The death of Mzilikazi and the arrival of the white man

This entry is part 9 of 20 in the series History of the amaNdebele

The Matabele Mission died in due course of depletion and internal discord, proving only that no man or woman in Matabeleland would dare to commit to anything that competed with the stern residue of Mzilikazi’s rule. However the political importance of the mission was that it introduced the younger generations of Moffat and Khumalo to one another, meaning that when Lobengula ascended to the amaNdebele throne, and when John Moffat took over the role of family patriarch, a continuum of the trust enjoyed between the fathers of these two men would play out in the later transfer of political power from black rule to white.

In the meanwhile the dam wall of Mzilikazi’s resistance to white influence in his country was beginning to crack. This was as much as a consequence of his diminishing powers as global/strategic events that were far beyond his authority and understanding. One such event was the discovery in 1866 of a brilliant pebble on the banks of the Orange River that turned out to be a 21 carat diamond, a discovery that set in motion the first of the great economic explosions that would abruptly place South Africa at the centre of British capital adventure and war. This event attracted fortune hunters and adventure seekers from all over the world, which naturally generated increased political and economic interest in South Africa, which in turn accelerated the pace at which white expansion began to creep northwards from the Cape.

Mzilikazi had unwitting aided this by his peace treaty with Andries Potgieter, in the terms of which was a relaxation of his stringent resistance to any movement in his country of white hunters. Combined with this Mzilikazi had begun to develop a notable cupidity that caused him to embrace to a large extent the trade in ivory that necessitated a largely unrestricted movement in Matabeleland of white hunters and traders. These, however, were typically itinerate men with no ambition to claim or settle in any part of the country. The first significant grant of land given over to whites was probably that of the Inyati Mission, but in due course this was followed by other significant grants that introduced white faces in the country for the first time as a permanent fixture.

In the meanwhile it was not long before the elephants of Matabeleland were hunted to commercial extinction which necessitated the expansion inland to Mashonaland of such hunters as Henry Hartley. Hartley was primarily a hunter, but this did not stop him stumbling upon and recognising ancient gold workings of the type that had supported the economy of the early economic empires of the region, a discovery which he passed on to a one time travelling companion by the name of Carl Maunch.

Mauch was something of a career explorer, but also an enigmatic man of uncertain temper with a limited pool of friends. It was he, with a degree of hyperbole that characterised the times, who publicised the fabulous wealth latent in the landscape of Mashonaland, which, rightly or wrongly, fired the interest and imagination of many in the south with an interest in the rapid accumulation of wealth. This immediately put Matabeleland on the speculative colonial map of Africa which in turn generated much commercial interest from many quarters.

This momentum increased in 1867 when hunter Adam Renders stumbled on the crumbling ruins of Great Zimbabwe, that, although overgrown and long abandoned, spoke volumes about ancient glory, and of course ancient wealth. Carl Maunch followed in 1871, and publicising the existence of the ruins, with all their potential to re-inspire tales of King Solomon’s Mines, the Queen of Sheba and the Kingdom of Prester John, further drew a thick red line of European interest under the names of Mashonaland and Matabeleland.

Perhaps the single most significant piece of the puzzle that was fatefully falling into place was the arrival in the Natal port city of Durban in September 1971 of a 19-year old youth by the name of Cecil John Rhodes. Rhodes arrived in South Africa in poor health and with limited prospects, but as he stepped off the gangway and onto African soil he was immediately swept up in the tide of endeavour and progress that was to define South Africa in the closing decade of the 19th century. Rhodes soon found himself on the diamond diggings of Kimberly where the weakling grew into a man, and where the man grew into a titan. Rhodes would soon rise to great wealth and power in South Africa, in due course becoming one of the greatest empire builders among a constellation of great men. It would be he more than any other who would influence the future direction of Matabeleland, and he who would be the nemesis of the future King of the amaNdebele nation.

