a milder punishment that did no justice to a man of an exalted bloodline such as he.

This response was particularly unexpected because execution by the amaNdebele code was invariably harsh, and often very harsh indeed. Typically impalement was practiced, sometimes directly on a sharpened post, or at others, as Moffat himself described it, by means of ‘…a stick about five or six feet long and about one inch or more in diameter [which] is introduced at the anus and thrust right up through the body until it comes out under the chin, and then the criminal is left to writhe in agony.’[xii] Sometimes those impaled would be killed by being stacked with grass and burned alive, with the lesser recorded death of bludgeoning with a heavy club, or knobkerrie, being the quickest and most humane execution offered to any condemned person by amaNdebele law.

Moffat also devoted much space in his journals to decrying the narcissism of Mzilikazi’s pervasive cult of personality. He was unable to reconcile himself to the many elaborate ceremonies and protocols that seemed to have no greater purpose in court than to glorify the person of the King. Mzilikazi, he observed, lived in a constant clamour of formal praise and adulation, and was surrounded by grovelling sycophants whose personal dignity was hourly sacrificed on the alter of his titanic personal vanity. No approach was permitted other than through a courtesan or other attendant close to his person, and every movement, action, inflection or gesture was greeted by lavish approval, formal praise and loud salutation. ‘All know that his frown is death and consequently everyone is loud and long in vociferating his praises, so that his ears are incessantly filled with great sounding titles.’ [xiii]

If there were theatrical elements to all this, and if much of it was defined by royal protocols not much different from British court procedure, then Moffat was unable to recognise the fact. One day, and at the end of a mass gathering and dance held at enKungwini, Mzilikazi came running over to where Moffat watched and breathlessly asked him what he had thought of the spectacle. Moffats response was characteristically dour, and reflected the utter inability of the missionary to find or recognise merit in his host, or humanity in a spectacle that in many ways he was privileged to witness. ‘I could not please his vanity,’ he wrote, ‘of which he has an immense share.’[xiv]

This, and many other similar instances in which Moffat allowed his Christian values to supersede the need for basic courtesy are recorded in his journals, and no doubt were frequently uttered to Mzilikazi’s face. In fairness to Moffat, however, his visits to the court of Mzilikazi were repeatedly marred by spectacles of pagan zeal and violence that would have challenged even the most profound sense of Christian moderation. On one particular occasion he stumbled upon a man lying in the grass beside a foot path who had been bound up in the foetal position and was in the last throes of life with the customary six foot wooden rod driven up through his body. No one could be expected to be indifferent to such an encounter, not even an amaNdebele, and certainly not a man of such high moral countenance as Robert Moffat.

This particular individual had in fact been one of eight men and two women executed on that day, two of whom were reported to Moffat to be brothers of Mzilikazi on his father’s side, and all of whom stood accused of some sort of plot against the King. ‘How dark dolorous and dreadful is the state of the heathen.’ Moffat lamented afterwards, understandably depressed and morbid at the events of a very dark day. ‘When Moselekatze’s turn comes to be swept from the face of the earth with, it is hoped, all his diabolical tyranny, no vestige will remain to point out to the traveller the nature or extent of the town he inhabited…’[xv]

Such language was hardly the stuff of friendship, and his contempt for Mzilikazi at times such as this often overflowed to include a sense of bleak pity for the nation and people governed by such cruelty: ‘I feel very gloomy’, he once wrote, ‘when I look at the dreadfully degraded state of his [Mzilikazi] people. How impossible for the Ethiopian to change his skin or the leopard his spots, were it not for that heavenly power.’[xvi]

In this regard Moffat remained convinced, and expressed the thought often, that despite the conventions of adulation and praise that were followed by all who were under the government of Mzilikazi, most, if not all could not but despise their king and think very differently of him in their private thoughts. He sought practical evidence of this, but failed except among captured or subject groups to find it. The amaNdebele people, be from fear or genuine devotion, remained steadfast in their loyalty to their king.

Despite these obviously conflicted feelings the relationship between Moffat and Mzilikazi endured for many years. Needless to say Moffat himself would apply none of the praise-saying tactics used by almost everyone else, white or black, in the presence of the amaNdebele king, but remained steadfastly critical of Mzilikazi, and it was perhaps partly this that endeared the missionary to the king. For his part Mzilikazi deeply and sincerely respected the wisdom espoused by the younger man, and the paternal and overtly judgmental attitude Moffat adopted seemed to trigger a need and desire for guidance. The metaphor that the King constantly applied to Moffat was one of ‘Father’, and indeed he actually took to calling Moffat Mashobane, the name of his biological father. In his many petitions for mercy or favour Moffat used this facility, remarking in his journal: ‘Though every feeling of Moselekatze’s mind is savage and tyrannical, still I believe he is not inaccessible to reason and plain truths from one whose counsel he professes to admire.’[xvii]

Thus Moffat recognised and felt some relief that Mzilikazi was not obviously psychotic or sociopathic in his application of terror and violence. He was ferociously cruel, but seemed to exercise that cruelty in the interests of maintaining power, and concentrating that power in the direction of the general well being of his people, a state of being that in the time and circumstances that he lived could only be guaranteed by force. The strength of the amaNdebele lay in their cohesion, and their cohesion owed its longevity and strength to Mzilikazi. In later years Mzilikazi’s autocratic methods noticeably eased, while in the case of Shaka, his kindred spirit and mentor, the same tendency was corrupted by neurosis and only grew less rational and more destructive as the Zulu leader grew older.

