The Matabele Wars - British Empire 1815-1914

British Empire
1815-1914
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The Matabele Wars

Matabeleland north of the Transvaal
Matabeleland and the Rudd Concession
 
When gold was discovered on the Rand in 1886 it produced a flurry of speculation about the possibility of gold being found north of the Limpopo, in Matabeleland. The explorer Mauch had speculated about this area being home to Ophir in 1871 and in the mid 1870s and 1880s further explorers including Frederick Selous gave validity to this view. Rider Haggard made Selous the model for his hero, Allain Quartermain, in King Soloman’s Mines published in 1885. This bestselling novel gave the legend further credibility.

 
The possibility of gold further north attracted President Kruger of the Transvaal and Rhodes, the diamond magnate from Kimberley in Cape Colony. There was though one major obstacle to a gold rush into this region. The land was the land of the Ndebele otherwise known as the Matabele. The king at the time of the gold speculation in the 1880s was Lobengula and he had an army of 15,000 to defend his kingdom. The Matabele were a warlike people who were feared throughout the region by less warlike tribes like the Tswana and the Shona.
Rider Haggard's book on 'King Solomon's Mines' helped spread the legend of gold in Matabeleland
Anyone who crossed Lobengula did so at their peril
Lobengula was vigilant about who entered into his territory. There were border points defended by his army and the number of whites allowed into Matabeleland was strictly controlled. A few missionaries were allowed in as were some hunters for limited periods as long as they were in small groups. Visitors were made to realise that they were there on sufferance and if anything untoward happened such as visiting an area for which they had no permission there could be tragic consequences. Lobengula was unpredictable, cruel and fearful of white encroachment. Anyone crossing him did so at their peril.
Lobengula, chief of the Ndebele
The arrival of Europeans in Matabeleland
In 1887 a number of Europeans representing various groups or countries seeking concessions to search for gold or minerals from Lobengula began arriving at Lobengula’s capital of Bulawayo. They might be made to wait for weeks or months for an audience and most left empty handed even after presenting Lobengula with an array of presents.

Eventually British officials realised they needed to do what was necessary to secure British interests in the area and so John Moffat, a former missionary and son of the famous missionary Robert Moffatt, was sent to Bulawayo at the end of 1887. Moffatt spoke the local languages and the family connection meant that he was trusted by Lobengula and agreed quickly a treaty with Moffatt on behalf of the British government. By the treaty, signed in February 1887,  Lobengula agreed that Matabeleland lay within the British sphere of interest and that he would not enter into any treaty or agreement with any other body or country without Britain’s agreement.

With Zambesia secure as a British sphere of interest Rhodes set about persuading Lobengula to grant his company the right to search for minerals. To do this Rhodes would have to get to Lobengula before any of the other British groups. Rhodes despatched to Bulawayo a party containing among others his trusted partner Charles Rudd. After a three week journey they arrived in Bulawayo in September 1888, ahead of the main opposition group, the Exploring Company represented by Edward Maund, a former army officer.

Also staying in Bulawayo at the time was Robert Moffatt and a missionary from the London Missionary Society, Charles Helm who acted as Lobengula’s interpreter and was definitely in the Rhodes camp. Arriving a few weeks later was Shippard who was the most senior British official in Bechuanaland and who was in doubt who he favoured for a concession – Rhodes.

Following consultation with his indunas, Logengula summoned Rudd and his party. After some prevarication by Lobengula he asked for the concession document from Helm and signed it. The concession granted to Rhodes on that day 30 October, 1888 acknowledged Lobengula as King of Matabeleland and Mashonaland and granted to Rudd, Maguire and Thompson the rights over all metals and minerals within the kingdom. In return Rudd promised to pay Lobengula £100 a month and to give him 1,000 modern rifles with 100,000 rounds of ammunition. What was not included was a promise made by Rudd that there would be at no time more than ten white men in the territory and they would abide by the laws of the Matabele.

The agreement was flawed and later to be found illegal. Both Cape law and international law at the time forbade the sale of guns to Africans living outside the Cape Colony. Moreover the transportation of arms was also illegal. Yet if these arms were not delivered, the treaty was invalid.

