Crossing the Limpopo

For the victorious Boer horsemen the sight of the amNdebele streaming north through the mountain passes of the Dwarsberg must have carried with it more than a sense of simple satisfaction. In the tradition of conquest and counter conquest theirs was now the principal claim to a fine country, and the greatest obstacle standing in its way had been broken and cast asunder. This was manifest destiny. The future of their race and the fulfilment of a cherished aspiration seemed secure.

It is also true that there would have been few among those who watched the evacuation that would not have been impressed by what they saw. The retreat was total, and the defeat absolute, but the amaNdebele were no fleeing rabble. First a wave of non-combatants began to make its way north in good order. These were the women, children and the elderly, followed by what cattle and livestock had been salvaged, supported on their flanks by a substantial militia, and all commanded by a senior Induna by the name of Gudweni Ndliweni. Behind Gudweni, separated by no more than a few hours, followed the bulk of the armed forces under the direct command of Mzilikazi himself.

At 47 years old Mzilikazi had for some time played a very limited role in active campaigning, but his physical capacity must still have been great as he embraced the command of this difficult situation. However, be it for a lack of communication or as part of a specific policy, the two groups failed to link up. Mzilikazi veered west and led his division into Bechuanaland while Gudweni and his division continued northeast through the land of earlier amaNdebele occupation, and over the course of weeks across the Zoutpansberg Mountains and on to the well-watered country north of the Limpopo River. They continued on until a settlement was chosen a little north of present day Bulawayo. This was near a conical hill named Intaba-ye-zinduna where a preliminary settlement called Gibixhegu was sited.

In the meanwhile Mzilikazi led his group, composed almost entirely of fighting men, deep into Bechuanaland. This was an epic passage that features large in the amaNdebele mythology of war and exodus. The route skirted the eastern fringes of the Kalahari Desert where the tried and tested mobile survival tactic was employed, and raids were conducted against all and any who happened into the path of the surging impi. In due course the amaNdebele wandered into lands unoccupied by any other than Bushmen and nomadic groups of Tswana hunter/gatherers. There was no one to fight and nothing to plunder, and the means of survival was reduced to foraging for edible roots, bulbs and berries, and hording precious water in disused ostrich eggs.

For all involved this was period of arduous struggle, and a test for every man, including Mzilikazi, whose physical capacity, that which Robert Moffat had noticed on his last visit had been visibly reduced, returned. With his innately spartan view of life it is possible that Mzilikazi exulted in this period. It is easy to imagine that from it he sought not only a homeland beyond the influence of the white man, but also a penance for defeat, and perhaps even a period of asceticism and self-cleansing. If this were so it would explain why Mzilikazi did not immediately seek to reunite with his estranged nation, even though he would have known more or less where they were, as they most likely knew in general terms where he was. It is possible also that, once satisfied that his people were safely settled in a land of reasonable plenty, that he and his division would exhaust all possibilities of finding somewhere better before reuniting his people.

In due course the wandering impi met up with the Makololo, an offshoot of the Batlokoa people of Mantatisi, seeded in Bechuanaland during the Mfecane, and thereafter pushed further north as part of the upheavals of amaNdebele occupation. Under their chief Sebituane the Makololo had settled on the upper Zambezi where it seems that some sort of a confrontation took place which, combined with the tsetse fly of the Zambezi Valley, finally turned the amaNdebele and set them on a course for the south, and at last a rendezvous with their estranged kinsmen. It is uncertain how long the two groups remained separated, and also the degree, if any, of communication that had passed between them during that period, but Mzilikazi was appalled at the state of affairs at Gibixhegu when the rendezvous was finally made.

It quickly became apparent to him that in his absence moves had been underway to replace him. His response to this state of affairs is strongly suggestive of the fact that it did not come about as a consequence of a genuine belief among his people that he and his impi had died in the wilderness, but more that advantage was taken of his absence by those with an interest in a realignment of power in the nation. Many examinations have been made of this event, and the ramifications that followed, but without clear records it is hard to pinpoint precisely where the roots of treason lay. However Mzilikazi promptly identified all those that had been involved, and many who simply might have been involved, and executed them all. This was followed by the more clinical selection of many others that posed the greatest potential threat to the stability of his rule who were also killed.

During the long separation of the two groups it seems that the senior Indunas present at Gibixhegu, with the possible exception of uMncumbata, whose whereabouts at this time are not clear, had elected to replace Mzilikazi by his son nKulumane. This suggests that the source of the conspiracy to unseat Mzilikazi was one or other of his senior wives, most notably the mother of nKulumane, who, if not directly serving as regent during the minority of the child, would at the very least be able to exercise enough influence to prevent Mzilikazi’s return before the boy came of age, and perhaps even orchestrate his death or exile.

