The Matabele War

This entry is part 11 of 20 in the series History of the amaNdebele

The invading force of settler volunteers represented an unimpressive army which, without an unequal portion of confidence, would have been overwhelmed by the knowledge that it marched without supply lines, communications or support, and beyond any meaningful assistance or reinforcement. If it did not conclusively defeat the amaNdebele in the early skirmishes – about half of the fighting strength of the amaNdebele was mobilised in preparation – all involved stood an excellent chance of an early and unpleasant death.

The amaNdebele were, despite the lengthy preamble to this confrontation, badly prepared for war. The army was disunited, notably among the ranks of the amaDoda, who had never advocated war and were reluctant to take part. Others of the Barotseland impi that had been recalled by messenger did not take part mainly because smallpox had broken out in its ranks and Lobengula was obliged to quarantine the bulk of it.[1] The remaining available force was hastily paraded in Bulawayo and given its orders by Lobengula. To indicate the commencement of war Lobengula drove an assegai into the earth. The shaft broke, an omen that was not lost upon the formations of armed and ready men that wheeled and turned to face the invader. There was an air of grim finality about this defining ritual that few present failed to recognise.

The Matabele War has been analyzed by many military historians, and although examined most frequently from the perspective of the overwhelming white victory, certain conclusions have emerged in common with every analysis, and these on the whole cannot be disputed. From a military standpoint there was much about the battlefield that favoured the amaNdebele. Any encounter would likely have to be fought on familiar ground, and with their numerical superiority, tradition of discipline, courage in battle and professional organisation it would seem inevitable that they would prevail. However the glue to bind all this together would have to be dynamic leadership and tactical flexibility. Although there was no lack of men of calibre to provide this, it was the inability of these men, and indeed the inability of the entire military formation, to dislodge notions of warfare established over 60 years of military success that undermined the entire amaNdebele campaign.

In recent years a debilitating conservatism had taken deep root in the psyche of both the men-at-arms and their commanders. The seed of this had been sown the day that Robert Schoon had felled an ox with a single shot of his hunting rifle. Mzilikazi had been so stunned by the spectacle that he had stepped backwards into his hut and there in the semi-darkness he brooded over what he had seen. From this did not incubate any particular resolve to claim and master this weapon, but rather Mzilikazi chose to ignore the future relevance of it, and so set the tone for an attitude that would pervade his nation as any mood or attitude of his unquestionably did.

By the time Lobengula assumed power firearms had been a known factor among the natives of the region for more than 30 years, and by the time the forces of the amaNdebele mobilised and set of to confront their greatest challenge other powerful local leaders such as Khama of Bechuanaland and Lewanika of Barotseland had already adopted firearms and to some degree evolved strategies and training to accommodate them. The amaNdebele had manifestly chosen not to do this. They had clung to their traditional usage of frontal tactics and hand weapons, and in fact relentlessly espoused the superiority of these, believing perhaps as the British had in the early days of WWI that cold steel and courage held an innate superiority over entrenched positions and mechanised gun fire.

Another factor that contributed to ultimate amaNdebele defeat was the inability of the strategists and commanders of the force to contemplate something so novel as a solid, defensive stand, and if that was defeated a follow-up strategy of fragmented, mobile guerrilla action that at that time might have suited their situation and resources better. They were masters of their own landscape, and although they might temporarily have to accept a loss of dominance, they could quite easily have made occupation of Matabeleland untenable by attacks on supply lines and the maintenance of pressure on weak targets which would have forced widespread garrisoning of the country leading to a collapse of the invasion.

None of this of course would have altered the overall course of events as far as the advance of colonial interests throughout Africa, but in the short term it certainly would have equalised the fight, and given the Company force a much larger bone to chew than just the best and brightest of the amaNdebele nation dying for no greater purpose than to prove that they could do so with the courage and integrity of their forefathers.

In the meanwhile the settler attack column moved progressively deeper into Matabeleland with mobile patrols ranging in a wide pattern burning and destroying military kraals as they came upon them. The potential for ambush in many of these engagements seem to have been ignored by the amaNdebele even though the patrols frequently reported the movement of large numbers of the enemy in their vicinity. This failure to act, although not of great significance in terms of wider events, revealed a buckling of resolve under pressure and a general disintegration of the chain of command. It has often been suggested in explanation of this and many similar lapses in strategy and command that for the 20 years prior the amaNdebele army had been required to undertake campaigns no more challenging than harassing the Mashona, and in the meanwhile had incorporated many captured amaHoli into their ranks. The quality and battle readiness of the once feared amaNdebele army appeared to have diminished considerably in recent years, and when confronted suddenly with as relentless a challenge as this it was proved to be unequal.

This is not to say that with an opportunity to rally some of the old spirit might have been revived, but with the ranks in disarray, battle readiness reduced and a not wholly united commitment to war, the defending forces failed to recognise the obvious strategy of launching a closed formation attack on the main laager when it was at its most invulnerable.

The column was laagered on the east bank of the Shangani River when the first major engagement was fought. Despite uncomfortable memories of earlier engagements in similar formation against the Boer, the amaNdebele felt most secure fighting under these conditions. The attacking force was split into two parts, with the Insukamini, isiziba, ihlati and Induba regiments in one division and the amaKanda and amaVeni in another. At dawn the first division attacked, surrounding the laager, while the second held off, making a disconsolate attack only much later.

As might be expected the attack was characterised by limited creativity but spectacular courage under fire, and again and again frontal charges against the fortifications of the laager were attempted, and again and again these were beaten back by expert musketry, concentrated machinegun fire and artillery. The famous Gatling gun of this, and many other colonial engagements, became known in onomatopoeic Sindebele as isiGwagwagwa. The first wave lasted 20 minutes, and exacted a fearsome toll, followed by others less determined, until by 7.30am a patrol left the laager to harass the limping survivors. The patrol came upon and was rushed by the second division, and was beaten back briefly before machinegun fire again save the moment. By 08:00 the amaNdebele could begin counting their casualties, estimates of which amount to some 500 or 600 men.