Yet another great event that helped to seal the fate of the amaNdebele, and one which would have be closely followed in the Royal Kraal of Matabeleland, was the Anglo/Zulu war of 1879. The Zulu found themselves confronted by the expanding British colony of Natal. With this followed the obvious incompatibility of a black nation under arms in the back yard of a much greater white nation in incubus, which made the neutering of the black force inevitable. Despite initial reverses against the British, the end result of the Anglo/Zulu war was never in doubt, and after a period of brutal attrition the power of the Zulu was broken after less than a century of brilliant existence.

The profound psychological impact of this event on the amaNdebele view of the future is easy to imagine. There were obviously conservative elements for whom the significance would either be lost or ignored, and it was in the nature of the amaNdebele that these would probably have been in majority. There were others, however, particularly those like Lobengula, who had not rejected contact with whites, and who, as prince, was not offered the royal privilege, as was his father, of being shielded from any and all intelligence that displeased him, and who would have sensed, if not known for certain, that this was the beginning of the end for the last great native power left intact on the southern African landscape.

It was perhaps fortunate then that in September 1868 the Bull Elephant fell, and the great and glorious phase of the amaNdebele nation came to an end. Mzilikazi died at the age of 78, an excellent age for the period, and just in time to miss the worst that his people would endure. These poison years would fall to his son and heir, Lobengula, whose unenviable burden was taken up a year later.

The choice of Lobengula as heir to Mzilikazi, although obvious in some respects, was not an easy transition. Mzilikazi had named no successor, and in keeping with convention, and his nature, he had tried to kill any obvious rivals. In this way had died four of his brothers, at least one son, and very nearly Lobengula himself. To add to this the question of nKulumane’s survival and exile was revived by Mbigo, the Induna of the Zwangendaba regiment, the alma mater of nKulumane himself, and an institution that stood to gain much if the pretender proved to be alive and willing to take the throne.

From distant Natal the persistent claim of a certain ‘Kanda’ to be nKulumane played into the hands of the advocates of a claimant other than Lobengula, but these claims did not impress the venerable uMncumbata, then acting as regent, who perhaps knew better than any why such claims would be a waste of time. However various steps were taken to ascertain their authenticity, with various factions reaching diverse conclusions, none of which succeeded in reaching a conclusive result. In the meanwhile Mbigo and the Zwangendaba Regiment remained a powerful force against Lobengula’s ascension as Kanda sought assistance from various sources to press his claim, included among them the Boer of the Transvaal and the chief of the Bamangwato. However his claim was inherently weak and ultimately nothing of any practical value was ever achieved by it.

Meanwhile, within all the confusion lay the definite potential for civil war, and even more so the potential for an attempt on Lobengula’s life. Lobengula, never particularly marked by enthusiasm for the throne, tried therefore to keep clear of both factions in the hope that the matter would play out with a minimum of expectation and definitely a minimum of risk.

On eventually being given that bad news that he had been named the heir elect Lobengula took to his horse and sought refuge at the ailing Inyati Mission, itself scarcely free of internal strife and discord. When uMncumbata put it to him that it was necessary that he set the tone of leadership by assuming certain royal duties Lobengula palled. He pleaded that so long as the merest thread of hope remained that nKulumane was alive it was impossible for him to accept trust for the legacy of his father.  It was not until a contingent of indunas visited him, bearing a gift of cattle did Lobengula reluctantly consent to be king. In January 1870 the matter was ceremonially formalised, and on 17 March the new king was publicly introduced to the nation and charged with responsibility for his father’s country, his cattle and his people.

Fealty to Lobengula among the all-important military regiments was however not absolute. Several, including the important Zwangendaba, Nyamandhlovu, Mgobo and Gaba la Masandhlo regiments, refused to acknowledge his installation. Of these the Zwangendaba where the most intractably opposed, which was in fact something of an irony since this cut across the complex caste structure of the amaNdebele, for Lobengula was a Swazi on his mothers side, and therefore nominally an Enhla rather than a Zanzi, as was Mbigo, Induna of the Zwangendaba, and the most determinedly resistant commander of all.

Matters came to a head a few months later when a breach was provoked whereupon an open clash of arms took place. No record exists of exactly how or what this breach was, but once established as amaNdebele king it was necessary for Lobengula to in one way or another settle the matter. In his fictional account of early Rhodesian history, On Trial For My Country, Zimbabwean author Stanlake Samkange suggests this rendition which probably comes as close to the original as the speculation of any white historian.

