The British Empire

The Destruction of the Matabele, part 1

The Matabele people, in what is now southern Zimbabwe, found themselves victims of the Scramble for Africa which took place in the last fifteen years of the century and what happened to them, largely  at the hands of Cecil Rhodes, showed how when there was a clash of different interests, the government supported the interests of power and wealth rather than humanitarian interests. Many claimed that the British Empire of the 19th century was characterised by having a moral dimension yet when the interests of local people clashed with the interests of commerce as they did with the Matabele, the government nearly always came down on the side of commerce.

Rumours of Gold attract Europeans

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

The possibility of gold further north attracted President Kruger of the Transvaal and Rhodes, the diamond magnate from Kimberley in Cape Colony. There was though one major obstacle to a gold rush into this region. The land was the land of the Ndebele otherwise known as the Matabele. The king at the time of the gold speculation in the 1880s was Lobengula and he had an army of 15,000 to defend his kingdom. The Matabele were a warlike people who were feared throughout the region by less warlike tribes like the Tswana and the Shona.


Lobengula was vigilant about who entered into his territory. There were border points defended by his army and the number of whites allowed into Matabeleland was strictly controlled. A few missionaries were allowed in as were some hunters for limited periods as long as they were in small groups. Visitors were made to realise that they were there on sufferance and if anything untoward happened such as visiting an area for which they had no permission there could be tragic consequences. Lobengula was unpredictable, cruel and fearful of white encroachment. Anyone crossing him did so at their peril.

In 1887 a number of Europeans representing various groups or countries seeking concessions to search for gold or minerals from Lobengula began arriving at Lobengula’s capital of Bulawayo. They might be made to wait for weeks or months for an audience and most left empty handed even after presenting Lobengula with an array of presents.

The Moffatt Treaty establishes a British Sphere of Inteest

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

With Zambesia secure as a British sphere of interest Rhodes set about persuading Lobengula to grant his company the right to search for minerals. To do this Rhodes would have to get to Lobengula before any of the other British groups. Rhodes despatched to Bulawayo a party containing among others his trusted partner Charles Rudd. Staying in Bulawayo at the time was Robert Moffatt and a missionary from the London Missionary Society, Charles Helm, who acted as Lobengula’s interpreter and was definitely in the Rhodes camp. Following consultation with his indunas, Logengula summoned Rudd and his party and after some prevarication signed Rudd's document.

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

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

Cecil Rhodes wants a private charter to give him powers in Matabeleland

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

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

The arrival of Lobengula’s representatives in London in February 1889 caused a sensation in London. They were granted an audience with Victoria and delivered their message. They had support from John Mackenzie who was mobilising the missionary network against Rhodes and the Aborigines Protection Society. The South Africa Committee also opposed Rhodes, arguing in favour of establishing a trusteeship in Africa. Among its supporters were Joseph Chamberlain and WT Stead. Another opponent was Fred Selous who argued that Mashonaland was not Lobengula’s to give to Rudd.

The granting of the Charter for the British South Africa Company

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

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

Whereas the Rudd Concession was to no more than the rights to mine metals and minerals, the charter gave the British South Africa Company (BSAC) the power to build roads, railways, telegraphs, establish banking, award land grants, negotiate treaties, make laws, raise a company police force and promote immigration. The company was backed by funds amounting to £700,000 with all Rhodes’ supporters in South Africa having shares. The shares were not offered to the public but to friends at par cost.

The Pioneer Column invades Matabeleland

Having got his charter Rhodes decided Rhodes to adopt a plan to settle pioneers in the land north of Matabeleland – in Mashonaland. Hedrew up a contract with Frank Johnson to recruit 120 miners who would then be escorted by armed police to Mashonaland. The plan was approved by the new British High Commissioner, Henry Loch, but the Colonial Office was hesitant not wanting war on their hands. Eventually Lobengula gave his permission for the expedition to skirt his lands.

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

Hearing the news of the expedition Rhodes was exultant for he believed that the pioneers now occupied the richest gold fields in the world. His agents now began to fan out all over the territories north, east and west of Mashonaland to get local tribal chiefs to sign away mineral and land rights to the company. Among the territories acquired were Barotse  (part of present day Zambia), and parts of Angola, and Portuguese land in east Africa. At this time Rhodes commanded lands stretching from the Indian Ocean to within 200 miles of the Atlantic coast and from the Limpopo to the African lakes.

Matabeleland wanted by Rhodes

Within a year of the Pioneer Column having arrived in Mashonaland to establish farms and claims for gold, Rhodes was receiving complaints about the desolate life the pioneers were leading. In October 1891 Rhodes entered his country for the first time. As his group made their way from Beira through Mashonaland to Fort Salisbury, they wondered at the fertile land, the healthy climate and the gardens of fruit and vegetables that the Mashona had laid out. The settlement of Fort Salisbury by contrast was just a ramshackle array of iron huts in a squalid mess. The moment he arrived, Rhodes was besieged by deputations of settlers complaining about the cost of goods, the mining tax of 50% levied on them, the unfair privileges of the elite. Arriving at the same time as Rhodes in Fort Salisbury was Lord Randolph Churchill and his mining expert,  Perkins who very quickly came to the conclusion that the land the settlers occupied had little to offer. “It cannot be denied that the high hopes which were entertained..... as to the great mineral or agricultural wealth of Mashonaland have not hitherto been justified or nearly justified...Mashonaland so far as is known, and much is known, is neither an Arcadia nor an El Dorado”

War with the Matabele

Once Rhodes realised that Mashonaland was not the El Dorado that he had promised, settlers would began to look at Matabeleland believing that it would offer what Mashonaland had not.

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

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

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

Rhodes was persuaded by Jameson of the need to destroy the Matebele nation and raised the required money by selling £50,000 worth of shares.  Volunteers were recruited with the promise of land grants in Matabeleland. Jameson needed an excuse for war and this was provided with false reports of Matabele manoeuvres. Read part 2

King Lobengula

Robert Moffatt, father of John

Charles Rudd

Cecil Rhodes, founder of the British South Africa Company

The Flag of the BSAF

British South Africa Company police

Lobengula’s quarters


The pioneers hoist the flag at Fort Salisbury

Scenes from the 1893 Matabeleland War