The British South Africa Company
The concession that Rhodes got from Lobengula was for him just the beginning. He had had for several years the idea of creating a chartered company which would be based on the East India Company and be responsible for the administration of such territories as the government made the company responsible for. Rhodes shared the idea with Robinson, the Cape Governor, who was fully supportive. Robinson shared the idea with the Colonial Secretary who expressed full support, saying such a company could extend British interests in a way that would not alienate Afrikaner interests, as would happen if the Imperial authorities became involved. Once the concession had been granted Rhodes would move ahead with his project.

Rhodes' ideas for a chartered company though met with resistance not just from Lobengula, who now realised that he had been misled by Rhodes, but also by many different groups supporting the  position of native peoples. At the beginning of 1889 Lobengula sent representatives to London to petition for Rhodes to have his idea for a private company rejected by the government.

The arrival of Lobengula’s representatives in London in February caused a sensation in London. They were granted an audience with Victoria and delivered their message. They had support from John Mackenzie who was mobilising the missionary network against Rhodes and the Aborigines Protection Society. The South Africa Committee also opposed Rhodes, arguing in favour of establishing a trusteeship in Africa. Among its supporters were Joseph Chamberlain and WT Stead. Another opponent was Fred Selous who argued that Mashonaland was not Lobengula’s to give to Rudd.
Rhodes, once he had arrived in London, brought all the charm he had to bear on the British establishment picking off the South Africa Committee one by one. Lord Grey accepted a tranche of shares and a position on the board of the proposed company whilst RW Thompson, secretary of the London Missionary Society was promised official backing in his work in Matabeleland. Stead, eventually agreed to accept £2,000 to settle a debt he had with the promise of an additional gift of £20,000 to the Pall Mall Gazette, the magazine he edited. Rhodes already had the support of the Irish MPS in Parliament because of a previous commitment to give Parnell the sum of £5,000 with a second instalment of £5,000 to come at a later date.

Salisbury, the Prime Minister, eventually concluded that to grant the charter was the cheapest way of extending British influence in that part of the world. On 10 July the cabinet approved the creation of the company and Rhodes returned to South Africa. The formal grant came from Victoria in October later in the year and gave the company powers akin to that of a government.

Whereas the Rudd Concession gave no more than the rights to mine metals and minerals, the charter gave the British South Africa Company (BSAC) the power to build roads, railways, telegraphs, establish banking, award land grants, negotiate treaties, make laws, raise a company police force and promote immigration. The company was backed by funds amounting to £700,000 with all Rhodes’ supporters in South Africa having shares. The shares were not offered to the public but to friends at par cost.
Charles Rudd
Rhodes gains a concession
 
The concession that Rhodes got from Lobengula was for him just the beginning. He had had for several years the idea of creating a chartered company which would be based on the East India Company and be responsible for the administration of such territories as the government made the company responsible for. Rhodes shared the idea with Robinson, the Cape Governor, who was fully supportive. Robinson shared the idea with the Colonial Secretary who expressed full support, saying such a company could extend British interests in a way that would not alienate Afrikaner interests, as would happen if the Imperial authorities became involved. Once the concession had been granted Rhodes would move ahead with his project.
Rhodes' ideas for a chartered company though met with resistance not just from Lobengula, who now realised that he had been misled by Rhodes, but also by many different groups supporting the  position of native peoples. At the beginning of 1889 Lobengula sent representatives to London to petition for Rhodes to have his idea for a private company rejected by the government.

Lobengula's representatives arrive in London to petition Victoria
The arrival of Lobengula’s representatives in London in February caused a sensation in London. They were granted an audience with Victoria and delivered their message. They had support from John Mackenzie who was mobilising the missionary network against Rhodes and the Aborigines Protection Society. The South Africa Committee also opposed Rhodes, arguing in favour of establishing a trusteeship in Africa. Among its supporters were Joseph Chamberlain and WT Stead. Another opponent was Fred Selous who argued that Mashonaland was not Lobengula’s to give to Rudd.