However the scheme was devised, and whatever might have been its motivation, it was an injustice to the child who, upon the likely failure of the plot, could expect to be promptly executed, which was indeed what happened. This was ordered by Mzilikazi, and conducted according to the understanding that no royal blood be spilled. The prince, who was at that time aged between 13 and 15, was either garrotted or his neck was broken. The same fate was also ordained for other princes, the first of which, uBuhhlelo, was executed in a similar manner, although the youngest, Lobengula, was secreted away by the Induna Gwabalanda, who hid the child, and at enormous risk reported back to Mzilikazi that he too had been executed. In the meanwhile the bloodletting continued with the execution of the mothers of the three boys, which tends to add credence to their involvement ion a conspiracy.

The reasons for such a sweeping and demonstrative response to any threat to Mzilikazi’s leadership, although clearly unjust to the many who had remained loyal, and had acted perhaps on a justifiable need for defined leadership in difficult circumstances, are clear in the context of the times, and certainly in the light of Mzilikazi’s style of leadership itself. The amaNdebele at that time were made up of a heterogeneous mixture of peoples whose bonds of mutual loyalty, although apparently firm, had never been truly tested. The exodus and division had been traumatic with bonds of loyalty stretched to a breaking point. If even the merest germ of divided loyalty had been allowed to take root in the soil of their new home the cohesion of the amaNdebele could not long hope to survive. Both clan and individual survival depended on strong and decisive leadership, and as unfairly as this may have fallen on otherwise loyal subjects, dedication to the common goal of national survival superseded any individual rights. It was this that was sought, and once achieved Mzilikazi relaxed and applied himself then to the healing of his shattered nation.

The fate of nKulumane, meanwhile, and the events that followed Mzilikazi’s execution order, although apparently resolved at that time, did not in fact conclude with this affair, but re-emerged later and remained one of the great mysteries of amaNdebele mythology. The momentum of controversy has persisted only because, upon the death of Mzilikazi, and as the question of succession was pondered, an unexpected voice from Natal, that of a certain individual named Kanda, claimed to be, if not nKulumane himself, then at least a son of Mzilikazi. The story was then circulated that the Induna uMncumbata intervened during the bloody events of the reunification and secreted the boy to Natal where he was placed under the care of Natal colonial administrator Theophilus Shepstone. The potential that nKulumane did indeed survive the wrath of his father does exist, but a far greater likelihood is that he did not. What is certain, however, is that Mzilikazi youngest potential heir Lobengula did survive, and was at a later date re-introduced to his father, who appeared by then more tranquil and forgiving, after which Lobengula became something of a favoured son.

Mzilikazi in the meanwhile put the unpalatable events of the reunification behind him and set about rebuilding the nation. By then both he and his people had established a custom of consolidation that involved the defensive positioning of military kraals and the creation of pacified zones some 150 miles wide in every direction. Thereafter the amaNdebele settled into the by then well established routine of cattle husbandry and predatory attacks on their less warlike neighbours. The latter involved a preliminary reconnaissance of the human landscape before the potential strength and wealth of the inhabitants of the country were gauged. The new country inhabited by the amaNdebele was not utterly unknown, and had been a peripheral raiding ground in the past, although not in the wholesale manner now planned.

What the amaNdebele found on the central plateau and in the regions surrounding their current settlements was an inter-related language group that they named the Mashona, or aMaTswina. The latter reference literally refers to the Tswana word ‘letsine’, which is a liquid strained from a mixture such as fermented beer, but was adapted by the amaNdebele to mean dirt, and in some instances shit.[i]

The Mashona are a difficult to define grouping made up of similarly mixed origins, with in combination something of great empire to reflect back upon. The disunited body of small political units that the amaNdebele discovered waiting for their spear did not necessarily define the Mashona of old, and certainly these were a race of people deserving of more than a nomenclature of shit! And yet that is how the amaNdebele viewed them, and not only the amaNdebele but many other sundry travellers in the region, the salient among them being those Victorian hunters and explorers who also had nothing but the present with which to judge a once great people.

A factual examination of the tribes of the central plateau, known collectively as Mashona, either in isolation or as a group, blunders into territory both rich with political interpretation and impoverished of fact. The arrival of white colonists in the late 19th century represented the first opportunity for a systematic anthropological examination of the Mashona, and even then this was conducted with many pre-conceptions. Often it was documented as a thinly veiled attempt by early missionaries to define and justify their own turf wars, and later to support African history as it was written by white historians for white consumption.

