Lobengula sets Bulawayo on fire


By Saul Gwakuba Ndlovu

THE passage of Cecil John Rhodes’ highly militarised Pioneer Column through southern Mashonaland and its subsequent arrival at the Harari (Harare) Kopje greatly surprised, if not deeply shocked, the local people, most of all the traditional leaders, the chiefs who virtually were kings in their respective territories.
Some of those people had seen one or two white people, Portuguese traders, who came and left soon after selling or bartering beads, cotton material such as calico, German prints, khaki and on some occasions, even some silk.
Some would sell some tinned foodstuffs such as beef and fish. Some snuff was also occasionally brought by some of those relatively few white traders who came all the way from the sea, a long distance to the east of the country.
But they had never seen such a large number, and armed too, as those newly arrived people, most of whom were obviously soldiers and who on the morning of September 12 1890, a day after their arrival, hoisted a flag and sang some form of hymn as that variegated piece of cloth was being unfurled.
The local chiefs, particularly Seke, Hwata and Mufakose, wanted to know why those white people had intruded into their respective kingdoms.
The intruders’ explanation was not verbal, but military.
They attacked those unarmed black people with 7-pounder field guns, drove away whatever livestock they came across as they rudely asked: “Anikwazi na ukuthi saphiwa imvumo yokuza apa yinkosi uNobhengula?” speaking in siXhosa, a language they had learned in the Cape Colony during their stay there, or a smuttering of which they had picked up at Grahamstown (eRhini), an eastern Cape Colony town from which the Pioneer Column had started its journey to Mashonaland.
That perplexed not only Seke, Hwata and Mufakose, but all other neighbouring traditional leaders such as Chinamhora, Hwata, Mbare, Chiweshe and Nyamweda.
All these and an additional 27, bringing the total to 32, were in fact, chiefs.
They were sovereign in their lands and had been so since the end of the Monomotapa era in the 18th Century.
The intruders had no time for discussions.
All their time was spent on grabbing and surveying land, prospecting and mining.
If the Pioneer Column’s arrival shocked the Shona traditional leaders and their various communities, the grabbing and privatisation of land ownership was the last straw that broke the camel’s back.
One of the white settlers, Joseph Norton, seized a 17 000-acre countryside, and named it Porta Estate, not for away to the west of Harare Kopje, close to which the Pioneer Corps built what they named Fort Salisbury in honour of the then British Prime Minister, Lord Salisbury.
In three years, the white settlers had greedily parcelled out for themselves the whole region, as far north as the Lomagundi District, and even further as far as Mount Darwin, Mutoko, Nyanga and Mutare.
The way they were grabbing land for their individual selves diametrically cut across the land tenure traditions of the black people of this country.
If land is to be owned by individuals, where will future generations live?
That question was on every black adult’s lips at that time.
While the Pioneer Column members in Fort Salisbury were grabbing land, digging deep into the earth’s bowels in search of gold and other minerals, back at Fort Victoria (Masvingo), a second fort after Fort Tuli, the white settlers had promised some traditional leaders, especially Chief Zimuto, that they would protect him and his people against King Lobengula’s raids if he could co-operate with them against the Ndebele Kingdom.
The Ndebele monarch, for his part, had tried but in vain to disown the contents of the Rudd Concession.
He had sent a delegation, months before the British monarch had granted Rhodes’ company a Charter, to London to inform Queen Victoria that he was deliberately misled by Cecil John Rhodes’ emissaries, but the British colonial officials at Cape Town put the delegation on a ship going to Britain via Brazil!
They arrived in Britain several weeks after Queen Victoria had given Rhodes the Charter.
In fact, Rhodes was by then already back at Cape Town and had begun preparing for his company’s armed adventure into Mashonaland.
So, King Lobengula was deeply worried about what would be Rhodes’ next move when he received a message from Rhodes’ right hand man, Dr Leander Starr Jameson, that some of King Lobengula’s people had stolen the British South Africa Company (BSAC)’s telegraph wire at Fort Victoria.
The message was saying, in effect, that should King Lobengula not act urgently, the BSAC would take whatever steps it deemed necessary to protect its interests.
King Lobengula immediately sent a messenger to his most senior officer in what is now the Midlands, regional commander Mgandane Dlodlo, to go investigate and apprehend the thieves.
Dlodlo was at Fort Victoria within a few days.
He found Dr Jameson in an uncompromising mood, having already telegraphed Rhodes whose reply was a New Testament verse that virtually says God’s gifts come in various forms.
Dr Jameson would not listen to or co-operate with Dlodlo, describing him as a ‘sexually immature boy’.
Dlodlo explained he was officially in charge of that region and had been sent by King Lobengula to deal with the BSAC’s complaint.
Dr Jameson gave him 15 minutes to leave the premises or he would be shot.
Dlodlo left immediately but was shot dead less than 100 metres away from Dr Jameson’s office.
That was, in effect, the beginning of the 1893 Anglo-Ndebele War that led to the fall of the Ndebele State and the official unification of Mashonaland with the Ndebele kingdom, the former land of the mambos, the former territory of the BaKalanga.
That war was bloody as King Lobengula’s army thought it could overwhelm Rhodes’ mercenaries by sheer weight of numbers.
However, the BSAC had much more advanced weapons, especially the five-barrelled Nordenfeldt machine gun which was first used in that war.
The BSAC mercenaries had one such gun plus four Maxim machine guns manned by 50 infantrymen who faced 5 000 spear-wielding Ndebele soldiers who charged the enemy five times in 90 minutes.
They were mowed down each time by the machine guns, particularly the five-barrelled Nordenfedt.
It is historically important to point out that Chief Zimuto provided more than 400 men who served as porters.
Four very bitter battles were fought; one at Lalapanzi, the other on the banks of the Shangani River, the third at Gadadi and the fourth across the Shangani River when the Allan Wilson Patrol was wiped out to a man.
Some Rhodesian historians say one man, an American named Armstrong, survived and he and his horse swam across the flooded roaring Shangani River.
Armstrong later became a native commissioner and was based at Mangwe, south of Plumtree.
Weapons used by the BSAC included a 1870 six-barrelled machine gun, the seven-pounder field guns, the 1887 (Mark 1) Lee-Metford bolt action with a 303 calibre.
At that time, it could fire eight staggered rounds.
Later models could fire 10 staggered rounds.
In addition to the above deadly multi-barrelled machine guns, the BSAC had a large variety of single-shot rifles ranging from the 1853 Enfield Snider to the Martin-Henry.
King Lobengula’s forces had about 1 000 riffles, but no ammunition whatsoever.
The rifles were supplied as part of the Rudd Concession.
But Rhodes deliberately ignored to fulfill the clause about ammunition.
Those rifles were not used by the black people in that war.
So, the Ndebele army had to use its traditional weapons, the spear, the shield and the knobkerries.
When King Lobengula received a message that his best regiment, Imbizo, had also been defeated, he ordered one of his lieutenants, a man whose totem was Mahlangu, to set Bulawayo on fire as he himself left in a northerly direction never to be seen again.
Saul Gwakuba Ndlovu is a retired, Bulawayo-based journalist. He can be contacted on cell 0734 328 136 or through email. sgwakuba@gmail.com


