The Story of Rhodesia/Matabele Wars
Events leading to the first Matabele War
Before the first Matabele War, Cecil Rhodes and King Lobengula had good relationships. Lobengula knew that the Zulu’s attempt to rebel failed miserably so he initially decided to peacefully negotiate. However, this did not last long. In 1893, a band of 400 cattle thieves went to Fort Victoria to run away from the Matabele. The European settlers watched the Matabele slaughter the robbers. This gave Rhodes a reason to attack Matabeleland.
Start of the first Matabele War
Rhodes employed Leander Jameson to layout the battle plan. Major Patrick Forbes, the officer commanding, led a column from Salisbury, and met Major Allan Wilson, leading the column from Fort Victoria. They advanced towards Bulawayo, however a small pox outbreak prevented any action by the Matabele until October 25th. By then, the column had crossed the Shangani River, and set up a laager. Then, 6000 Matabele attacked, but the battle didn’t last long and the Matabele were forced to retreat due to the Maxim Guns and combined fire from Martini-Henrys.
Destruction of Bulawayo
The Battle of Bembezi happened on November 1st, 1893. The Matabele decided to show how fearless they are by conducting frontal attacks on the maxim guns. There were 700 British South Africa Compmay (BSAC) soldiers in the battle and 7000 Matabele, however Forbes and his men still won because of their superior weapons. John Edmond sings about this battle in his song, “The Battle of Bembezi”:
We fought them at the Bonko, 'twas just the other day
They laid an ambush in our path - we went another way
To capture Bulawayo and stop a fearful war
The Sal’sbry Horse, Victoria Rangers and the old Cape Corps
On the first day of November of eighteen ninety-three
We fought the Matabele at the Battle of Bembezi
We formed a laager on the hill at mid-day for to rest
We saw an Insukamini regiment towards the west
We swung the seven-pounder 'round; let a big one fly
And from the east the Amaveni gave their battle cry
On the first day of November of eighteen ninety-three
We fought the Matabele at the Battle of Bembezi
The wild Ingubu with the fierce Imbezu on the right
Came charging from the northern bush, they were a fearful sight
And near 6000 warriors - we stopped them on the run
The bravest of the brave could never match the Maxim gun
On the first day of November of eighteen ninety-three
We fought the Matabele at the Battle of Bembezi
Because of Lobengula’s pride, he didn’t want that BSAC to capture Bulawayo, so he decided to burn it instead. Then he fled in order to not be captured. On November 4th, Bulawayo was captured. On November 13th, Major Forbes organisée his column and started in pursuit of Lobengula.
The pursuing party was delayed by difficult routes and heavy rains, and did not catch up with Lobengula until December 3. Major Allan Wilson, in command of thirty-four troopers known as the Shangani Patrol, crossed the Shangani river and bivouacked close to Lobengula's quarters. In the night the river rose, and early the next morning the Matabele surrounded the Shangani Patrol, overwhelming Wilson and his followers. 31 men of the Shangani Patrol perished in the encounter, while the remaining three (American scouts Frederick Russell Burnham and Pearl "Pete" Ingram, and an Australian named Gooding) crossed the swollen river under orders from Wilson, and returned to Forbes to request reinforcements. However, Forbes' forces were unable to cross the river in time.
Defeat of Matabele
Lobengula died from smallpox on January 22 or 23 1894. Meanwhile, the Ndebele warriors gradually succumbed to the company's superior firepower. Soon after the king’s death, the Ndebele izinDuna submitted to the British South Africa Company. Charges were later made in the British House of Commons against the company, accusing them of having provoked the Ndebele in order to secure their territory. However, after enquiry the company was exonerated from the charge by Lord Ripon, the Colonial Secretary.
