The End of the Matabele Road

In an atmosphere of great apprehension and mistrust the Rudd Concession was signed, upon which Rudd took to his horse and sped south to Kimberly where he placed the document in the hands of an immensely gratified Cecil John Rhodes. Thomson and Maguire remained behind in Matabeleland, although neither were held in particular esteem among the amaNdebele, and neither were able to stop or deflect any of the intrigue that immediately gripped the capital in the aftermath. Rhodes, meanwhile, was in celebratory mood and made no secret of his coup. The story was quickly seized upon by the press and a flurry of analysis and speculation followed about the actual degree of licence that Lobengula had handed to Rhodes as a consequence of the Rudd Concession. It was generally agreed that this was significant, if not all of his country, and a rather rueful establishment was wont to congratulate Rhodes on a fraud well perpetrated.

All of this was filtered through the individual agendas of the many white concessionaires still cooling their heels in Bulawayo, and despite the best efforts of Thomson and Maguire, the facts were presented to Lobengula in many shades of conspiracy. What had been agreed to, what did the Rudd Concession actually mean? Lobengula was seized with anxiety, and being illiterate he could establish nothing by his own analysis, and instead was forced to rely on the impressions of others, none of whom did he now feel that he could fully trust, added to which an undercurrent of criticism against his actions by the rank and file of his nation was silent but nonetheless clearly audible.

Among the most able of Rhodes’ detractors were two men who represented commercial interests that were in some ways no less substantial than his. The first was a redoubtable character by the name of E.R. Renny-Tailyour who represented a group of German bankers headed by Edward A. Lippert, and another was Edward Arthur Maund, a regular on the African imperial scene, and at this moment representing the business interests of London financier George Cawson and colonial adventurer Lord Maurice Gifford, who collectively sought a concession on behalf of their Bechuanaland Exploration Company. Lobengula was assured during a long consultation with these two men that Rhodes had in no way acted under the authority of the British Crown, and that the whole matter had been a fraud. Lobengula was now confronted with compelling evidence that he had simply sold his nation for a few pennies to the private interests of Cecil Rhodes. To this it was suggested by a temporary alliance of Maund and Renny-Tailyour that an appeal directly to the Queen would expose Rhodes and alert Her Majesty to a terrible wrong being committed in her name.

Lobengula seized on this idea. Naturally his perception of royalty was one of absolute authority and integrity, and it stood clearly to reason that Victoria would relate to him as a kindred monarch. To undertake an embassy to Britain two senior indunas, Mtshedi and Babayane, were chosen. Edward Maund was charged, or perhaps he offered his services, to accompany the two men to Cape Town, and then on to London. In addition Lobengula dictated a suspension of the terms of the Rudd Concession pending an investigation of its implications and context to be carried out by himself. This was forwarded to the limited circulation Bechuanaland News for publication, but in the interim events moved rapidly. (reference J.G. MacDonald)

When word reached Rhodes of what was afoot he promptly intercepted Maund and his two companions at the Kimberly railhead and demanded sight of what correspondence Maund was conveying between Lobengula and the Imperial Government. Maund refused and continued on to the Cape leaving and anxious Rhodes to cable ahead to Sir Hercules Robinson to do what he could to delay the departure of the party. Robinson complied, and in the interim Rhodes resorted to his cheque book and his legendary powers of persuasion. In due course an amalgamation of interests was agreed between Rhodes and the Gifford and Cawston partnership. Before Maund and the amaNdebele Embassy could even board ship the deed had been done, and what had started as a mission of political diplomacy overnight evolved into a ceremonial visit of two foreign dignitaries, and as such the party was greeted by the press and diplomatic corps at Southampton docks as a fortnight later their ship drew alongside.

Rhodes, in the meanwhile, was not far behind, and armed with the Rudd Concession, and a powerful claim to a Royal Charter, his objective was to do battle with the press, the philanthropic lobby and the liberal political establishment of Britain. There were powerful voices in London that spring that were determined to thwart his advance on Matabeleland, but more powerful still was Rhodes himself.

As he set to work the lot of the two elderly indunas was to be introduced briefly to the Queen for a perfunctory and ceremonial interview before being passed on to foreign office minions for an escorted tour of the mighty pillars of imperial Britain. Thus they were conducted to Plymouth for an inspection of the main British naval facility, and then on to Aldershot to witness a display of modern artillery and machine gun drill. Their despatches where handed to the office of the Secretary of State for the Colonies, Lord Henry Knutsford, but no reply was immediately forthcoming, and with a combination of awe and despair the Indunas began their homeward journey once again in the company of Edward Maund.

In the meanwhile, after Lobengula’s vocal and persistent repudiation, the validity of the Rudd Concession remained in question, with the most likely way to effect its ratification being the acceptance by Lobengula of at least some part of the payment agreed. This was a job that would require the skills of a rare kind of diplomat, and thus it was that in early April of 1889 an entirely different type of white man strolled into Lobengula’s capital.