Rhodes, once he had arrived in London, brought all the charm he had to bear on the British establishment picking off the South Africa Committee one by one. Lord Grey accepted a tranche of shares and a position on the board of the proposed company whilst RW Thompson, secretary of the London Missionary Society was promised official backing in his work in Matabeleland. Stead, eventually agreed to accept £2,000 to settle a debt he had with the promise of an additional gift of £20,000 to the Pall Mall Gazette, the magazine he edited. Rhodes already had the support of the Irish MPS in Parliament because of a previous commitment to give Parnell the sum of £5,000 with a second instalment of £5,000 to come at a later date.

The government approves the charter
Salisbury, the Prime Minister, eventually concluded that to grant the charter was the cheapest way of extending British influence in that part of the world. On 10 July the cabinet approved the creation of the company and Rhodes returned to South Africa. The formal grant came from Victoria in October later in the year and gave the company powers akin to that of a government.

Whereas the Rudd Concession gave no more than the rights to mine metals and minerals, the charter gave the British South Africa Company (BSAC) the power to build roads, railways, telegraphs, establish banking, award land grants, negotiate treaties, make laws, raise a company police force and promote immigration. The company was backed by funds amounting to £700,000 with all Rhodes’ supporters in South Africa having shares. The shares were not offered to the public but to friends at par cost.
The Pioneer Column
Having got his charter Rhodes decided Rhodes to adopt a plan to settle pioneers in the land north of Matabeleland – in Mashonaland. He drew up a contract with Frank Johnson to recruit 120 miners who would then be escorted by armed police to Mashonaland. The plan was approved by the new British High Commissioner, Henry Loch, but the Colonial Office was hesitant not wanting war on their hands. Eventually Lobengula gave his permission for the expedition to skirt his lands.

Adverts were placed in Cape newspapers and thousands applied. Those chosen had to be of British and Afrikaner stock and be sons of the leading families in the colony. To those chosen Rhodes added a list of his own young men and paid for them with a cheque of £6,000. This group came to be known as ‘Rhodes’ Angels’.

The base camp for the expedition was set up at Camp Cecil in northern Bechuanaland and each recruit was provided with a uniform and weapon together with 37p a day. Miners were  promised fifteen mining claims and 3000 acres of land. On 27 June 1890 the column moved out of their camp and headed east for the Matabeleland border. There were 186 volunteers and 19 civilians with a paramilitary force of about 500, BSAC police. They had field guns, machine guns and a portable searchlight. Among them were Jameson and Fred Selous. Loch despatched a message to Lobengula to say that the column came as friends – he was not fooled. The column crossed the Tuli river on 6 July and after crossing the low veld of the Limpopo valley climbed into the open grasslands of Mashonaland. On 12 September after a journey of 360 miles the expedition reached Mount Hampden, their destination and founded Fort Salisbury. Three cheers were said for the Queen in a ceremony before on 30 September the pioneers left to stake their claims for gold and establish their 3,000 acre farms.

