How Bulawayo got its name


PRIOR to colonisation, the massive upheavals in southern Africa, that began with the rise of Tshaka Zulu, caused many groups of indigenes to flee in every direction.
The beginning of European colonisation witnessed the waning of this formidable Zulu power.
While some surviving ‘fugitives’ managed to collect their clans together again, others were absorbed by conquering tribes or simply vanished.
Today, well over 300 Zulu-speaking chiefdoms exist in southern Africa with populations ranging from 100 to 50 000 people; together they form 29 percent of the Nguni group.
Nguni is the collective name for a major group of indigenes who lived in areas between the Drakensberg Mountains and the Indian Ocean as well as along an expansive belt from Swaziland through Natal and southwards into the Transkei and Ciskei.
The northern Nguni comprise the Swazi, Zulu and Ndebele peoples of the highveld; and the southern Nguni include the Xhosa, Thembu, Bomvana, Mpondo and Mpondomise.
Traditionally, nomadic herders and farmers, they lived in scattered homesteads comprising, on average, two-to-40 ‘beehive’ huts.
Loose communities of kinsmen formed a village under the leadership of a headman.
A number of villages formed a chiefdom under an independent chief or, if the area was large, it would be sub-divided under minor chieftains.
Land, as with all indigenous people, traditionally belonged to the community as a whole; invariably administered by the chief and his headmen who allocated it for individual use.
Each man was allotted a residential plot and land for cultivation.
Where land was in abundance, a common grazing area was used, and since most lands for cultivation were usually a distance from the homestead, most people also retained vegetable gardens nearby.
The main subsistence produce for the Nguni was sorghum, maize, pumpkins, gourds, sweet potatoes and beans.
Tshaka’s extensive pillaging of these lands during his reign caused the great Nguni migrations.
Tshaka, (circa1787-1828) son of Senzangakhona, a chief of the minor Zulu people, had risen to power as a commander of Dingiswayo’s army.
He usurped the Zulu chieftainship and took over the Mthethwa confederacy, led by the Paramount Chief Dingiswayo, after his death.
The rise of Zulu power in the 1820s was a period of widespread bloodshed and famine, known as the ‘Mfecane’.
Many indigenous groups fled southwards across the Mzimkhulu River.
These included the Hlubi from Lesotho; though some refugees later returned.
Tshaka died at the age of 41; murdered by his half-brother, Dingaan, in 1828, near the banks of the Thukela (Tugela) River.
He united the northern Nguni people who came to be known as the Zulus, and established the tribal boundaries of the Xhosa, Sotho and Swazi nations.
Once traditions and culture practiced prior to the 1820s vanished, it created instead the Zulu-speaking Mfengu in the Cape, the Ngoni in Mozambique, the Ndebele of the Transvaal and the Ndebele of Zimbabwe.
In 1835, approximately 16 000 Mfengu refugees entered the Cape and settled in the Peddie region.
They were industrious people and were looked upon for labour and for military support against the warring Xhosa chiefs.
These Mfengu refugees settled around the Methodist missions where they were converted to Christianity and trained in various skills, including agriculture.
By 1890, many had become diversified progressive commercial farmers.
With Tshaka’s rise to power in 1820-1821, two other military leaders, besides Mzilikazi, left Zululand to escape impending reprisals from Tshaka Zulu, namely Soshangane and Zwangendaba; they eventually clashed causing them to split. Zwangendaba then journeyed north to Lake Malawi.
Meantime Soshangane, who died in 1856, led his followers to Mozambique where he conquered the indigenous Tsonga and seized the Portuguese forts at Delagoa Bay as well as Inhambane and founded Gazaland.
The survivors were absorbed and became known as amaShangaan.
The Portuguese, in time, conquered his son, Mzila, whose descendants, the Shangaan-Tsonga, were forced to migrate to the lowveld area bordering the Kruger National Park.
Today, many live in Mpumalanga, in the Northern Province and in Swaziland; occupied at the time by Sotho-speakers.
During the early years of their migrations, Sotho-speakers of the highveld called the Nguni-speakers ‘Matebele’, a name used for all the people who came from the coast.
A bastardised version of the name was perpetuated by the colonisers as ‘Matabele’ – hence Matabeleland – the land of the ‘Matebele’.
The Nguni-speakers on the other hand, called themselves Ndebele.
The Swazi people were never subjugated by a foreign power, even though after the Second Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902, Swaziland became a British protectorate, and despite European influence in southern Africa, they retained their customs.
The Swazi maintained friendly relations with the Boers until a power struggle over Swaziland between the Boers and the British erupted in 1894.
Mzilikazi and his people, now numbering around 15 000, fearing complete annihilation by the Boers who had by then gained dominance in the Transvaal, migrated further north.
After crossing the Limpopo River into the present Botswana, they split into two groups. (The tactic was often used to throw off an enemy who might be following).
One group under Mzilikazi’s command and the other led by his son, Nkulumani marched across the Limpopo and settled near the Matopo Hills.
Mzilikazi advanced into the land of the Tswana people, then turned east about 80km from the Zambezi River.
As time passed, there was no word from Mzilikazi. It took almost two years for the two groups to reunite.
In the spring of 1839, custom demanded that a new settlement should celebrate ‘ncwala’ – the agricultural ceremony of ‘first fruits’; but a leader had to be present for the event to take place
Believing they had lost sight of Mzilikazi forever, they appointed Mzilikazi’s senior son Nkulumane as successor to the throne.
Meanwhile, Mzilikazi had terminated his journey and established himself at Inyathi, the centre of the Rozvi Kingdom, where he defeated and amalgamated the Rozvi and the Kalanga people into his nation.
Circa1840, when news reached Mzilikazi that his councillors had appointed a successor, his son, he called his followers together and marched south to the group that had settled near the Matopo Hills.
Mzilikazi immediately summoned them and accused them of treason and had them all executed.
He then ordered the execution of all his sons; except Lobengula who had escaped death when his mother, the daughter of a Swazi chief, hid him from Mzilikazi in the Matopo Hills.
The death of so many gave rise to a new name for the site – kobulawayo (present day Bulawayo) – ‘the place of slaughter’.
Having killed his rivals, Mzilikazi reorganised his army and proceeded to subjugate all the neighbouring tribes, most of whom in time, adopted the Ndebele language and culture, which had in turn been influenced by the amalgamation of other conquered groups.
In 1861, after the death of Loziba, Mzilikazi’s favourite wife, he left Inyathi and moved to a new and fertile place that he called Hlahlandlela, after a previous stronghold.
A period of hard times followed his people. They endured a great drought and were stricken by smallpox and measles; concurrently, lung-sickness, brought in by infected cattle of the missionaries and hunters, killed their cattle.
Prosperity returned in 1863.
Rains fell, harvests were plentiful and the raiding Ndebele regiments returned with large herds of cattle pillaged from the Shona.
The Ndebele continued sending raiding parties into Mashonaland, taking cattle and eventually imposing a tax on the Shona who were unable to drive back the warrior nation. However, Mzilikazi’s subjugation and incorporation of the local indigenous people did not extend to the Zezuru and Kore-Kore people further north-east.
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:


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here