Following the end of the war, one of Lobengula's izinDuna said that just before Forbes' column had reached the Shangani on 3 December 1893, the king had attempted to buy the pioneers off. According to this story, two Matabele messengers, Petchan and Sehuloholu, had been given a box of gold sovereigns, and instructed to intercept the column before it reached the river. They were to tell the whites that the king admitted defeat, and offered this money in tribute if the BSAP would turn back. "Gold is the only thing that will stop the white men," Lobengula reportedly said. Petchan and Sehuloholu reportedly reached the column on 2 December 1893, and gave the money and the message to two men in the rear guard. No man who had been attached to the column confirmed this, but company authorities thought it unlikely that the Matabele would simply invent such a story. Two officers' batmen were accused of accepting the gold, then keeping it for themselves and not passing on the message. The evidence against them was inconclusive, but they were found guilty and sentenced to 14 years' hard labour by the Resident Magistrate. They were released after two years, however, because the maximum term the Magistrate could give was three months; the convictions were ultimately quashed altogether on a re-assessment of the evidence by the High Commissioner's legal team. The truth of the matter has never been conclusively resolved.
Aftermath of the the First Matabele War
Within nine months the rebuilt town of Bulawayo had a population of 1,900 colonials with over 2,000 more prospectors in the various goldfields. A new company, the African Transcontinental Company, was founded under the auspices of Col. Frank Rhodes, brother of Cecil, with the ultimate purpose of connecting the Cape with Cairo. The railway from Cape Town passed Mafeking, and approached the Rhodesian frontier, reaching Bulawayo in 1897. The east coast line to connect Salisbury (now Harare) with Beira, Mozambique (then Portuguese East Africa Colony) was completed in 1899.
The First Matabele War was the first wartime use of a Maxim gun by Britain and it proved to have a decisive impact. In less than optimal situations, such as hilly or mountainous terrain or dense vegetation with poor lines of sight, the Maxim gun resulted in little direct impact on enemy deaths. But as a psychological weapon, the Maxim gun was truly phenomenal. It generated a sense of fear in the Ndebele and made the British South Africa Police seem invincible. In one engagement, for example, 50 company soldiers with just four Maxim guns fought off 5,000 Ndebele warriors.
Introduction to the Second Matabele War
In March 1896, the Mlimo (Matabele spiritual leader) convinced the Matabele and the Shona that the drought, locust, plagues, and the cattle disease. She also predicted the end of white people in Africa. At the time, there were only 48 BSAP men to protect Rhodesia because the rest were in Transvaal after the failed Jameson Raid.
Second Matabele War in Matabeleland
The Mlimo planned to wait until the night of 29 March, the first full moon, to take Bulawayo by surprise immediately after a ceremony called the Big Dance. He promised, through his priests, that if the Matabele went to war, the bullets of the settlers would change to water and their cannon shells would become eggs. His plan was to kill all of the settlers in Bulawayo first, but not to destroy the town itself as it would serve again as the royal kraal for the newly reincarnated King Lobengula. The Mlimo decreed that the settlers should be attacked and driven from the country through the Mangwe Pass on the Western edge of the Matobo Hills, which was to be left open and unguarded for this reason. Once the settlers were purged from Bulawayo, the Matabele and Shona warriors would head out into the countryside and continue the slaughter until all the settlers were either killed or had fled.
However, several young Matabele were overly anxious to go to war, and the rebellion started prematurely. On 20 March, Matabele rebels shot and stabbed a native policeman. Over the next few days, other outlying settlers and prospectors were killed. Frederick Selous, the famous big-game hunter, had heard rumours of settlers in the countryside being killed, but he thought it was a localised problem. When news of the policeman's murder reached Selous on 23 March, he knew the Matabele had started a massive uprising.
Nearly 2,000 Matabele warriors began the rebellion in earnest on 24 March. Many, although not all, of the young native police quickly deserted and joined the rebels. The Matabele headed into the countryside armed with a variety of weapons, including: Martini-Henry rifles, Winchester repeaters, Lee-Metfords, assegais, knobkerries and battle-axes. As news of the massive rebellion spread, the Shona joined in the fighting, and the settlers headed towards Bulawayo. Within a week, 141 settlers were slain in Matabeleland, another 103 killed in Mashonaland, and hundreds of homes, ranches and mines were burned. A particularly tragic case occurred at the Insiza River where Mrs. Fourie and her 6 small children were found mutilated beyond recognition on their farmstead. Two young women of the Ross family living nearby were similarly killed in their newly built home.
