Matabele Wars 1836-1896

First Matabele War

In 1890 Cecil John Rhodes became premier of South Africa with the support of the Afrikaner Bond. Rhodes' grand imperial vision for a British Africa included Pan African Highway from "The Cape to Cairo," stretching through British colonies down the length of the continent.  To this end, he successfully acquired Bechuanaland and soon set his sights on Matabeleland.

Image of King Lobengula from a brochure by 'the History Society of Zimbabwe'.

In 1888 Rhodes sent Rev. J.S. Moffat to Matabeleland to negotiate a treaty with Lobengula. Lobengula, had witnessed the decimation of the Zulus by the superior firepower of British regulars in 1879, and hoped to steer clear of confrontations with Rhodes and the British, so in exchange for wealth and arms he entered into a treaty with Moffat on 11 February 1888. The Rudd consession followed on 30 October of the same year, whereby Lobengula relinquished the mineral rights in his territory, granting sweeping commercial and legal rights to Rhodes. Through these agreements, Rhodes began gaining control of the territory, paving the way for the founding of the British South African Company (BSAC) in 1889. Further hoping to expand their agricultural holdings, BSCA soon eyed acreage owned by the Ndebele people. The problem was, of course, that the Ndebele were not interested in giving up their prime cattle grazing areas.

In 1890, Rhodes sent a group of settlers, known as the Pioneer Column, into Mashonaland and when they reached Harari Hill, they founded Fort Salisbury (now Harare). Greedily, Rhodes had been distributing land to the settlers even before the royal charter, but the charter legitimized his further actions with the British government. By 1891 an Order-in-Council declared Matabeleland, Mashonaland, and Bechuanaland a British protectorate.

In 1893 Mashona cattle thieves rustled a herd of Ndebele cattle, and then sought refuge within the walls of the British Fort Victoria. Reacting, a large Ndebele raiding party attacked the Mashonas, massacring as many as 400 before the eyes of horrified White residents. With the cover of a legal mandate, Rhodes used this brutal attack by Ndebele as a pretense for attacking the kingdom of Lobengula. Rhodes' right hand man and British Administrator Leander Jameson set up the 1893 Campaign.

3 British columns met near Iron Mine Hill and headed in a south-westerly direction towards Bulawayo under the overall command of Major Patrick Forbes. Their objective was to overcome the power of the Matabele under Lobengula and annex Matabeleland to the BSAC's territory.

At first Lobengula's warriors did not attack, possibly due to a small pox outbreak that scourged Lobengula's camp. But, on 25 October, as the British forces crossed the Shangani River and set up their laager, approximately 6000 Matabele Warriors attacked. Hundreds of Ndebele died under the flaming muzzles of Martini-Henry rifles and Maxim machine guns and the Ndebele were forced to retreat. Fewer than 10 members of Jameson's column were killed or wounded. 

The British continued to make their way to Bulawayo, however, they were initially thwarted by a frontal attack by a better organized and decisive Matabele force at Bembesi on 1 November. This was the most decisive battle of the 1893 Matabele War. The frontal assault demonstrated the courage of the Matabele. The Matabele forces was large, 80 000 spearmen and 20 000 riflemen, against fewer than 700 soldiers of the British South Africa Police, but in the end the Ndebele warriors were no match against the British Maxim guns.

Lobengula fled after the defeat at Bembesi, but not before burning his capital of Bulawayo to the ground rather than allow it to be captured by the British. On 4 November the British captured the smothering ruins of Bulawayo. A detachment of troops under Major Alan Wilson were sent to pursue Lobengula, they followed him across the Shangani River on December 4, but they were cut off by the king's amabutho. Efforts by Commanding Officer Forbes' column to re-enforce the patrol were too little and too late. The ensuing battle and eventual loss of 34 white soldiers became known simply as the Shangani Patrol. However, by this stage the Ndebele had lost.

The last stand of Major Allan Wilson. 04 December 1893. From a painting by Allan Stewart. Source: National Archives.

Under somewhat mysterious circumstances, King Lobengula died in January 1894, and within a few short months the British South Africa Company controlled most of the Matabeleland and white settlers continued to arrive. Some sources say that Lobengula had been suffering from small pox and took poison with his chief counselor. He was buried sitting in a cave, wrapped in a black ox skin.

The 1893 campaign had been successful for Rhodes and the BSAC. Ndebele cattle were considered loot and were divided among Jameson's volunteers. Each trooper had been promised 6,000 acres of land. By mid-1894, more than 10,000 square miles had been docketed for farmland. Lobengula's royal village of Bulawayo grew almost overnight into a European-style city.