The Matabele Rebellion

How can the white men punish them? Where are the white police? There are none left in the country.[i]

The uprising was mooted to begin on the evening of the full moon of March 28 1896, no hint whatsoever of which reached the ears of white settlers and administrators in the territory. Even long time residents of Matabeleland such as the Rev. Charles Helm of the Hope Fountain Mission remained convinced that the defeat of the amaNdebele had been absolute. In a conversation with Frederick Selous, who had recently been appointed cattle inspector for the districts between Umzingwani and Insiza, Helm let it be known that as unfortunate as some of the cattle seizures had been, the Company was now more or less in a position to impose what terms it chose on the amaNdebele. ‘…the Company can do what it likes with them,’ he said, ‘and treat them generously or otherwise as it pleases, for they acknowledge themselves to be a conquered people, and will submit to any terms imposed upon them.’[ii]

Others were less sanguine. Although specific information had not reached him, or anyone else for that matter, long time Matabeleland trader and one time confidante of Lobengula William Usher maintained loudly and consistently that a native uprising was inevitable, a plea that was heeded by the administration only in regards to threats issued to Usher that he would be clapped in irons is he continued to spread alarm and despondency through his intemperate predictions. In another conversation Selous makes reference to, this time with his local Native Commissioner H.H.G. Jackson, Jackson commented rather prophetically that: ‘…if there should be an insurrection, those are the devils we have to fear,’ and he pointed to a nearby squad of native police sitting around their huts all armed with Winchester repeating rifles.[iii]

For his part Selous, with a degree of candour that only his twenty years of experience travelling and hunting in the region would permit, was prepared to admit that: ‘The events of the last three months have taught me at least this, that it is impossible for a European to understand the workings of a native’s mind ; and, speaking personally, after having spent over twenty years of my life amongst the Kafirs (sic), I now see that I know nothing about them, and recognise that I am quite incompetent to express an opinion as to the line of conduct they would be likely to adopt under any given circumstances.’[iv]

However, despite this fact, and because no written records exist of events as they unfolded from the amaNdebele perspective, it is only from the accounts and observations of the men who understood them least that most histories of the Matabele Rebellion have been written. It is mainly from the observations of men like Selous, and Lord Robert Baden Powell, who acted as reconnaissance supremo during the military response that was later mounted, and such men as Frank W. Sykes, who served as a trooper in the suppression of the Rebellion and recorded an extremely balanced memoir of the episode in his book With Plumer in Matabeleland, that the broad historical picture has been drawn.

In essence the amaNdebele plan was simple. Word was spread that on the full moon the fighting men of the amaNdebele would arm and assemble along the outskirts of Bulawayo. The town would be rushed and the whites slaughtered. Bulawayo would not be destroyed because it would be the royal seat of a reincarnated Lobengula. Thereafter the impis would break up and surge throughout the country mopping up isolated white settlements and those that survived the assault of servants and retainers.

However, on the evening of 20 March 1896, the impetuousness of a small detachment of Ndebele rebels sprung the plot prematurely, a fact which probably accounted more than anything else for the eventual collapse of the Rebellion. The story as it is related by Selous sees eight native police details with their accompaniment of carriers arriving towards evening in the Umgorshwini kraal south of Bulawayo. The group camped outside the town, and were approached as they sat around their campfire by a body of armed amaNdebele who adopted an aggressive attitude, although they did not immediately attack. The policemen were taunted and insulted before a scuffle broke out, shots were fired killing first one of the attackers and then a carrier, with a second carrier being clubbed to death with a knobkerrie. Later that same night members of the attack group singled out and killed a lone native policeman in a neighbouring village.

These actions, although initially viewed by the administration in the locality as criminal acts not necessarily related to anything more sinister, did in fact trigger the uprising, although it was another three days before the murders of Europeans began. These attacks were also a strategic blunder, since although bloody and horrifying they were perpetrated prematurely, and, notwithstanding the claim of some 200 white lives in a series of satisfying actions, they quickly served to alert the population of Bulawayo to the general nature of the uprising, and although the town remained vulnerable for some time, defences were quickly established and militias raised.

Some disagreement exists on the exact timing and sequence of the first attacks, but it was either on Monday 23 March or Tues 24 March when 7 whites, 2 ‘colonial boys’ and a ‘coolie’ cook associated with Edkins Store, the Nellie Reef mining compound and the compound of the local Native Commissioner where surprised and murdered. Native Commissioner Bentley was stabbed in the back while seated at his desk, with his last words written dated March 23 1896. This was followed by the killing of a miner by the name of Maddox, while Edkins himself, three other white men and the cook were killed a short while later in and around the store. A further two men were killed at the Celtic mining camp and between the camp and the store.

The details of the attacks were supplied to rescuers by a ‘colonial boy’, a euphemism for a black servant of Cape origin, who survived horrific injuries to report that the attacks had been mounted by rebel detachments of the Native Police aided by local natives under the command of two brothers of Lobengula. These two, along with other members of the king’s family, were credited as the chief instigators of the rebellion.[v]

The next in the sequence of attacks was on the farmstead of the Cunningham family of Insiza resulting in the killing by a combination of axes and knobkerries of eight individuals including three children. When the scene was discovered it was also reported that all the surrounding amaNdebele villages and kraals lay deserted, leading to the assumption that again it was natives of the immediate vicinity who had been responsible for the killings. ‘From the Umzingwani,’ Selous wrote, ‘the flame of rebellion spread through the Filibusi (Filabusi) and Insiza districts, to the Tchangani (Shangani) and Inyati, and thence to the mining camps in the neighborhood of the Gwelo and Ingwenia rivers, and indeed throughout the country wherever white men, women, and children could be taken by surprise and murdered either singly or in small parties ; and so quickly was this cruel work accomplished, that although it was only on 23rd March that the first Europeans were murdered, there is reason to believe that by the evening of the 30th not a white man was left alive in the outlying districts of Matabeleland.’[vi]

It was thought at the time that the Rebellion was largely the work of the abaZanzi caste, with the involvement of the amaHoli elements delayed and reluctant. More than a half of the native police immediately defected to the rebels, with the mainly the younger details taking part, and the amaDoda either abstaining altogether or becoming involved reluctantly and under sufferance. The Native Police were quickly disarmed to pre-empt any pressure being brought to bear against them. A handful of influential indunas also appeared reluctant to get involved, with Mtjane coming into Bulawayo soon after the outbreak of hostilities where he took refuge with his family and attendants.  Mtjane’s sons however were quick to join the rebels, while the survivors of the Mbizo regiment were also quick to reform and were central in the rebellion.

