This entry is part 8 of 20 in the series History of the amaNdebele

The young prince who had so narrowly escaped death at the hands of his father settled into life as a youth in amaNdebele society in a way little different from any other. The date of Lobengula’s birth is obscure, but if, as has been widely recorded, he was the subject of Mzilikazi’s wrath soon after the union of the two halves of the nation, he must have been born sometime in 1834 or thereabouts.

This means that Lobengula would have been an infant as the tribe was routed from the Transvaal and sent northwards towards its new home. It is unlikely that either he, or his mother, a daughter of Swazi King Malindela, would have been offered much in the way of royal lean during the tough migration north. His father, a remote figure no doubt, had drifted beyond the recall of the bulk of his people, and was migrating north according to his own route with a largely military escort. Somewhere within the ordered confusion of moving people and livestock – continually fracturing and reforming, incrementally moving forward between village and garden, living off the land and the produce of others – wandered nKulumani, moving alongside the older boys herding the cattle and mingling sometimes with the men at arms who marched spread out in a thin line along the extended flanks of the column.

These would have been difficult days for Lobengula, and with the violent death of his mother, and then his brother, followed by his own narrow escape from death and brief period as a fugitive, would altogether have been a stern rite of passage for any child. This was the burden of leadership under amaNdebele rules, a burden that would either have scarred or strengthened an individual, depending on the nature of his psyche.

Once it was safe for him to come out of hiding his life would probably have been marked by the usual landmarks and transitions of any child growing up in amaNdebele society. His first phase of growth would have been the responsibility of herding livestock, sheep and goats to begin with, but then cattle. In Matabeleland at that time the main dangers he would have faced would have been wild animals such as lions, leopards and possibly hyena. He would therefore have been thrust into circumstances very early in life where effective tools of practical survival were essential, and these were simply courage, resourcefulness and fraternal cohesion. Therein lay the seeds of iButho, and the military regiments that would in due course follow.

This education in physical endurance would have continued as puberty superseded childhood and the mandatory involvement with established military units began with the usual process of fetching and carrying, which in due course would have graduated to bearing and carrying for impis on active campaign. This again would have been no easy sinecure. An amaNdebele fighting unit was a businesslike corps of extremely fit, mobile and aggressive young men. An active impi was expected to move rapidly over rough country and could regularly march in excess of 40 miles in a single day, or indeed as often was the case, a night. Their retainers would expected to keep up while burdened with all the accoutrements of battle, and at times also in charge of the cattle that were the units movable rations.

This would be an early training ground for the rigours of mobile warfare for the young men of an iButho who could expect in due course to be formed into a new regiment or drafted into an old. By the time that day came a youth could be expected to be physically resilient, accustomed to rigorous discipline and no doubt already habituated to the relentless bloodshed and attendant cruelty of a typical amaNdebele campaign. When Lobengula entered training as an imBovana, or recruit, the tactics that would form the principal drills would already have been familiar, and in short order his unit would be mingled with a corps of older men and sent into battle to learn to fight and to establish the esprit de corps that essentially separates any professional fighting force from a draft of amateurs or citizens militia.

A great deal of myth is mingled with a minimum of facts in tales of this period, but it has been said that Lobengula was inducted into the Zwangendaba regiment which was raised by his father in about 1845. He is presumed to have fought in a celebrated action that occurred when Mzilikazi’s old enemy, Hendrik Potgieter, briefly reappeared in the amaNdebele sphere. In 1847 Potgieter crossed the Limpopo with a 200 man expedition on an exploratory raid that was intercepted by the Zwangendaba and expelled after a running skirmish that resulted in the slaughter of a corps of native herdsman accompanying the Boer.

This, incidentally, was the last major defence of amaNdebele territory the army would perform before the colonial occupation of 1890. No hostilities were ever reported between the amaNdebele and their north-eastern Shangaan neighbours, and after this last encounter a peace treaty was signed between the Boer of the northern Transvaal and Mzilikazi in 1852 which held more or less from that point on.

Evidence also exists that Lobengula served not in the Zwangendaba regiment but in the Amashlogoshlogo regiment, a unit formed also by Mzilikazi after the exodus, and named after a colourful little bird of the bushveld, the spotted weaver, that is highly social in its habits, excitable in the extreme, and with bright yellow plumage that became the distinctive colours of this regiment, which of course tried by this association to appear itself noisy and gregarious at any public gathering.