Leander Starr Jameson was one of the great characters of British colonial Africa, and a man who reflected the very essence of the British Empire. He was both great and scurrilous, creative and destructive, cultured but violent, and in every respect a common man granted uncommon opportunity by the preponderance of Anglo Saxon government. This was his first assignment in frontier diplomacy undertaken on behalf of Cecil John Rhodes, having lately removed himself from the life of a country doctor, and something of a gentleman about the small town of Kimberley, to plunge himself into the heart of Rhodes’ firm as the improbable man most likely to succeed.

In stature Jameson was short, but in a manner compact and energetic. In keeping with small men his ego was colossal and his sense of his own worth unassailable. Had he not possessed a lively wit and impious sense of humour it is possible that he would have been objectionable, and to those to whom he wished to be he was, but to those he wished to seduce he was charming, amusing, indulgent and attentive, and as such he arrived in Lobengula’s life at a moment when this was all that a man ailing in body and sprit required.

Jameson characteristically pushed forward a precedent already set by Sidney Shippard when he approached Lobengula in an upright posture and with absolute familiarity, but at the same time displaying none of the pomp and condescension of Shippard, nor the detachment and imperious disdain of Rudd. Lobengula was immediately charmed and intrigued by this, and then rendered pathetically grateful for injections of morphine that both eased the pain of his gout and settled his troubled mind. It was upon this auspicious beginning that Jameson very quickly set to work.

Lobengula would however hear nothing of accepting delivery of the 500 Martini-Henry rifles that Jameson had accompanied northwards from Kimberley and lodged in temporary storage with a local white trader by the name of Cooper-Chadwick. Sensing the futility of pressing the matter Jameson let it rest, instead concentrating his efforts on amusing Lobengula, lightening his spirit, easing his ailments and subtly engaging his affection.

His visit was brief, however, and on April 12 he made ready to leave Bulawayo. He was joined at the last minute by Rochfort Maguire who decided that he had had enough of the tedium of life in Bulawayo. This left Francis Thompson, increasingly paranoid, and convinced that death at the hands of the amaNdebele was imminent, alone and isolated to hold the fort against a rising tempo of intrigue. This represented a perfect example of Jameson’s laissez-faire, since correctly his interpretation of events on the ground should have seen him urging, and perhaps even ordering Maguire to remain at his station. However the two set off together towards Kimberly leaving a forlorn and increasingly dysfunctional Thompson gazing after them.

In the meanwhile the amaNdebele Embassy had returned from London with a written reply, ostensibly from Her Majesty, but actually from the pen of Lord Knutsford, Secretary of State for the Colonies. Bearing in mind that Rhodes at that moment was on his way back from London wholly satisfied that the process of acquiring his Royal Charter, Knutsford’s reply to Lobengula’s appeal was odd to say the least.

The letter, read in open council and in the company of Edward Maund, contained the written words: ‘It is not wise to put too much power in the hands of the men who come first, and to exclude other deserving men. A king gives a stranger an ox, not his whole herd of cattle, otherwise what would other strangers have to eat?’[i] To this was added the recollection of one of the indunas, apparently drunk at the time, that he had been given a verbal message from Knutsford stating that Lobengula would be ill advised to allow anyone to dig for gold in his country on their own recognisance.

It can only be surmised that when Knutsford composed the communiqué the anti-Rhodes elements in London were in the ascendancy, and then weeks later when the message was finally delivered his fortunes had changed. Rhodes had certainly sailed to London in the wake of the indunas with the odds of acquiring a Royal Charter very much stacked against him, but such was his diplomatic tour de force that season that by the time of the induna’s return Rhodes also was on his way back to the Cape with the practical details of the Charter in the hands of his secretarial staff in London. By then the British South Africa Company had been incorporated and Rhodes’ mind had already advanced far beyond the practical occupation of Mashonaland.

In Matabeleland, however, suspicions among the amaNdebele that all was not well seemed finally to have been confirmed. Early in September a full council of Indunas was summoned in which Charles Helm, among others, was denounced for misleading Lobengula, and the induna Lotje charged with issuing false council. Lobengula was openly admonished by an induna named Hlesingane who asked how it was that men could mine for gold and yet need no land? Those that had been to Kimberly could attest to the reality of mining practice, and the need for vast amounts of labour, with resultant demands for food and firewood, would at the very least wreak havoc on the established order of Matabeleland.[ii]

While Lobengula’s nerve might not have extended to the capital punishment of the whites in his realm who he felt had lied and betrayed his trust, the same was not true for his own. Lotje was deemed to have accepted bribes and was condemned to death. Lobengula ordered the Mbesu Regiment to execute Lotje and slaughter 300 members of his family. His village was razed to the ground, his cattle confiscated and his name spoken never again thereafter.

As this was underway Francis Thompson was returning from a visit to Charles Helm’s Hope Fountain Mission in a horse cart. As he arrived back in Bulawayo he was briefed by his manservant on the ongoing derangement, and told with obvious malice that the killing was not yet over. Thompson took this to mean that retribution for the Rudd Concession would soon be extend to he, and his nerve, already stretched to the limit, snapped. He unhitched the fastest horse from his team and fled the country without a moments delay.