When the first news of the rising reached Bulawayo the induna Gambo was in the town on a visit to the chief native commissioner, by whom he was very wisely detained as a prisoner.[vii] Gambo may possibly have not joined the rebellion, but since most of those still loyal to him did it is likely that he was relieved to have the decision removed from him. Besides these only a few hundred of the amaHoli could be counted among the ‘loyal’ dissenters, entering Bulawayo for their own protection, with the vast majority of amaNdebele from across the caste system option to join the rebels.

In terms of organization and battle readiness the rebels seemed to have suffered significantly from the absence of a tight military command system, a situation aggravated by the central leadership vacuum, with Mlimo managing only to offer a supernatural advantage with such exhortations as the white man’s bullets being turned to water, and prophetic predictions that victory was a matter of pre-destiny and not consequent to sound military strategy and planning. This was also the first war fought without reliance on the traditional tactics evolved over the long years of amaNdebele military dominance. There were many guns in circulation at that time, and engagements were fought almost entirely in skirmish order, with examples on a company level of excellent leadership and stirring courage.

According to Selous at least 2000 breech loaders were in use during the rebellion, mainly Martini-Henrys, with some 100 Winchester repeaters taken over to the rebels by the native police. A good many Lee-Metford magazine rifles had also found their way into amaNdebele hands through theft or private purchase, or as a consequence of illicit gun running in the years leading up to the rebellion. Added to this was a random collection of muzzle loaders in varying states of age and disrepair, and contrary to many general assumptions popular at that time that, blacks were able to shoot with a high level of competence. Selous made the observation to this effect that was tempered by regular and direct experience:

 Now that the Ndebele had finally reconciled to the use of firearms and skirmishing tactics, they still did not match mounted white troops with their superior mobility and marksmanship. Ndebele marksmanship was deemed generally to be poor, which is not to be marveled at particularly, but in certain instances they did give a good account of themselves in firefights, with Selous given to comment: ‘…although Kafirs shoot very badly if hurried and kept moving, many of them are very fair shots if they can get all the time they require for aiming…’[viii]

The Rebellion was therefore much more of a gun-fought war than anything hitherto experienced by the amaNdebele, and it seems on the whole that their ability to adapt to mobile warfare took white responders somewhat by surprise, as did the fact that ammunition supplies seemed to hold up for the campaign, and that every amaNdebele rifleman engaged in a fire fight seemed always to be well supplied.

Despite this the amaNdebele maintained a broadly traditional order of battle with only some relaxation of the strict regimental system. Arms and equipment hidden in the aftermath of the Matabele War were retrieved and companies rallied to their local izinduna as news of the general spread of the rebellion reached them. By then most of the amaNdebele males had adopted to some degree or another items of European clothing, some completely, although others maintained certain items of regimental regalia, and many shields were deployed during the various engagements despite these being not only of no value, but often presenting a better target to the sights of an enemy rifleman. Consistent with the relatively minimal losses sustained in 1893 the amaNdebele force available for deployment was in the region of 14 000 to 15 000 men at arms. Of these the Induna Mtini retained a force of 4 000 elite warriors encamped on the Umgasa River. Garrisoning the Tuli road 25 mile southeast of Bulawayo was Induna Sikombo with a force of 2 000 warriors. Eight hundred fighting men under the Induna Babyaan were situated on the Khami River, 2 000 under Induna Nkonkobela in the Inyoka District, 2 000 under Induna Matisa in the Shangani District, 1 200 under Induna Umsolo in the Gwanda District, and 2000 under Induna Fezela in the Filabusi District. Most of the izinduna were veterans of the 1893 war, and most in general supported Lobengula’s heirs and the restructuring of the amaNdebele monarchy and traditional way of life.

Despite the fact that more or less all the constituent parts were present, the Ndebele military effort generally lacked cohesion and structure, and many have been the comments by European observers and chroniclers at once deriding the amaNdebele formations for this failure and expressing relief that it was so. Barring the obviously lack of co-ordination in the commencement of the rebellion, and the extraordinary opportunity missed in hesitating to approach and menace Bulawayo, the most notable blunder recorded was the failure on the part of the amaNdebele command to block access to and from the south, a road which throughout the war remained open, precariously so at times, but nonetheless a free movement of civilian, commercial and military traffic played a significant part in the ability of the few whites in possession of Bulawayo to maintain their resistance and eventually to be reinforced. ‘It would have been a nasty place to tackle had the Matabele held it.’ Colonel Robert Baden Powell, a commander of the relief force, wrote of his observations as he entered Matabeleland through the Mangwe Pass. ‘They [the Ndebele] might easily here have cut off Buluwayo (sic) from the outer world, but their M’limo, or oracle, had told them to leave this one road open as a bolt-hole for the whites in Matabeleland.’ [ix]

This, indeed, appeared to be the reason for the lapse, for it had been told to all and sundry that victory was certain, and be it magnanimity or a pragmatic desire to avoid bloodshed, the road remained open to allow the white population to leave. Of course this is not what happened, a fact that saved many a whit elife and rendered even more inevitable a speedy response form the south. The tactical leadership of the Mlimo was found wanting in many other areas too. The large impis encamped in various places is large semi-circle from west to northeast of Bulawayo, comprising many thousands of men, seemed unable to effect a coordinated series of assaults on the vulnerable defences of the town, nor to in any way act or deploy as a united force.