Moffat was also not incapable of recognising some of the obvious, and indeed unexpected advantages of this kind of rule. He referred on one occasion to the superior morale of the amaNdebele, a phenomenon that others before him had also noticed. This, he went on, made for efficiency and discipline unlike anything reflected in the lives of any other natives anywhere. What was even more interesting was the fact the amaNdebele where not by then wholly, or even mostly made up of individuals of Nguni stock, but of individuals drawn from conquered groups who, as amaNdebele, displayed characteristics of intelligence and prompt attention no trace of which could be found among their parent societies. He also noted that amaNdebele ‘manners’ were superior at a time when, as he again observed, it was common for native tribes to be obsequious in their approaches and to beg and steal at every opportunity. Nothing of the sort was visible among the amaNdebele. They were aloof but at all times courteous, and could be entirely trusted with life and property that they did not believe was theirs by right of conquest.

After eight days of intense interaction with Mzilikazi Robert Moffat’s first visit drew to a close, and with mixed feelings he inspanned his oxen and directed their noses southwards. As he did so a sombre Mzilikazi announced that he would travel a little way with him, and climbed up beside him on the seat of his wagon. A large body of armed men settled into an easy pace beside the wagon, followed by a cohort of women carrying food and other supplies. The small convoy crossed the Crocodile River and trundled easily through the wooded valleys of the Magaliesberg until Mzilikazi grew drowsy. The king then crawled into the back of the wagon and stretched out on Moffats bed. Moffat later dryly observed: ‘There is one consolation, that he cannot have many lice about him, as I have met with none yet, though his greasy kaross lies promiscuously with my own.’[xviii]

Later, when Mzilikazi woke, he yawned and invited Moffat to lie down beside him. Moffat demurred, and perhaps shuddered a little, and the wagon maintained its steady rate until evening when the convoy approached one of Mzilikazi’s royal kraals. A horde of warriors, men, women and children emerged from the compound and the surrounding countryside and converged on the wagons, shouting praises, singing and dancing. Another wearisome evening of throbbing dance, song and disturbance followed, but it was there that Mzilikazi and Moffat parted, and the next day the missionary continued his journey south alone.

As the two men parted company each no doubt had a great deal to think about. It would be five years before the two would meet again, and before then much would happen in the itinerate lives of Mzilikazi and the emerging amaNdebele nation.


[1] Storry, J.G. The Shattered Nation, (Howard Timmins, Cape Town, 1974) p122

[ii] Moffat, John S. The Lives of Robert & Mary Moffat, (T. Fisher Unwin, London 189_?), p109

[iii] Moffat, John S. The Lives of Robert & Mary Moffat, (T. Fisher Unwin, London 189_?), p109

[iv] Moffat, John S. The Lives of Robert & Mary Moffat, (T. Fisher Unwin, London 189_?), p110

[v] Moffat, John S. The Lives of Robert & Mary Moffat, (T. Fisher Unwin, London 189_?), p111

[vi] Moffat, John S. The Lives of Robert & Mary Moffat, (T. Fisher Unwin, London 189_?), p111

[vii] Moffat, Robert. The Matabele Journals of Robert Moffat, 1829-1860, (Chatto & Windus, London, 1945) p13

[viii] Moffat, Robert. The Matabele Journals of Robert Moffat, 1829-1860, (Chatto & Windus, London, 1945) p1

[ix] Moffat, John S. The Lives of Robert & Mary Moffat, (T. Fisher Unwin, London 189_?), p112

[x] Moffat, Robert. The Matabele Journals of Robert Moffat, 1829-1860, (Chatto & Windus, London, 1945) p 17

[xi] Moffat, Robert. The Matabele Journals of Robert Moffat, 1829-1860, (Chatto & Windus, London, 1945) p15

[xii] Moffat, Robert. The Matabele Journals of Robert Moffat, 1829-1860, (Chatto & Windus, London, 1945) p23

[xiii] Moffat, Robert. The Matabele Journals of Robert Moffat, 1829-1860, (Chatto & Windus, London, 1945) p24

[xiv] Moffat, Robert. The Matabele Journals of Robert Moffat, 1829-1860, (Chatto & Windus, London, 1945) p95

[xv] Moffat, Robert. The Matabele Journals of Robert Moffat, 1829-1860, (Chatto & Windus, London, 1945) p100

[xvi] Moffat, Robert. The Matabele Journals of Robert Moffat, 1829-1860, (Chatto & Windus, London, 1945) p100

[xvii] Moffat, Robert. The Matabele Journals of Robert Moffat, 1829-1860, (Chatto & Windus, London, 1945) p103

[xviii] Moffat, Robert. The Matabele Journals of Robert Moffat, 1829-1860, (Chatto & Windus, London, 1945) p100

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