In 1863 Lobengula took part in a campaign directed against the Bamangwato, southern neighbours of the amaNdebele, and powerful denizens of most of eastern Bechuanaland, whose capital of Shoshong was situated near the present day Botswana settlement of Mahalapye. What was interesting about this campaign, brief, mobile and inconclusive as it was, was the use by the Bamangwato of firearms, revealing at once the innate conservatism of the amaNdebele as well as the ineffectiveness of their traditional tactics against modern weapons. The amaNdebele were more or less repelled, and although not mauled or humiliated particularly, the scorn of firearms that characterised their military creed was proved to be reckless, and even more important a tactical weak spot that would never be fully addressed. An anecdotal version of the incident suggests that Lobengula was shot in the neck and scarred for life, although not debilitated or seriously injured. At home the story was played down and altered to suggest that Lobengula had not been shot in battle, but had accidentally injured himself, this preserving his reputation as a true and undefeated amaNdebele warrior.[i]

Myth has also frequently implied that Lobengula was a weaker version of his father, possessing none of the attributes of courage and decision which were the cornerstones of Mzilikazi’s brilliance, and moreover the foundations of the amaNdebele race. In fact Lobengula was in every respect a man’s man. He was tall, well built, athletic, outgoing, handsome and popular. As such he was an excellent soldier, a keen hunter and an accomplished horseman. Like his father he was of inquiring mind, happy to spend time in the company of whites, learning what he could, absorbing European manners, customs and dress and generally gaining what familiarity he could with all that existed beyond the limited horizon of amaNdebele life.

This, with the exception of Mzilikazi’s relationship with Robert Moffat, was where father and son differed. Mzilikazi remained until the end of his life suspicious of whites and wary of the importunity that accompanied the many and complex needs of white petitioners in his court. As he grew older his powers of resistance diminished, quite as his determination to resist white intrusion solidified. Lobengula, on the other hand, remained at all times on good terms with the whites of Matabeleland, as limited in number as they were, and despite terrible ill usage at their hands in future years, he maintained a fondness for white company, and in particular when the weight of royal prerogative stripped him of individual fellowship has it had over the years afflicted his father.

Mzilikazi was a warrior first and foremost, and a man whose philosophy of life and power was premised on absolutism, and whose mission and objective demanded of him unwavering self confidence, unshakable strength of purpose and resolution. Lobengula on the other hand was given more to diplomacy than confrontation, which, had it not been for the fact that his fate was such that he would confront circumstances for which no solution existed, be it military or diplomatic, his was arguably the better arsenal to deal with the future than the founding attributes of his father.

Oliver Ransford, a writer whose works of colonial history were popular in the 1960s and 1970s, remarked in the opening sentence of a chapter in his book The Rulers Of Rhodesia: ‘If anyone were asked to suggest a day on which the modern history of Rhodesia [Zimbabwe] began, the 26th of January, 1857 would be as good a date as any to choose.’[ii]

It was on that day that a resolution was passed in London by the Board of Directors of the London Missionary Society to send a Christian mission to labour among the amaNdebele. The precedence for this had not been encouraging, and it was with a certain inevitability that an aging Robert Moffat was summoned to pave the way for what was certain at best to be a difficult diplomatic mission. Thus Moffat once again journeyed forth, this time to use his influence on the aging Mzilikazi to allow the mission to be established in Matabeleland. Some would say, and Oliver Ransford was among these, that it was at this moment that a multiplicity of factors merged that allowed for an accelerated pace of European interest in the region, and as Ransford again put it, …from 1854 onward, it is the Europeans who dominate the history of Rhodesia [Zimbabwe].

As might have been expected Moffat, now 62 years old, was reluctant to follow the migration of the amaNdebele up the exhaustive great north road by wagon, a journey of more than 1000 miles, to comply with a request that he did not at all agree with. Moffat was conservative by nature, and even more so as an old man, and he believed in the modest advance of Christianity in incremental steps rather than vast leaps into the shadowy interior on missions of faith and little else. However he was to be swept in advance of events that were far greater than he, and like it or no the pace of metropolitan  interest in Africa was increasing, as were the demands of a curious and philanthropic Victorian public.

The latter half of the 19th century saw the gradual close of the Age of Exploration, which would inevitably be followed by a period of aggressive imperial expansion. The flower of European intellectual enlightenment grew from the stem of economic power, which itself emerged from the root of the Industrial Revolution. From this the work of social reformers, such as those advocating the eradication of the Slave Trade, began to define the self-image of a gifted generation. The outreach of this generation was global, and its vision was, as the great Victorian capitalist Cecil Rhodes defined it, philanthropy plus five percent.

The heroes born of this period were men like Charles Darwin, who advanced the frontiers of scientific knowledge, Lt. General James John Brudenell, the hero of Balaclava, who by leading the Charge of the Light Brigade underscored the British passion for forlorn and reckless courage, and Dr. David Livingstone, who epitomised the self sacrifice and humanity that had succeeded thus far in bringing so much of the known world into the light of Anglo/Saxon, Christian civilisation.

It was Dr. David Livingstone who had inspired the LMS Matabeleland Mission as part of what he hoped would be the triumph of the twin forces of Christianity and Commerce over heathenism and the powerfully destructive force of the slave trade. His belief that the Zambezi River represented a navigable highway into the interior necessitated an advance guard of missionaries to prepare the ground for the inevitable influx of western interest and capital that would follow. This was the powerful message that Livingstone took back to England with him after his first major journey of exploration, a message that inspired enormous momentum, the very momentum that carried a surly and rather irritated Robert Moffat northwards to prepare the ground.