In the aftermath of this the political dynamic in Bulawayo changed dramatically. The pro-Rhodes faction was now represented only by John Moffat and Edward Maund. Moffat was somewhat constrained by his official position while Maund was weakened by his unwilling shift of allegiance thanks to the union of the Gifford & Cawston Partnership and Cecil Rhodes. An urgent injection of force was required to buttress Rhodes’ position in Bulawayo, and thus it was that on 17 October a plume of dust appeared in the south west horizon to announced the imminent arrival in the capital once again of Doctor Starr Jameson.

Lobengula was gratified to see the return of his friend. As inherently unreliable in this regard as Jameson was, and as clearly as Lobengula understood this fact, like his father before him Lobengula found in a white man the pillars of a friendship that really did not exist. But this in a time of need was better than no friendship at all.

Equally important was the fact that Jameson brought relief in the form of morphia, which was probably desired and given as much for psychological relief as physical. This, and various other ointments and tonics for haemorrhoids, gout and sore eyes, where applied with the same infinite patience, irascible humour and entertaining repartee that had won Jameson such a large and loyal clientele in Kimberley. Jameson was described aptly by Robert Blake in his A History of Rhodesia as a ‘mercurial, unscrupulous, intrepid, reckless, restless, tireless medical man, who was one of the great enigmas of his time’. He certainly proved himself to be enigmatic. If nothing else the manner by which he was able to capture the affections of a savage African tyrant while extracting from him in the most cynical manner possible leave to bring the curtain down on 66 years of amaNdebele existence, and a 1000 years of native self government, was marvellous at the very least.

The parallels between the personal liberties granted Robert Moffat by Mzilikazi and those granted Jameson by Lobengula are striking. Both men were confronted by an emotionally burdened black man who wielded immense power but lived in a spiritual void; and neither could really be said to have reciprocated the friendship with any particular sincerity. The difference lay in the fact that Robert Moffat was a good and pious man driven by altruism, and Jameson was an utter rapscallion driven by nothing other than self interest.

Whether Lobengula was aware of this fact is a matter for speculation, but it is more than probable that he was. Lobengula demand that the Rudd concession be returned to him, and in respect of this Jameson handed him the document. The danger was obviously that Lobengula would tear it up, but this he did not do. Instead he handed the document to John Moffat for safekeeping and moved on to demand that Cecil Rhodes appear in person to state his case. Rhodes, of course, was unable to this, then campaigning for the job of Prime Minister of the Cape Colony, and besides this Rhodes was a man also suffering from premature ill health. The great myth of uLodzi might not stand the unflattering fact of a prematurely aged man, florid and wheezing, hanging mortal flesh on the bones of a legend.

It could not be said that Jameson had in any way succeeded in ratifying the Rudd concession, for the guns that formed a portion of the price lay still unclaimed, but he had avoided an utter repudiation of it which left open the possibility of his still obtaining The Road, or royal consent to travel inland. Of course this time The Road meant much more than a small expedition plying inland in search of ivory or pagan souls. What was implied was invasion, nothing less in fact than an occupation, and both men where to a greater or lesser extent aware of this fact, or at least aware of the risk of it. This made negotiations precarious, and as a consequence four months of Jameson’s time were spend in Matabeleland. During that time little diplomatic progress was made, but Jameson enjoyed an extraordinary level of royal patronage and hospitality while Lobengula, possibly for the first time since he assumed the throne, had fun.

For the time being the pretence remained that what was at stake was a few men ‘digging a hole’. Lobengula took the line that he had not intended to grant a general concession, but had given Rhodes permission only to dig one hole at a time. In this respect he agreed that as a provisional advance Jameson could arrange for miners to work a disused digging in the Tati area, which Jameson quickly arranged.

Meanwhile into Bulawayo one day trotted a Captain and a Major of the Royal Horse Guards with two troopers, all in full regalia, who were ostensibly returning the visit of the two indunas to London, bringing gifts for Lobengula and formal notification of the grant of a Royal Charter to the British South Africa Company. When he heard that the troop were carrying a letter for Lobengula Jameson quickly demanded that it be given to him first, and after reading it decided it bore the potential for negative interpretation and substituted it for a forgery of his own.  Meanwhile Lobengula was so deeply impressed with the red coats, gleaming breastplates, plumed helmets and top-boots that he invited the troop to attend an amaNdebele Great Dance in which Jameson appeared with the rank of induna and dressed in a plumed headdress, a kilt of animal tails and the white main leggings of ceremonial amaNdebele attire.

The story then follows that Lobengula was in such high humour as a consequence of the excitement that when Jameson in an off-hand manner complained that the men at Tati were finding no gold he remarked in an equally off-hand manner that they ought hen to look elsewhere. Could this be The Road? Jameson certainly thought so, and brought out maps of Mashonaland, tracing out possible routes to which Lobengula did not seem to demur. Jameson then went so far as to request labour to cut the road, a request which was granted, all on the simple pre-condition that Jameson himself accompany the expedition at all times. This was indeed The Road.