  1. I find your narration of events devoid of reality and sometimes common sense. First why do you refer to madziMambo of the other regions as Chiefs whilst you refer to Lobengula who arrived fleeing from Tshaka with only 30 families as King. Lobengula ruled the small land around Bulawayo and indeed used to raid and never subjected or ruled people in present day Midlands, Masvingo and/or Mashonaland. That is the correct picture. All that nonsense of calling him King was coined by the colonialists as a strategy to divide blacks into them and us. The resultant tribalism which still haunts the country today. The history of Zimbabwe should and must not be limited and looked as if it started when Lobengula or the Pioneer Column arrived. Its best to give the reader an appreciation of the land and the political dynamics before you arrive at the Pioneer Column. The only known kingdom and Empire was Monomatapa which can be traced even in museums in India and Portugal. There is no Lobengula in these historical museums. What followed thereafter was just commotion and disturbances in the scared land of Monomatapa. If you go to places in the greater part of South Zimbabwe you will find out that they all have Shona names. One such place is Naletale which was changed from Nharitari by a white District admnistrator because it didnt sound Ndebele. This is not coincidence but true reflection of the people whom the white people found in those areas.The provincial boundaries should also be considered in that vein, a strategic cheating on the part of colonialists to give more land to Matebeleland which never was under Lobengula. Monomatapa had created a permanent civilisation which even the white people couldn’t burn down….Great Zimbabwe. The largest man made ancient structures south of the Sahara. Zimbabwe should start teaching children the correct history and not this distortion. Its imperative that teaching shouldn’t limit our history to the coming of Rhodes. All the people of Zimbabwe fought the white people at various stages and as such Chimurenga 1 only ended in 1903. There is a reason why most of if not all the heads kept by the British museums are not from Matebeleland. If you follow the history the people who gave the colonialists hard time had to be decapitated.


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