Eighteen months after the falling of the mountain, I [Lobengual] was installed king at emHlahlandlela. In  accordance with our custom, I set about building a new capital at Bulawayo and uniting the people. Only Mbiko [Mbigo] one of the bravest and ablest of my father’s generals was uncooperative and defiant of my authority. For this, the indunas of the royal council sentenced him to death, but remembering the great battles he had fought and won as commander of the renowned and invincible Zwangendaba regiment, and the outstanding contribution he had made in the conquest of our territories between the twin rivers of the Limpopo and the Zambezi, I refused to have him executed. Instead, I sent indunas to point out to him that we could never be a strong and fearful people as long as he remained defiant of my authority as king, Mbiko replied by thrashing my messengers and telling them to inform me that henceforth he would talk with spears alone.

Most reluctantly I was forced to fight Mbiko and the Zwangendaba regiment and although they repulsed us twice we eventually defeated them and put Mbiko to death.[1]

The assault was in fact mounted by ten regiments against the Zwangendaba garrison, an attack which initially was beaten back, but in due course the Zwangendaba was indeed overwhelmed and pacified. With victory secure Lobengula showed magnanimity as his father might not have, and distributed the survivors among other regiments. The Zwangendaba kraal was destroyed, and with power now firmly in his hands Lobengula did indeed set about uniting his people and raising his new capital of Bulawayo. He also announced his predominance by founding his first regiment, the Mbizo, manned wholly from Zanzi stock, and one of two raised by Lobengula that carried this distinction.

The Mbizo Regiment grew to occupy an almost mythic status in the amaNdebele regimental formation, the Praetorian Guard of Lobengula’s household, and without doubt the corps d’elite of the amaNdebele army.

In the year 1885 an important event occurred that would forever change the face of Africa. Change was already somewhat of a foregone conclusion, in view of the fact that white territorial expansion continent wide had developed an unstoppable momentum, but the process was not formalised until a gathering of European heads of state was held in Berlin that year that laid down the ground rules for the wholesale European annexation of Africa.

In southern Africa the players were essentially the British, holding the Cape Colony and Natal, the Germans, with their interest in Damaraland, or German South West Africa, later Namibia, and the Portuguese with their ancient holdings of Portuguese East and West Africa, later Mozambique and Angola. Also retaining an interest in the region were the Boer of the Transvaal, who, thanks to the omnipresence of the British in their sphere of influence, still sought a wholly independent homeland beyond any possibility of British interference.

The oldest claim, of course, was the Portuguese, who since their earliest occupation had felt that they had an option on the central plateau even if they had never wholly effected an occupation. The rules of the Berlin Conferences stated that active occupation and competent administration of a territory needed to be proved before any general acknowledgement of annexation would be granted. The Portuguese, with a wonderfully romantic history of African adventure and exploration, had never really succeeded in doing this, and at a time when the economic fortunes of Portugal were in decline, she had little chance of doing so then.

This cherished hope of Portugal was manifest in the Rose Coloured Map, an Article of Faith of sorts that sought to define as Portuguese all the territory between Angola and Mozambique, a swathe of land covering what is most of present day Angola, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Mozambique. This claim was nominally recognised by Germany and France in a treaty signed in 1886, but was not taken in the least bit seriously by the British, and certainly not by the main British agent for imperial expansion at that time, the mercurial diamond baron and politician Cecil John Rhodes.

Cecil John Rhodes would feature prominently in the history of the nation that would come to be Zimbabwe, and no less prominently in the history of the amaNdebele people. He was a curiosity, an imperialist and a man who believed with an almost religious conviction that the English speaking race was gifted beyond the measure of common men, and that the more of the globe that came under British control the better for all concerned. This was not a matter of nationalist or political conviction, but a vision based on the evidence of his eyes, on a common thread of thought that permeated much of the British ruling class, and a philosophy so tightly intertwined with that of enlightenment that the fate of Britain and the fate of mankind in general could not be separated in the minds of men such as Rhodes.