Siege of Bulawayo
With few troops to support them, the settlers quickly built a laager of sandbagged wagons in the centre of Bulawayo on their own. Barbed wire was added to Bulawayo's defences. Oil-soaked fagots were arranged in strategic locations in case of attack at night. Blasting gelatin was secreted in outlying buildings that were beyond the defence perimeter, to be exploded in the event the enemy occupied them. Smashed glass bottles were spread around the front of the wagons. Except for hunting rifles, there were few weapons to be found in Bulawayo. Fortunately for settlers, there were a few working artillery pieces and a small assortment of machine guns.
Rather than wait passively, the settlers immediately mounted patrols, called the Bulawayo Field Force, under such figures as Selous and Frederick Russell Burnham; these rode out to rescue any surviving settlers in the countryside and went on attack against the Matabele. Selous raised a mounted troop of forty men to scout southward into the Matobo Hills. Maurice Gifford, along with 40 men, rode east along the Iniza River. Whenever settlers were found, they were quickly loaded into their wagons and closely guarded on their way to Bulawayo. Within the first week of fighting, 20 men of the Bulawayo Field Force were killed and another 50 were wounded.
In the First Matabele War, the Matabele had experienced the effectiveness of the settlers' Maxim guns, so they never mounted a significant attack against Bulawayo even though over 10,000 Matabele warriors could be seen near the town. Conditions inside Bulawayo, however, quickly became unbearable. During the day, settlers could go to homes and buildings within the town, but at night they were forced to seek shelter in the much smaller laager. Nearly 1,000 women and children were crowded into the city, and false alarms of attacks were common. Although they kept up their siege, the Matabele made one critical error: they neglected to cut the telegraph lines connecting Bulawayo to Mafeking. This gave both the relief forces and the besieged Bulawayo Field Force far more information than they would otherwise have had.
Several relief columns were organised to break the siege, but the long trek through hostile countryside took several months. Late in May, the first two relief columns appeared near Bulawayo on almost the same day but from opposite directions – Cecil Rhodes and Col. Beal arriving from Salisbury and Fort Victoria in Mashonaland 300 miles to the north; and Lord Grey and Col. Plumer (of the York and Lancaster Regiment) from Kimberley and Mafeking, 600 miles to the south. The southern relief forces were nearly ambushed on their approach to Bulawayo, but Selous discovered the whereabouts of the Matabele and the Maxim guns of the relief forces drove back the attackers. Not long after relief forces began arriving in Bulawayo, General Frederick Carrington arrived to take overall command along with his Chief of Staff, Colonel Baden-Powell.
With the siege broken, an estimated 50,000 Matabele retreated into their stronghold of the Matobo Hills near Bulawayo. This region became the scene of the fiercest fighting between the settler patrols and the Matabele. By June, the Shona kept their promise and joined the fighting on the side of the Matabele. But lacking a clear leader similar to Mlimo, the Shonas mostly stayed behind their fortifications and conducted few raids.
Assassination of Mlimo
Military intelligence at the time thought that capturing the Mlimo would be the speediest way to end the war. The location of the Mlimo's cave had been disclosed to the native commissioner at Mangwe, Bonar Armstrong, by an unnamed Zulu informant. Armstrong immediately brought this information to the Chief of Scouts, Burnham, and the two men presented it to the Administrator of Southern Rhodesia, Earl Grey. The Administrator instructed them to present this information to the military commander, General Carrington, who called in his Chief of Staff, Baden-Powell. Carrington instructed Burnham, Armstrong, and Baden-Powell to leave that very night to "Capture the Mlimo if you can. Kill him if you must. Do not let him escape.". Intervening news of enemy movements near Bembezi forced Baden-Powell to go there instead, so Burnham and Armstrong proceeded on their own to the Matopos.
Burnham and Armstrong travelled by night through the Matobo Hills and approached the sacred cave. Not far from the cave was a village of about 100 huts filled with many warriors. The two scouts tethered their horses to a thicket and crawled on their bellies, screening their slow and cautious movements with branches held before them. Once inside the cave, they waited until Mlimo entered.