Like the amaNdebele themselves, the peoples of the central plateau are Bantu in origin, and have been in occupation of the central plateau since more or less the 11th century. By the mid-19th century when the amaNdebele arrived in the territory to occupy the south-western extremities of the plateau, Mashona political organisation was fractured, although in the centuries prior to this several large and unified political grouping had at various times held sway over the landscape. The best known of these was that which greeted early Portuguese explorers and traders who began to appear in the late 15th and early 16th centuries. The Mutapa, or Mwane Mutapa Empire was founded in the early 15th century and centred largely around the Karanga division of the Mashona language group (modern Mashona historian reject the use of the term ‘tribe’ or ‘clan’ leaving little scope to describe the sub-divisions other than as sub-divisions). The Empire of the Mutapa at its pinnacle controlled territory covering most of modern day Zimbabwe and Mozambique more or less between the Zambezi and Sabi (Save) Rivers. It was the first major civilisation to become established in the territory, and the great wealth and sophistication achieved by its leaders and aristocrats came as a consequence of trade in gold, ivory and other primary materials with Arab/Swahili traders at the coast, and later the Portuguese.

In about 1490 the empire split into two parts with the Changamire dynasty ruling in the south and the Mwane Mutapa holding sway in the north. Great wealth from trade with the coast was circulating within both economies, centred in the south on the city of Great Zimbabwe. However after 1500 the power of these entities peaked and began to decline until by the mid 18th century the ‘empire’ was largely controlled by the Portuguese. The movement north of the Nguni armies of the Shangaan and the Ngoni that had sheared off their parents groups as a consequence of the rise of Zulu, introduced a level of violence onto the central plateau that had hitherto never been seen. First came the Ngoni on their turbulent march north, followed later by the Shangaan who settled on east side of the highland escarpment, occupying territory from eastern Zimbabwe almost to the outskirts of present day Maputo. By the time the amaNdebele made their claim to the territory there was little apparent glory left among the Mashona, and certainly there seemed no reason to expect any resistance as the amaNdebele began to organise their new home. The initial attacks mounted against the Mashona villages and settles took on the by now familiar pattern.

As might be expected the Ndebele found little in Mashona life and culture that was worth preserving, and they heaped the usual derision on those they intended to use as severely as was their custom. An exception to this was in the matter of spirituality, which is an area in which the Mashona had always been extremely strong, and which even today embellishes and clouds their contemporary responses and their interpretations of any event. It was perhaps simply pragmatic that Mzilikazi, a superstitious man himself, should treat with caution anything verging on the supernatural, and at the same time see merit in seconding the powerful Mwari theocracy to himself as an additional weapon in his arsenal of government.

Mashona traditional spiritual custom is in essence a kind of agnosticism, with a general adherence to the principal of a supreme being, but with a sense also that God, or Mwari, lives in such a state of removal from the day-to-day affairs of men, and so far beyond common understanding, that routine observance is applied to spiritual entities much closer to home. These are usually tribal progenitors who are revealed to the living through oracles and mediums.

In common with cults and religions the world over certain geographic locations possess special spiritual significance. In the case of what has come to be known as the Cult of Mwari such a place is the Matopo hills situated some 20 miles south of Bulawayo. The region is an area of broken granitite kopjes and interlocking valleys of extraordinary complexity and beauty, covering some 1800 square miles, and a landscape that has held special significance to human populations far predating the relatively recent arrival of the Bantu. The vitality of an esoteric form of this cult survives to this day, in particular with regards to the Njelele Cave, which was one of several oracular caves from which the voice of ‘God’ was reputed to emanate. The word of Mwari was and is spoken through either disembodied communication or via an adept or priest going by the name of a Mlimo.[ii]

The Ndebele accepted the cult with a minimum of adaptation, but called the cult after its chief officers, the Mlimo, which was a name taken up in the vague manner of the time by incoming Europeans to describe the god-figure himself. This has tended to cause considerable confusion when examining historic literature written at the time of early European activity, and it is clear that for a long time colonial whites had no clear understand what exactly was the structure and hierarchy of black religion.

For those Mashona not protected by a close association to the theocracy, and scattered within reach of the amaNdebele impis, life took an almost immediate and undesirable turn. Most villages and settlement throughout the region had no defensive capacity, and the disunited and clan and family oriented political structure of the Mashona allowed for no mass mobilisation nor the mounting of any viable common defence. It was exactly this type of circumstance upon which Mzilikazi had built his dominance, and it seemed that he had led his people to a land ideally suited to their murderous talents.

