Second Matabele War

To the Ndebele, the white invasion seemed to bring a series of disasters that struck the countryside. Plagues of locusts had ravaged croplands since 1890, culminating in a terrifying cloud of insects that darkened the noonday sky in 1895. At the same time, drought parched the Ndebele lands, shriveling the streams and pools needed to water the remnants of their herds not taken by the Whites. Perhaps worse was the scourge of rinderpest, a malignant cattle disease that erupted in Somaliland in 1889 and had spread like a plague through Uganda and Barotseland before invading Matabeleland in 1896.

Many of the Ndebele amabutho had not suffered any casualties in the 1893 war. Seemingly quiescent, the former warriors labored under the Company?s rule, paid a burdensome tax and had their cattle confiscated when they could not meet the tax rolls. They were becoming angry and this anger was fuelled by Mlimo, the Ndebele spiritual leader. Mlimo is in fact credited with fomenting the Second Ndebele War. He convinced the Ndebele that the White settlers (almost 4,000 strong by then) were responsible for the drought, locust plagues and the cattle disease rinderpest ravaging the country at the time.

Print from a British newspaper in 1896 - The Assassination of Mlimo. "Vanity Fair" cartoon Source:

Unknown to the white administration the Ndebele had hidden 2,000 Marinti-Henry rifles they had seized during Jameson?s campaign. All they needed to reclaim their lands from the Whites was a window of opportunity, which appeared in December 1895. In an ill-fated venture, Jameson and 600 horsemen invaded the Boer-held Transvaal to claim the area for Britain and the BSAC. The Boers, however, surrounded the raiders at Doornkop, pinning them down with long-range rifle fire. On January 2, 1896, Jameson surrendered (see Jameson Raid). Imprisoned with the raid?s leader was most of the White Rhodesian (Zimbabwean) mounted police force. When news of the fiasco reached Bulawayo, there were only a few policemen left to protect the whole of Rhodesia.

Warriors listened as the Mlimo outlined a plan to rid the land of White settlers. The rebellion was to erupt on the night of 29 March 1896, beneath a full moon, during a ceremony called the Big Dance. Quite simply, the Matabele, their Shona allies and their Holi vassals would kill all the White people they found.

Some of the Matabele soldiers were over eager however, and the fighting broke out on 24 March. This was the beginning of the Second Matabele War (aka Matabeleland Rebellion or the First Chimurenga), now celebrated in Zimbabwe as the First War of Independence.  

When the rebellion first erupted the white settlers did not leave the area. The British immediately sent troops to suppress the Ndebele and the Shona, but it cost the lives of many settlers, Ndebele, and Shona alike, and took months before the British adequately broke the sieges, war raged on until October of the following year. So, with few troops to support them, the White settlers in Bulawayo in March 1896 quickly built a laager in the centre of Bulawayo and mounted patrols under the leadership of Burnham, Baden Powell, and Selous, who rode out to suppress the revolt.

When the siege was finally broken by the British forces, an estimated 50,000 Matabele retreated into their stronghold of the Matobo Hills near Bulawayo which became the scene of the fiercest fighting against the White settler patrols. The Matabele military defiance ended only when Burnham found and assassinated Mlimo. Burnham discovered the cave where Mlimo was hiding out, thanks to a Zulu informant. He waited for the precise moment when Mlimo performed his immunity war dance before shooting Mlimo just below the heart. Burnham, and his companion Armstrong, barely managed to return to Bulawayo alive as they were intercepted by Matabele warriors. They recounted their story to their friend Baden Powell.

Upon learning of the death of Mlimo, Rhodes boldly walked unarmed into the Matabele stronghold and persuaded the warriors to lay down their arms. The Second Matabele War thus ended in October 1897, however, the extension of the war in Mashonaland continued for another year.

Other religious figures who led the rebellion include 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 chieftancy in Mhondoro, south of 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.

The rebellion failed completely and did not result in any major changes in BSAC policy, for example the hut tax was implemented. The territories of Matabeleland and Mashonaland became Rhodesia and both the Ndebele and Shona became subjects of the Rhodes administration. However, the legacy of leaders such as Kaguvi, Mapondera and Nehanda was to inspire future generations.

Last updated : 01-Aug-2011

This article was produced by South African History Online on 30-Mar-2011