Hearing the news of the expedition Rhodes was exultant for he believed that the pioneers now occupied the richest gold fields in the world. His agents now began to fan out all over the territories north, east and west of Mashonaland to get local tribal chiefs to sign away mineral and land rights to the company. Among the territories acquired were Barotse  (part of present day Zambia), and parts of Angola, and Portuguese land in east Africa. At this time Rhodes commanded lands stretching from the Indian Ocean to within 200 miles of the Atlantic coast and from the Limpopo to the African lakes. His efforts to go further were to come to a halt though very quickly. Although Rhodes had a stake in the African Lakes Company, it was the presence of Scottish missionaries in the company that prevented Rhodes expansion here and Salisbury declared Nyasaland a protectorate. His efforts to extend into Angola were thwarted by King Leopold of Belgium and although groups of his company police had routed Portuguese forces they came across, in 1892 Britain, Portugal, Belgium and Germany agreed on the borders of their respective colonies. However Rhodes had added 440,000 square miles to the British Empire.
The route of the pioneers
Matabeleland wanted by Rhodes
Within a year of the Pioneer Column having arrived in Mashonaland to establish farms and claims for gold, Rhodes was receiving complaints about the desolate life the pioneers were leading. In October 1891 Rhodes entered his country for the first time. As his group made their way from Beira through Mashonaland to Fort Salisbury, they wondered at the fertile land, the healthy climate and the gardens of fruit and vegetables that the Mashona had laid out. The settlement of Fort Salisbury by contrast was just a ramshackle array of iron huts in a squalid mess.
The pioneers raise a flag at the site of the settlement they established and named Salisbury
The moment he arrived, Rhodes was besieged by deputations of settlers complaining about the cost of goods, the mining tax of 50% levied on them, the unfair privileges of the elite. Arriving at the same time as Rhodes in Fort Salisbury was Lord Randolph Churchill and his mining expert, Perkins who very quickly came to the conclusion that the land the settlers occupied had little to offer. “It cannot be denied that the high hopes which were entertained..... as to the great mineral or agricultural wealth of Mashonaland have not hitherto been justified or nearly justified...Mashonaland so far as is known, and much is known, is neither an Arcadia nor an El Dorado”

Little of the dire straits in which the settlers found themselves was communicated to the public or indeed the real state of the BSA Company. At the second annual meeting of the Company Rhodes told the shareholders that he was on the most friendly relations with Lobengula who received £100 a month in sovereigns and gave no trouble.
War with the Matabele

The reality was that the capital of the Company was exhausted and its bankers were only honouring with guarantees. Moreover Rhodes regarded war with the Matabele as inevitable – the problem was he had little money to fight a war. Once Rhodes realised that Mashonaland was not the El Dorado that he had promised, he knew settlers would begin to look at Matabeleland believing that it would offer what Mashonaland had not.

Lobengula as the tribal head did not want war with the whites as he knew the devastating power they had. He gave his impis orders that they were not to touch white men or women, although he gave the authority for them to make raids on the Shona. War between the BSAC Company and the Matabele was inevitable, and given the way the British press portrayed the Matabeleland, almost expected in England.

War against Lobengula and the Ndebele
In June 1893 Lobengula sent a warrior group to the Fort Victoria area to punish a Shona chief for allowing his people to steal Matabele cattle. Lobengula sent messages to Capt Lendy at Fort Victoria saying that he had no warlike intentions towards the whites, although whites were asked to give up any Shona if asked to by the Matabele. Lobengula’s forces laid waste to several Shona villages in the area, killing a number of their inhabitants. Rhodes was concerned that this would affect the Company’s ability to protect the Shona who worked as labourers on many of the settlers’ farms. A mass meeting in Fort Salisbury called for Company action and Jameson, the Company man in Salisbury took action.

Jameson summoned Matabele commanders to Salisbury and warned them about their actions. Their response was that Lobengula had never ceded any rights to settlement, only the right to dig for minerals, and that the Matabele had every right to assert their authority over the Shona who owed allegiance to the Matabele. Jameson gave the warriors an hour to clear the region and then an hour later sent Captain Lendy to check on the situation with 40 armed men. Lendy’s party came across a group of Matabele who offered no resistance. Despite this Lendy ordered his men to open fire resulting in the deaths of 10 natives. Jameson, believing that the Matabele could be easily defeated, now decided to take further action. He asked the Boers in the camp how many it would take to defeat the Matabele nation and then got the authority from Rhodes he needed.

Rhodes raised the required money by selling £50,000 worth of shares and horses and volunteers were bought and recruited with the promise of land grants in Matabeleland. Jameson needed an excuse for war and this was provided with false reports of Matabele manoeuvres. Lobengula realised war was close. He wanted no more of what he regarded as the blood money payments of £100. Jameson created a situation in which blacks from the Cape were dressed up in Matabele costume and sent out into the veld. At the same time new recruits were sent into the same area. Shots were fired into the air and he recruits ran back to Fort Victoria reporting on ‘Matabele’ firing on them. This was enough for Jameson.