The contempt felt by the amaNdebele for the Mashona manifest itself most noticeably in the clearly defined class system that had evolved since the removal of the original Khumalo clan from Zululand. As we have seen those at the pinnacle of this structure were the AbeZanzi, or Those of The South, who all bore Nguni names, or izibonga, and who occupied all the principal offices of administration. Into their ranks where very occasionally seconded the abeNhla into such positions as headmen, and among these were those of Sotho stock inducted into the tribe during the mid period of its existence. The latter day inductees were the lowly Mashona, who regarded almost universally as slaves, or amaHoli, and less derisively when occasion demanded as abeTshabe. These were usually the few who became recognised as junior members of the families to which they had become associated, and some might by payment of a redemption fee buy their freedom. They enjoyed no political power, despite holding a monopoly of the Mlimo theocracy, and despite the fact that large number of young men from the Mashona derivative groups were pressed into military service in amaNdebele regiments – the Mpande Regiment being one of those made up almost exclusively of young amaHoli men.[iii]

Before the amaNdebele began to reap what they had not sown, however, Mzilikazi first set about establishing the parameters of what would later come to be known as Matabeleland. The political successes achieved by both he and Shaka Zulu as more or less replicas of one another had been achieved thanks almost entirely to highly skilled organisation and structuring of the military. The striking difference between the combined peoples of the Mashona and the amaNdebele themselves was the existence of strong central authority combined with a highly disciplined, cohesive and fanatically loyal military. It was this that allowed the amaNdebele to dominate groups and peoples numerically superior to themselves, and it was on a system of decentralized military administration that the core of the nation depended. Mzilikazi therefore, despite the appearance of unlimited authority, ruled by the careful balance of military loyalty, and by acting at all times with the needs and health of his army foremost in his mind.

Mzilikazi’s long perambulation prior to his arriving in Matabeleland to join his people had left him fairly confident that his new borders were not immediately threatened by any powerful force, and the strictly defensive posture that he had devised and maintained in previous periods of settlement was not so vitally necessary here. However, defensive or otherwise, the system of military districts and military administration remained central to amaNdebele government.

The nation was therefore divided into military districts. Sufficient space existed between these that expansion could be effected with a minimum of upheaval, and sufficient distance was maintained between rival regiment that could, and occasionally did, physically express their fanatical esprit de corps with internecine violence. These districts existed under the command of a military governor who administered his territory with a limited degree of autonomy. His terms of service would depend on his favour with the king, and rewards were given for good behaviour while any suggestion of treason or infidelity would be punished in the usual way. As an added security Mzilikazi made use of his extensive seraglio of wives to keep the air tested for any hint of divided loyalty, added to which the Mwari theocracy that now ostensibly lived by the favour of the king returned the favour by remaining vigilant for signs abroad of insurrection.

The first capital of Matabeleland was established close to Intaba-ye-zinduna at a site Mzilikazi named Mahlokohloko, and here he settled some 300 of his wives alongside a regiment of the same name under the Induna Mbambelele. The country was divided into two principal sectors that included in the first instances territory stretching from the Bulalima/Mangwe district to Nyamandhlovu in the west, and in the second territory stretching as far east as present day Gweru. Later this was increased to four. Each was overseen by a principal regiment, itself commanded by a senior Induna. The country was then divided into sub-districts wherein an Induna commanded a military barracks and where a section of the royal harem resided with the responsibility of acquainting the king with any information of interest.

The boundaries of these districts were fluid, as where the areas of settlement of the regiments comprising the divisions. Each regiment was commanded by an Induna who was in turn answerable to a district governor. When a regiment was raised it was the responsibility of the regiment itself to construct its own barracks or regimental kraal where members lived until they were permitted to marry. Companies of recruits meanwhile lived in military kraals under a subordinate induna.

Inasmuch as the military underscored every aspect of amaNdebele life it was a highly organized and finely tuned institution that, although its traditions were brief, had borrowed from the Zulu that in turn had borrowed from the wider Nguni project of war. It therefore stands to reason that the organization and tactics of the amaNdebele did not differ much from the parent form. As was the case with the Zulu, and with the exception of those physically disabled, or others involved in theocratic or witchdoctor functions, every man in Matabeleland was subject to military service. This was a national policy that held permanent effect, and at any time a man was required to be ready to take to the field for any purpose. Service in the military was an unpaid function and no compensation for service or injury could be expected, although rewards of cattle were not infrequent for those who showed particular prowess or where credited with acts of extraordinary daring. Such an individual could also expect some defining mark – some extra ornament representing a badge of honour – and the status of iQawe, or hero.