 One man, however, came on in the open and appeared to bear a charmed life, as no bullets touched him ; he had no gun or assegai, but came on alone down the valley towards us. He must have got to within about 150 yards of the laager when he fell shot in the leg. He rose again, and only then turned to fly, but the charm seemed to be broken, and he fell dead, shot through with several bullets. In the afternoon, when we were able to go out to where he lay, we found he had in his hands a skin-bag full of fat, and some of the usual witch-doctor’s throwing bones—no arms of any sort. Apparently he was a witch-doctor, or one of the priests of the much-talked-of ‘Umlimo’ who thought he’d do for the white man by means of his bones and incantations and that the white man’s bullets were to turn to water before him as had been predicted.[x]

 For the white colonists the initial response to the massacres was one of panic, and in moments of supreme vulnerability a similar failure to act with cool sense and rationale characterised preliminary arrangements in Bulawayo. In the aftermath of the Jameson Raid only 48 white police details remained in the country, 22 of whom where stationed in Bulawayo with the remainder scattered in isolated posts throughout the country. When the rebellion broke out only 12 Matabeleland Mounted Police details were available for service, and these were immediately seconded to the command of the Hon. Sir Maurice Gifford who set off with a patrol of 40 men to rescue 30 people stranded at Cummings Store in Insiza.

This was the first of a series of daring patrols despatched to bring in those stranded in the countryside, a sequence of events that remain one of the most celebrated episodes of the white response to the Rebellion. Gifford’s patrol reached Cummings store unmolested, but a dawn attack by a large impi under the command of the Induna Msindazi was beaten off at heavy losses to the attackers. The attack was extremely determined, with Selous reporting the killing of an amaNdebele fighter with his hands on the window sill of the store house. Twenty five amaNdebele fell with the loss of one member of the Matabeleland Mounted Police.

Later patrols included that commanded by Colonel W. Napier which set off on 23 March towards Shangani, returning on 1 April having effected the rescue of 50 souls. On 4 April Gifford set off again went out with 140 men to ‘Fonsecas’ situated just north of Bulawayo and was heavily engaged by the rebels. Four men were killed and seven wounded, with Gifford himself losing an arm during the engagement, and his replacement Captain Lumsden being mortally wounded. A similar misadventure occurred when Captain George Brand took a strong patrol south to the Gwanda District in search of a group of miners who had by then already made good their escape southwards. Passing through the eastern end of the Matopos the group was ambushed and nearly cut off by a 1000 strong impi under the command of Babyaan, and out of a total strength of 100 men, eight were killed, 15 wounded and thirty horses killed. It was thanks primarily to the deployment of a Maxim gun that the troop survived at all.

By the beginning of April the situation had stabilized to the extent that those whites remaining in the countryside who had survived the initial attacks were all securely laagered either in Bulawayo, Belingwe, Gwelo or Mangwe. Besides the 200 or so killed during the initial attacks some 70 casualties had been inflicted on the patrols in order to rescue 90 beleaguered souls. This was clearly unsustainable when it is borne in mind that out of an active corps of 400 men this was approx 12 percent, significantly higher casualties per capita than had been experienced by the amaNdebele. Thanks in part to this amaNdebele confidence and morale surged, quite as white morale in the Bulawayo laager plummeted. High casualties and a general shortage of food and ammunition fuelled a sense of pessimism that was perhaps more dangerous at that time than the amaNdebele threat itself. Victorian metropolitan sympathies had begun inexplicably to turn heavily against the colonists, and murmurs of disapprobation, punctuated by occasional crusades in favour of aboriginal rights tended to depress the morale of those on the front-line dealing with circumstances far removed from the pleasant rule of law in England.

This, and the fate of the murdered in the outlying areas, and of course the sights that many who had responded first to the raised alarm had seen, tended  to fuel anger and exaggerated the attitudes and responses of the beleaguered whites to their situation. Very little positive sentiment was expressed towards the blacks. As Frederick Selous, not known then, and nor since, as a racist or Negrophobe, put it: ‘…the average nature of the native will be judged of by the average European on the spot, according to the worst atrocities that have been committed…’[xi]

This state of mind also led to both acts of arbitrary violence against blacks and much gratuitous revenge seeking in the initial stages, culminating on April 10 in an incident that produced one of the iconic images of the rebellion. Three supposed rebels were captured some 20 miles west of Bulawayo and brought in at the hands of friendlies. No direct evidence implicated the three in any of the killings, but they were caught red handed looting property and were thus assumed to be involved to the highest degree. They were subject to a very brief and perfunctory trial before being hanged from branches of the same tree. A photograph of the suspended bodies was taken that had about it the air of a lynching party, with a group of white men posing beside a scene of crudely executed blacks. The photograph was published principally as an illustration to Olive Schreiner’s novella Trooper Peter Halket of Mashonaland, published in 1897, and deeply scathing about the conduct of the British South Africa Company. As an influential author, pacifist and social commentator of the period Schreiner adopted a highly critical stance on British imperialism in Africa, in particular in relation to the activities of Rhodes and men like him. Her disillusionment with Rhodes had begun with his support of the ‘Strop Bill’ in the Cape Parliament that allowed for black and coloured servants to be beaten for minor infringements. Her satirical attacks on Rhodes prompted others, and in particular from fellow writer, parliamentarian and publisher Henry Labouchére, who produced the influential weekly journal Truth, and who styled himself as the conscience of the British public in matters of colonial exploitation.