By early October Jameson had amassed 650 volunteers and 900 Shona auxiliaries organised into two columns, one from Victoria and one from Salisbury. They advanced on Lobengula’s stronghold at Bulawayo with field guns, five Maxim machine guns and modern rifles. They linked up and advanced towards Bulawayo. On the south bank of the Shangani River they found themselves surrounded by 5,000 Matabele warriors. The Matabele had no answer to the Maxim gun which was used to devastating effect. 500 Matabele were killed and they withdrew. At the next battle the result was the same. Total Matabele losses were 3,000 with just one white killed. The rifles Lobengula had acquired from Rudd proved useless without the training required for their use. Lobengula ordered the destruction of his capital and then the remnants of his people fled north to the hills. Addressing his men, Lobengula said, “ The white men will never cease following us while we have gold in our possession, for gold is what the white men prize above all things. Collect now all my gold and carry it to the white men. Tell them they have beaten my regiments, killed my people, burn my kraals, captured my cattle, and that I want peace”.

Rhodes arrived in Bulawayo in December and ordered Jameson to establish a ‘Loot Committee’ to organise the round up of Matabele cattle and its distribution. The land around the capital was pegged out as white farmland. The following year the British government recognised the BSAC’s jurisdiction over the land and left Rhodes to rule there. In a visit to England the same year he visited Queen Victoria to whom he said that he was “doing his best to enlarge Your Majesty’s dominions”. Since they had last met he said that he had added 12,000 square miles of territory.

Africa was now Rhodes’ main focus. He persuaded the Cape Parliament to incorporate Bechuanaland Crown Colony but was less successful with the Protectorate being forced to accept a compromise settlement as a result of the opposition from within the territory by local chiefs and from the Colonial Office that had received a number of petitions from church and welfare organisations. Colonial protection continued for most of the protectorate but a strip of territory close to the border with the Transvaal was handed over to the Company. Rhodes was furious at the decision and revealed his innermost feelings about natives when he said,  ”It is humiliating to be beaten by three niggers” [the local chiefs who had come to London]. “They think more of one native at home than the whole of South Africa”. Rhodes had however secured territory that lay just 170 miles from Johannesburg.
Using the Vickers gun for the first time in the 1893 Matabele War
The Matabele and Mashona rebel
The Ndebele had lost their tribal structure after 1893 but still retained the weapons that had been given to Lobengula as part of the Rudd concession agreement. Following Lobengula’s defeat in 1893 the cattle of the Ndebele had been looted and distributed amongst white farmers and they had been driven off their land after the British had authorised the Company’s takeover of Matabeleland in 1894. The Ndebele now were forced to sell their labour to the white farmers and this once proud warrior race felt humiliated. With a herd of just 40,000 cattle where once they had 300,000, the Ndebele wanted revenge on the British who had forced a treaty on them which they renounced and then contrived to destroy them in war. With Jameson withdrawing virtually all his police for the Raid into the Transvaal, the 5,000 white settler population were defenceless.
British South Africa Company police
Within a week of the first attack on March 23, 140 white men, women and children had been killed. The attacks were launched with a ferocity that took the settlers by surprise and they decided to head to the nearest of the two towns in Matabeleland, Gwelo or Bulawayo, which became virtual laagers with rows of wagons with the corners defended with Maxim guns. Once these strong defences had been set up the settles sent out patrols to find missing setters and to test the military skills of the Ndebele. The Ndebele though had learnt from their defeats in 1893 and now adopted guerrilla warfare – only attacking the settlers when it suited them and remaining hidden otherwise.
By mid-April the Ndebele still controlled the countryside and the settlers were holed up in the two towns. By now the Imperial government had sent Imperial troops which helped to turn the tide. Rhodes was enjoying his first military experience and had himself made up to the rank of Colonel and was directing the defence of Gwelo. Rhodes had never given the impression that he was anything but a coward as far as fighting was concerned but he seemed to revel in confronting the enemy when he had the chance. He rode into battle with his white, dirty cricket flannels oblivious of the target he presented and seeming to court death. Was he seeking a glorious end to his life in order to salvage his reputation?
Rhodes discusses peace terms with the Ndebele
The Shona rise up
On May 19, Rhodes’ column linked up with a column from Bulawayo and together they defeated a Matabele force at the Umguza river. Five days later Major Plumer relieved Bulawayo with a force made up of regulars and irregulars. Several weeks later before the settlers were able to capitalise on these victories the Shona had themselves risen up and within a week had killed every settler within an 80 mile radius of Salisbury. The Shona too had had their land and cattle taken and had to sell their labour. The Company had always portrayed themselves as the liberators of the Shona –the uprising gave the lie to this claim and weakened the Company’s claim to legitimacy in London. Rhodes had previously taken away 150 from Salisbury to help with the Ndebele uprising and now Rhodes had to face the wrath of those living in Salisbury.

