Emergence of the Ndebele State


THE Ndebele State was a colonial construct.
The Shona were conquered by Mzilikazi, a run-away Zulu and his amalgamation of renegade forces, who arrived circa1836, looting and raiding, from south of the Limpopo, and forced the Shona to pay tribute and concentrate in northern Zimbabwe.
Mzilikazi Khumalo (circa 1790 –1868), was a lieutenant of King Tshaka. In 1823, after he dissented Tshaka’s command, he fled northwards with his tribe rather than face ritual execution.
The son of Matshobana, he was born near Mkuze, Zululand, South Africa. He conquered and absorbed many members of other tribes along the way through his military tyranny; welding his people and the many tribes he conquered into a large and ethnically diverse centralised society.
After fleeing Tshaka, he first travelled to Mozambique but moved west into the Transvaal in 1826, where he dominated for 10 years, until the arrival of the Voortrekkers.
This period, known as the Mfecane, was characterised by devastation and mass murder on a grand scale.
He used the ‘scorched earth’ method, much as the Rhodesians did over 100 years later, to remove all opposition and to keep all surrounding kingdoms at distance.
The Boers, who began arriving in Transvaal in 1836, found the region so depopulated it enabled the Voortrekkers to occupy and take ownership of the Highveld area without resistance, forcing Mzilikazi out of the Transvaal.
Early in 1838, Mzilikazi was forced north across the Limpopo.
He moved again to present-day Botswana and later northwards towards what is now Zambia.
He was unable to settle there because of the prevalence of tsetse fly.
In 1840, Mzilikazi travelled south-eastwards to what is present day Zimbabwe and what the colonial settlers erroneously named ‘Matabeleland’.
Mzilikazi proclaimed himself king and established the powerful and authoritative Ndebele warrior enclave, ‘Mthwakazi’, where he organised his followers into a military system with regimental units, similar to those of Tshaka Zulu.
On arrival, Mzilikazi and his people settled in the western province of Ndumba, West of the Bembesi River; the place of the Ndumba Dynasty, in the southern part of the country.
By exploiting the rifts between the Rozvi people, they consolidated their power and settled down among the Kalanga as the Rozvi had done before them.
Prior to the mid-19th Century when the descendants of these invading renegades, by now led by Mzilikazi’s son, Lobengula, entrenched themselves as owners of the land and the first missionaries began to arrive; the plateau had originally been dominated by the Shona-speaking people.
The area was ruled by a succession of Shona Kingdom dynasties that included the legendary Great MaDzimbahwe complex, from which Zimbabwe has taken its identity, exporting gold and ivory to the Portuguese centres on the Zambezi and the coast in return for cloth, beads and other articles.
Adding to the strength of the Empire was cattle breeding, which favoured the dry environment of the south-western plateau.
From the earliest days of settlement, the economy of the area was dedicated to the build-up of herds. However, the invasions from other invading tribes resulted in the loss of vast numbers of prized Shona cattle, due to rustling, resulting in a considerable shortage.
Many young people of Shona origin, who were captured or levied, were incorporated into the Ndebele state and society.
They were not permitted to return to their own societies.
The Ndebele’s extraction of young people provided the motive for the Shona resistance to their rule in the early 1850s; exemplified by the Ruler Muridziwengwe, who was killed for refusing to supply young people as tribute.
In 1854, the missionary Moffat wrote: “…there is nothing they deplore so much as their children being taken from them just at a time when they become useful to their parents…”
This is a practice that ruined Shona societies and led to the first serious Shona resistance to Ndebele rule.
The 1820s internal and external pressures, namely Portuguese incursions, led to the downfall of the Shona states; leaving the country open to occupation.
With the migrations of Mpanga,  Maseko, Zwangendaba and Nyamazana people in the early 19th Century, as a result of the Mfecane, the kingdom-state was ill-prepared to withstand the blow. 
Thus, the dawn of the 19th Century, saw the permanent loss of Shona territory in the south-west and south-east to the Tswana and Tsonga-Hlengwe, as well as the occupations of the Mfecane years, when Nguni and Sotho-speaking peoples crossed the plateau.
The main body of the Ndebele people under Gundwane arrived from the Umzingwani Valley in I838.
By mid-century, two Nguni-speaking dynasties were established.
The Ndebele under Mzilikazi in the south-west and the Gaza under Soshangane in the Eastern Highlands.
In the 1890s, the country was claimed by the Portuguese and the British, the latter making a large-scale settlement under the control of Cecil Rhodes’s British South Africa Company (BSAC), which finally took control of the entire country by 1893.
Droughts, wars with the Karanga advancing from the north-east; Tswana raids, strife between the royal dynasty and the Mwari cult and civil wars within the dynasty had seriously affected the strength of the state that had earlier been one of the foremost military powers of southern Africa.
On the orders of Mzilikazi, major Ndebele raids in search of cattle and women were directed against specific targets, across a wide area; consequently, other people in the area suffered as well.
Ndebele raiders were inclined to follow up their fleeing targets.
The numerous Ndebele campaigns of the 1850s and 1860s was stimulated by the important Shona trade system which, in spite of its regional emphasis on cattle, was also aligned to the traditional exchange of gold and ivory for cloth and beads.