All of this was a source of tremendous irritation to the colonists who felt with some justification that those languishing in the comfort of civilisation had no business criticizing the methods of their kith and kin labouring on the outer fringes of empire to bring order to a violent and chaotic world. These sentiments were again amply expressed by Frederick Selous who wrote:

 …we are thankful for the sympathy of that most determined enemy of everything Rhodesian— except the noble savages who therein dwell—Mr. Labouchére, who has professed himself ‘sorry for the women and children who have been killed.’ Sorry – only sorry! Wonderful indeed is the calm serenity of soul that enables that noble nature to view all mundane affairs from the same cold, passionless plane, whether it be the cruel murder of an English settler’s wife and family in Rhodesia, or an accident to the wheel of a friend’s bicycle in Hyde Park ! But the men who have looked upon the corpses of the murdered ones, who have seen the shattered skulls of their countrywomen, the long grey locks of the aged and the sunny curls of the girls and little children all alike dabbled in their blood, are something more than sorry ; indignation mingles with their sorrow, and they are determined to exact such punishment for the crimes committed, as shall preclude as far as possible their recurrence in the future.

 Criticism of a different kind aimed at the BSAC administration for its treatment of the blacks was also forthcoming from those in Mashonaland who were observing events underway in the south. The Company was to blame, it was said, not only for not recognising the inevitability of some form of native uprising, but for excessive leniency towards blacks reluctant to work and for ignoring its responsibility for laying solid foundations in native policy.[xii]

To combat all this, and the general malaise within the laager, an offensive strategy was agreed to, and patrols began to leave the fortifications of Bulawayo with a view to actively engaging the amaNdebele and easing an intensifying pressure around the perimeter of the town. On Wednesday morning, April 22, after three inconsequential engagements, a strong patrol of 110 whites supported by 200 ‘Cape Boys’ and other African levies, approached the Umguza River on the north-eastern outskirts of Bulawayo to try and dislodge a strong impi of some 4000 combined combatants menacing the town under the command of the Induna Mtini. The patrol was engaged initially from a distance with long range rifle fire before in due course the engagement developed into stubborn fight with neither side able to claim any particular advantage. The courage, tenacity and general deportment of the amaNdebele fighters won a great deal of praise from members of the patrol, itself winning three recommendations for the Victoria Cross, which has always been a feat never easily achieved in the British and associated armies. The skirmish was epic but ultimately inconclusive

Among the ‘Cape Boy’ contingent that fought on the Umguza River that day was a Xhosa scout by the name of John Grootboom who was destined to play a great part is the final resolution of the conflict. On this occasion he fought in a manner that earned him the admiration of Frederick Selous whose account of the skirmish is usually regarded as the definitive version. Grootboom served as a scout, and as Frank W. Sykes observed of him in his account of the campaign, With Plumer in Matabeleland, Grootboom was possessed of ‘…an intimate knowledge of the country, and the customs and tactics of the natives, combined with courage and absolute self reliance, he was just the type of man adapted by nature and disposition for the purpose of espionage.’[xiii] Grootboom was a product of contemporary South Africa, being in appearance wholly African, but with an Afrikaans name and a proven loyalty to white interest, he developed his legend in the usually self effacing manner of great men, but did so conspiring actively with the whites, and in due course he would be absorbed into Robert Baden-Powell’s reconnaissance efforts in the second phase of the rebellion.

Meanwhile the two sides disengaged and retreated with little having been achieved. Poor command was cited on both sides as being to blame.[xiv] This had been the most determined effort yet mustered by the Bulawayo laager, but the battle ultimately lost cohesion in rough terrain. The encircling tactics might well have succeeded had Mtini not allowed his centre to be penetrated by the Cape Boys Regiment, supported by the Afrikaner Corps, both of whom are credited with saving the patrol from annihilation. Many casualties were suffered by both sides, with Frederick Selous himself narrowly avoiding death when his horse failed him and he was rescued at the last minute by a fellow officer. The retreat was supported by the Grey Scouts at the cost of several casualties and the achievement something significantly less than a victory.

News of yet another failure to dislodge the Mtini’s impi from the still unbroken Umguza line did little to enliven the spirits of the besieged inhabitants of Bulawayo. For Mitini and his impi the battle had also been less than a victory, but it was a source of some sombre celebration that at least it had not been a defeat. All things being equal a stalemate would work more in the favour of the amaNdebele, who were capable of living off the land more effectively than the whites, and could sustain a longer campaign of siege and attrition. In Bulawayo news had been circulating for some time that two separate relief columns were being organised both in Salisbury and in Mafeking and Kimberly which would have gone some way to easing the general anxiety, but in the short term food and ammunition was low, and if no better reason than to boost flagging morale it deemed imperative that the grip the amaNdebele enjoyed on the countryside surrounding Bulawayo had to be broken.

It is unlikely that the indunas watching the situation and trying to interpret events would have been completely unprepared for the eventuality of further force arriving in the colony, but how specific this knowledge would have been is open to speculation. The inevitability of a crushing blow being delivered as a consequence of any systematic attack on the whites of the colony had always been an unspoken fact of their situation. Now more than at any time it was imperative that the leadership act quickly to overrun the capital before greater force could be introduced.

In those vital days towards the end of April; after more than a month of intense activity; and with the daring patrols that ranged out from Bulawayo being the thrilling stuff of white Rhodesian myth, but in reality little else; and then a series of stirring but largely inconsequential engagements that had further drained supplies, ammunition, manpower, will-power and morale, the defences of the few whites who has so far held the line were at their lowest ebb. By then also the amaNdebele had mustered some cohesion, and although still performing significantly below capacity, the impis stood poised with their best chance yet of striking a killing blow against the defences of Bulawayo.

None of this was lost on the handful of white commanders and their charges sheltering behind the laager in Bulawayo. The residents of the town were increasingly feeling a sense that they were now enclosed on all sides and that the moment of truth was nigh. Notwithstanding the surety of a relief column arriving soon, it was obvious that some immediate and concerted blow needed to be struck as much for the sake of morale and military necessity, in order to break the amaNdebele control of the countryside immediately surrounding Bulawayo.