The defeat on the Shangani compounded a mood of pessimism widespread among the amaNdebele, which was eased little by the suicide of an aggrieved induna of the Insukamini regiment. Spirits were raised a little by the deployment of the celebrated Mbizo regiment, of whom Lobengula had once remarked: ‘Whoever defeats the Mbizo will destroy the nation.’[2] This confidence was soon to be put to the test when the next major engagement occurred near the headwaters of the Bembezi River some 20 miles from Bulawayo. The battle took place just a few hours after the Mbizo arrived in field on 1 November, allowing Mtjane, one of the greatest amaNdebele military commanders, to take charge of the field as Induna Enkulu. No change of tactics were espoused, however, and the battled once again assumed a conventional format with the column surround by two divisions. The horns were made up on one side by the Ihlati and Isiziba regiments and the Umcijo and Godhlwayo on the others, with the Mbizo and Ingubo regiments forming the chest. The attack was pressed home with a minimum of delay, commencing at about noon as the horses and oxen of the Victoria column under Major Allen Wilson were being watered.

Again an inexplicable lack of cohesion and enthusiasm caused the horn formations to fail to complete the encirclement, focusing the brunt of combat on the chest, and the Mbizo. The surprise factor, however, was wholly successful, and the recreating members of column, busy eating or preparing lunch, assessed the presence of large numbers of amaNdebele as a mass of disaffected soldiers retreating towards Bulawayo. It was with horror then that the volunteers were suddenly confronted by an organised phalanx that abruptly formed into battle order and charged. The moment was perilous in the extreme as men snatched up rifles and took up positions. Guns were used by the amaNdebele, in some instances to reasonable effect, but mostly not.

It was again machine guns and artillery that levelled the field, and again the bold but reckless full frontal charges that accounted for most of the dead among the Mbizo and Ingubo – it was reported that out of the 700 men of the Mbizo 500 were either killed or wounded against the loss of three white troopers killed and some wounded.[3] Major Patrick Forbes, commander of the Salisbury column, observed that it ‘…was a source of great satisfaction to find out what the force had been composed of, and to realise that we had met, and handsomely beaten, practically all that Lobengula could send against us.’

It would be wrong to suppose that the unflappable language typical of Forbes’ British regimental background implied that neither he nor anyone else were awed by the unflinching courage shown by all the regiments, but the Mbizo in particular. As they charged recklessly along their three-quarter mile long front – Forbes estimated one amaNdebele force to be about 4000 men strong – into withering rifle and machinegun fire, it was observed by Captain Sir John Willoughby in his official account of the Battle: ‘…the pluck of these two regiments…was simply splendid and I doubt whether any European troops would have stood for such a long time as they did at a terrific and well directed fire brought to bear against them.’[4]

The pace of the attack was sustained for about an hour and a half before it flagged, and a patrol rapidly despatched from the laager succeeded in turning a calculated withdrawal into a rout. Forbes was in favour of sending forward a party of 100 men to immediately seize and occupy Bulawayo, but was dissuaded by Major Wilson on the grounds the columns horses were not in sufficiently good condition to risk it. It was not until 4 November that Bulawayo was occupied, and by then the Company Union Jack was pitched over smouldering ruins with Lobengula a fugitive north of the capital and his fate in the balance.

The march of the southern column northwards was quicker and less eventful – it suffering only a minor attack north of the Matloutsie River by the forces of Gambo and his amaDoda regiments – despite which it arrived in Bulawayo behind the volunteers, ostensibly handing to the British South Africa Company the prize of Matabeleland.

To the disappointment of Dr. Jameson, who was acting as Commander-in-Chief, Bulawayo was in ashes with no sign of Lobengula anywhere. This, of course, was as a direct consequence of the recent deaths of his indunas in Tati. Lobengula’s assumption was naturally that if captured he would be killed too. Without a formal surrender the war was not over, and the symbolic retention of authority, and the potential for the nation to reform around its king, remained a factor. Although certain that upon his capture he would be put to death, in truth the likelihood was that Lobengula would have been exiled to St Helena, or perhaps to Robben Island or even some other part of mainland Africa. There was, however, no reason for him to anticipate fair play, and as odd as it might have seemed in the light of a murderous vocation, the amaNdebele people were neither given nor appreciative of trickery or sleight of hand.

Lobengula had also not been in Bulawayo itself as the torch was set to his capital, but was languishing slightly north at Umvutchwa in the company of a handful of wives and close associates. When news of the defeat of the Mbizo was given to him by Mtjane he immediately ordered  four ox-wagons to be prepared after which he set off northwest towards no particular objective other than to get as far away from the invaders as possible. He knew that he could now not proceed very far north, for news of his misfortune would travel far and fast, and Lewankia of the Barotse, as just one of many, would relish the opportunity to deliver the killing blow. At best he might have nourished the melancholy hope that he could settle far enough north of Bulawayo for the whites to lose interest in him. For this he chose a spot on the upper Shangani River where nearby lay several military kraals, and where temporarily he called halt to wait for his scattered followers to join him.

Naturally Lobengula hoped in vain for sanctuary. Temporary encampments were established in Bulawayo while plans for his capture were discussed. Communications between Cape Town and the Colonial Office augmented debate on the ground between Jameson and his officers regarding exactly how to move forward. London and Cape Town were both anxious that no harm should come to Lobengula, and that he be treated with dignity and humanity, temporarily transported either to Vryburg or Mafeking, and there given some say over where he was to be interned. On the ground the debate was more fundamental. In charge of matters was Dr. Jameson, but he was supported by a small clique of irregular commanders, and Major Patrick Forbes who was the only one among those present with an authentic commission and genuine military training. Jameson had neither, but what he did have was a carte blanche from Cecil Rhodes to do what needed to be done, and that was enough.