In this regard, again, the Ndebele model differed very little from the Zulu. As with the Zulu, when amaNdebele regiments were mobilized for a campaign of any description they were alerted by runner from the Royal Kraal with orders to assemble at a specific point in full battle order. The ceremonial preparation for battle involved ‘doctoring’ by a witchdoctor and the ritual removal of a portion of meat from a living bull that was then eaten by the assembled impi as a means of imbibing itself with the symbolic power of the creature.

An impi was a specific battle formation that could comprise men from different regiments assembled for the purpose of a specific military objective. An impi might number several thousand men, while an individual regiment tended to number on average about 750 warriors. There were exceptions to this, of course, and some, like the celebrated Mbizo Regiment, which was the largest in the amaNdebele formation, and which enjoyed a compliment of about 900 men-at-arms. It was customary upon the formation of a regiment for an Induna to be appointed and subordinates chosen from among the promising members of the ranks. The function of the regiment was defined when it was ceremonially charged with the care of a herd of cattle belonging ostensibly to the king. These were chosen as much as was possible to correspond with the hide pattern on the shields of each individual regiment.

It was this differentiation that was used to define the colours of each individual regiment. This again owed its origins to Nguni tradition, but most specifically the tight Zulu system of regimental identity and separation. This obviously was to establish a strong identity and esprit de corps within each regiment, and also to foster the sort of healthy rivalry that would inevitably follow. This was the mark of a professional fighting force, and it was this professionalism that Mzilikazi carried with him as a mark of his Nguni origins.

The standard kit of each amaNdebele warrior consisted of two shields, a miniature for use daily as an accoutrement of dress, and another much larger version for parade purpose and practical use in battle. The job of shield cutter belonged to a specialist artisan attached to each military kraal. The product was fashioned out of rawhide cut without a pattern and fixed by a batten secured by cutting traverse slits in the shield and threading through them hide of a different colour. The shield was finished off at its top axis by the tail of an animal threaded over the shaft as a form of decoration. Rank within a regiment was defined by the amount of white on a shield, which permitted commanders to assess at a glance who in battle were the most reliable of his warriors.

As with most armies the uniforms of the amaNdebele were standardized and instantly recognizable. The uniform such as it was had evolved very little from that of the Zulu, although it had deviated enough to support a sense of unique identity among the amaNdebele men at arms. Within the general formation regimental identity was also expressed in subtle variations other than just shield colour, and quite often this would be in the headdress chosen, and within that quite often variations would be in the colour and form of decorative plumage.

The most celebrated of the amaNdebele regiments was the Mbizo, and theirs was a headdress of black ostrich feathers stitched into a net and tied around the back of the head by a leather thong. Besides this the feathers of other elaborately plumed birds might also feature. Some, such as the Isiziba Regiment, favoured the tail feathers of the African Long-tailed Shrike, others the polka dot plumage of a Guinea Fowl. Some sported the yellow feathers of a weaverbird and some the maroon wingtips of a Turaco. In the case of the King, and strictly he, the feathers of the iconic bird of the bushveld, the Lilac Breasted Roller decorated the royal headdress.

The weaponry of an average amaNdebele foot soldier were also standardized, and featured prominently the iconic broad bladed stabbing assegai of the Zulu, and which was used in precisely the same manner. To supplement these each warrior carried a variety of throwing spears, a thrusting lance, a knobkerrie and occasionally a small battle-axe. The manufacture of these weapons was a craft spread widely amongst the individual regimental headquarters, but may also have often have been contracted out to vassal groups, or formed part of the stipend owed to the amaNdebele by tribute groups.

Tactically the amaNdebele army altered the standard Zulu battle formation very little, formations which had themselves evolved under Shaka from earlier patterns of Nguni military organization. Both armies were divided into a number of corps that each consisted of several regiments that in turn were sub-divided into companies. Each corps had a commander and a number of sub-commanders. The most senior of these was the second-in-command, the commander of the left wing and two wing officers. When on the march the army or corps travelled in order of companies with its support staff and carriers on either flank, and if the army was large communications would be by runner. In close proximity to the enemy the troop formation closed up while the support formations fell back.

The established Zulu battle formation as Shaka refined it took the form of the classic horns and chest configuration. The older and more reliable warriors were placed at the chest while the horns were composed of younger and more mobile forces that could move rapidly over what was usually broken terrain to complete the encircling manoeuvre. Once completed the opposing force would be compacted and smashed by the chest. Behind the main battle formation would wait a reserve force which was often positioned to face away from the battle to help it resist the temptation to rush in and join the battle prematurely. Commanders usually selected an elevated position from where they could observe the battle and communicate with the field commanders by runner.