It was decided then that a final assault would be made on the Umguza line, and to this end a flamboyant and highly respected officer by the name of Captain MacFarlane, an ex-officer of the elite 9th Queens Royal Lancers, and at that time something of an establishment figure in Bulawayo, was given as many men, horses and guns as could be spared, with orders to break the siege on the contested Umguza line. On Saturday April 25 this rather forlorn column of 116 whites and 200 blacks left the laager before dawn and headed west to the already trammelled battlefield of the Umguza River.

A considerable amount of unwarranted derring-do accompanied the men on this expedition, with a certain lieutenant Grenfell observing: ‘There is a good deal to be said in favour of fighting when the state of affairs is such that you can go out after morning coffee to a certain find, with every chance of a gallop and a kill, and return to a late breakfast at say 2 P.M.’[xv] Despite this thoroughly British flippancy the battle had an air about it of finality as two sides approaching the limit of their endurance grappled in what both recognised was likely to be the defining engagement.

A tactical plan was devised by MacFarlane to use the battered Grey’s Scouts to entice a premature commitment of the amaNdebele left horn which succeeded with the result that the horn was broken by the deployment mainly of a Hotchkiss 7-pounder and a fully functional Maxim gun. The action was nonetheless regarded widely on reflection as being a ‘very near run thing’.[xvi] MacFarlane then ordered the Afrikander Corps to attack the right horn, which in a decisive action it did, resulting in the defining moment of the battle which finally broke the amaNdebele initiative. It was a near run thing indeed, and could easily have resulted in disaster, but the right horn of the classing amaNdebele formation broke. A late counter attack by the Matisa/Godhlo impi was stopped by the deployment of the Hotchkiss and the Maxim, and by the sight of Mtini’s powerful impi under rout. This force did not join the battle. Casualties among the Ndebele were high, and not insignificant among the patrol, with four killed and seven wounded, among the John Grootboom who took two hits but survived.

With the grip of the amaNdebele on Bulawayo now broken, attention immediately shifted to the two relief forces moving in from different directions, and the need to clear a line of communication north to Salisbury before any kind of communication was establsihed south through Tuli to South Africa. This was again the application of the simple principal that the British South Africa Company, once the immediate threat to the lives of the colonists and sustainability of the colony had passed, must at all costs be seen to be in control of matters with the imperial factor providing assistance only, and not taking matters in hand in such a way as to justify the assumption of imperial control.

Approaching form the north was the Company’s forces, accompanied by Cecil Rhodes himself who had entered the country from the east, and who sought to usurp Sir Richard Martin who at more or less the same time had entered from the southwest in order to represent Her Majesty in Bulawayo. Arriving not far behind both came Lord Albert Grey, replacing A.H.F. Duncan who had himself temporally stood in for Jameson. Grey was a company man and a very substantive figure to fly the company flag in a nervous territory.

For the amaNdebele the first arrivals of reinforcements meant that the Rebellion shifted strategically from an offensive to a defensive situation. Gone now was any chance of victory in the sense of driving the white man out of Matabeleland and reclaiming the territory as an autonomous homeland. Instead, while not necessarily immediately rationalised as such, it became a question of survival in the face of what would be a determined effort top beat any fight out of the amaNdebele people as a means to illustrate to them with utter finality that their existence as an independent force on the landscape was truly over.

The initial response was for the fighting units to retreat to places of refuge and familiarity, which in this case were essentially the redoubt of the Matopo hills south of Bulawayo and the Mambo hills in the district of Nyati. Matisa and Godhlo’s impi repaired to Mambo while the dominant force of Mtini’s impi took refuge in Matopos. It can assumed also that the Umgulugu/Sikomo impi and the Banyaan/Dhliso impi followed suit and established themselves in Matopos. There the main fighting force of the amaNdebele nation prepared itself for something of a last stand with no expectation that it could survive in any meaningful way, but determined for want of a better strategy to fight to the last man.

One of the first actions of the newly bolstered force now taking stock in and around Bulawayo was to attempt to consolidate the success of the last fight on the Umguza to dislodge the impi that had been severely rattled but not removed. Despite being very much on the back foot the amaNdebele were none the less extremely audacious and inclined in the closing phases of their offensive campaign to taunt the whites from vantage points from where they could see and be seen by the jittery residents of the town. They achieved little by doing this than to make themselves targets for seven pounder practice, but perhaps by then those who were facing an increased inevitability of defeat were beyond caring.

Colonel Plumber was to have a small amount of the Victorian stuffing knocked out of him as his divided force set off in two columns anticipating and easy sweep, the forward of which rode into a fierce ambush against a large amaNdebele force well positioned and ahead of any intelligence that Plumber had been able to glean in planning the operation. All that was at stake at this point was pride and national prestige, and the amaNdebele were determined to defend this even if the fortunes of their race could now clearly no longer be salvaged in their generation. Maxim guns and the advantage of artillery again were brought to bear against desperate daring and naked courage, and the won. The siege of Bulawayo was finally broken, and the campaign shifted to one of attrition to smash the power of the amaNdebele and bring home to all within earshot that the days of African empire had passed, and European empire was now upon the land.

The impis in the Mambo hills, meanwhile, were preparing for an inevitable assault on this secondary stronghold before the main force entrenched in the Matopo hills could expect imperial attention to focus on it. To these preparations was attached a symbolic performance, as the reputation of the Mlimo had been placed firmly on the line with the ritual treatment of the fighters in anticipation of what now promised to the defining moment. It wa snow that destiny would prevail and the predictions of supernatural intervention, bullets turning to water and imaginary lines of significance that the white man could not cross would be tested. By then belief in the infallibility of the Mlimo had waned, for according to John Grootboom, who at the time was secreted out of sight in the surrounding hills and scouting in advance of the attack force, there existed a great deal of suspicion expressed for the ‘aBantwana M’limo and other so called mouthpieces of the M’limo.’[xvii]  To be told once again that the white man’s bullets would turn to water, and that the whites would all eventually be killed or banished, was beginning to wear thin against a weight of temporal evidence to the contrary. Nonetheless exhortations were made and the residual belief, premised perhaps more on hope than certainty, was bolstered my ritual as preparation for battle were made. The promise was made that if the white man crossed the Umguza his death would be assured. This was a military as well as a spiritual gamble. A considerable impi had been assembled and the odds of victory, even if not supernaturally assisted, were high.