It was necessary to secure a quick victory but the Ndebele retired to the Matopos Hills - a mountain stronghold for them. To flush them out would have required a large army for which the Company did not have the funds. The Ndebele had 10,000 men guarding the hills and General Carrington lost 1,000 men in his early efforts to break the Ndebele hold of the hills. A drawn out campaign would have bankrupted the Company and so Rhodes sought a peaceful solution to the problem of the Ndebele. It was the thought of one biographer, Antony Thomas that the real reason that Rhodes sought peace was that on the occasion of a battle fought in the Mambo Hills, a body of a white man killed in the fighting was being carried back on a horse, when the body slipped off the horse and Rhodes caught sight of the pained expression on the dead man’s face. Whatever the reason Rhodes was determined to bring an end to the fighting.

Rhodes arranges a peace treaty
With the help of Johnny Grootboom, a Thembu from the Cape, Rhodes made contact with the Ndebele and a meeting was organised. Rhodes and four companions travelled to meet the Ndebele leaders passing through a narrow canyon with a bluff on one side and a thickly wooded valley on the other. They arrived at the appointed place and gradually Matabele gathered on the hills surrounding the designated clearing. Somabhulana was the chosen leader and he was surrounded by forty other officers. Somabhulana rose to speak and talked of the grievances of the Matabele for two and a half hours. When he sat down Rhodes asked why they killed women and children. There was silence until the reply came ‘because you did it first.’ And then Somabhulana gave his story of the first white killings. Rhodes gave the impression of being genuinely moved and then gave a number of concessions including the disbanding of the Native Police and a promise that he would stay to oversee the promises he had given. The promises were accepted and peace was agreed to.

Rhodes and his party were overjoyed as they rode back to camp and Rhodes stayed another eight weeks during which he continued to meet with Matabele leaders and make peace with them all. At one such meeting Rhodes was confronted by an angry group of young warriors to which he responded by walking into the middle of them, beckoning them all to sit down and then listened to their grievances.During one of these trips to negotiate with the Matabele, Rhodes came across the tomb of a former chief, Mzilikazi, and was so moved by the location that he said to his young companion Gordon Le Sueur, ‘When I die I want to be buried here.’

The peace with the Matabele was perhaps Rhodes’ greatest achievement and revealed a leadership quality he had not previously shown. The experience though did not change him. Rhodes did not keep his promise to the Matabele and he was to be as ruthless as ever in his dealing with the Shona situation. The land of the Shona was flat and difficult to defend and Rhodes had no hesitation in sending in military forces with sufficient Maxim guns and dynamite (for caves) to destroy Shona villages.

Following the defeat of the Matabele and the return of Company police to the territory, Rhodes travelled to Salisbury to meet with Mashonaland whites who blamed him for leaving the country defenceless during the Shona rebellion. Rhodes met with a deputation and he listened to each delegate air his grievances. Rhodes took copious notes without saying a word and gradually during his silence the settlers lost their nerve in the presence of the ‘great’ man. After the settlers had aired their grievances, Rhodes dealt with each one in turn, point by point, with the settlers listening in awe. They left the meeting having gained nothing.

On his journey back to Cape Town he was welcomed wherever he stopped by huge crowds. In Port Elizabeth forty old Rhodesians unhitched the horses from his carriage and drew him through the streets and then at every station between there and Cape Town crowds turned out in force.
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