Besides Forbes Jameson was assisted by a 37 year old Scotsman by the name of Allen Wilson, who held a rank of Major, and who commanded the Victoria Volunteers. Wilson was typical of the first crop of Rhodesian settlers, having emigrated from Scotland some twelve years earlier, and in the meanwhile serving first in the Mounted Cape Riles, seeing action in the Anglo/Zulu War, and then throwing his lot in with the movement north to Rhodes’ experimental colony in Mashonaland. Beside him was Pieter Raaff, a man not unlike Jameson, who made up for limited physical stature with a driven nature and an unassailable ego. He commanded a small detachment of some 250 Transvaal freebooters who called themselves ‘Raaff’s Rangers’. Standing besides them was the incongruous figure of Forbes, who was incongruous not because he was a military man present in a military context, but because he was not an irregular, and unaccustomed to the command of irregulars, and of course the fact that he was attentive to the commands of Jameson who was a civilian and held not even a temporary rank to justify his command.

Nonetheless in command he was, and in a perfunctory manner he composed a despatch to Lobengula which he sent off by messenger warning him that time was running out. ‘To stop this useless slaughter,’ he wrote ‘you must at once come and see me at Bulawayo, when I will guarantee that your life will be saved and that you will be kindly treated.’

Of course Lobengula had no reason to suppose this was true, and in reply a predictably equivocal letter was received in Bulawayo containing no specific promise to surrender. Upon this, and reasonably confident from intelligence filtering into Bulawayo that a majority of amaNdebele troops and commanders were in favour of surrender, Jameson despatched in pursuit a strong patrol under the command of Major Patrick Forbes, and unhappily subordinate to him Major Allen Wilson and Pieter Raaff, both of whom felt better qualified to lead, which, bearing in mind the irregular nature of most of the men assigned to the patrol, was probably true. Indeed, as the annual rain broke and the dust turn to treacle, it was an extremely despondent force that set off in the direction of Lobengula’s flight, most having believed upon entering Bulawayo that the war was won and Matabeleland was theirs.

There clearly were those among the amaNdebele who did favour surrender, with Lobengula no doubt principal among them, but despite this the general sense among the invader that, barring the odious chore of bringing Lobengula in, the amaNdebele were both defeated and resigned to defeat, was wrong. In fact as the unhappy patrol slogged through mud and rain, dragging guns and wagons behind them, and riding upon exhausted and footsore horses, a general reformation of the amaNdebele regiments was steadily underway all around them. To make matters worse intense rivalry broke out within the pursuit column, with resentment at Forbes’ command finding expression as conditions grew gradually worse. In essence it was the reaction of irregular troops and commanders to the orthodox and unbending command style of a man unaccustomed to the necessity for consultation, and unwilling to accepted the wider and more relevant experience of his subordinates. This was compounded by Jameson’s inexperience, and determination to bring the matter to a clean conclusion despite adverse physical conditions.

In the meanwhile most of the regiments had by then gathered around Lobengula, and news of the pursuit was greeted by an initial agreement to sue for peace. By then the column was approaching the Shangani River where Lobengula’s encampment lay, so there was some urgency to act. Two indunas were chosen to approach the column from the rear with about £1000 in gold and a letter for the commanders that is reported to have read: ‘White men, I am conquered. Take this and go back.’ The note and the bag of gold was indeed handed to two surprised troopers covering the rear of the column who between themselves decided to destroy the note and keep the gold.

As a consequence of this it was not known to the commanders of the column that Lobengula had attempted to make overtures to peace, and it was not known to Lobengula that his efforts had been thwarted. The continuation of the pursuit therefore simply confirmed to him and to his men at arms that nothing short of their annihilation would satisfy the whites. The fraud was only revealed publicly to the amaNdebele at the later trial of the two men for theft. Meanwhile an induna of the Insukamini penetrated the camp posing as a friendly native where he learned that the pursuit was still on. The following day a second amaNdebele reconnaissance party was sent out that established that the column had camped just across the Shangani River.

Accounts vary with regards to events that followed, with some stating that the area between the now encamped column and where the Lobengula was at rest was cleared of troops to allow for the easy capture of Lobengula which certain senior Indunas, Mtjane among them, deemed the cleanest and quickest way to achieve peace. Other accounts state that a plan was laid to lend the impression that Lobengula was just a short distance ahead, with a young herdboy primed with this information and put in the way of apprehension by scouts. This, it was hoped, would draw the column across the Shangani, upon which, either during the crossing or afterwards, a general assault would be made against it.

Assuming that the former was the correct version, or at least part of it, the principal indunas can be assumed to have been either pragmatic or disloyal, and in the final analysis pragmatism is the most probable. What in the event happened was, however, unexpected, and on the evening of 3 December, a few hours after the arrival of the column on the banks of the river, a mobile patrol of 19 volunteers separated from the main column, rode across the Shangani river, and set of in the direction of the King’s sherm. It seems that a difference of opinion had occurred between the men and commanders of those amaNdebele present, the former irate at being robbed of a fight, who then set off in pursuit of the patrol.

This was the ill fated Shangani Patrol around which so much lore has collected over the ensuring years. Behind the fortifications of the camp differences between the various men and commanders of the column had reached a head. Forbes, deeply unpopular by then, but trenchant to the last, has been given information by the herdboy brought into camp who claimed as he had been told to that Lobengula was nearby. An altercation broke out between Forbes and Raath as both men, in conference with a more restrained Major Allen Wilson, pondered what to do next. Forbes had suggested that he himself lead a patrol to capture the King the following morning, leaving the others behind to secure the camp. This immediately struck a discordant note with Wilson who sensed that Forbes was manoeuvring himself to capture the king and claim the laurels that each man sought for himself. Wilson instead persuaded Forbes to authorise a light reconnaissance patrol commanded by himself to ride out under what limited light remained in order to establish exactly where Lobengula was located in order that an assault the following day might be more effectively mounted. Against his better judgement Forbes agreed, and a few minutes later the patrol left the camp and headed out in the general direction of Lobengula’s camp.