Psychological tactics also played an important part in the battle. The massed, uniformed ranks of highly disciplined and motivated men would present nothing if not an intimidating spectacle, but initially shields were presented edgeways to diminish the size and impact of the force. A tense silence would be deployed, sometimes the men would squat and nonchalantly whet their blades, and then as tension built they would rise, their shield would be turned to face the enemy and the silence would be broken by the uniform stamping of feet and drumming of weapons on shields. Then, as the charged commenced, each man would hiss. The combined effect of several thousand voices issuing this sound would be terrifying beyond belief, sending a message at the last moment of confidence, virility and deadly serious intent.

In his adaptation of Zulu tactics Mzilikazi employed essentially the same formation, although the limits of his available manpower forced him to economise, and in the beginning he did not employ any reserve. He had also in the early days been forced to confront the fact that, unlike the secure position enjoyed by the Zulu, the circumstances of his fugitive people were mobile and uncertain. His battle formations therefore were leaner, and themselves more mobile and adaptive. One early departure from the strict norm of Zulu warfare was to use the cover of darkness to position his forces for rush dawn attacks that proved time and again to be very successful. It was not only the Zulu that rarely manoeuvred or attacked at night, for neither did most other groups, and this included the Griquas and Boers that suffered their only military defeats at the hands of the amaNdebele when this tactic was employed. For this purpose Mzilikazi deployed a mobile attack/reconnaissance unit along the lines of a home guard that was able to shadow a hostile force or commando for many days before choosing the optimum moment to attack and wipe it out.

Under the leadership of Mzilikazi the maxim of war was very simple. Quarter was neither expected nor given. In battles pitched against a comparable enemy, and among these were only the three battles fought against the Zulu, fighting was brutal and unforgiving, but the rites of victory were denied to either side. Not so however for the day to day business of raiding. This was the bread and butter work of the amaNdebele military, and the dictum of respect for the enemy was applied by degrees in amaNdebele warfare. For those that did not or could not mount a respectable defence contempt was displayed in terrible violence and cruelty. This was the practice that set the tone for amaNdebele conquest in the early days, and although later refined to allow for the induction of likely captives into the productive of the nation, the process of selection was cruel and exacting, and as a consequence there were few who survived that did not possess the qualities of courage, stamina and resourcefulness that alone could  mark the path to prosperity in amaNdebele society. It remains, however, the enemy that defines the quality of any fighting force, and once established in Matabeleland the only enemy at hand for the most part were the hapless Mashona upon whom testing battles could hardly be fought. The fact that the amaNdebele from then on enjoyed almost universal tactical superiority in every direction is perhaps not saying a great deal.

When the amaNdebele arrived in what would later become Matabeleland those already resident immediately fled or took refuge. Behind them lay their ripening crops and other resources upon which the incoming refugees survived as they established themselves in an ostensibly strange lands. The landscape was not wholly strange, however, for although most who arrived ahead of Mzilikazi had never been in the country, nor met any of the inhabitants, raids had over recent years been mounted in the region and spoils returned to the Transvaal. Even if the amaNdebele were therefore not altogether familiar with the land and the people, the people were entirely familiar with the amaNdebele, and knew precisely what to expect.

It is also worth remembering that this expectation had already been met, for the Shangaan under their powerful leader Shoshangane had settled some eight years earlier in the highlands east of the mid-Sabi River and had been ranging far west into the central plateau on expeditions of loot and plunder. These followed an identical pattern to the amaNdebele of seizing what and whom was needed and laying to waste to the rest. Thus a powerful force began to emerge that in due course came to occupy the region of Gaza in present day Mozambique. A kind of accommodation of equals was forged between the amaNdebele and Shangaan upon the arrival in the south of the latter, and caught somewhat between a hammer and an anvil the comparatively inoffensive peoples of the central plateau became spear fodder and a general source of sustenance for both.

Added to this the third powerful centrifuge of the great wars fought in Natal too had its claim to lay on the Mashona. Yet another petty chieftain made good, the leader of the Ndwandwe clan of Jere, Zwangendaba, also chose as a route for his exodus the region of southern Mozambique. As they moved northwards the Ngoni lingered for several years in the Gaza region and added much to the bloodshed and general derangement underway. In about 1831 a war was fought between the Ngoni and the Shangaan which resulted in defeat for the Ngoni. This forced the nomadic hordes briefly southwest and into the heartland of the dwindling Rozvi nation. There they destroyed utterly the last vestiges of the once mighty Changamire empire, before surging north to fall upon the tribes of the Lake Nyasa region with a fury now established as the formula of the three fugitive Nguni kings. One section of the Ngoni however remained in the region of the central plateau, existing under the leadership of a woman named Nyamazana, or Antelope, who merged her formation with the amaNdebele in due course and became herself one of Mzilikazi’s wives.[iv]