Moffat’s words on meeting Mzilikazi for the first time in almost 20 years betrayed the shock he felt at the decline visible in a man whose vast legacy he knew better than any. ‘On turning round I saw him.’ Moffat wrote. ‘There he sat – how changed! – the vigorous active and nimble monarch of the Matabele, now aged, sitting on a skin, with feet lame, unable to walk or even to stand. I entered, when he grasped my hand, gave one earnest look, drew his mantle [over] his face. It would have been an awful sight to see the hero of a hundred battles wipe from his eye the falling tear.’

For his part Moffat ‘yearned with compassion for his soul’, and maybe a little more besides, but there was still a judgemental tone in his descriptions of a man who, despite history’s depiction, was never really his friend. Mzilikazi’s relationship with Moffat was more of an emotional dependence, and Moffat’s more of a necessary reciprocation spiced with cynicism, criticism and often anger. Nonetheless Moffat made one interesting observation that was all that really emerged from this last, melancholy encounter that is worth reporting. A man was brought before the King on a vague charge of allowing the Boer to penetrate inland, and as he stood before what would in years past have been a fearful fate he spoke his mind in a manner hitherto unheard of in the kingdom. When asked by Mzilikazi if  he had anything to say he replied: ‘You are a lion, no man, a destroyer of men, at peace with no-one. I wish you dead and I wish the Boers had killed you…’[iii]

In stunned silence all eyes turned to Mzilikazi who ruminated thoughtfully on this outburst for a long time. And while most present, including Moffat, were certain that he was busy devising as terrible a fate as he could, all where astonished when he simply shrugged his shoulders and commended the man for speaking his mind and sent him on his way.

This might have happened simply because Moffat was present, or perhaps as a consequence of age, or even as a genuine consequence of the missionary’s message of non-violence, but what it proved more than anything was that the violence that had so characterised the life and legacy of Mzilikazi was a factor of his life that had always been, and which remained still, entirely under his control.

During the course of what turned out to be a long visit Moffat had ample opportunity to observe other incidences indicating a relaxing of Mzilikazi’s methods, these not always because the missionary happened to be in earshot, but also apparently as a matter of policy. It also surprised Moffat to have heard it candidly revealed that, on a temporal level at least, Mzilikazi was despised by his people, and that there were few who did not wish him dead.

Mzilikazi was certainly gravely ill at that time and enduring severe and constant pain. While Moffat had aged under the benign influence of Christianity, peace and moral security, Mzilikazi had grown old surrounded by the ghosts of horrors past. With the familiar residue of insecurity and loneliness leavened by age he increasingly sought solace in alcohol, and by the time he and Moffat met in 1854 the signs of chronic alcoholism seemed manifest. Mzilikazi had evolved from the physically resilient, sharply intuitive and charismatic solder of fortune who had led his people on a journey to epic greatness, into querulous, irritable and maudlin old man. His vast vision had diminished to a magpie obsession with the gifts and trinkets that he could extract from the whites in his court, and of course the pots of beer available always from wives and sycophants in constant attendance.

Moffat’s request that Mzilikazi allow the establishment of a permanent mission within his territory had about it an uncomfortable inevitability for both men. A mark of Moffat’s respect for the king had been the fact that he had never used his position of influence to broach this most obvious of questions, and an indication of Mzilikazi’s long standing reluctance was evident in the fact that he had never offered. Made at this moment the request simply raked up the embers of old suspicion, in particular of the Boer that Mzilikazi felt certain where massing on his southern boundary. He indirectly probed Moffats motives in search for some objective more sinister than simply the redemption of amaNdebele souls, which must have been a sad moment for Moffat whose sense of his own superiority had until then been unchallenged.

Permission for a mission was given, however, but on the single and vital proviso that Robert Moffat’s son John Moffat be among the missionaries charged with practical business of building and administering the mission. To this Moffat agreed, although he was unable to press the depressed monarch any further on the practical issues of where and under what terms the mission would be established.

Moffat returned to Kuruman some time later and began preparations for two pioneering missions. Both were to prove ill fated, the more remote Makololo Mission yielding early to tragedy, with almost the entire compliment of staff, their wives and children, succumbing to the murderous incidence of malaria and blackwater fever in the region of the Zambezi. As far as the Matabele mission was concerned, it surrendered more to frustration and fraternal bickering brought about by the difficulties and obstructions placed before it by Mzilikazi, and since Robert Moffat himself was attendant on the effort in its early stages, he suffered the indignity of sustained criticism from the missionaries, including his son and daughter-in-law, as well as the evident demise of the special relationship that he had enjoyed with Mzilikazi.


[i] Shattered Nation

[ii] Ransford, Oliver. The Rulers Of Rhodesia, (John Murray, London 1968), p120

[iii] Moffat, Robert. The Matabele Journals of Robert Moffat, 1829-1860, (Chatto & Windus, London, 1945) p243

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