This was the ethereal aspect of Rhodes’ vision, the practical aspects were no less enormous. Rhodes envisaged a through route from the Cape to Cairo, a rail link initially, but practically the British annexation, protection or at least control all the territory across the length of the continent. Certain significant quarters were beyond his reach – the Congo Basin for example, that had been absorbed by King Leopold of Belgium as the Congo Freestate, and temporarily the Tanganyika territory that was under German claim, but the area north of the Limpopo as far as the great lakes was still ostensibly available to the first-comers, and above all else Rhodes desired to be the first.

The British Prime Minister at the time was Lord Salisbury, by then in his second term, and a man mandated by a confident race to govern a rapidly growing empire. Cecil Rhodes on the other hand occupied a humble backbench in the Cape legislature from where he contemplated his fantastic geopolitical vision with very little practical experience. Rhodes, although only 35-years old at this time, had amassed one of the great private fortunes of his day – estimated to be annually worth some £300 000 in diamonds and £400 000 in gold – and, however the ruling establishment in London might have regarded him, he was a man impossible to ignore.[ii] It was a source of frustration to Lord Salisbury that this parochial young man, with none of the genetic attributes of leadership, so persistently preached the doctrine of imperial expansion in Africa without any sense of how this might play out where these things tended to be decided. Rhodes, on the other hand, could barely contain his frustration at the apparent willingness of Whitehall to be outflanked and outmanoeuvred by such inferior powers as Germany and Portugal.

By the beginning of 1888 the imperial map of Africa was still very much a work in progress. The British and the Boer shared the territories of South Africa in a cloud of mutual suspicion, Germany held more or less accepted title to the region of Damaraland and the Tanganyika territory while Portugal similarly had undisputed claim to the coasts of Angola and Mozambique. The question of the British Central African Protectorate, that would encompass present day Malawi, had yet to be decided, and the vast interior comprising all of modern day Zimbabwe, Zambia and eastern Anglo remained unclaimed.

It was this region that was pivotal to the ambitions of each of the main contesting powers. Portugal desired to link Angola and Mozambique across this belt, Germany likewise desired to link her east and west Africa possessions by the same means, and for the British, driven principally by Rhodes, to link their interests of Egypt and the Cape Colony the first step would be the annexation of Matabeleland, and by proxy Mashonaland to the extend that it was controlled by the amaNdebele.

Added to this complicated mix of international power-play was the much more modest but no less important ambition of the Boer Republic of Transvaal to press its borders north through Matabeleland to increase the political distance between itself and the British.

The claim of the Boer to Matabeleland might not have been taken particularly serious were it not for the arrival in Bulawayo early 1887 of a Boer privateer by the name of Pieter Grobler who triggered the rush for Matabeleland with a request from Lobengula for a ‘Treaty of Friendship’ between the amaNdebele and the new Boer Republic of Transvaal. A precedent in this regard had been set with the earlier treaty signed between Mzilikazi and Andries Potgieter, and it seemed quite natural to Lobengula that this understanding should be renewed between he and Potgieter’s apparent successor, Paul Kruger. Lobengula was of course illiterate, and perhaps still a little credulous at that time, and so could have had no clear idea what the contents of any treaty implied, and so entered into the agreement in good faith. The treaty in essence allowed for Grobler himself to reside in Bulawayo as Boer Consul, which, although of doubtful legality, gave Paul Kruger a definite edge in the warming race for control of the territory.

The existence of the Grobler Treaty was not made public, but rumours soon reached the Cape, and among the first to hear was Cecil Rhodes. His immediate response was to approach the British High Commissioner to the Cape, Sir Hercules Robinson, and urge him to immediately declare Matabeleland a protectorate of the Crown. Rhodes was accompanied on this visit by Sir Sidney Shippard, a personal friend, ally and powerful Crown official with responsibility to organise and administer the new Protectorate of Bechuanaland.  Despite such influential support, and despite an extremely compelling argument that the territory of Matabeleland was imminently about to be lost to the British, Sir Hercules could hardly sanction such a decision on his own authority, but suggested instead that Rhodes attempt to secure a treaty of his own from Lobengula to suffice until some more permanent solution could be devised.