Several factors came into play at this moment to set the stage for one of the most iconic episodes in the short history of colonised Rhodesia. The first of course was the nature of the pursuing force. These were men largely without normal military discipline as Major Patrick Forbes would have understood it. As a consequence Wilson set off with no intention of returning without having secured the capture of Lobengula. His main objective had been to escape from under Forbes’ command in order that he could act alone and reap the glory of Lobengula’s capture. Coupled with this was the fact that daylight was waning and rain was threatening, meaning that the odds were very high that the patrol would be abroad after nightfall, and if this were the case then the likelihood that the Shangani River would be in spate would also be very high, rendering an easy crossing back to the main column difficult, if not impossible.

Thus it was, and Wilson and the Shangani Patrol confidently rode to a point where they believed Lobengula was to be found. A man captured by the patrol en route led them to where the King’s wagons were parked, but Lobengula was not there. Mtjane had in the meanwhile manoeuvred the Isiziba and Ihlati regiments into position between the patrol and the column, cutting off any possible retreat and ensuring that the maxims, that great battlefield lever, could not be brought in to assist the patrol as an attack was being planned. Wilson, meanwhile, played perfectly into the hands of the amaNdebele by opting not to return to the column, but instead to remain out overnight in order to press home the capture of the King first thing in the morning, and at the same time leaving Forbes himself no opportunity to take command of any fighting patrol.

That night it rained heavily and the river rose to the point that prohibited any possible crossing of the column or a return for the patrol. Two troopers were sent back with a brief for Forbes, and although no definite request for reinforcements was made, at least the hope that they would respond was implicit. In the event 20 men were despatched to the aid of the patrol, but neither machineguns nor artillery were added to the reinforcements. The following morning, after a miserable night, the strengthened patrol set off towards the kings camp to effect a capture. There they met a strong force of amaNdebele and a skirmish broke out. Wilson and the patrol formed a square and retreated, eventually forming up around an anthill in thick woodland where a stand was made. Two scouts were sent back to the patrol, but by then the Shangani River was almost un-crossable, beside which the column itself was also under attack.

Within a few hours the entire Shangani Patrol had been wiped out. Wilson and his men rode posthumously into glory, and were celebrated in white Rhodesia as the defining heroes of the nation. For the amaNdebele the victory was decisive, but plaintive. The war was lost, as a nation they were shattered, and sometime later, in the trackless wilderness of northern Matabeleland, Lobengula passed away.

A poignant conclusion to the legend – for no white man lived to tell, and no black man was willing to divulge– Lobengula fled north and managed in due course to find refuge among the Angoni along the shores of Lake Nyasa. Other tales suggest that Lobengula committed suicide by poison. Author J.G. Storry, upon whose account I have drawn heavily, concluded the life of Lobengula in a manner more prosaic.

The column was harassed almost all the way back to Bulawayo by amaNdebele combatant units, allowing for Lobengula to escape northwards. When Lobengula received word that the pursuit column was within a days march of his position he decided to flee deeper into the bush, abandoning  his wagons and most of his accoutrements, loading the remainder onto horses. With a small entourage he then mounted a horse, and although in poor health, rode downstream along the Shangani River. In the vicinity of the Gwaai and Shangani River confluence, in an area known as the Sitshitumba Hills, and with some sense that he might settle there, huts were built and gardens planted.

In fact Lobengula was gravely ill, as he had been for some time. Thanks to what has been suggested was kidney failure brought about by an advanced form of gout, hypertension, the stresses of his situation, and perhaps nervous exhaustion, Lobengula suffered a slow and inglorious death. First affected were his legs, and then his stomach and chest, until his throat and mouth ulcerated causing him to be unable to eat or talk. Soon afterwards he died.[5] The Khumalo dynasty passed into history with a minimum of pomp or ceremony. Nine counsellors observed the internment of the body in a nearby cave which was sealed with no distinguishing mark.

You will be the first entitled to select land, and you will deal with it after provision has been made for the natives. . . . It is your right, for you have conquered the country. Cecil Rhodes

Mtjane, who had led the last glorious military victory that the his people would know in his generation, or the next, was selected from among the available amaNdebele dignitaries to treat with the white man, who it was acknowledged had occupied Bulawayo, and now effectively owned the country. There was no overt acceptance of defeat, however, for that was not what was perceived to have happened. Lobengula died, and was not killed, and less than half of the regiments had seen combat. Losses incurred were somewhere in the region of 1000 men out of a possible 20 000 available combatants. No serious attempt had been made to disarm the regiments, and most simply hid or buried their weapons in order to wait for the opportunity to avenge the death of Lobengula.

There was some discussion held over the matter of an heir to the amaNdebele throne. A choice in this matter would not have been automatic since the royal, or principal wife had produced no heir, which in fact simplified the pragmatic policy of making peace with the white man in order that the nation could take stock in the short term, and if possible reconstitute the regiments. The first contacts with the whites were made as J. Dawson, he who had escorted the ill fated indunas to Tati, was the first to make his way to the site of Wilson’s last stand in order to establish precisely the fate of the men of the patrol. There he came upon a group of warriors who informed him that Lobengula was dead, and led him to Mtjane who surrendered to him, and one by one the principal surviving indunas did likewise. Those of Lobengula’s queens who had stayed with him to the end departed the scene and settled near the Bembesi River in an area known later as the Queens Location.[vi]

Of the sons of Lobengula none could or attempted to make a viable claim to the throne, and it was naturally in the interests of the Company that none should. Of the six known, the eldest son was Nyamande who assumed the role of a sub-chief in the Bubi district. He did plea on occasions his right to rule but he was given no ear by anyone of consequence. His younger brother Tjakalisa made no such attempt, and little is known of him. Three others, Njube, Mapeneni and Nguboenja where deemed potentially to a be a political risk and were taken in hand by Rhodes, sent to the Cape and there educated at the founder’s expense. A forth, Sidotjiwa, remained in Matabeleland, and although some muted claim was made, none was ratified, and of him little was heard thereafter.

