Colonisers’ view of 1896-7 uprisings

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By Ashwert Kugara

REPORTS on the Native Disturbances in Rhodesia 1896- 97 is a collection of various communications made by the British South Africa Company (BSAC) to Queen Victoria of England and its stakeholders on the situation in the then Rhodesia. This week’s review gives a critical assessment on the first report that was sent to Britain by the BSAC. The report gives an in-depth analysis of what the white settlers believed were the causes and the general overview of the uprisings commonly known as the First Chimurenga, which took place in the Matabeleland and Mashonaland regions from 1896 to 1897. This was the first war to take place in the country since 1890 when Cecil John Rhodes signed the Rudd Concession that conferred exclusive mining rights and land to BSAC. The rebellion in Rhodesia first broke out in Matabeleland in March 1896, and extended later in the year to various districts of Mashonaland. According to the report, in Matabeleland the ‘natives’ embarked on sporadic massacres targeting the white settlers, causing untold suffering and heavy loss of life. In retaliation, the report says, a fierce battle ensued as settlers battled to regain possession of property and scarce food supplies because of the drought that affected the country that year. The report highlights the fierce battle at Umgusa River in April 1896 where a contingent of Lobengula’s forces were wiped out after being purportedly misled by one religious leader, M’limo. The settlers were also disturbed by the actions of ‘natives’, who seemed reluctant to attack when they should have done so. The report reveals the settlers’ surprise of the uprisings in Mashonaland since the Shona were perceived as ‘cowards’ who were at the mercy of other tribes. The disturbances in Mashonaland erupted at the same time the settlers were preoccupied with the rebellion in Matabeleland. A large number of settlers were killed in the region. Communication breakdown, ignorance of the ‘natives’ and their reluctance to join laagers, the report noted, contributed much to the massive loss of settler lives. According to the report, various ‘atrocities’ were committed by the natives. It is possible to imagine that if The Hague International Court of Justice was instituted then, the BSAC report might have recommended taking the ‘native’ leaders there. There were a number of native police officers who joined the ‘rebels’ at the onset of the uprisings, the report says. Native Commissioners, H. H Poland and Mr Ruping of Mutoko were both killed on different occasions as their ‘native’ police revolted against the settlers. At the Trans- Continental Telegraph Company’s camp to the north of Mazoe and Mount Darwin, Capt. McCallum, the report says, was brutally murdered by ‘Shona boys’ who were wielding assegais and battle axes while his body was mutilated. The ‘boys’ also looted guns, which they bragged about and promised to wipe out white settlers with, according to the report. To contain the rebellion in the province, on June 19, martial law was imposed on Salisbury and the inhabitants were compelled to be indoors by 6pm. This led to the sudden transition of Salisbury from a commercial town to a military garrison. Says the report rather ironically: “The public accepted their position with good humour.” In Makoni district, the report accused Chief Makoni of hoodwinking his Indunas to join him in rebellion against the settlers. Makoni had about 4 000 fighting men while hills and caves made it difficult for the settlers to directly confront the natives during the battle as they were unfamiliar with the terrain. The company cited two factors as the principal causes of the rebellion in Matabeleland. The first was the incompleteness of the conquest of the Matabele nation in 1893, while the second cause was the incapacity of a warlike and aristocratic race to give up their old habits, and to accept their natural place in the peaceful and industrial organisation of a settled civilised community. The other reason was that the rebellion in Mashonaland came as a direct influence of the Matabele uprisings. Conspiracy by the Shona religious and traditional leaders who they labelled as ‘witches’ contributed to the uprisings. The spiritual leaders — Nehanda, Kaguvi, Chaminuka and M’limo of Matabeleland — were accused of convincing fellow natives that the settlers were the cause of drought, locust plagues and the rinderpest disease that killed their cattle at the time. The report further states that the outbreak of rinderpest had reduced the authority of traditional chiefs since owning cattle was the principal symbol of their wealth. Thus the ‘natives’ acted in the rebellion “like sheep without a shepherd”, says the report. Since the settlers believed that the escalation of the uprisings to Mashonaland was fomented by spiritual leaders, M’limo of Matabeleland was assassinated in his temple at Matobo Hills while spirit mediums from Mashonaland, Ambuya Nehanda, Chaminuka and Kaguvi, were hanged. During the war, many black people were killed, houses burnt, food looted while women and children were taken captives. At the end of 1897, both parties agreed to a ceasefire while Rhodes vowed to redress their grievances. The total number of European casualties was pegged at 639. The number of blacks is not given but estimates put the figure at over 5 000. Guns surrendered by blacks in Mashonaland during ceasefire totalled 1923 including a great number of assegais while 2 842 guns and 13 820 assegais were surrendered in Matabeleland. It is worth noting that the BSAC’s report and outline of the causes of the uprisings reflects the general lack of understanding of black people and their culture by white settlers. It gives a biased account of the causes of the rebellion aimed at hoodwinking the British administration that they wanted to uplift a ‘savage’ race that resisted ‘civilisation’. The Eurocentric report, which was also the company’s side of the story, deliberately failed to give balanced and factual reasons of the uprisings. From this backdrop, it is imperative to note that the report acknowledged that it was difficult to draw a line between the native troubles in Matabeleland and the subsequent spread of the uprisings in Mashonaland. The general perception that the Shona were cowards, weak, disunited and unable to organise themselves spells to this effect. In no uncertain terms, the Shona had never accepted colonial rule and the war that took place could never be characterised as ‘rebellion’ as they had resisted colonial rule from the onset. The underlining cause of the war which was never included in the report was the loss of their land to the settlers and the beginning of relocations to nonfertile territories, the ‘reserves’. Exploitation of their natural resources and vast mineral resources benefited the new comers rather than them. The uprisings transcended tribal lines which showed the spirit of unity that the report understated. The company report was also based on other unconfirmed reports and surmises when it said: “Details (from informants), (were) in some cases wanting, in other cases very meagre or founded on surmise.” This was in their shindig efforts to understand the uprisings. The spirit of Mbuya Nehanda and other spirit mediums played a significant role in the Second Chimurenga and she became the symbol of resistance to colonial rule in modern Zimbabwe.

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