The man chosen to undertake this delicate diplomatic mission to the court of the amaNdebele was none other than John Moffat, the son of Dr. Robert Moffat. John Moffat had by then joined the Colonial Service and was functioning in the capacity of assistant to Sidney Shippard. He was an obvious choice bearing in mind the long history of trust that existed between the families of Moffat and Khumalo, but this was not strictly Crown business, and in actual fact Moffat was notified and despatched to Bulawayo on behalf of what then was a private cartel comprising Rhodes, Shippard and Robinson, both of whom would benefit materially for their assistance to Rhodes.

Moffat himself did not benefit materially, or at least no record of reward exists. The opportunity that was made available to him was to atone for the miserable failure of his missionary career that had floundered more than anything on the rock of amaNdebele intransigence. If his could be the first missile thrown at the pagan edifice of Matabeleland, to finally cut a road for Christianity into the dark heart of the plateau, then his efforts, and some of the questionable methods applied, would be both worthwhile; and justified. This at least one can speculate was what motivated John Moffat to be involved in what history would ultimately judge as one of the most spurious of white endeavours in colonial Africa.

Lobengula was pleased to welcome ‘uJoni’ back to Bulawayo in December 1887. The two men had known each other on and off since boyhood, and during the difficult days of the Nyati Mission it had been Lobengula’s interest and attention to matters of white politics, culture and religion that had been a bright spot in an otherwise dark phase of Moffat’s life. No record exists of exactly how Moffat approached the matter of a treaty with the British, but it can be safely assumed that he used the fear latent in the amaNdebele that a renewed invasion of Matabeleland by the Boer would be imminent if Lobengula did not place himself under the protection of Her Majesty. This had lately been a decision made by Lobengula’s neighbour, Chief Khama of Bechuanaland, who now enjoyed the safety of knowing that he could rely on the forces of Her Majesty to protect him against the advances of either the Boers, the Germans or the amaPutukezi (Portuguese).

By February 1888 Moffat had convinced Lobengula to commit his mark to a document outlining the principals agreed between these two men. The document itself, copied below, was an innocuous document, offering little and requiring little, other than that the amaNdebele make no firm commitments to any other nation or authority without the prior agreement of Her Majesty. Bearing in mind that this was not an official document, and that Moffat did not speak for the Crown, any specific offer of protection was fraudulent. All that it truly meant was that Cecil Rhodes had managed to second the assistance of three Crown servants acting outside of their authority, and had secured for his future interests and option on Matabeleland.

The Chief Lobengula, ruler of the tribe known as Amandebele, together with the Mashona and Makalaka tributaries of the same, hereby agrees to the following articles and conditions…

That peace and amity will continue forever between Her Britannic Majesty, her subjects and the Amandebele people; and the contracting Chief, Lobengula, engages to use his utmost endeavours to prevent any rupture of the same, to cause the strict observance of this treaty, and so to carry out the treaty of friendship which was entered into by his late father, the Chief Umsiligaas, with the Governor of the Cape of Good Hope, in the year of our Lord 1836.

It is hereby further agreed by Lobengula, Chief in and over the Amandebele country, with the dependencies as aforesaid, on behalf of himself and people, that he will refrain from entering into any correspondence or treat with any foreign state or power to sell, alienate or cede or permit or countenance any sale, alienation or cession of the whole or any part of the said Amandebele country under his chieftainship, or upon any other subject without the previous knowledge and sanction of Her Majesties High Commissioner for South Africa.

In faith of which I, Lobengula, on my part have hereto set my hands at Gubulawayo, Amandabeleland, this eleventh day of February, and of Her Majesties reign the 51st

Lobengula: His Mark.

Witnesses: W. Graham & GB van Wyk.

Before me, J.S. Moffat.

Assistant Commissioner.