Once Mlimo started his dance of immunity, Burnham shot him just below the heart, killing him. The two men then leapt over the dead Mlimo and ran down a trail towards their horses. Hundreds of warriors, encamped nearby, picked up their arms and started in pursuit. Burnham set fire to the village as a distraction. The two men hurried back to Bulawayo, with warriors in pursuit
After the assassination, overseas press hailed Burnham and Armstrong as "heroes of the British Empire." But in Rhodesia, sections of the press were sceptical about the assassination of the Mlimo. It had been a mistake on the part of British military intelligence to think of the Mlimo and the high priest, or prophet, in the Matopos as one and the same. Based on British Army reports, Carrington believed that the Mlimo was a central authority and that "his orders fly about from one end of the country to another with great rapidity". Historian Terence Ranger writes that "Carrington was almost certainly over-estimating the centralization (of the Mlimo)", and that "Baden-Powell and other reporters tended to run the various shrines in the Matopos into one". Frederick Selous believed that the head priest of the Mlimo lived in the Matopos, but that "there are other priests, or so-called Umlimos, in other parts of the country through whom they believe that the commands of the Almighty can be conveyed to them." Burnham had carried out his instructions from Carrington and, like Carrington, he relied heavily on Armstrong and military intelligence for his information. Armstrong, the instigator and active participant in the operation, "was an authority on the Native, his language, customs and mentality", according to fellow native commissioner E.C. Harley. Armstrong was also a Major in the Mangwe Field Force, and Selous describes him as young, but "shrewd and capable". Selous and Harley say that Armstrong was in command at the Mangwe laager, although Baden-Powell and other sources name van Rooyen and Lee as the commanders. Some writers also describe Armstrong as young and moody and claim that he too expressed doubts about the identity of the man killed, but only after the assassination.
Initially the Company declined to review the matter and Burnham left Rhodesia on 11 July 1896, a week after the Bulawayo Field Force disbanded, to return to the United States and later joined the Klondike Gold Rush. However, at Armstrong's insistence a court of inquiry was later appointed to investigate the assassination. Although several writers have commented on the outcome, the official report itself has been lost. Referring to the court's report, Harley writes, "The finding of the Judge (Watermeyer) was that the native killed was the Chief Priest of the M'limo. Whether there was another occult personage associated with the M'limo deception is problematical, for with the death of the Chief Priest, the M'limo deception also died." But historian Hugh Marshall Hole writes, "On their return they were greatly applauded for having achieved their dangerous errand, but some time later, when it was found that Mlimo was still at work, an official inquiry was held, with the result that the whole affair was exposed as an elaborate hoax." In contrast to Hole, historians Mary and Richard Bradford, Mary Clarke, Peter Emmerson, and Jack Lott all agree with Harley that the court of inquiry favoured Armstrong. Emmerson cites an 1899 report from chief native commissioner H.J. Taylor as evidence that Watermeyer ruled in favour of Armstrong. Mary and Richard Bradford studied Taylor's 1899 report, and Hole's correspondence, and they suggest specific errors made by Hole in his interpretation of Taylor's report. Clarke and Lott both point out that Armstrong was given a gold watch and a letter of appreciation from the Board of the British South Africa Company after the verdict was rendered.
As to the identity of the man assassinated and his role, there is much confusion. In June 1896, Father Prestage, captain van Rooyen, Hans Lee, and Armstrong met at Mangwe with "Several hundred natives assembled to hear the statement made by witnesses that Gotani the man shot by Burnham was the M'limo of the Matabele." Harley states that "At (the Watermeyer) enquiry, Father Prestage from his knowledge of the Umlimo and the power he exercised was able to supply authoritative information which greatly assisted the enquiry." But chief native commissioner Taylor's 1899 report, written three years after the event and after Armstrong resigned from the Company over unrelated grievances, says that "Armstrong by threats and bribes caused certain natives to perjure themselves and to swear to what was not true". Taylor includes in his report an affidavit by "one Jonas, head messenger at the A.N.C's office at Mangwe," who says, "I swore on oath that Jobane was the M'limo, I knew I was lying at the time, I have never received any cattle from Mr. Armstrong but he paid me the five shillings." Taylor also states in his report that "Dshobane, (was) the supposed Mlimo" assassinated, however, he does not make it clear if "Jobane" and "Dshobane" are different spellings for the same person.