Then, into their midst, came an unexpected patrol of 200 mounted men under Colonel Jack Spreckley. This august body of men comprised company officers such as Frederick Selous, and the forceful personality of Colonel Robert Baden Powell, reconnaissance supremo and father of the Boy Scouts movement, all of whom crossed the Umguza and were neither blinded nor struck dead, but in fact engaged the defending impi at significant loss to the amaNdebele both in terms of manpower and faith in the command abilities of Mquati and other Mlimo. The impi then retreated onto the Mambo Hills complex and there prepared to face the main column under Colonel Herbert Plumber then en-route to Inyati under orders to clear the region of rebels. This was a considerable force of men and equipment, by far the largest seen so far in Rhodesia, with about 1200 men, including native levies and the Cape Boy corps, and backed up with a section of No. 10 Mountain Battery, Royal Artillery from Natal, and 40 wagons to transport kit, provisions and ammunition.

 The Mambo Hills, or Thabas a Mambo, is a complex of hills running north to south, and rising abruptly from the flat thornveld of Matabeleland, and gradually ascending in an easterly direction. Compared to the Matopo Hills the range is small, being about 5 miles in length, but a natural fortification is formed with hills faced by steep sided rock precipices and riven with heavily foliated clefts and gorges that at that time made movement within the region extremely difficult for a laden attacker. From a defence perspective the site was superb, with the weakness only that it presented excellent opportunities for a siege since it was of restricted size and therefore limited in its ability to sustain a large body of defenders for any length of time.

 This was not ultimately of much concern to Plumer, who had in mind a rout, and to this effect the troops at his disposal were arranged. The principal attack was launched on July 5 by the Cape Boy Corps upon intelligence provided by John Grootboom. In a bitter fight that saw much hand to hand combat, and which won the Cape Boy Corps a great deal of respect among the white units, the amaNdebele were routed and then harassed in retreat by mounted units taking captives and capturing cattle and other livestock. It was by no means a rout, however, for the amaNdebele made excellent use of their main advantage, the terrain, and exacted significant casualties at the same time as forcing a degree of dislocation and disorganisation on the attackers that in due course forced Plumer to concede that the losses being incurred did not justify the tactical advantage of continuing the fight.

The Mambo Hills fight had indeed degenerated into a contest of small units in savage and bloody hand to hand engagements. Eighteen whites had been killed and 14 wounded out of only 250 involved in the fighting, which was a loss that the attacking force was both unaccustomed to sustaining and unwilling to absorb. For the amaNdebele the defence of the Thabas aMambo had been bold and determined, but equally costly. Six hundred amaNdebele women and children had been captured, along with 1000 head of cattle and 2000 head of sheep and goats, and a heavy if unaccounted loss of fighting manpower (estimates were between 200 and 500 men). The frenetic pace of the battle was best described by Captain W.J. Boggie, a tough Australian artillerymen who contributed this vignette to the observations of Frank W. Sykes:

Dogs barked and howled, and sped madly in all directions, often biting the dust in the agony of a bullet intended for their masters. Women shrieked and clapped their hands while calling loudly on ‘M’limo’ for protection and victory. Children yelled as mothers jostled them in hasty flight. The cattle in their kraals kept up a continuous low moaning, even the goats and sheep joined in with shrill, plaintive cries in the general medley of sounds. Heard above all the commotion was the booming of the mountain batteries, the hissing flight of projectiles overheard, followed by loud reports, echoing again and again, as the shrapnel bullets sped to their destined marks. Still the chase went on.[xviii]

This was in fact the moment of truth for the Mlimo, and sometime soon afterwards Mkwati moved north into Mashonaland in an effort to influence a similar rebellion among the Mashona that did indeed out on June 16. This came about as a perception similar to that made by the amaNdebele after the Jameson raid was made by the Mashona upon noticing that almost the entire armed force of Mashonaland had left for the relief of Matabeleland. Meanwhile the surviving rebels abandoned Thabas a Mambo overnight, some abandoning the war and moving northwards towards the Shangani Reserve, with the larger body making their way southwest toward their brethren preparing for similar attacks in Matopos.

Approximately 10 000 amaNdebele combatants making up various iButho and regiments were now concentrated in the Matopo Hills, and it was to there that the focus of the war shifted. Without hope of victory this was a bitter phase of the campaign for the amaNdebele. In the years following oral history was collected and reflections on the campaign collated from the point of view of the amaNdebele, but the agony of dispossession can never be adequately documented, and nor the formless but anguished dialogue that would have occupied the nights and days of the leadership search for something less than a genocidal solution. No faith existed amongst the amaNdebele, in particular after the murders wrought against the settlers by the roving gangs that had held sway in the early days, that the Europeans would have any appetite for compromise. Beyond holding out for as long as possible in the hills of the Matopo, mass slaughter according the amaNdebele formula itself seemed the only option that would likely remain.

In point of fact beyond the ramparts of the Matopos the amaNdebele were facing a very worried enemy. Cecil Rhodes had arrived in the country after severe censure at the hands of the Imperial Government for his involvement in the disastrous Jameson Raid. He had forfeited his public office in the Cape and much of his formal influence on the board of the British South Africa Company. He had been cut adrift from the establishment, and had little left to show for a life of concerted labour but the newly occupied territory of Rhodesia, which now became more than simply a piece in the puzzle of British imperial domination of Africa, but in his mind something of a monument to his achievements, to his philanthropy and to his stature as a great if somewhat discredited man. His frame of mind was melancholy, and if death were to come soon, he longed that it do so in the wake of great works and with a legacy of monumental achievement to remember.