The treaty was translated for Lobengula by missionary Charles D. Helm who was another among his trusted inner circle of white advisers, and whose fluency in Sindebele was widely respected. Helm also, however, was one who laboured to proselytise amongst the amaNdebele, and whatever personal affection he may had had for Lobengula, he had no love for the regime, and would later be proved to have disrespected the application of pure truth in order, one supposes, to bring a step closer the end of tyrannical amaNdebele rule.

Like Rhodes no doubt, and certainly like John Moffat, and Robert Moffat before him,  Helm would have felt that no harm in the long term could befall the amaNdebele by being liberated from the shackles of their current state. There still existed a general feeling among men such as he, with their differing motives, that ultimately English speaking civilisation would be to the benefit of any upon whose light it shined. Thus commented Stanlake Samkange, Zimbabwean author, historian and social commentator, on the work of Rhodes:

Therefore, if there be a God and He cares anything about what I do, I think it is clear that He would me to do what He is doing Himself, and as He is manifestly fashioning the English speaking race as a chosen instrument by which He will bring in a State of Society based on justice, liberty and peace, he must obviously wish me to do what I can to give as much scope and power to the race as possible.[iii]

When Samkange put those fictional words in Rhodes’ mouth he did so with an acute understanding of what motivated the higher principals of men such as he. That Rhodes was not above sharp practice, and at times blatant fraud, was always underscored by an unshakable belief in the greater glory of what he was doing. There is nothing sinister in this, and without the benefit of hindsight many early proponents of colonialism went ahead absolutely fortified by the belief that theirs was a God given cause, and theirs the most brilliant moment of human history thus far.

This was not the end of the amaNdebele though, it was just the beginning of the end. Under the rules of the imperial game Lobengula had to invite, or at least be seen to be inviting, the active participation of Britannia in the affairs of his nation in order that Rhodes might go ahead with the blessing of the Crown. Rhodes chose as his vehicle for this a chartered company. This had by then become the established medium for the exploitation of territory, and often a precursor to full imperial involvement. The most famous example of the this was the British East India Company that since 1856 had been in control of most of India. Others closer to home included the Royal Niger Company chartered in 1886 and the Imperial British East Africa Company incorporated in April of that very year. Others included the Portuguese Comanhia de Moçambique and the German Deutsch-Ostafrikanische Gesellschaft that assisted in the founding of Tanganyika.

The mechanics of a charter company were simple. A Royal Charter was granted which empowered a company of shareholders to effectively occupy and administer a territory under the permission of a Crown. During the course of British imperial history some 21 such charters were granted, with the first being the Muscovy Company in 1555 and the last being Cecil John Rhodes’ British South Africa Company which was awarded its charter in 1889.

As a general rule the fabulous profits reaped from these companies in earlier centuries proved elusive for those companies chartered specifically to exploit the potential of Africa. Such was the case with the Imperial British East Africa Company under visionary businessman William McKinnon, and indeed the British South Africa Company itself under Cecil John Rhodes. The momentum behind the formation of these companies tended to have a philanthropic flavour that owed more to a desire for the imperial glory of Britain than the pursuit of profits. The guiding mantra of men like Rhodes was philanthropic thrust with a view to profit if it came, meaning that the main force of human development must be conducted for its own sake, but must be paid for by practical commerce and driven by men of practical, commercial inclination.

The politics of matters such as this are of course never to be ignored. While harm might befall the natives of Africa in the cause of European imperialism, in the case of Britain at least the role of the Imperial Government was to arbitrate and act in a manner that as much as possible protected rights and interests of native. Colonial expansion was conducted on the back of treaty gatherers hired to tour the vast wilds of Africa with sheaves of form-treaties in order to gather the marks of as many native chiefs and potentates as possible. This was in order to justify the rapid expansion into these areas of competing European government and company men pressing forward the boundaries of colonial interest.

Usually this was achived by the simple means of offering a handful of trade trinkets, cloth or alcohol to an individual leader or chief, the extent of whose domains was largely irrelevant, particularly where, as was almost always the case, central authority was lacking and a great many petty chiefs and headmen ruled over a country piecemeal. To this there were a few notable exceptions – Lewanika of the Baroste was one of these, as was Mwata Kazembe, both of present day Zambia – but the most notable was Lobengula of the amaNdebele who ruled not in some alcoholic miasma, or as a nominal paramount in a fractured tribal environment, but as a cohesive nation under strong and effective central government. This was large nut for anyone with eye to Matabeleland to crack, and increasingly Lobengula was being educated on the duplicity and double standards of European diplomacy in these matters.

