By MURPHY BROWNE (Abena Agbetu)
King Mzilikazi Khumalo, founder of the Matabele Kingdom (Ndebele) was laid to rest in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe on November 4, 1868. Bulawayo was the capital of the Ndebele Kingdom.
Mzilikazi established the Ndebele nation in the southwestern part of the Zimbabwean plateau in 1839-1840. Around 1821 Mzilikazi, who had been a leader of his people in Zululand, had a disagreement with the Zulu king, Shaka, when, according to Glen Lyndon Dodds in his 1998 book, The Zulus and Matabele: Warrior Nations, Mzilikazi declared to a group of King Shaka’s messengers: “Messengers take these words to Shaka; say that Mzilikazi has no king. In peace he will meet Shaka as a brother, and in war he will find in him an enemy whom he cannot and will not despise. Depart! And tell your king it rests with him whether it be peace or war.”
Naturally, after sending those fighting words to the great Zulu king, Mzilikazi and his people left the area now known as South Africa and, crossing the uKhahlamba mountains (later named Drakensberg by Europeans), Mzilikazi and his people settled in the interior.
Shaka and his warriors pursued and there were battles between the Matebele and the Zulu. However, Mzilikazi and his initial group had gathered strength and numbers as they travelled.
Sabelo J. Ndlovu-Gatsheni, author of the 2009 book, Ndebele nation: reflections on hegemony, memory and historiography, writes: “The Ndebele were a formidable nation in the nineteenth century, with unique institutions of governance, distinct political ideologies, and a worldview that was shaped by their specific historical experiences. The Ndebele nation was a multinational one comprised of Nguni, Sotho, Tswana, Kalanga, Shona, Venda and Tonga ethnic groups. The national language was IsiNdebele. Its founding father was Mzilikazi Khumalo, a charismatic leader and a competent nation-builder.”
This new Ndebele nation was able to withstand the Zulu attacks, however, they were pushed out of the area when they were attacked by the Dutch Boers on their “Great Trek” to occupy areas in southern Africa. The attacks by the Europeans on one hand and the Zulu on the other, helped to push Mzilikazi and his people across the Limpopo River to settle in Zimbabwe.
Ndlovu-Gatsheni continues: “The migration and eventual settlement of the Ndebele in Zimbabwe is also part of the historical drama that became intertwined with another dramatic event of the migration of the Boers from Cape Colony into the interior in what is generally referred to as the Great Trek, which began in 1835. It was military clashes with the Boers that forced Mzilikazi and his followers to migrate across the Limpopo River into Zimbabwe.”
Even in Zimbabwe, the Ndebele were not safe from the covetous Europeans bent on occupying African land. Where, in the first Ndebele settlement the European interlopers had been the Dutch, the Ndebele were confronted with British greed in Zimbabwe.
On November 4, 1893, exactly 25 years after November 4, 1868 when Mzilikazi was laid to rest, the British settlers gained possession of Bulawayo. This was set in motion when on November 14, 1889 the British monarch, Victoria, approved a “Royal Charter” creating the British South Africa Company (BSAC.) This “Royal Charter”, in the eyes of the British, gave the BSAC and Cecil Rhodes (in whose name the charter was granted) carte blanche and legitimacy to exploit Africans and their land. Rhodes and his partners claimed a monopoly of all the metals and minerals in the Ndebele Kingdom and the right for their mining companies to exploit the land. The Ndebele either had to accept this state of affairs or fight to protect themselves from the European hordes that descended on them. This led to what has become known as the first Matabele War.
Ndlovu-Gatsheni sums this up in these words: “In the end, the British imperialists, together with their local agents like Cecil John Rhodes, Charles Rudd, John Smith Moffat, Charles Helm and many others, reached a consensus to use open violence on the Ndebele state so as to destroy it and replace it with a colonial state amenable to Western interests and the Christian religion. The invasion, conquest and colonization of the Ndebele became a tale of unprovoked violence and looting of Ndebele material wealth, particularly cattle, in the period 1893 to 1897.
The Ndebele warriors did not go quietly, but they were no match for the brutal, ruthless British armed with weapons that outmatched theirs.
The Maxim machine gun, for example, was used for the first time by the British in this unequal war with the Matabele people. The Maxim gun was the first self-powered machine gun invented by Hiram Maxim in 1884 and has the dubious distinction of being recognized as “the weapon most associated with (British) imperial conquest”.
With this weapon giving them a distinct advantage over the Ndebele warriors, it is not surprising that the British, on November 4, 1893, were able to capture Bulawayo.
Although the British evicted the Ndebele from their land which was then occupied by White people, the Ndebele were not defeated. In 1896 the Matabele rose up against the British who coveted everything owned by the nation.
The history of any African nation/people, when told from the point of view of White people, in many cases contains rumours and innuendo, so when reading it is important to be cognizant of the bias of the writer. Some writers label the second Matabele War “The Matabele Rebellion.”
According to author Dodds, Cecil Rhodes thought the Ndebele were happy with their lot (being evicted from their land which was given to White settlers). How delusional was Rhodes? Maybe he was just blinded by his perceived superiority!
Dodds also writes: “In June 1895, all Matabele cattle and their offspring were officially declared to belong to the company. Then, in November, the Land Commission’s chairman, Judge Joseph Vincent, declared that according to the Native Department, the number of cattle still in African possession was 74,500, far short of the number estimated as belonging to the Matabele prior to the war (according to one reckoning as much as 280,000.)
Ndlovu-Gatsheni writes of the British during that period: “They arrogantly alienated Ndebele land, appropriated Ndebele property such as cattle, abused the Ndebele as tenants and labourers, were ruthless, brutal and unfeeling, rude and insensitive, and enthusiastically resorted to violence whenever the Ndebele raised their heads. It is not surprising that the Matabele rose up in 1896; their land and their cattle had been stolen, they were forced to work for and pay taxes to the thieves, how much more insult piled on top of injury could they take?
However, as Ndlovu-Gatsheni added: “Even the occupation of Bulawayo by the Whites did not mean the total defeat of the Ndebele.”
The history of the Ndebele and Matabeleland is part of the history of the African struggle against European domination. African writers have documented the brutality of European colonization of Africans from the African point of view. In expressing that point of view Ndlovu-Gatsheni argues: “The Ndebele state became a direct victim of imperial violence and destruction in the period 1893-1896 as the advocates of Victorian aggrandizement beat the colonial drums to a crescendo, arguing that the independent Ndebele state was a barrier to the advances of ‘Civilization, Commerce and Christianity’. The violent conduct of the colonial conquest itself made it abundantly clear how hypocritical these ideas were, as the ruthless destruction of human life left a legacy of bloodshed rather than peaceful western civilization.”
We still see that mindset exhibited in this the 21st century with the greed of the western powers for oil in lands held by racialized people.