Among the amaNdebele themselves the instinct to re-establish themselves under a monarch was powerful, and upon many, if not most, the fundamental change that had been wrought upon them had not yet dawned. Most considered it natural that an heir would be chosen, and gave little thought to the possibility that this would not happen. Meetings were held and much discussion generated, and it was upon Njube that most interest centred. The boy was by then out of the country, and when news of this reached the Company it was deemed imperative that out of the country he should stay. The controversy reach him though, and covertly the Company sought to sound out his feelings. He apparently rebuffed any thought or suggestion of a return, and rejected any suggestion that he intended to lead a rejuvenated amaNdebele kingdom. Despite this he made several attempts to rally support for the reconstitution of the monarchy, his model perhaps being the unbroken line of Zulu ascension that had continued even under colonial domination. At this time he was employed in Kimberly on a slow gravitation back towards Matabeleland, but was intercepted by the Company with Rhodes’ usual expedient of money, after which was relocated under very comfortable terms to Port Alfred in the Cape. He however was listless and dissolute, and in due course contracted tuberculosis and died in 1910. The only other individual in any position to act with influence on the Ndebele was Lobengula’s wife Losikeyi who did not seek or achieve power and died in 1919.

What now remained to the average amaNdebele tribesman was dispossession and absorption into the white labour system. There is a great sadness in this fact, tempered only very slightly by the passing of a regime widely perceived as cruel and barbarous. A precedent had been set that began with a simple but perversely honourable seed that saw Lobengula misled by the Moffat Treaty, cheated by the Rudd concession and forced into a war that he could not win. All of this was perpetrated under the banner of Christian enlightenment, and certainly there were few other than the amaNdebele themselves that grieved Lobengula’s passing.

However from this would grow a sense among the settlers and administrators that everything the white man sought or executed, no matter how low in intent or grubby in execution, carried with it a moral justification simply because it furthered the cause of civilisation and enlightenment. Out of this would inevitably come a sense of entitlement and superiority on the part of the white man, many of whom could not by their lineage or intellectual breadth justify any artificial superiority, and who simply grew into thugs with licence to abuse, which was often done with little more than a second thought. Throughout much of colonial Africa the retention of indigenous authority and structures of administration was often achieved by means of indirect rule. This was in order as much as possible to maintain a continuum of chiefs, headmen and village heads while at the same time limiting the expense of grassroots administration to the chartered companies, and most importantly to the Colonial Office. In Rhodesia, however, the BSAC had so completely won the day, and with almost no expense to the Imperial Government, it is natural that Cecil Rhodes, and perhaps more so Doctor Jameson, assumed in the short term almost unlimited power. In the case of Rhodes this was indirect, but in the case of Jameson it was brutally direct, and a short but immensely damaging period of literal thug rule followed, with absolutely no oversight originating from the Imperial Government to limit the massive and wholesale looting of Matabeleland.

The amaNdebele, meanwhile, were able to garner very little public sympathy from abroad, for as H. Ryder Haggard put it in an article published in the Pall Mall Gazette, the military campaign and subsequent looting had served to ‘…break up a bloody and odious tyranny, and to advance the cause of civilisation in Africa.’[vii] It was also rather casually assumed that the toppling of the reign of the amaNdebele monarchy was an event celebrated by the rank and file of the amaNdebele itself. The Times echoed this view with the comment: ‘The destruction of the Matabele military system will be almost as great a blessing to the Matabele themselves as to the Mashona and other people that they plundered.’[viii] Cecil Rhodes himself, defining matters in terms closest to his heart, enthused at a banquet given in honour of the event by the Mayor of Cape Town: ‘There never would be on record a campaign conducted with such a small expenditure of money and human life, and, at the same time, with such great humanity’[ix]

This sort of copy greatly increased Cecil Rhodes’ personal prestige and significantly raised the profile of the British South Africa Company, and in this self congratulatory frame of mind the souls for which so much benefit had been ostensibly won were forgotten. The Mashona, with their fragmented political structure could mount no effective resistance, and did not even try. They succumbed to the usage of the incoming whites with what almost seemed like aptitude, which assisted a majority whites to think no more about it on the assumption that they were generally grateful for liberation won from the amaNdebele. There were a handful among the whites who could be deemed proficient in native language and culture, but only a handful, and for the remainder the settler community was wholly aloof from the views and attitudes of the blacks, about which they knew probably less than they cared.

Very quickly Matabeleland fell to plunder as Rhodes paid his debts to the many honourable and military men who had aided his journey to this great moment. Open to pillage was Matabeleland in its entirety, and behind a jingoistic chorus of public approval Company Administrator Doctor Starr Jameson applied his peculiarly reckless hand at delivering Rhodes’ largess. This period of the administration of the territory has often been described as ‘experimental’, which it certainly was, but it was also nothing less than the naked theft of a nation’s resources under the crudest definitions of the rules of conquest. It was a feeding frenzy under which the cattle and land of the amaNdebele were arbitrarily seized and redistributed.

In the meanwhile a Land Commission was set up with power to allocate sufficient and suitable land for the natives which would take the form of demarcated reserves. The saga of the delineation of these reserves is one of the murky dramas of the creation of the new colony, and was one in which Rhodes’ had was as usual active and influential. More details of this process will be discussed in a later chapter, but for the present it is sufficient to say that very little enthusiasm existed among the new claimants on Matabeleland for this process, and even as it was being devised and implemented in the Cape the process of land and asset seizures in Matabeleland went ahead, with Jameson covering his tracks very light by making reference to his sweeping land allocations as ‘provisional’, despite they were largely ratified by the Land Commission which later contented itself with sifting through what little remained to identify suitable reserves.