In order for Cecil Rhodes to have any chance of succeeding in his application for a Royal Charter it would be necessary for him supplement the vague terms of a Treaty of Friendship with a solid grant of mineral rights over the entirety of Lobengula’s domains, which for the convenience of a Royal Charter were deemed by Cecil Rhodes to include all of Mashonaland. Thus it was in September of 1888, after some seven months of uncertainty surrounding the Moffat treaty, word reached Lobengula of the arrival on the borders of Matabeleland of a party of whites under the leadership of a certain Charles Dunell Rudd.

Rudd was a close confidant and business partner of Cecil Rhodes with whom the latter had began the process of building his fortune on the diamond fields of Kimberly. Rudd was travelling in the company of a dapper and rather out-of-place lawyer by the name of Rochfort Maguire, another friend of Rhodes, and a younger man by the name of Francis ‘Matabele’ Thompson who was a speaker of several native languages and generally assumed to me an expert in matters of native custom and attitude.

Lobengula sent word back that permission was denied, but in breach of protocol Rudd and his companions continued on into Matabeleland without waiting for permission, and generally indifferent to whether it was granted or not. The party arrived in Bulawayo close to noon on 20 September, and a few minutes later John Moffat sought an audience with Lobengula with the news that the white men desired an immediate consultation. Lobengula was irritated, but also unnerved, and although he refused to discuss business he granted the three an audience and listened glumly to the preamble as he tried to assess the meaning of it all. He was told that the party had been sent by a man named ‘uLodzi’ (Rhodes) who was a ‘big man’ in the Cape and who sought permission to ‘dig a hole for gold’ in his country.

A short while later Lobengula summoned his corps of counsellors whose advice he sought. In general it was felt among his senior indunas that these newcomers were different from the many other whites lingering in the vicinity with their plethora of requests and petitions, and that caution would be necessary in dealing with them.

Lobengula’s uncertainty turned to prevarication, and for a while refused to see Rudd or any of his party. When finally an audience was granted he found the mantra not dissimilar to that advanced earlier by Moffat. This was that the amaNdebele held sway over a land that contained unimaginable wealth, and so long as this was so Lobengula would know no peace. He would therefore be best advised to grant co-operation and friendship with the most influential of his petitioners, and through that secure for himself and the amaNdebele people the protection of Her Majesty Queen Victoria who was by far the most powerful of all world leaders. The enemies of the amaNdebele were again articulated as being primarily the Boers and the Portuguese, but also the Germans and many other more nefarious private interests represented by a plethora of shady characters lingering on the fringes of Bulawayo.

There was in fact some truth in this. Of the lesser of all evils Lobengula would certainly have been well advised to choose British dominion. Portuguese domination of the east and west coasts and the Zambezi Valley had for centuries been characterised by ill usage and corruption, and the economy of Mozambique at that time was till largely dependent on slavery. The interests of King Leopold II of Belgium had been proved in the Congo Freestate to be exploitative in the most cynical sense of the word, while the Germans in South West Africa would within a decade or more have committed a signature genocidal assault on the native Herero and Namaqua inhabitants of Namibia.

This notwithstanding it was an unpalatable choice, and one that Lobengula confronted with the greatest difficulty. Powerful among the influences brought to bear upon him was that of the rank and file of his army, that grumbled incessantly about the divisive presence of whites – apparently as antagonistic to each other as they were to the amaNdebele – a scourge that could be eliminated in a matter of hours. Opposing this was the implication that flowed through all of Rudd and Moffat’s counsel, that to do so would simply invite upon the amaNdebele the same violent solution that had been imposed on the Zulu. If the British could crush as conclusively as they had a nation as powerful and the Zulu, what ultimate hope was there that the amaNdebele could prevail in clash of arms with the British?