In 1854-1855, hostilities between the Chirumanzu Dynasty and the Ndebele led to the surrender of Chirumanzu in I857; recorded by Moffat.
Early in 1866, they attacked Mashayamombe’s people; in August that year, the Ndebele attempted to trade with them despite their earlier attack.
To inherit the Shona’s important economic structure, the Ndebele had to control their trade routes; resulting in the first important expansion of Ndebele influence.
It soon became clear to Mzilikazi that the Shona were difficult to dislodge from their strongholds.
The Ndebele’s first expansion was through the almost uninhabited, dry, sandy area north-west. It offered no resistance to raiders who could easily cross it to strike at vulnerable Shona areas under Hwange, Pashu and Saba on the Deka, Gwai and Zambezi Rivers, with access to one of the trade routes through Tonga country to Zumbo, Tete and Sena to the sea.
Despite the distance, the route was viable since most of it could be covered by water transport.
By the early 1850s the Ndebele had established their authority over the Zambezian societies, although intermittent counter-incursions occurred, provoking Ndebele responses that proved too strong for the Shona.
From 1860 to 1873, the Ndebele made their greatest concerted effort to dominate the Shona by raiding over a wide front from Chivi in the East, to Mangwende in the North-east, Hwata in the North and in other northern areas, ending a period of relative peace lasting from 1854 to 1860.
Hwata ruled over a comparatively small Hera State at the head of the Mazoe Valley. Though his territory was small, his economic influence was considerable. He controlled the goldfields in the northern Shawasha country to the east, and the locality of the old Portuguese feira of Dambarare.
In one year, in 1863, Ndebele’s main strength was turned against the Ngwato to the south-west; associates of the Ndebele made raids in the north-west on the Deka River, while another force raided Hwata’s associate, Chiweshe, in the upper Mazoe Valley.
In 1864, Hwata was finally forced to surrender. Captured, he returned to his home as a tributary ruler. Mzilikazi, being fully aware of the economic importance of Hwata’s area, intended to profit by it and subjugated him to Ndebele rule until the arrival of white settlers in 1889.
The Ndebele’s efforts in 1860 were initially confined to small raids to the north-east and the south-east, with districts on the Sabi River marking the farthest point of Ndebele raiding to the north-east.
The route to the north was of considerable economic importance. It not only led to the trade routes in the heart of the old Mutapa Empire, but ran through some of the largest goldfields that were still being worked, across river valleys that were full of elephants (and ivory), running west from the watershed.
The Ndebele exertions in this area during 1860-1868 hit the inhabitants very hard.
The Ngezi Dynasty of Rimuka partially broke up; the Mashayamombe and Chivero people of the Umfuli Valley also suffered and their rulers were forced to flee north.
During the Ndebele expansion in 1861, they attacked the peoples of Chivi, Bere, Zimuto and the Njanja. This led to the deaths of both Chivi and Bere.
The Njanja people’s exploitation of the Hwedza iron field and wide-ranging hoe-selling network was one of the great economic successes of the late 18th and 19th centuries.
By 1857, following the attack on the Njanja, the Ndebele came into contact again with the Changamire Rozvi, who had arrived in the Hera country; dominated by Mutekedza and Nyashanu and the rapidly-expanding Njanja confederacy under Gambiza.
When the Ndebele raided Mutekedza, they mutilated his sub-ruler Nyoka.
Since Ndebele raiders’ usually extended across the country, it is likely that most of the fate suffered by the Njanja and the Hera of Mutekedza and Nyashanu was also suffered by Nyandoro of Tsunga.
At about this time, Nyandoro had been herding cattle for the Ndebele when the murder of a Ndebele nduna led the Ndebele to attack the flat and indefensible Tsunga.
Mzilikazi devoted as much effort to defeat Tohwechipi as he did to defeat Hwata; subjecting them as tributary rulers. A prolonged siege, in 1866, forced Tohwechipi to surrender; his defeat, however, did not crush Rozvi resistance to the Ndebele who made three major attacks in order to remove the Rozvi imperial power.
The Rozvi, led by Tohwechipi Chibambamu and his cousins of the Mutinhima line, occupied the frontier hills between Nyashanu and Gambiza of Bedza and the Mavangwe Range.
Tohwechipi had been forced to retreat through Chivi, past Nyaningwe Hill, near where, sometime before 1852, it is said, he won the defensive battle of Chikato; he was able to defeat the Ndebele by employing zvitunya — strong gun traders who came from the Zambezi.
He thus gained the name of ‘Chibambamu’.
Like Hwata, Tohwechipi attempted to break away from his enforced tributary bond.
In 1868, a major campaign was required to subject him again and he remained (at least nominally) tributary until 1889 with the arrival of the whiteman.
The Matabele destroyed the lifeblood of the Shona culture and the population stood reduced and dispersed.
However, the trade system linking the people with the Zambezi and the coast through the north-eastern Shona territory continued to function, notwithstanding the fighting of 1854-1855.
Dr Michelina Rudo Andreucci is a Zimbabwean-Italian researcher, industrial design consultant lecturer and specialist hospitality interior decorator. She is a published author in her field. For comments e-mail: linamanucci@gmail.com


  1. The Shona state is the colonial construct as it was created by Britain to give the vanquished undue power to oppress non Shonas from around Africa .The Zimbabwean borders needs to be broken.


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