First in line to receive land where the volunteer militias that had spearheaded the invasion. Each was due a 6350 acre block which amounted to an initial allocation of some 6 million acres. This was then added to by lavish and arbitrary allocations made to the various men of influence and substance who had in one way or another helped expedite the formation and subscription of the Company. ‘It is perfectly sickening to see the way in which the country has been run for the sake of hob-nobbing with Lord this and the Hon. that…!’ wrote William Milton, a man with a determined middle class perspective who would in due course be appointed administrator to rescue the nation from the chaotic mismanagement of the Jameson era.[x]

For the amaNdebele, who had since the confirmation of Lobengula’s death been returning piecemeal to family kraals and settlements, the effects were ruinous. Most refused to occupy land in the reserves, besides which most of the land allocated to whites was done so in massive tracts to largely absentee landlords, which saw a majority of tribesmen remaining temporarily as squatters on land legally owned either by individuals or syndicates. Initially they were not much interfered with as the shift in land owner ship remained for the most part academic, although they were in theory, and increasingly in practice, now subject to rent and labour obligations in exchange for the right to remain in occupation of their traditional homelands. Another extremely unsettling factor for the amaNdebele attempting to cope with sudden and radical change was the tendency for land initially allocated or won through conquest to be traded frequently between individuals and companies with the sense among people living in a state of general uncertainty that they had no idea at any time who precisely they where dealing with. Bearing in mind the visceral link and traditional identity held by people to the land upon which they lived, and the soil under which their ancestors were buried, the impersonal and entirely mercantile white view of land ownership and investment became source of absolute confusion, doubt and uncertainty to the amaNdebele.

With the alienation of the land came a concurrent demand for labour, and with the removal of the black man from the tribal economy a means was required to project him into the cash and labour economy. This problem had been encountered, and would continue to be encountered, in many parts of Africa then succumbing to imperial occupation. The key was hut tax, a multi-faceted solution to the first-phase problem of creating a civilised man out of a savage. A mandated requirement for cash caused the head of a household to either seek work in the cash economy himself or to send his sons out to work. The system was imperfect since a man might work for only so long as it took him to earn his hut tax after which he would return to his kraal. It was hoped, however, that though work and remuneration individuals would incubate an interest in European manufactured goods; which would set in motion a journey towards a black working class; which in turn would liberate the vast majority of people from a direct dependence on the land; which in turn would liberate the authorities from having to provide land for blacks displaced by white land claims.

The British South Africa Company petitioned the Imperial Government for permission to levy a hut tax in Mashonaland even before a decisive conclusion to the Matabele War had been reached. The claim was made that it was this that would finance the administration of the newly liberated blacks, liberated, it was further claimed, from their fealty to the amaNdebele. The moment that the Matabele War was satisfactorily concluded the Company sought to extend this claim over Matabeleland, encouraged by the fact that returns from the Mashonaland Hut Tax were sufficient in 1894 to promote  limited speculation in British South Africa Company shares. [xi]

At the root of the Hut Tax, however, notwithstanding the Company’s need to generate a return from any source, was the need to jump start a labour system, and although it would be inevitable that the tribal black man would by degrees be forced into the cash economy by the sheer proliferation of cash as a medium for existence, the pace was not sufficiently rapid to satisfy the extraordinary speed of economic development that occurred in the years immediately after the Matabele War. Another frequently applied solution was forced labour for civic projects such as road construction and maintenance, and as portage for Native Commissioners in their introductory journeys through their various districts. It was the job of the Native Police to tour the villages and select those perceived to be idle to satisfy official labour requirements. This practice became an extremely odious burden on the people, and a mechanism of power assertion for the notoriously crude and violent Native Police.

Hard on the heels of land redistribution came the question of cattle seizures. If it could be said that the amaNdebele were relative newcomers to the land, and did not feel its appropriation quite as acutely as did the Mashona, the same, however, could not be said of the amaNdebele national herd. Since time immemorial the amaNdebele, and their Nguni and Basuto parents, had maintained a profound interest in the possession and husbandry of cattle. Like their link to the land, this was a phenomenon that amounted to more than the sum total of its parts, and could not be defined by the equation of pure economics. To tamper with the amaNdebele right to own cattle was to strike an imbalance at the very core of the national and individual psyche. Likewise to apply the simple principal of individual ownership of cattle was to show wanton ignorance the sole advantage of which was to quickly expedite the seizure as war booty of all cattle ostensibly belonging to the King.

A loose estimate  at the time suggested that prior to the seizures the amaNdebele collectively owned roughly 200 000 dead of cattle. To most newcomers, and in particular the freebooters who had ridden down in the expectation of a boost in their fortunes after the dry harvest of Mashonaland, the vast amaNdebele herds represented a mobile resource more immediate than gold or land. As Jameson received the submissions of the principal indunas of the amaNdebele in the days following the occupation he made it clear to them that while the Company would leave all cattle in private hands untouched it would claim by right of conquest all cattle that had belonged to Lobengula. This was an ambiguity that Jameson and many others were immediately willing to exploit since it could never be accurately ascertained how many among the amaNdebele cattle belonged to the King. In theory the King owned all the cattle that were lent, given or placed in trust according to his pleasure, and t is unlikely that Jameson and his peers were not to some degree aware of this fact

The serving Secretary of State for the Colonies Lord Ripon observed this point with rare perception and attempted to intervene in order to ensure that at least some of the existing herd would be held back in trust for future allocation to amaNdebele individuals. It was incumbent on the Secretary of State, the High Commissioner at the Cape and the Land Commission among other agencies to oversee the fair appropriation of the wealth of the amaNdebele, but all of these efforts were to prove either inadequate or non-existent, and long before any meaningful intervention was mobilised much of the damage had already been done.

Between July and November 1894 about 30 000 head were presented to the ‘loot committee’ and were either allocated or sold at auction in satisfaction of claims.[xii] Peripheral to this many other white traders, speculators and farmers acquired a great many more directly by means of theft and raiding. Some 20 000 were requisitioned by the Company as ‘police rations’ which would have implied a most lavishly fed police force if all were put to this purpose. When finally the Land Commission submitted its report in October 1894 a fait accompli had been achieved, forcing the Commission to concede that any chance of distinguishing between private and royal cattle had been lost, and that trying to make any accurate assessment of the numbers originally held by the amaNdebele was now impossible. It was forlornly suggested that all amaNdebele cattle not already in private hands should be sequestered by the Company on trust that it would undertake to make adequate provision for the amaNdebele. Once this process had been undertaken it was established that only 74 500 head remained in native possession, of which 40 930 were to revert to amaNdebele ownership.[xiii]

The officials appointed to oversee the task of untangling the cattle web were those who would later form the genesis of the Native Department, the creation of which was marred by the poison chalice this fledgling department was immediately forced to deliver upon the amaNdebele. Prior to the existence of a body dedicated solely to the management of native affairs the country had been under the arbitrary rule of a police force charged with the task of breaking amaNdebele political and military cohesion. Without a legislative framework defining its existence and governing its affairs a window of opportunity had been open for this force, and any associated with it, to act with impunity and lawless petty tyranny. The Native Department might have been deemed a nominal improvement only because it did not disseminate violence, since its initial task was the distribution of cattle, however once this task was complete, and the amaNdebele herd had been reduced to a fifth of its original size, the native department became the agent for the almost total destruction of the little that remained.