The incentive given was no less compelling to the heart of a dictator than the threat. Lobengula was offered 1 000 Martini-Henri rifles, 100 000 rounds of ammunition and a gunboat on the Zambezi River which he could waive in exchange for £500 if he chose. In addition to this he, his dependents and heirs would receive for the remainder of their lives £100 per month.

Helm and Moffat both weighed into the fray in support of Rudd. Their advice was consistent and frequently given: Do not waste time dealing with hordes of little men. Talk to the big men and the little men will disappear. Men such as Helm and Moffat were trusted by Lobengula, and moreover the wise among his own indunas tended to agree. In particular the Induna Lotje, a confidant of Lobengula, and his father before him, allowed it to be known that what honour there was to be salvaged by the amaNdebele lay in treating with the most powerful of their enemies, and in this there was an unimpeachable logic.

To Charles Helm Lobengula confided his unease, and in a shrewd analogy illustrated the he knew precisely what was afoot. ‘Did you ever see a chameleon catch a fly?’ he asked. ‘The chameleon gets behind the fly and remains motionless for some time, then he advances very slowly and gently, first putting forward one leg and then another. At last, when well within reach, he darts out his tongue and the fly disappears. England is the chameleon and I am that fly!’

The matter was decided when Sidney Shippard, ostensibly investigating the disappearance of Pieter Gobbler who had disappeared the previous year on the borders of Matabeleland, put in an appearance. This was a choreographed coincidence, and was designed to impress upon Lobengula the imperial gravity of the negotiations underway. In this way Shippard was curiosity. He was an unimpressive specimen of manhood as the amaNdebele would have understood it, being short, balding, pinched featured and with a tendency to scowl, but he deported himself with the arrogance of authority that, real or imagined, was unmistakable, and Lobengula did not mistake it. Shippard confirmed to Lobengula that uLodzi was a very great man indeed. He was a son of the British Empire, and that all that had been said about the power and reach of the British Empire was true.

Upon Shippard’s departure Lobengula summoned Rudd and his companions and agreed to their terms. He asked that all that had been promised to him as a reward be brought to him, after which he would allow them to dig their hole. After a tempestuous encounter with a council of dismayed Indunas, reconciled to the necessity of what they were about to do, but aggrieved by it none the less, the matter was settled. A day or two later Rudd returned with a sheet of tightly scripted paper. When asked what this was by Lobengula Rudd replied that it was the words that had been agreed, and that it was required that Lobengula submit his mark to the document in order that it be ratified.

Lobengula had no choice but to rely on a white man to confirm that what had been agreed to was in fact what was written in the agreement. This responsibility was given to the Rev. Helm who in response committed a subtle but blatant fraud. Throughout the negotiation Lobengula had been led to believe that a limited number of whites would enter the country for the specific purpose of ‘digging a hole’. It is unlikely that this simplistic interpretation was all that Lobengula apprehended, but he did make the specific point a number of times that ‘not many’ white men would enter the country under the terms of the agreement. As Helm later explained in a letter to the London Missionary Society:

[Rudd & Co] …had promised that they would not bring more than ten white men to work in his [Lobengula’s] country, that they would not dig anywhere near towns etc and that they and their people would abide by the laws of his country and in fact be as his people. But these promises were not put in the concession.

Why these clauses were not included in the concession [see Appendix] was because Helm put his signature to the documents stating that they had been. He played on Lobengula’s trust, and allowed by dint of his assurance the perpetration of a fraud. That Rudd would have been willing to sanction this is not difficult to understand, and that he was acting in the spirit of Rhodes’ instructions, which were usually necessarily vague, goes without saying, but that Moffat and Helm were actively involved could have done little once the fact was revealed to reconcile Lobengula to the inherent reliability and honesty of the white man.

[1] Samkange, Stanlake. On Trial For My Country, (Heinemann Educational Books Ltd. London, 1966), p15

[ii] Blake, Robert, A History of Rhodesia, (Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1978), p35

[iii] Samkange, Stanlake. On Trial For My Country, (Heinemann Educational Books Ltd. London, 1966), p28/29

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