Wasting no time Jameson mounted his horse and was gone. Suddenly, left alone in Bulawayo with the pain of his ailments slowly returning, the blissful pleasure of unconditional human contact fading with the hoof beats of  Jameson’s horse, and the hard-edged reality of his situation replacing the pleasant haze of morphine, Lobengula wondered not for the first time what it was that he had done.

The truth did not take long to emerge. Rhodes had taken over as Prime Minister of the Cape Colony in May 1890, declaring publicly that his principal objective in office was to drive forward the occupation of the Zambezi Basin.[i] He was empowered by a Royal Charter, and by a publicly subscribed company that included among its shareholders the son of the British Prime Minister Lord Cecil, the Dukes of Abercorn and Fife, the future Earl Grey, financier Alfred Beit and of course Cecil Rhodes himself. The concerned parties that had formed the anti-Rhodes lobby in the spring of 1889 had fallen away, and drowning out the voices of the liberal elements within the Commons and civic society was the populist chorus of jingo imperialism that was thrilled at the prospect of a grand colonial adventure.

In Matabeleland a brief period of silence hung over the realm. Both the amaNdebele themselves and all the mixed foreign elements waited to see what the next move would be. The question was soon answered as rumours began to filter into Matabeleland that a large occupying force was being equipped and trained in Kimberly in preparation to move on Mashonaland. Lobengula hastily despatched an embassy to the High Commissioner at the Cape, now Sir Henry Loch, who had succeeded Hercules Robinson upon the latter’s retirement, and a man not quite so wedded to the imperial policy of Cecil Rhodes. However Loch could do little to alter the momentum of the occupation that by the time he received Lobengula’s plea had taken on something of a life of its own.

Why, Lobengula asked, when he and Queen Victoria were united in friendship by treaty was she sending an impi into his country? Loch interviewed the amaNdebele ambassador, the induna Mshete, stating his and Her Majesties unqualified support for the enterprise at hand, and introducing Rhodes himself into the discussion. Mshete insisted that the ‘concession’ had been obtained by fraud, stating that no delivery had been taken of the rifles pressed on the amaNdebele as payment for the deception. Loch pointed out the he as High Commissioner had already indicated to Lobengula by despatch his approval or the forces of the Chartered Company that were being assembled to ‘guard your country against encroachments’, and that they ‘came as friends who desire only your good.’[ii]

On April 11 Jameson rode into Bulawayo in a mood of reduced cordiality, and for a visit that was short and to the point. Jameson asked for confirmation that Lobengula had given him ‘The Road.’ Lobengula replied that the only road that he knew into Matabeleland came through his kraal where he could see for himself the friends who wished him no harm. Jameson threatened that at this late stage a refusal to grant passage would result in war. Had the King lied, Jameson asked? The King never lies was Lobengula’s melancholy reply.

In due course the full compliment of the British South Africa Company ‘Pioneer Column’ stood assembled on the west bank of the Motlutsi River. The column consisted of 180 armed and trained civilians, 200 paramilitary volunteers who would ultimately form the nucleus of the British South Africa Police, added to which was a further party of 110 men with a full compliment of wagons, cattle horses and a cohort of black and coloured labourers, servants and retainers. The column was armed with a general issue of Martini-Henry rifles, handguns, 7-pound field guns, maxim machine guns and the curious addition of a large steam driven generator and a 10 000 candle power searchlight.

With this the facts were laid bare, and Lobengula could do little but address a feeble and sarcastic letter to Jameson, then travelling with the column between the Motlutsi River in Bechuanaland and the Shashi River, both tributaries of the Limpopo which broadly defined the southern border of Matabeleland. ‘Why so many warriors at Macloutsie (sic)?’Lobengula wrote. ‘Had the King committed any fault, or had any white man been killed, or had the white man lost anything that they were looking for?’[iii] Jameson’s reply was curt and to the point. The militia, he said, were for the protection of the column, and not to be directed against the amaNdebele.

On July 11 the column cross the Shashi River and broached amaNdebele territory proper. Instead of opting for the road through Bulawayo the column began immediately to forge a new route north-eastwards in the direction of the central plateau, effectively by-passing any settled areas of Matabeleland. The first of several hastily constructed forts was established at Tuli in country unequivocally claimed by the amaNdebele. This was not quite an act of war, but it was extremely close. The amaNdebele were galvanised, but did not attack, and instead a 2000 man impi under the command of the Induna Gambo was assembled and sent to shadow the column and to arrest its advance if it should show signs of diverging into or invading areas of settled amaNdebele territory.[iv]

How it was that Lobengula was able to forestall an attack by his enraged and over-confident warriors against what would seem to be an extraordinarily vulnerable body of lightly armed men is hard to say. Part of the complex mythology of this defining moment for both sides is that the powerful searchlight that probed the dark bushveld every night had a startling effect on the amaNdebele. None had ever seen anything quite like it before, none could explain it, and all tended to attribute it to a supernatural power. This could not have prevented a daytime assault, however, when the column was spread out through the veld, preoccupied with cutting the road, and at its most vulnerable.