Practically speaking Rhodes was again anxious that the imperial factor not assume absolute control of events on the ground, paving the way ultimately for Her Majesty to assume practical control of the administration of the colony. Rhodes had only very narrowly avoided the rescinding of his charter, and the future of Rhodesia as a BSAC asset remained tenuous at the very least. Rhodes was by this time in the thick of the action, and although less than a combatant, he was a deeply interested observer, and although without direct authority, he nonetheless was a person of great influence on the ground. The growing sense as the amaNdebele moved to occupy the Matopos that a long campaign of siege and attrition lay ahead, one that the promised to absorbed huge quantities of resource and material, worried Rhodes immensely. Neither his wealth nor the subscription of the company could cover the cost of such a campaign, which could mean only the increasing financial and political involvement of the Imperial Government. If this were allowed to occur it would be inevitable that Rhodesia would become a Crown Colony, or at the very least a Crown Protectorate, and Rhodes’ dream would with absolute finality be over.

However more fire was to be wrought and more blood spilled before this fear on the part of the founder could be moulded into a practical peace. The amaNdebele leadership had by then streamlined the guerrilla tactics necessary to fight in the environment of the Matopos, they were still adequately armed, reasonably well supplied for continuation of the war, and equipped with the intractability of their forefathers that replaced hope with blind courage and pragmatism with determination. The whites may have begun then to cautiously move out of their defences to retake practical control of the country, and they may have in a de facto sense won the war, but the amaNdebele were still in fighting formation, and further north in Mashonaland a brutal and destructive fight with the Mashonaland was well underway. There would be no easy solution to this.

The large amaNdebele fighting force was now broken up and ranged at various points throughout the Matopos, with the iButho of Babyaan and Dhliso occupying the central position and the right horn formation under the indunas Nyanda (a brother of Lobengula), Sikombo and Umlugulu, and the right horn under the command of Mabiza and Hole. To confront and dislodge this formidable force General Carrington had at his disposal about 1100 white troops backed up by the Cape Boy Corps now numbering about 160 men fit for active service and an amorphous collection of amaNdebele levies and ‘friendlies’ under the command of Johann Colenbrander. This force was divided into two sections in preparation for the attack. The main attack force was placed under the command of the redoubtable Colonel Hubert Plumer, which consisted of 800 white troops and the Cape Boy Corps. A smaller flying column of 200 whites and the Ndebele and ‘friendly’ irregulars was placed under the command of Major Tyrie Laing.

John Grootboom’s criticism of Carrington’s strategy, and the process of the war in general, was that the company and imperial forces tended to fight the fight during the day and then return to their laagers at night. This certainly seemed to be the case. The amaNdebele could not be ejected from the vast expanse of hill country that is the Matopos in a single engagement, since there was infinite space available for a roving campaign to shift from one system of granite top hills to another. Three separate battles were fought, each involving an assault on, or attack from, elevated and thickly defended positions. Heavy losses were suffered by both sides, and despite exhausting effort no material shift in the overall position was achieved. It was then that diplomacy took over in what would be the most startling moment recorded so far in the history of white occupation of Rhodesia. Rhodes was quicker to grasp the military situation than Carrington was to grasp the political, and probably in the hills of Matopo the amaNdebele themselves were quick to grasp both. It was upon this brief balance of weight that Rhodes decided to step in with a proposal.

The theory developing among the military men at that time was that a war of attrition had become necessary. A scorched earth of amaNdebele food production followed by the construction of forts and the infusion of fresh manpower would combine with a year long siege, at least, to starve out and destroy the amaNdebele fighting potential. Rhodes was horrified. The cost of this would be astronomical. In a position of some isolation, and certainly without formal authority, he need to tread carefully. As a businessman he had succeeded to a spectacular degree, and squaring his enemies had always been central to his strategy. He supposed quite accurately that the amaNdebele would tilt towards surrender if terms were not too abject. It was an unpopular option among the angry settlers, and certainly was not the first choice of the imperial factor, or at least if it was, it was deemed appropriate that the responsibility for negotiation would naturally fall to an imperial agent.

 However Rhodes’ personality soared far above the restrictions of his situation. He was at the centre of events, and the amaNdebele knew him as a very great man. Some imperious official with a colonial office career could not hope to penetrate the essence of the amaNdebele grievance. And for his own part Rhodes was careless of the threat to his life. He was a power unto himself, and he knew it, but more importantly he was not adverse to dying if the cause and effect of it could be monumental.

Fortune smiled on the prospect further when Mzilikazi’s surviving wife Nyamazana, by then a very old women, was captured during a skirmish by a Cape Boy detachment. She was the perfect emissary to begin the process, and after being primed with a message of peace for the leadership she was sent back to the Matopos in the possession of two flags. One of these was white and the other red. Her instructions to the izInduna were that if war was desired then the both flags were to be displayed. If it was to be peace only the white flag was to be shown. It took a full day for a response to be given, but when it was it was the white flag that was shown.

 The question then shifted to who it should be to go in among the amaNdebele in order to lay the groundwork for negotiations. This task fell to perhaps the most obvious choice – John Grootboom. Grootboom took to the hills with a pair of troopers from the Cape Boy Corps, and to these three was entrusted the delicate process of bringing the two sides together. It did not take long, and in due course Grootboom returned to report that six of the principal izInduna, as well as two princes and 34 officers and headmen of villages, had assembled in readiness to discuss peace. ‘They did not venture to summon so great a man as Rhodes to them, but if he came he would be welcome.’[xix]

Indeed Rhodes had every intention of attending the proposed meeting, and with a small entourage, including newspaper journalist and confidante of his by the name of Vere Stent, he did. It is from Stent’s account of what transpired that the popular version of the episode is recorded. All were armed only with revolvers, and Rhodes with no more than a switch. They were observed from the heights by a large body of amaNdebele as they trod on horseback carefully up the valley. It was a moment that vibrated with tension, rich with the stuff of drama and the source of the great legends that form the bedrock of a national mythology. Rhodes was nervous but thrilling at this the vital stuff of life. The amaNdebele lining the hills had no idea what to expect. Commitment to a negotiated surrender was by no means absolute and many among those watching bristled with a desire to kill.

