The British Empire

The Destruction of the Matabele, part 2

By early October Jameson had amassed 650 volunteers and 900 Shona auxiliaries organised into two columns which advanced on Lobengula’s stronghold at Bulawayo with field guns, five Maxim machine guns and modern rifles. On the south bank of the Shangani River Jameson's force found themselves surrounded by 5,000 Matabele warriors. The Matabele though had no answer to the Maxim gun which was used to devastating effect. 500 Matabele were killed and the remaining men withdrew. At the next battle the result was the same. Total Matabele losses were 3,000 with just one white killed. The rifles Lobengula had acquired from Rudd proved useless without the training required for their use. Lobengula ordered the destruction of his capital and then the remnants of his people fled north to the hills. Addressing his men, Lobengula said, “ The white men will never cease following us while we have gold in our possession, for gold is what the white men prize above all things. Collect now all my gold and carry it to the white men. Tell them they have beaten my regiments, killed my people, burn my kraals, captured my cattle, and that I want peace”.

The following year the British government recognised the BSAC’s jurisdiction over the land and left Rhodes to rule there. In a visit to England the same year he visited Queen Victoria to whom he said that he was “doing his best to enlarge Your Majesty’s dominions”. Since they had last met he said that he had added 12,000 square miles of territory.

The Ndebele  lost their tribal structure after the defeat in 1893 but still retained the weapons that had been given to Lobengula as part of the Rudd concession agreement. The cattle of the Ndebele though had been looted and distributed amongst white farmers and they had been driven off their land after the British  authorised the Company’s takeover of Matabeleland. The Ndebele now were forced to sell their labour to the white farmers and this once proud warrior race felt humiliated. With a herd of just 40,000 cattle where once they had 300,000, the Ndebele wanted revenge on the British who had forced a treaty on them which they renounced and then contrived to destroy them in war.

In 1895 Jameson withdrawing virtually all his police in Matabeleland for the Raid into the Transvaal leaving the 5,000 white settler population  defenceless. The Matabele sensed the opportunity to gain some revenge on those who had taken their land and cattle. They launched their first attack on March 23, attacking and killing 140 white men, women and children. Further attacks were launched with a ferocity that took the settlers by surprise and they decided to head to the nearest of the two towns in Matabeleland, Gwelo or Bulawayo, which became virtual laagers with rows of wagons with the corners defended with Maxim guns. Once these strong defences had been set up the settlers sent out patrols to find missing setters and to test the military skills of the Ndebele. The Ndebele though had learnt from their defeats in 1893 and now adopted guerrilla warfare – only attacking the settlers when it suited them and remaining hidden otherwise. By mid-April 1896 the Ndebele still controlled the countryside and the settlers were holed up in the two towns but Imperial troops helped to turn the tide.

On May 19, a column led by Cecil Rhodes linked up with a column from Bulawayo and together they defeated a Matabele force at the Umguza river. Five days later Major Plumer relieved Bulawayo with a force made up of regulars and irregulars. Several weeks later, before the settlers were able to capitalise on these victories, the Shona  themselves rose up and within a week had killed every settler within an 80 mile radius of Salisbury.

It was necessary for the British to secure a quick victory but the Ndebele retired to the Matopos Hills  -a mountain stronghold for them. To flush them out would have required a large army for which the Company did not have the funds. The Ndebele had 10,000 men guarding the hills and General Carrington lost 1000 men in his early efforts to break the Ndebele's hold of the hills. A drawn out campaign would have bankrupted the Company  so Rhodes sought a peaceful solution.

With the help of Johnny Grootboom, a Thembu from the Cape, Rhodes made contact with the Ndebele and a meeting was organised. Rhodes and four companions travelled to meet the Ndebele leaders passing through a narrow canyon with a bluff on one side and a thickly wooded valley on the other. They arrived at the appointed place and gradually Matabele gathered on the hills surrounding the designated clearing. Somabhulana was the chosen leader and he was surrounded by forty other officers. Somabhulana rose to speak and talked of the grievances of the Matabele for two and a half hours. When he sat down Rhodes asked why they killed women and children. There was silence until the reply came ‘because you did it first.’ And then Somabhulana gave his story of the first white killings. Rhodes gave the impression of being genuinely moved and then gave a number of concessions including the disbanding of the Native Police and a promise that he would stay to oversee the promises he had given. The promises were accepted and peace was agreed to.

Rhodes and his party were overjoyed as they rode back to camp and Rhodes stayed another eight weeks during which he continued to meet with Matabele leaders and make peace with them all. At one such meeting Rhodes was confronted by an angry group of young warriors to which he responded by walking into the middle of them, beckoning them all to sit down and then listened to their grievances.

The peace with the Matabele was perhaps Rhodes’ greatest achievement and revealed a leadership quality he had not previously shown. The experience though did not change him. Rhodes did not keep his promise to the Matabele and he was to be as ruthless as ever in his dealing with the Shona situation. The land of the Shona was flat and difficult to defend and Rhodes had no hesitation in sending in military forces with sufficient Maxim guns and dynamite (for caves) to destroy Shona villages whenever he felt the need to do so. In the space of just  eight years Cecil Rhodes and his South Africa Company had destroyed the people and culture of the Matabele and Shone people in the search of his dream of finding a gold field similar to that which existed in the Transvaal.

During the 1893 war an isolated patrol was destroyed at the Shangani River

A sketch of Lobengula

During he 1896 war settlers wee forced to leave their homes and take shelter in Gwelo or Bulawayo

Imperial troops were used in the 1896 Matabele War.

A Matabele warrior