It is also to Lobengula’s credit that no retribution was taken, or frustration acted upon against the many whites still resident in and around Bulawayo, although many tense moments were recorded, and most whites stayed near their wagons and near the centre of power where their chances of survival were greatest. Among those stationed at Bulawayo was British South Africa Company agent Johann Colenbrander who also remained unmolested, and was used as a courier alongside Cooper-Chadwick when the column was poised in the most dangerous stretch of the route, between the Lundi and Tokwe Rivers, to warn Jameson and the military commanders that they travelled in grave peril.

Who are you and where are you going? What do you want, and by whose orders are you here? Where are you leading your young men to like so many sheep and do you think they will get back to their homes again? Go back at once, or I will not be answerable for the consequence. Do you not think that white blood can flow as well as black?[v]

The column did not turn back, nor alter its course, and the reply was issued not by Jameson but by the military officer commanding the column, Lt. Colonel E.G. Pennefather of the Inniskilling Dragoons, who wrote:

I am an officer of the Queen of England, and my orders are to go to Mashonaland, and there I am going. We do not want to fight, we only want to dig for gold, and are taking this road to avoid your young men; but if they attack us, we know how to defend ourselves.[vi]

The objective of the column was Mount Hampden, a point earlier identified by the column’s guide Frederick Selous as a point sufficiently remote from Matabeleland to be safe, and likewise favourably appointed for the commencement of the first permanent white settlement in Mashonaland.

Frederick Selous, the enigmatic hunter, philosopher, explorer and scholar, led the column eventually beyond the accepted borders of Matabeleland and on to the Central Plateau where a third garrison fort was established, Fort Victoria, later renamed Masvingo, and a current provincial capital of Zimbabwe. Soon afterwards Selous, Jameson and the Company Administrator Alexander  Colquhoun left the column and headed east in the direction of the Portuguese frontier in order to treat with local chiefs, and to jostle with the Portuguese for the establishment of the eastern boundary of the new territory.

The column meanwhile continued on in the direction of Mount Hampden, but without Selous. The navigation of the guides attributed a site some distance south of the prescribed destination as being Mount Hampden, and a halt was called, and the Union jack run up a temporary flagpole. The site was in fact close to the kraal of Chief Harare, but nonetheless it was a fair choice, and on 11 September 1890 Fort Salisbury was established as the administrative capital of the as yet un-named colony.

For Lobengula the fact that the occupation had gone ahead without serious bloodshed was a relief, but it did not relieve the tensions latent in the rank and file of a restless army. Among the new colonists there was also a powerful sense of relief that what had been a bold, if not a reckless expedition had passed off peacefully. Nonetheless the inevitability of war remained clear. For the incoming whites, and for the many more who were set to follow, the existence of an unbroken and belligerent native polity on the landscape was an anachronism that had no place in the future. It was also evident to many that the amaNdebele army wanted to fight sooner rather than later, and occasional ruptures along the seams of internal pressure testified clearly to this.

Several narrow escapes were recorded among hunters and traders moving within and around the edges of Matabeleland while sporadic raids against Mashona in what was now ostensibly Company territory went on. Lobengula was testing the waters, trying to navigate the fine line between the demands of his army and what would be tolerated by the whites. This general situation was aggravated by the Mashona themselves, among whom many apprehended that they were in theory now no longer subject to the amaNdebele, and so liberated from any material or political expectation. This was clearly illustrated by the case of paramount Chief Lomagundi.

No sooner had the Pioneer Column stood down than ex-members spread out into the countryside to peg and prospect for gold. Members of ‘D’ Troop formed a syndicate that moved to occupy the district of the Angwa River, which was an area under the nominal control of Lomagundi, who Frederick Selous had earlier observed was ‘holding his life and property at the caprice of the Matabele chief Lobengula’. Lomagundi showed friendliness and co-operation to the whites, and under the circumstances took the very risky decision to refuse any subsequent demands by Lobengula for the payment of tribute.[vii] Lobengula ordered him to report personally Bulawayo to account for himself, and to pay what was owed, a summons which Lomagundi ignored.

On 25 November 1891 an impi of 40 men of the Mzinyatini regiment, commanded by the indunas Matafini and Moubi, was sent by Lobengula to kill Lomagundi and to set a general example to both black and white. This was done, and the matter duly reported to the administrator a few days later. Resident Magistrate of Salisbury, Major Patrick W. Forbes, chose to take a lenient view of the episode, observing in his report that: ‘Lomoghunda (sic), having refused to either go to Bulawayo or to pay his tribute, has been killed…this of course is unfortunate, but in accordance with Lobengula’s laws and customs.’[viii]

In this matter Lobengula adopted a defiant posture, seeing no reason to either apologise or explain, although early the next year, in a sign of the jitters, he sent a letter explaining the episode to Jameson in Salisbury, who had by then taken over from Alexander Colquhoun as Company Administrator The letter concluded with the plaintive plea that he was being odiously troubled by gout and could move around very little.[ix]

On the home front, meanwhile, and in an effort to keep his restive army active in the first season since the exodus from Transvaal that no systematic raiding had taken place, Lobengula effected a general restructuring of the regiments in order to place garrison units in a rough line some 15 to 30 miles separate from one another along broadly the line that separated his and the British South Africa Company’s sphere of influence. Even this apparently pragmatic action threw up difficulties, for it represented a ‘border’ of sorts, and in defining a border it stands to reason that one must acknowledge the existence of a neighbouring state.