In the event this did not happen. Discipline held firm, and a deputation left the cover of the hills and stepped out into the open. The group comprised 44 indunas who advanced cautiously towards where Rhodes and his party waited. As they advanced Rhodes is supposed to have remarked to his companions: ‘It is not what we have to fear from these men, but from some of the rabid instructions that may have been issued by the M’limo, and you never know what the M’limo may tell them.’[xx]

In fact the Mlimos were no longer in command. Authority had been retained by the izInduna, the traditional leadership of the nation, who were then prepared for the first time to act as a committee in the absence of a king. The group was led by the young and stern faced induna Sikombo with the others following in single file behind him in order of rank. The truce flag was thrust into the ground, and the izInduna formed a semi-circle and squatted before Rhodes who was seated halfway up an anthill. The indunas Somabulana, Sikombo, Umgulugu, Dhliso, Nyanda and Bidi occupied the centre with the others ranged around them.

In the manner of a native council, proceedings were opened with formal introductions by John Grootboom, to whom credit was owed for arranging the meeting, followed by greetings and salutations. Johann Colenbrander then addressed the indunas, inviting them to address Rhodes, their father who had come amongst them with peace in his heart. It was Somanbulana who commenced the amaNdebele monologue which soon slipped into the rhythm and texture of a saga as the story of the amaNdebele from Zululand to Matabeleland was told, and praise given to the Great Bull elephant and his son who had been the only two kings of the dynasty. The torturous but glorious journey into the Transvaal, the epoch of greatest power, and then the decline of Mzilikazi followed by the anguish of the years of steady dispossession.

All this was stirring stuff and by it Rhodes was deeply moved. He had engineered this destruction, and was responsible for the conquest, and was now aware of much that had been done in his name that was less than glorious. However his interest was not in sentiment, and the best that he could do was rectify what was wrong, besides which he had only moderate terms of surrender to offer. He agreed to replace certain native commissioners, and to disband the Native Police, but the question of cattle was largely beyond any restitution, and the matter of land was resolved with an undertaking that it would be considered at a later time.

Behind him Rhodes was pressed by military commanders and white settlers who demanded nothing less than total surrender from the amaNdebele. From the point of view of the amaNdebele it had been Rhodes who had asked for peace talks not they, and from this some capital was obviously expected. The amaNdebele view of the situation on the ground was that if they were to be starved then both sides would starve. The military capacity of the amaNdebele had been proved inadequate to achieve victory, but it was enough to make the country ungovernable for many years to come.  To Rhodes the key was to make many promises, none of which were written down. An oral commitment proved adequate for the time being, since ‘no man would have asked an honoured man like the late Cecil Rhodes to make his promise in writing. It would have been a shameful thing to distrust a big man like him.’[xxi]



[i] Selous, Frederick Courtney. Sunshine and Storm in Rhodesia, (Rowland Ward & Co, London 1896), p24

[ii] Selous, Frederick Courtney. Sunshine and Storm in Rhodesia, (Rowland Ward & Co, London 1896), p24

[iii] Selous, Frederick Courtney. Sunshine and Storm in Rhodesia, (Rowland Ward & Co, London 1896), p13

[iv] Selous, Frederick Courtney. Sunshine and Storm in Rhodesia, (Rowland Ward & Co, London 1896), p24

[v] Selous, Frederick Courtney. Sunshine and Storm in Rhodesia, (Rowland Ward & Co, London 1896),  p33

[vi] Selous, Frederick Courtney. Sunshine and Storm in Rhodesia, (Rowland Ward & Co, London 1896), p32

[vii] Selous, Frederick Courtney. Sunshine and Storm in Rhodesia, (Rowland Ward & Co, London 1896), p52

[viii] Selous, Frederick Courtney. Sunshine and Storm in Rhodesia, (Rowland Ward & Co, London 1896), p153

[ix] Baden-Powell, Maj. Gen. R.S.S. Matabeleland Campaign: Being a Narrative of the Campaign in Suppressing the Native Rising In Matabeleland and Mashonaland. (Methuen & Co, London, 1900) p12

[x] Selous, Frederick Courtney. Sunshine and Storm in Rhodesia, (Rowland Ward & Co, London 1896), p131

[xi] Selous, Frederick Courtney. Sunshine and Storm in Rhodesia, (Rowland Ward & Co, London 1896), p88

[xii] Summers, Carol. From Civilization to Segregation; Social Ideals and Social Control in Southern Rhodesia, 1890-1934. (Ohio University Press, Athena Ohio, 1994) p50

[xiii] Sykes, Frank W. With Plumer in Matabeleland, (Books of Rhodesia, Bulawayo 1972) p263

[xiv] Selous, Frederick Courtney. Sunshine and Storm in Rhodesia, (Rowland Ward & Co, London 1896), p159

[xv] Selous, Frederick Courtney. Sunshine and Storm in Rhodesia, (Rowland Ward & Co, London 1896), p 170

[xvi] Dennis Bishop – The Ndebele and Mashona Rebellions of 1896

[xvii] Sykes, Frank W. With Plumer in Matabeleland, (Books of Rhodesia, Bulawayo 1972), p266

[xviii] Quoted: Sykes, Frank W. With Plumer in Matabeleland, (Books of Rhodesia, Bulawayo 1972), p153

[xix] Sykes, Frank W. With Plumer in Matabeleland, (Books of Rhodesia, Bulawayo 1972), p 218

[xx] Sykes, Frank W. With Plumer in Matabeleland, (Books of Rhodesia, Bulawayo 1972), p220

[xxi] Ranger, Terence. Voices From The Rocks, (James Curry, Oxford, Baobab, Harare, Indiana, Bloomington, 1999), p73