Over the years, historians have postulated several more names for the man assassinated and his role. In 1966, Ranger hypothesized that the man assassinated was not from the Matopos at all, but rather a "loyal" priest of the Kalanga tribe from the Southwest of Matabeleland, and Ranger quotes an 1879 report from a missionary, Joseph Cockin, that states that the priest from the Southwest was named Umkombo. But in 1967, Ranger states that Jobani (or Tshobani) had been the high priest in the Southwest and that "They obtained from the indunas of the Mangwe area affidavits that the dead man, Jobani or Habangana, had been the High Priest of the Mwari and the chief instigator of the rebellion." In 1976, Lott said that Ranger relied on "the American scholar Richard Werbner" for his assessments, and that "recent research has confirmed that Burnham killed the rainmaker (Iwosana) of the tribe (Makalanga) who was Hobani or Tshobani (Sindebele), fourth son of Banko's family." In 1994, Mary and Richard Bradford state that "Burnham may have shot an innocent man, but if so, there was no premeditated plan. He was acting under orders." The Bradfords further remark, "If Jobani was innocent, he was a victim not of Burnham but of white misconception of the M'limo cult and of the difficulty in distinguishing friend from foe that marks irregular warfare."
While there appears to be no clear consensus about either the identity of man assassinated in the Matopos or his role, historian Howard Hensman states "With the downfall of Wedza and shooting of the M'Limo in a cave in the Matoppos by the American scout, Burnham, the Matabele rebellion may be said to have come to an end." Upon learning of the death of Mlimo, Cecil Rhodes walked unarmed into the Matabele stronghold and persuaded the Matabele warriors to lay down their arms. With the war in Matabeland effectively over, the Bulawayo Field Force disbanded on 4 July 1896. With regard to the regular forces under Carrington, Hensman writes "As the rainy season approached and peace was arranged in Matabeleland, the forces, or a considerable portion of them, were moved up into Mashonaland".
Second Matabele War in Mashonland
War broke out on 17 June 1896 at Mazowe with an attack by the Hwata dynasty on Alice Mine. This was followed by the medium Nehanda Nyakasikana capturing and executing Mazowe Native Commissioner Pollard.
Other religious figures who led the rebellion included Kaguvi Gumboreshumba, who was active in the Goromonzi area and Mukwati, a priest of the Mwari shrine who was active throughout Mashonaland.
In addition to the mediums, traditional leaders played a major role in the rebellion, notably Chief Mashayamombe, who led resistance in his chieftaincy in Mhondoro, south of the colonial settlement of Salisbury barracks (now Harare). He was amongst the first chiefs to rebel and the last to be defeated. He was supplied by many of the surrounding districts, such as Chikomba (then Charter). Other chiefs who played an important role included Gwabayana, Makoni, Mapondera, Mangwende and Seke.
With the war in Matabeleland ending, Gen. Carrington was able to concentrate his forces on Mashonaland and the rebels retreated into granite kopjes. With no central command to oppose him, Carrington was able to bring Maxim guns against each stronghold in turn, until resistance ended. Nehanda Nyakasikana and Kaguvi Gumboreshumba were captured and executed in 1898, but Mukwati was never captured and died in Mutoko.
Legacy of the Second Matabele War
The rebellion failed completely and did not result in any major changes in BSAC policy. For example, the hut tax which remained in place. The territories of Matabeleland and Mashonaland had become known as South Zambesia, and both the Matabele and Shona became subjects of the Rhodes administration. It was only 25 years later in 1924 that the entire region became officially named a British Crown Colony. Until 1924, the region was owned by a private company which had purchased it from various chieftains and Lobengula; facts often neglected in 21st century history lessons.
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