John Moffat in the meanwhile, now serving as Imperial Agent in Bulawayo, reported with some alarm the fact that he had recently received a visit from Mtjane, Induna of the celebrated Mbizo regiment, who lamented that he was finding it increasingly difficult to exercise control over his men. A few days later Lobengula wrote to Sir Henry Loch complaining that the Company Administration where involving themselves too directly in Mashona political affairs and justice, which he deemed was either their own affair or his, and that Jameson should confine his governance to his own people. A month later a pro-white induna, and son of the ever loyal uMncumbata, was sought out and killed and his family and dependents comprehensively wiped out by elements of the Mbizo Regiment. In hunting down the stragglers the Mbizo took the opportunity to terrorise – although with no physical harm reported – a handful of hapless white hunters, traders and travellers. Both sides could now sense the inevitable, with each wondering how it would end.

Driven to despair Lobengula began to ponder the idea of abandoning Matabeleland to the whites and continuing north to carve a new homeland out of the expansive wilderness north of the Zambezi. This was of course impossible thanks to the same process of European treaty gathering and occupation, but it was seriously considered, and discussed among the amaDoda, or older men of the nation, who, like Lobengula, dreaded, and could see the inevitable outcome of war with the whites. Scouts were sent north to prowl the regions transected by Mzilikazi 50-years earlier, in particular the area of Lake Ngami, in the hope of finding a suitable territory.

Sensing the inevitability of an open breach with the Europeans Lobengula then took the risky decision to send large impi of about 6000 crack fighting men from the Igaba and aMhlope regiments with instructions to invade Barotseland in preparation for the exodus of the amaNdebele from their homeland. Ostensibly the reason given for the deployment was to ‘punish’ Lewankia, the paramount chief of the Lozi, although evidently this expedition was primarily a forlorn quest for territorial conquest. The plan was, however, acted upon too late, and achieved nothing other than to remove much of the fighting force of Matabeleland away from the field of battle when the moment came to fight.

The casus belli when it came was the Mashona. Little regarded by either side, the Mashona were as adept at warfare by other means as the amaNdebele were at adept at it by conventional means. To play one side off against the other was an obvious weapon, and although this was applied without any kind of central coordination, a great deal of mischief was achieved by mendacity, theft and cunning, all which were the mechanism of survival in a dangerous world that had been finely tuned by the Mashona.

There will always be a gulf between the way a white man perceives a set of circumstances and the way a black man sees the same. This is not a question of racism necessarily, but more often a question of politics and perception. When two parties, albeit for different reasons, desire war, then war will be arranged. The blunt issues that might bring the two sides to conflict can be mapped out with relative ease, but at a time of conflicting cultures it is perhaps more productive to define those cultural values in conflicting terms.

Zimbabwean author Stanlake Samkange wrote a fictional  version of the events that passed between the British South Africa Company and the amaNdebele at this time in a book he entitled On Trial For My Country. In this narrative each of the principal characters enters the stage in turn and accounts for himself and his actions before the arbitration of either a dead Mzilikazi or a dead Francis Rhodes, English country parson and humble father of the great Cecil John Rhodes. Although not a definitive history, this is one of the few efforts made by blacks to articulate the events of a difficult period, and in some respects the whole matter is brought more sharply into focus in fictional terms than it is in fact.

One of the features of Company rule of what would later become Rhodesia was the rapid pace of infrastructurural development. From the dust of the naked veld to a functioning country administered under the tenets of a Westminster style of government took less than two decades to achieve. No sooner had the occupation been formalised than plans for a railway to link the country with South Africa and the Indian Ocean were on the table, and hundreds of miles of bright new copper cable was strung across the veld with the first arrival of the telegraph.

This copper wire proved to be irresistible to the Mashona, and it was stolen frequently and in large quantities. This obviously could not be tolerated indefinitely, and heavy punishments were imposed by the Company administration on malefactors when proof was found, and often even when it was not. This punishment most frequently took the form of fines in cattle, and since many cattle pastured in Mashonaland were in fact owned by the amaNdebele, many fines, and indeed many arbitrary cattle seizures, resulted in the alienation to white ownership of amaNdebele cattle. This, when it was reported to Lobengula, was usually blamed on the whites, which prompted Lobengula to issue a formal complaint to the British High Commissioner in the Cape, and then later to launch a punitive expedition of his own into Mashonaland in order to make the point that any punishment of the Mashona was the responsibility of the amaNdebele, and moreover to remind Mashona elements now living on the fringes of amaNdebele government that they still lay within reach of amaNdebele justice. This sparked an incident between BSAC Police and amaNdebele officials which ended in an open breach and ultimately war.

