First Chimurenga: The causes …land loss at centre of uprising

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Gracious Mugovera

RENOWNED Nigerian author Chinua Achebe once said: “A man who makes trouble for others is also making trouble for himself.”
It is this fact white people ignored when they bulldozed their way into Africa.
‘Bully blacks, plunder resources and enrich the white folk’ was the guiding principle.
But all this backfired.
The First Chimurenga/Umvukela of 1896-1897 was an outraged reaction by locals against white invaders.
The uprisings, which are examples of early African resistance movements capable of fighting with their own weapons and active methods, were a fight for the stolen dignity, land and heritage by blacks.
Attracted by fertile lands, rich minerals and cheap human resources, the British set out to conquer Zimbabwe.
Chief imperialist Cecil John Rhodes cunningly set out to dupe locals.
Feeling threatened by inroads made by the Portuguese on the local front, Rhodes had to devise a plan to move fast and create an ‘African Kingdom’ for Britain.
With the help of John Moffat, son to Robert Moffat, a missionary who founded Inyati Mission in Matabeleland, Rhodes tricked King Lobengula into signing the Moffat Treaty on February 11 1888.
The Treaty, written in English, in order to confuse King Lobengula and his indunas, resulted in the Ndebele King unknowingly giving away the land between the Limpopo and Zambezi Rivers to the British.
In essence, indigenes had lost their land, their birthright.
Rhodes’ next move was to consolidate his gains by tricking King Lobengula into signing the Rudd Concession, giving the British ‘complete and exclusive charge over all metals and minerals situated and contained in the kingdom’.
Upon realising he had been duped, King Lobengula tried to contest the Rudd Concession.
This did not deter Rhodes, but instead made him seek alternative ways to fraudulently get full control of the land.
All these moves by Rhodes were not going unnoticed by locals.
Since 1890, Leander Jameson had advocated direct invasion of Matabeleland with a force of 984 constituting three columns.
In their quest to conquer the whole country, inroads were also made to conquer Mashonaland.
Pioneer settlers achieved their objective of occupying Mashonaland Highveld in 1890.
The invasion by the British South African Company (BSAC) into Mashonaland contributed to active resistance by locals who realised their normal life had been disturbed.
“Each member of the Pioneer Column settlers was granted 1 500 morgen (3 000 acres, or 1 320 hectares) of free farmland,” writes Retired Brigadier-General Dr Felix Muchemwa in his book, The Struggle for Land in Zimbabwe.
“What is most important is the recognition that from the very outset of settler-occupation, African land rights were completely written off and Zimbabwean land became the property and land asset of the BSAC.”
Prior to invasions by the British, locals had a way of living which was peaceful and reflected progress in development.
Societies were not primitive, but had a dynamic economic, social and political life that contributed when they decided to stand up against the enemy.
History is clear; the land was the bone of contention.
The land issue,which was extremely sensitive and controversial, pushed paramount chiefs and spirit mediums to rise up against the British settlers.
Land was important to both Ndebele and Shona people’s religion.
“Private property rights on land were unknown among the Shona and the Ndebele people and were unrecognised by the spirit mediums,” Dr Muchemwa writes.
According to tradition, all land belonged to Mwari/Mlimo and therefore, could neither be sold nor bought as an individual or communal right.
After raids that helped the British secure the land, chiefs were advised they would retain their positions as leaders, but now under the BSAC.
They would be allowed to go back to their original settlements/ ancestral land, but only as tenants without any legal right to it and therefore subject to summary evictions.
Their way of life had been disturbed.
Local leaders were stripped of their dignity and position in society.
To pave way for more invasions, settlers angered locals through mass displacements which forced them from fertile regions into arid and unproductive reserves.
Fertile land was allocated to whites.
A Loot Committee was formed in March 1894 to raid cattle from Ndebele farmers who lost nearly 280 000 cattle. Local farmers were disadvantaged.
With religious or spiritual leaders playing a pivotal role in African society, these were consulted on how to ‘deal’ with invaders.
In a move that also incited the black majority, Mlimo, the spiritual leader also attributed droughts, locust plagues and cattle disease to the presence of whites in the country as they had disturbed the way of life.
Africans believe strongly in the spiritual world, hence breaking tradition would not go unpunished by the ancestors.
In the book The History of Policing in Zimbabwe, Zimbabwe Republic Police Commissioner-General Dr Augustine Chihuri highlights that it was the brutality of the British South Africa Police (BSAP) against locals that contributed to resistance.
“In the other part of what was now a British colony that is, in the Mashonaland area, the BSAP up stepped its efforts of cowing the so-called ‘savages’, ensuring compliance of these subjects to new colonial laws,” he writes.
“Indigenous people were now expected to limit their domestic animals to populations determined by the white settlers and enforced by the BSAP.”
Dr Chihuri also points out that it was the disturbance of the normal life of the Shona people that pushed them to rise against the settlers.
“Normal life-supporting activities such as hunting of wild animals for the purposes of feeding the family were now outlawed and termed poaching,” he writes.
“The keeping of more cattle by the blacks than was authorised by the colonial settlers became an offence, punishable by the confiscation of the ‘excess’ cattle and providing forced labour for the whites.”
Most traditional activities were now criminalised.
Elders and community leaders were disrespected, something which went against traditions and values.
To make matters worse, laws governing the land were introduced.
A taxation system was introduced by Rhodes in 1892.
As ‘tenants’, blacks would be expected to pay ‘rent’ in the form of labour.
In time, every married man would be required to pay ‘hut tax’ for every wife’s hut.
Failure to remit taxes in the form of hut tax and the whole horde of taxes became an offence with a heavy penalty.
Collectors favoured the method of payment in the form of cattle, goats and sheep or labour usually of two months’ duration, while gold was also preferred.
Therefore such abuse and injustice among other aforementioned events led to locals rising up against the whiteman in what became known as the First Chimurenga/Umvukela that came to an end in October 1897.

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