Throughout the 1890s a rinderpest epidemic had been sweeping through southern Africa, ultimately killing 80 to 90 percent of cattle in the region. It had begun in Somalia some three years earlier and reached Matabeleland at the same time as a devastating drought and waves of locust that fell like plague on the land. The necessary slaughter of large numbers of healthy cattle was seen by the communities of Matabeleland as an act of simple vindictiveness on the part of a force that had already exacted a heavy tribute. Moreover the remedy for want in times past, namely the freedom to take what was needed from weaker neighbours, was now denied the amaNdebele by the regime.

Nowadays, not only was every such raid prevented or punished as unlawful, but even in their home life their liberties were interfered with, and trifling thefts of cattle from a neighbour’s herd, or the quiet putting away of a lazy slave, or of a quarrelsome stepmother, were now treated as crimes by policemen of their own blood and colour, but creatures of the white man, strutting among them with as much consequence and power as any of the royal indunas.[xiv]

This, combined with the natural disaster that among a superstitious race seemed to confirm a disconformity between the landscape and conqueror, set the tone for an ultimately explosive confrontation.

Many petty factors besides this contributed no less to the inevitability of a violent breach, such as the assumption made in many quarters of the settler community of a general pacification of the land in the sense that the amaNdebele appeared to have settled into the fact of military defeat with complete acceptance. This had much to do with the surge of optimism that followed the war, and the fact that the economic development of Matabeleland, and the dissemination of settlers, traders hunters and prospectors into the hinterland had gone ahead with little provision made for their security, and apparently no sense that any sort of risk existed at all. The modern town of Bulawayo was built some three miles from the site of the original, and as the railway line nosed north from Kimberly, and as the proximity to markets and transport hubs of the south stimulated rapid growth, Bulawayo quickly overtook Salisbury as the centre of the economic activity of the colony, causing all to forget in the heady days of growth and expansion the status and mindset of the amaNdebele observing it all from the sidelines.

The trauma of the amaNdebele in those months and years following the occupation of Matabeleland was successfully hidden from the view of a majority of whites by the tight clan structure of the nation and the fact that so few among the whites now filtering out into the countryside spoke siNdebele sufficiently well, if at all, in order to establish any clear sense of what was afoot under the calm and aloof surface of day to day amaNdebele life. In fact behind a façade of fatalistic acceptance of the inevitable a slow reconstitution of the old regimental structure was underway, frustrated perhaps by nothing more than the lack of any central leadership, and the inability of the surviving indunas to act as a committee in order to lead and govern.

Sometime during 1895 two Mlimo oracles by the names of M’quati, or Mkwati, and Mwanbani stepped into the leadership vacuum and began advocating for a renewal of hostilities. The sheer improbability of this – that religious figures should assume the organisational responsibly of the nation, and that these should be of Mashona origin – would have helped a great deal to conceal the development of any kind of conspiracy to the whites. In fact the cult of Mwari, known among the amaNdebele as Mlimo, was the only cordial bridge that existed between the two societies, and the potential latent in an adept from the theocracy gaining power over the rank and file of the amaNdebele was that it could effect a unification of both groups to confront a common enemy.

In the meanwhile very little is known today about either man other than it was Mkwati who played the more prominent role in motivating and organising the combined Mashona and amaNdebele rebellions that followed. He was reputed to have been captured as a child by amaNdebele raiders from north of the Zambezi and instituted among the amaHoli before emerging as a adept of Mwari-Mlimo. Whatever may have been the facts, it is interesting to note the explanation of events given by Frederick Courtney Selous, scout and guide for the original pioneer column, who wrote one of the most definitive first hand accounts of the episode in his autobiographical book Sunshine and Storm in Rhodesia.

Selous took the view that the influence of Mlimo on the rebellion was a case of unscrupulous military planners playing on the innate superstition of the masses to inspire and mould an uprising. This was as much the case as Christianity inspiring the crusades, and if spirituality merged with secular objectives for the sake of a greater purpose there was nothing unprecedented in this. Selous’ account, however, was obviously written before any anthropological study had been made of the Mwari-Mlimo cult, and what scepticisms he expressed was probably reflective of the attitudes of most whites observing at the time and reflecting upon it afterwards.

The head of the family [Mkwati?] lives in the Matopo Hills, and is known as the Umlimo, but as far as one can understand from the rather conflicting statements made concerning him by the natives, he is not actually the Umlimo, but a being possessed of all the ordinary attributes of man,—in fact a human being, with a spiritual nature superadded which enables him to commune with the unseen Deity that pervades space, and communicate the wishes or commands of the invisible spirit to the people. The temple of the Umlimo is a cave in the Matopo Hills, whither the people repair to consult him ; and I believe that the voice which is heard in answer to their questions from the depths of the cave is supposed to emanate not from the human Umlimo or priest, but to be the actual utterance of the invisible god.[xv]

Mkwati travelled widely throughout the country in an effort to build a coalition between traditional antagonists who between them faced a devastating common enemy. A battle headquarters was established Thabas-zi-ka-Mambo in 1896 where the military organisation of the moribund regiments was co-ordinated. The battle plan was simple. A surprise attack would be launched against the whites of the Bulawayo and in the surrounding countryside while at the same time a fifth column of servants and retainers, who were represented to the extent of at least two per white homestead, and quite often more, would rise up and each take the life of their individual employer. In this way the whites would be eliminated in a matter of days, if not less. Meanwhile, and while these events were fermenting beneath the apparently passive exterior of native life in the colony, affairs at the heart of the British South Africa Company would soon advance the potential for the success of a native rebellion far more effectively than the natives could have themselves.