Stanlake Samkange couches the episode in mystic terms. A theft took place of Lobengula’s cattle by a Mashona thief armed with the supernatural ability to render a village unconscious while at the same time being able change the colouring and markings of the cattle to add to the confusion of an already vex situation. Lobengula sent north a punitive expedition which was intercepted. The Resident Magistrate of Fort Victoria, Captain Lendy, informed the commanding indunas of the expedition, Manyau and Mgandana, that the matter fell under his jurisdiction, which gave him the authority to establish whether a crime had been committed, and to act upon it. This was the nexus of the matter, the question of who fundamentally owned control of the land, and the people on it, and it was this that drove to the very heart of the amaNdebele response to the existence of a comparable, if not greater force than they on the landscape.

‘Now what kind of talking was this?’ Lobengula asked the fictional gathering of living and dead worthies assembled to judge his actions. ‘Since when had the white man power over the Amahole (sic)? Who had appointed Lendy a magistrate to decide cases for me. Who had told the white man there was a boundary over which my impis could not cross?’[x]

Samnkange then has Lobengula stating that he had decided once and for all to be firm in the matter. He rejected totally the assertion that the incident had been caused by the theft of copper wire, and chose to view it, publicly at least, as an outright theft of his cattle by the Mashona, and a blatant rebuff of his authority by they and the white man who had assumed the authority to adjudicate.

In fact it was less a matter of Lobengula being firm than his having no choice. The despatch of a heavier force into Mashonaland to re-establish his right of suzerainty over the Mashona was an effort to let it be seen in his own country that he possessed the capacity to stand up to the whites, balanced against the hope that the expedition would be seen by the whites for what it was, and not taken as an open act of war.

It appears in fact that Lobengula at that point began to lose the absolute control over his army, for the order was clearly given that no hand was to be raised against, and no act of provocation made towards any white man. Once beyond recall, however, the commanders of the impi acted on their own recognisance, and while not openly violating this order, there can be no doubt that every effort was made to express hostility short of driving an assegai into the heart of a white subject of Company law.

Ostensibly the expedition was a mission to the Company authorities in Fort Victoria to request the handover of fugitives from amaNdebele justice who had taken refuge in the settlement. While this mission did occur, parallel to it a viscous and characteristically violent assault was also taking place in a series of raids against local Mashona villages. Although no white man was touched, many servants and employees where dragged from the compounds of white farmers and businessmen and brutally killed. The countryside emptied as large numbers of Mashona either fled into surrounding hills or took refuge in Fort Victoria.

Manyau and Mgandana, the later being a younger man than the former, and an aristocratic Zanzi with a powerful will to inflict harm on the Company establishment, was restrained only very narrowly by the authority of the older Induna and the orders of the king. It was tensely requested of Captain Lendy that all the fugitive Mashona in Fort Victoria a be handed over to be dealt with by the impi. It was piously acknowledged that these acts of violence might be offensive to the whites, and it was thus suggested that to protect these sensibilities, and to not spoil their drinking water, the Mashona would be taken out of sight into a nearby woodland and killed there.

Back in Bulawayo Lobengula received a message of concern from Sir Henry Loch protesting that any order he had given to protect white life and property in Mashonaland was being openly ignored, and the impis of the amaNdebele where freely entering the homes of white men and killing their servants. In Samkange’s account Lobengula angrily replied to this, stating: ‘I shall not return any cattle or compensate anybody until Rhodes returns to me all the Amahole and their wives, children, cattle, goats and sheep which were given protection by the Victoria people.’[xi]

However accurate this account may be, and even if Henry Loch received no such message, it is inevitable that by then he then would have realised that a point of no return had been reached. The principal of handing over a population of people to be arbitrarily slaughtered in order to show respect for the rights of Lobengula and the amaNdebele to govern as they had been accustomed was simply out of the question. Quite clearly that style of government was an anachronism, and even if Loch had never wholly trusted or supported Rhodes in his objective of occupying Mashonaland, now that he had the amaNdebele had either to be brought to the table or broken, and since the amaNdebele would share a table with no man, they had to be broken.

Jameson and Rhodes likewise had reached a point where war was not an altogether unattractive option. The five percent upon which the philanthropy of Mashonaland had been based had not come to pass. Most of the men who had signed on for the expedition had done so in the expectation of a massive returned in easy gold, and so far no sign of this had materialised. Stock in the British South Africa Company was under pressure, and Matabeleland as an additional asset looked very attractive. All that might be said against a war was that, although there was no doubt that the amaNdebele would lose, it might not be the British South Africa Company that would win.

While Sir Henry Loch, who sat in his office in Cape Town and reviewed events as they arrived on his desk by cable from Mashonaland, might have recognised that the days of great native empires had passed, this did not mean that he relished the notion of Cecil John Rhodes, his ilk or his company taking command of the situation. Far more attractive in the eyes of an imperial man such as he was the imperial solution, and in order for that to prevail it must be seen that imperial forces fought and won a war with the amaNdebele. That done the Union jack would fly over Bulawayo, and Matabeleland would become a Crown Protectorate and not a further asset to the stock portfolio of the British South Africa Company. This also was precisely why Jameson and Rhodes deemed it so absolutely vital that the first men to ride victorious into Bulawayo be not imperial troops but volunteers of the British South Africa Company.