This is a somewhat simplified map of the movements and conflagrations that took place in the region at that time, and serves only to indicate that the arrival of the amaNdebele north of the Limpopo was simply part of a much larger pattern of tribal dislocation. It also serves to illustrate the pressures being borne by the Mashona who had in centuries past, and in relative isolation, flourished as a great and powerful political entity in their own right. Again this is an over simplification, for the rise and fall of the empires of the central plateau were complex and were formed on a foundation of trade pioneered first by Arabs and later by the Portuguese. This compared to the amaNdebele that had almost no experience of the finesse of international relations, and certainly could claim little trade sophistication other than the basic barter of ivory and other primary products for beads and blankets. However the amaNdebele held the view, a view adopted later by early white colonists, that the Mashona were a largely disreputable, disunited and ignoble race.

If this was true, and certainly the weight of anecdotal evidence strongly suggests that it was, it is a fact hardly to be marvelled at. How else could a people in the twilight of their magnificence, battered relentlessly from first one side and then another, respond? Their best blood was either shed or stolen, after which they were culturally smashed into tiny fragments. If they became obsequious, ingratiating, callow and underhand they were simply reflecting the traits best suited to survival under those circumstances. Even just the simple use of the a general appellation by the amaNdebele to describe their neighbours is an indication how little thought they gave. That the Europeans who came later did likewise, initially regarding the mass of the ChiShona language group as Makalanga, and recording fanciful and often hopelessly ill-informed orthographies and anthropological divisions, also implies a general lack of interest or respect for a once great people.

Like their Zulu brethren, however, the amaNdebele have always tended to be regarded by their subjects as being tough and aggressive, but also insensitive, unintelligent and lacking in any particular individuality or creativity. Among the great achievements of the Mwane Mutapa and associated political and social groupings was the recognition to a greater or lesser extent the merits of individual achievement. This may have been in trade, the arts, theocracy or politics, and as such the wealth and creativity of a nation was unlocked, evidenced in no more startling an example than the fabulous achievement of the walled city now known as Great Zimbabwe. In the early days of the occupation Europeans went to great length to debunk the notion that the Mashona could possibly have been responsible for the construction of this edifice, preferring to attribute the ruins to fanciful theories involving the Queen of Sheba, King Solomon’s mines, lost tribes of Israel and other only slightly more plausible hypothesis.

The Mashona were made up of closely allied groups who spoke a language that differed from one end of the realm to the other only in dialect. Thus an Ndau speaker from Chimanimani could easily understand another speaking the dialect of the Korekore in the northeast, or a Zezuru speaker living in the vicinity of Chief Harare where the capital of Zimbabwe is now sited. On the whole the various Mashona groups pursued a similar lifestyle as agriculturalists and herders, failing most of the time to fall under any leadership that could be regarded as central. Inter-tribal or clan warfare was rare, and on the whole the broad outlook of life was uniform, and the various groups were peaceful and tolerant of one another. They were, and remain highly creative, with developed art forms in terms of sculpture, art, dance and song, and in particular in the use of such instruments such as drums, mbira and marimba.

By comparison the amaNdebele show a striking lack of cultural expression. There is little art or music that has been uniquely developed by the amaNdebele of Zimbabwe, being primarily a martial society their expression was in war and military display. Individual creativity and expression tended to be brutally discouraged while no means for social advancement existed outside the pleasure and patronage of the king. War was the supreme expression of the nation and a kind of dull aristocratic expectation defined an existence that required nothing more elaborate than brute force to secure itself. In the world of the Mashona these men were like foxes in a chicken coop, and by using their innate military cohesion and vastly superior tactical ability they were able to do what they did best, achieving their most spectacular results thus far as a predatory nation.

As usual the twin objectives of amaNdebele raiding were cattle and slaves. Cattle added to the rapidly increasing wealth of the nation while slaves added to the strength of manpower. Mashona slaves were marched home and either claimed directly by Mzilikazi or allocated to their individual captors. As such they were acculturated and absorbed into amaNdebele life, assuming the lifestyle and social philosophy of their hosts, and in the case of young men being drafted into the army.

There are many students of amaNdebele military history who point to this moment as the beginning of the end of the amaNdebele military formation as it had previously been known. There are many reasons for this, namely the complacency that would inevitably have marked Mzilikazi himself as he began to age, the lack of a viable opposing force against which to maintain a high level of battle readiness, and the increasing dependence of regiments made up wholly of Mashona captives, or amaHoli, among whom discipline was noticeably lower and social standards perhaps less rigid. It would be interesting here to quote the observation of a Matabeleland Native Commissioner noticing the decline of the Ndebele after the white occupation of the country.