The careers of both Cecil John Rhodes and Leander Star Jameson were at that time blossoming. Both men had succeeded in accumulating great wealth and power, with Jameson having occupied a country and fought and won a war, and Rhodes now prime Minister of the Cape, the effective committee chairman of the new colony of Rhodesia and concessionaire for territories ranging as far north as the Congo Freestate and the Great Lakes. British Imperial influence throughout the region was almost absolute with the exception of the independent Boer republics of Transvaal and Orange Freestate. This fact irrigated Rhodes, who at 43 years old had made enormous strides towards his goal of a through route from the Cape to Cairo, but with failing health he felt quite reasonably that time was running out. Added to this both he and Jameson were brimming with self confidence, and inclined to recognise no practical imitations on either their ability or right to perpetrate acts of imperial filibuster. Rhodes had nurtured his grand imperial vision, and yet South Africa itself was still disunited. Like the amaNdebele, the Boer were, by their hostility to British destiny, and the advantages of it to them, inviting coercive tactics, and like the amaNdebele, they would doubtless appreciate its value once it had been forced upon them.

Manifestly the Boer did not share this view. Generations of mistrust and incompatible political objectives had bred a deep rooted antipathy between the two white races, which was felt perhaps most keenly by the Boer who had repeatedly found themselves on the losing end of British imperial diplomacy. Matters had been aggravated by the discovery of gold alongside earlier discoveries of diamonds, which had brought flooding into the Transvaal prospectors and fortune seekers who, although contributing magnificently to the Transvaal treasury, soon began to outnumber the Boer, and as demands for political parity began to be made it became clear to the Boer that they were in danger of losing their control over the instruments of government.

It was this situation that Rhodes sensed might be the key to tipping the balance of power and ushering out the conservative Boer minority and ushering in a government of mercantile interests that could be relied upon to be a great deal more sympathetic to British, and in particular Rhodes’ local political and territorial ambitions. To this end a plan was devised by Rhodes and his inner circle of confidants and advisors to create the conditions for an uprising in the Transvaal that would be assisted by a sharp injection of outside force to, it was hoped, quickly and cleanly effect a change of government before anybody knew what had happened.

Many people where included in the planning of this, including many influential figures in the current ruling establishment, but the central figure was Jameson who’s role it would be to muster a force of men on the borders of Bechuanaland to mount a lighting raid on Johannesburg at a signal that the rising had begun. From the onset the planning of the affair was rather inexpertly handled, besides which political agitation among an otherwise extremely well fed body of Transvaal miners and businessmen had within it the potential to be much less than a revolution. So badly, however, did Jameson want the affair to go ahead, and so urgently did he seek and desire the personal glory that would follow, he tended to ignore that the fact that events on the ground were all pointing towards a high risk of failure.

Gathered in the border settlement of Pitsani with some 400 men of the Mashonaland Mounted and Bechuanaland Border Police Jameson received a flurry of contradictory communication before he ordered the cable lines cut and spurred his men forward towards Johannesburg. Predictably, with a highly porous intelligence system and generally insecure communications, the Boer were informed in advance and prepared for the raid. Alongside this the expected apathy among the Uitlander snuffed out any enthusiasm for bloodshed the moment that it became imminent, and Jameson and his 400 hundred rode into a series of Boer ambushes that very quickly arrested their advance. The force was surrounded within sight of the mine-heads of Johannesburg and surrendered itself to Boer Commander Piet Cronjé before being escorted to detention in Pretoria. Jameson and his men then faced execution, and Rhodes the ruin of all that he had spend his fragile life in pursuit of.

In due course it was agreed that Jameson and the raiders would be extradited to Britain, and there to stand trial, which saved a majority of their lives, but most importantly removed in one action almost the entire armed capacity of the British South Africa Company from the colony of Rhodesia. The potential ramifications of this were not immediately obvious to the settlers, so preoccupied where they with the high drama of the situation, but the fact was immediately taken note of by the amaNdebele. There were now less than 50 European mounted police in the whole territory, the whites had revealed themselves to be vulnerable, and the moment had come to strike.


[1] Storry, J.G. The Shattered Nation, (Howard Timmins, Cape Town, 1974) p130

[2] Storry, J.G. The Shattered Nation, (Howard Timmins, Cape Town, 1974) p123

[3] O’Reilly, John. Pursuit of the King, (Books of Rhodesia, Bulawayo 1970) p15

[4] Storry, J.G. The Shattered Nation, (Howard Timmins, Cape Town, 1974) p136

[5] Storry, J.G. The Shattered Nation, (Howard Timmins, Cape Town, 1974) p146

 

[vi] Storry, J.G. The Shattered Nation, (Howard Timmins, Cape Town, 1974) p147

[vii] Davidson, Appolon, Cecil Rhodes and his Time, (Progress Publishers 1988, Moscow) p233

[viii] Davidson, Appolon, Cecil Rhodes and his Time, (Progress Publishers 1988, Moscow) p233/4

[ix] Davidson, Appolon, Cecil Rhodes and his Time, (Progress Publishers 1988, Moscow) p234

[x] Blake, Robert, A History of Rhodesia, (Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1978), p115/6

[xi] Summers, Carol. From Civilization to Segregation; Social Ideals and Social Control in Southern Rhodesia, 1890-1934. (Ohio University Press, Athena Ohio, 1994) p42

[xii] Blake, Robert, A History of Rhodesia, (Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1978), p117

[xiii] Blake, Robert, A History of Rhodesia, (Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1978), p118

[xiv] Baden-Powell, Maj. Gen. R.S.S. Matabeleland Campaign: Being a Narrative of the Campaign in Suppressing the Native Rising In Matabeleland and Mashonaland. (Methuen & Co, London, 1900) p14

[xv] Selous, Frederick Courtney. Sunshine and Storm in Rhodesia, (Rowland Ward & Co, London 1896), p15

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