The Struggle For Land in Zimbabwe (1890 – 2010)……looting of Ndebele cattle


By mid-March 1894, more than 30 000 Ndebele ‘loot’ cattle had been stolen and surrendered to the ‘Loot Kraal’ that had been prepared well before the Loot Committee was formed writes Dr Felix Muchemwa in his book The Struggle For Land in Zimbabwe (1890 – 2010) that The Patriot is serialising.

VERY few, if any, Ndebele people voluntarily moved into the ‘cemetries’ of the Native Reserves of Gwai (Tsholotsho) and Shangani (Lupane) between 1894 and 1896.
After surrendering in 1894, many opted to stay as ‘tenants’, in locations created on their original land which had been totally alienated and occupied by the European invaders.
In all probability, when the architects of the Victoria Agreement granted half of the ‘loot’ cattle to volunteers and half to the British South Africa Company (BSAC), they must have known that Matabeleland had become the biggest cattle breeding zone south of the Zambezi River and they would also have been fully conscious that the numbers of cattle accumulated in Matabeleland through Ndebele raids into Mashonaland and the neighbouring territories of Bechuanaland would be in hundreds of thousands.
It would be the reason the volunteers were in many ways more interested in cattle ‘looting’ than in fighting the Ndebele people.
And, indeed, they spared no time in exploiting every cattle herd they came across during battle engagements. (Glass,1968:p.236)
That the British imperial authorities were conscious of the looting is also not in doubt because the Secretary of State, Lord Ripon, did warn that ‘the punitive imposition of any fine of cattle as part of the final settlement was open to grave objection’. (Stigger,1980:p.30)
But, he had missed the whole point.
The European invaders were not deterred from ‘looting’ Ndebele cattle since it was part of their Victoria Agreement.
There was no final settlement except the ‘loot’ cattle, and there was no share for the Ndebele people.
When the invasion started, Colenbrander’s campaign was deliberately directed south of the Matopo Hills where the second largest herds of Ndebele cattle were grazing, forcing the herders to panic and scatter westwards, abandoning their cattle.
Then, from December 16 1893, large scale cattle ‘looting’ by a garrison of 118 men of the Bechuanaland Border Police and the Cape Colony Mounted Rifles based at Inyati had begun. (Stigger,1980:pp.22-24)
By mid-March 1894, more than 30 000 Ndebele ‘loot’ cattle had been stolen and surrendered to the ‘Loot Kraal’ that had been prepared well before the Loot Committee was formed. (Stigger,1971: p.19)
The BSAC’s position was that all cattle in the whole of Matabeleland were Lobengula’s cattle, and therefore, Company property through conquest.
On that strength, the Company began selling the cattle at auction floors from around March 1894.
The claim was subsequently challenged in a court of law in Bulawayo on March 25 1894:
An important case was heard in the High Court affecting the Chartered Company’s rights to the whole cattle in the country. A farmer and trader named Martienson was charged with illegally trading cattle from Matabeleland. After an able defence by Advocate Guerion as to the legality of the Law concerned, he was discharged. (Davis Matebele Diary p.31)
The BSAC’s legal power over ‘all cattle in Matabeleland’ was to be conferred only much later in 1895. (Stigger,1971: p.17)
The outcome of the foregoing case still did not change the BSAC’s position that all cattle in Matabeleland were Lobengula’s cattle, and therefore, BSAC property through conquest.
When Ndebele regimental commanders surrendered in April 1894, Jameson still required them to surrender the King’s cattle. (Stigger,1976: p.42)
The surrendering Imbizo, Insuga and Inqubo regiments had been part of the five regiments guarding the largest of the cattle herds and, their surrender means that most of the cattle had been surrendered to the BSAC by May 1894.
As mentioned earlier, a ‘Loot’ Committee was formed at the end of March 1894, under provisions of the Victoria Agreement of 1893.
The Committee consisted of Captain Heyman (chairman), Christison (mining commissioner and government nominee) and Sampson (the volunteers’ nominee).
The Committee was formed to determine how many cattle the volunteers in the conquest of Matabeleland were entitled to under the Victoria Agreement.
In April 1894, the ‘Loot’ Committee accepted 30 000 cattle from the BSAC (Stigger, 1977: p.108).
Of the 30 000 ‘loot’ cattle, 25 000 left Matabeleland for the southern markets of Transvaal and Cape Colony via Lake Ngami, Bechuanaland.
These markets not only absorbed the bulk of the cattle taken from Matabeleland between 1893 and 1894 on behalf of the volunteers as a share of the ‘loot’, but also on behalf of the BSAC. (Stigger 1971: p.15 and Gann,1965)
Before he became chairman of the ‘Loot’ Committee, Captain Heyman had been deeply involved in the sale of ‘loot’ cattle in the Southern Markets of Johannesburg and Kimberley through Palapye.
On January 25 1894, the assistant commissioner in Gaberone had observed that ‘the only batch to reach Palapye was covered by a pass from Captain Heyman’. (Stigger P,1980:33)
Heyman sold more Ndebele cattle when he was chairman of the ‘Loot’ Committee.
The proceeds were deposited into a ‘Loot’ Fund (Matabele News and Min.Rec. May 12 1894).
As chairman of the ‘Loot’ Committee and member of the Land Commission of 1894, Heyman further influenced the Land Commission of 1894 to conceal Ndebele cattle sales, and justified and facilitated such sales on behalf of the Company and the volunteers. (Stigger,1980)
While this ‘looting’ and selling of Ndebele cattle was initially made to enable volunteers to secure their pay for their involvement in the Matabeleland war, later massive cattle sales were made by the BSAC on its own account because the loot cattle came to form the only asset readily convertible into cash in the southern markets of Johannesburg, Kimberley and Cape Town.
From 1893 to 1896, the Company ‘looted’ Ndebele cattle in this manner not only in order to help itself meet its own general administrative and war costs, but even more importantly to recover from the bankruptcy in which it found itself just before the invasion. (Phimister,1988: p.8)
The Matabeleland Order-in-Council of 1894 contained clauses protecting the indigenous African population rights to land and cattle when it established the Land Commission of 1894.
Under Article 49 of the Order-in-Council, the Land Commission’s terms of reference included the Ndebele people’s rights to cattle.
The Commission was to: “Direct the Administrator to deliver to them cattle sufficient for their needs,” and that “the official was to comply.” (Stigger,1977: p.102)
Even though these terms of reference on cattle were rather vague and non-specific, at least the fundamental principle of Ndebele people’s rights to cattle had been established.
So too, had been the blatant disregard of the principle by both the BSAC and the British settlers.


  1. good piece of history. am a lecturer at a local college teaching National Strategic Studies and i enjoy the history part of the course. thanx for the rich insights into the country’s colonial history.

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