The ordinary native of this country is the dirtiest and laziest of his race I have ever encountered. They have no respect for themselves, no morals, no idea of truth and no sense of shame…Instead of being raised in the scale by the advent of the Zulus [Ndebele] with their good morals and cleanly customs, [they] have dragged the conquering race down to their own level.[v]


While this attitude fairly reflects the early colonial view that the amaNdebele were the most ‘leonine of mortals’ as Moffat saw them, and the Mashona the ‘dirtiest and laziest of his race’, there is no smoke without fire, and without doubt the amaHoli regiments reduced the extremely high standards upon which the amaNdebele army had up until then survived. It was also inevitable that in due course the amaHoli would come to outnumber both the abeZanzi, those of pure Nguni stock, and the abEnhla, or those of Sotho stock from the Transvaal period. It has been said that Mzilikazi attempted to compile and accurate census of the abeTshabi, but the process was thwarted by senior members of his inner circle who feared a public revelation of the degree to which the Zanzi had become outnumbered by their subjects. What the amaNdebele were reluctant to acknowledge the Native Department later confirmed in an official census conducted soon after the occupation, that the majority of amaNdebele were in fact abeTshabi and amaHoli.[vi]

Mashonaland, which can be defined broadly as those parts of present day Zimbabwe not at that time physically occupied by the amaNdebele, was raided regularly, while the immediate hinterland of Matabeleland was completely razed. Raiding was selective and defined by an annual rotation in order that it remain sustainable. Those groups that enjoyed sufficient numbers or political cohesion, and who might muster practical resistance, as well as others who lived in difficult or unhealthy terrain, became subject groups and paid tribute rather than suffer the direct impact of raiding.

Mzilikazi had in the meanwhile not dispensed with the notion of grand campaigning, and neither had he reached a point where he was content to let other powerful leaders go about their business without trying to bring them under the amaNdebele heel. Thus Mzilikazi brooded over the repulse he had suffered at the hands of Sebitoane and the Makololo living along the upper reaches of the Zambezi and Chobe Rivers. The land approaching the Zambezi Valley was prone to Tsetse fly which precluded any settlement on the part of cattle loving people, however Mzilikazi was determined to stamp his mark on the Makololo, and to this end he mobilized and impi of several thousand men and sent them north to engage and scatter the sons and daughters of Mantatisi.

By then Sebitoane had abandoned the unhealthy countryside spanning the Zambezi/Chobe confluence in favour of the highlands of the Kafue where he was effectively beyond the reach of amaNdebele force. In days before bridges and ferries a river the breadth of the Zambezi was a significant obstacle, and although a nation could traverse piecemeal by canoe the transportation in unified formation of a large expeditionary force such as amaNdebele impi could not be undertaken with any sort of tactical security. This was particularly so when, upon hearing that the amaNdebele had arrived in a mood for war, the Makololo army rushed to the north shore of the Zambezi and confront the amaNdebele with a barrage of lively insults.

Confronting this problem the amaNdebele contracted the local river dwelling baTonka communities to ferry the army across the river by canoe. This extremely unsound plan was devised to be conducted in stages. Most were transported across to a island midstream and left there for the boatmen to return for the next party who were to join their comrades the following day. The stranded men where abandoned overnight, however, and with no means to get back to shore they began to starve. After the death of almost all, the survivors were rescued by the Makololo and returned to Sebitoane as recruits. The significantly weakened impi on the south bank turned for home, but was now a target for lesser tribes, and unable to plunder arrived back to report on the disaster in a state of utter depletion.

This ill fated expedition, defeated without a drop of enemy blood being spilled, was a reverse on the scale of the defeats Mzilikazi had been delivered by the hand of the Griqua and the Boer. This was the last of his great military adventures, and a somewhat chastened despot settled into the security and plenty of his new situation with never a thought being given to territorial expansion beyond what currently existed as occupied territory and vassal states.

[i] Child, Harold, History of the amaNdebele, (Department of Internal Affairs, Rhodesia, 1968) p1

[ii] Rayner, William.  The Tribe and Its Successors: An Account of African Traditional Life and European Settlement in Southern Rhodesia. (Frederick A. Praeger, New York, 1962) p71

[iii] Child, Harold, History of the amaNdebele, (Department of Internal Affairs, Rhodesia, 1968) p1

[iv] Shattered Nation p26

[v] Ranger, T.O. Nature & Culture in the Matopos, (James Curry, Oxford, Baobab Books Harare, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 1999), p46

[vi] Shattered Nation p 28