Therefore, upon the first sign that the tide had begun to turn in the direction of war it became a race as to who could declare it first. There remained, however, one tragedy of miscommunication to be played out before the final alchemy of war was ready for the match of expedience. As he had done before Lobengula put his faith in an embassy to be sent south to appeal directly to Sir Henry Loch for understanding and restrain in a taught situation.

Again the exact sequence of events depend on who is relating them, but in essence Lobengula spread his dismay widely to a largely uncaring audience. Letters and cables were dispatched to Cape Town and London at a juncture during which the powers that be thought it better to wait and see. ‘Why did you allow your impi to kill my people?’ Lobengula pleaded with Loch. ‘Why did you kill them? What did my people do?’[xii]

None of it was to any avail. Nothing it seemed could arrest the tide. By the end of September news filtered through to Bulawayo that the whites had assembled a large force and were prepared to march on Matabeleland. The first blood was spilled on September 30 when a patrol under Captain Lendy clashed with an impi raiding in territory the Company deemed its own. The clash amounted to little, but the war had without doubt begun.

The numbers arrayed against the hordes of Matabeleland were not great as armies of the time went. It was a volunteer force inspired by promises of the booty of Matabeleland and comprising little more than a hardy corps of some 700 settlers. The leveling factor was of course firearms, and in particular six machine guns and four field guns of various makes.

With this underway Lobengula pitched one last gambit to avoid the war that would mean the inevitable end of his people’s existence as an independent nation. He instructed his brother Ingubogubo to accompany a trader by the name of Dawson to deliver a plea directly to John Moffat in Bechuanaland as the Queens representative. They set off on horseback from Bulawayo and arrived tired and dusty at the settlement of Tati on the southwest border of Matabeleland. There coincidentally was also a Colonel Gould-Adams commanding the Southern Column made up of some 500 volunteers and members drawn from the Bechuanaland Border Police. This was the imperial factor that Rhodes and Jameson so feared, and which was under orders form Sir Henry Loch to take command of the situation in Bulawayo.

Dawson, in no way accusable of disloyalty to Lobengula, for he was a stalwart defender of the amaNdebele at a time when this did not sit well with most whites, nonetheless passed the care of Ingubogubo and two other senior indunas to an acquaintance of the Tati Concession Company while he went off in search of a drink and a bite to eat. The numbers of armed white men milling around the vicinity, and the uncertainty of their situation, unnerved the indunas who did not know what was intended or what to expect. Gould-Adams, a handsome and accomplished man, but one lacking in tact and creativity, was introduced to the scene, and be it misunderstanding, mutual arrogance or discourtesy, the result was a scuffle and gunfire and the death of one of the indunas. Ingubogubo himself was placed in irons, but a fortnight later he escaped and disappeared, although by then matters had advanced to the point that it hardly mattered.

When he heard the news Lobengula was naturally both dismayed and astonished. More evidence, it seemed to him, of the fundamental mendacity of the whites, none of whom seemed to be immune to the deceit and double standards from which Lobengula was so desperately seeking relief.

When I heard this I was very angry indeed. How could the Gavuna [Sir Henry Loch] ask me to send men to discuss matters with him and when I send my men he arrests and kills them? What could one do with such men?[xiii]

With his indunas detained and killed on the border, and with skirmishes about to advance into full scale battles in the north, and with the imperial factor racing to claim his capital from the southwest, Lobengula could be forgiven for feeling that the end was indeed nigh. He recalled the impi that he had lately sent to Barotseland, and threw them into a war that was now already wholly upon him.

[i] Davidson, Appolon, Cecil Rhodes and his Time, (Progress Publishers 1988, Moscow) p183

[ii] Davidson, Appolon, Cecil Rhodes and his Time, (Progress Publishers 1988, Moscow) p195

[iii] Davidson, Appolon, Cecil Rhodes and his Time, (Progress Publishers 1988, Moscow) p195

[iv] Storry, J.G. The Shattered Nation, (Howard Timmins, Cape Town, 1974) p113

[v] Hensman, Howard. A History of Rhodesia.

[vi] Hensman, Howard. A History of Rhodesia.

[vii] Black, Colin. The Legend of Lomagundi, (Salisbury 1976) p7

[viii] Black, Colin. The Legend of Lomagundi, (Salisbury 1976) p8

[ix] Storry, J.G. The Shattered Nation, (Howard Timmins, Cape Town, 1974) p116/7

[x] Samkange, Stanlake. On Trial For My Country, (Heinemann Educational Books Ltd. London, 1966), p145

[xi] Samkange, Stanlake. On Trial For My Country, (Heinemann Educational Books Ltd. London, 1966), p147

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

[xiii] Samkange, Stanlake. On Trial For My Country, (Heinemann Educational Books Ltd. London, 1966), 149

[i] Blake, Robert, A History of Rhodesia, (Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1978), p50

[ii] Davidson, Appolon, Cecil Rhodes and his Time, (Progress Publishers 1988, Moscow) p141