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1821-1896 - Matabele Kingdom

The Matabele were not the original possessors of their present country but were recent interlopers. The founder of the tribe, Mzilikazi, son of Matshobana, of the Kumalo clan, was one of the principal Captains of Shaka. The Ndebele state ruled by Mzilikazi was one of four major African state formed in South Africa during the 1820s and 1830s. Mzilikazi had been a subject chief of Shaka, but in 1821 he had sought to demonstrate his independence by refusing to send tribute cattle to the king. Fleeing from a punitive force sent by Shaka, Mzilikazi and a few hundred followers crossed the Drakensberg Mountains and established a series of armed settlements on the Highveld. Raiding for cattle and grain and forcibly incorporating Sotho-Tswana people into his forces, Mzilikazi built a powerful kingdom in the 1830s near present-day Johannesburg and Pretoria. Mzilikazi is usually seen as a refugee from Shaka. More accurately, he moved away to escape upheavals caused by the Ndwandwe-Mthethwa Zulu wars. The career of his migrant, predatory kingdom was far more disruptive than that of the Zulu kingdom.

It has become a well-established cliche to say that the Zulu state and its Nguni off-shoots, such as the Ndebele of Mzilikazi and his son, Lobengula, were 'military states', and that at the root of their social and political organizations lay the 'regimental system'. The assumptions that Ndebele settlement was purely militarily orientated and that it was composed of a hierarchy of 'regiments' and 'divisions' are false. The parallels between the Ndebele ibutho and the English regiment are so tenuous that some suggest the translation is best dispensed with.

There are many versions of who Mzilikazi was and his reasons for fleeing King Shaka, some say Mzilikazi means "The Path of blood or the Great Road". He was the first King of the Matebele (Ndebele tribe) was the son of Matshobana, son of Mangete, son of Ngululu, son of Langa, son of Zimangele; all descendants of the Khumalo Dynasty. Mzilikazi was born of Nompethu "The maggot" the daughter of Chief Zwide of the Ndwandwe people (tribe). Although some Ndebele people dispute that Mzilakazi was their first king or even a paramount King for all the Ndebele people.

Matshobana was the chief of the Northern Khumalo. The territory of the Northern Khumalo was located near the Black Mfolozi River, squeezed between the lands of two strong rival groups: the expanding Mthethwa chiefdom of Dingiswayo and the land of the equally ambitious and much more ferocious Zwide of the Ndwandwe. Mzilikazi's boyhood was spent in the household of his grandfather Zwide. Inevitably, as he grew to manhood he observed the less powerful Khumalo being drawn into the conflict between Dingiswayo and Zwide.

After the murder of Matshobana, Mzilikazi inherited the chieftainship, and had to live at King Shaka's Bulawayo. Before King Shaka's reign there was Zwide's Ndwandwe reign. Trouble started for Mzilikazi for when he suspected that Zwide, who had his father Matshobana assassinated, wanted him killed. In preparation, he had an alliance with Shaka, which allowed him to be a leader of one of his regiments. Mzilikazi's reputation, bravery and skill in combat grew, much to the displeasure of King Shaka. King Shaka saw Mzilikazi as a future potential threat and therefore hatched a plot to get rid of Mzilikazi. Unfortunately for King Shaka, his plot did not produce his desired results. Mzilikazi then decided to setup his own kingdom.

They first made a short sojourn in the ba-Khunda country near the Vaal River, and then moved to that of the ba-Kathla, northeast of Kuruman in Bechuanaland, where by employing Tshaka's methods they speedily put a wide belt of country between themselves and the Zulu headquarters, wiping out the less warlike denizens of the invaded territories. For nearly ten years Mzilikazi pursued these tactics, despatching raiding and foraging parties into Bechuanaland and other adjacent countries, and annihilating whole tribes of inoffensive natives, but always looting the cattle and reserving the young girls and boys, the former as wives for his soldiers, and the latter for slavery and subsequent incorporation into his own following.

It was not until 1836 that he received his first check. In that year some sturdy Boer "voor-trekkers" from Cape Colony, sick of the British Government, and pining for the free fife of the interior, where no irritating laws could pursue them, journeyed over the Orange aDd Vaal Rivers and settled in the Orange Free State and the southern portion of the Transvaal. The Matabele were upon them at once, and had murdered several parties before the Boers could concentrate and offer an organised resistance.

In the many conflicts which ensued the Boers adopted their well known laager formation, defending themselves from behind the protection of ox-wagons drawn up in the form of a hollow square, and with their muzzle-loading muskets they successfully beat off the natives who were only armed with stabbing and throwing assegais. It is possible, however, that the Boers would eventually have been compelled to give way had not an unexpected ally appeared on the scene. Dingana/—Tshaka's murderer and successor —sent an impi of Zulus into the Transvaal, which fell upon Mzilikazi at a time when he was endeavoring to reorganise his forces. Before this combined opposition Mzilikazi realised that the country was too hot for him: he collected his cattle and the fragments of his regiments, and retreated northwards, laying waste the country as he passed through it.

Mzilikazi made no fresh attempt at settlement until he had crossed the Crocodile River and reached the high veld on the watershed of that and the Zambesi River, where he called a halt near the hill now known as Thabas Induna. In this locality he made his headquarters, meeting with no resistance from the indigenous tribes, who fled, helter-skelter, at his approach. Mzilikazi left the bulk of his tribe at Thabas Induna, and with a few selected regiments pursued his course of devastation towards the Zambesi, which he would doubtless have reached and crossed had he not been baffled by the tsetse fly. During his absence, and probably in the belief or hope that he would never return, some of his headmen at Thabas Induna made up their minds to settle down in peace, and selected one of the chief's young son? to succeed him. They were most grievously mistaken, for Mzilikazi was apprised of their action, immediately returned to his headquarters, and had the conspirators put to death upon the hill which has since been called Thabas Induna (Intaba yez-Induna, " the hill of the headmen ") in remembrance.

Matabeleland, up to this time, had been occupied by various unwarlike and pastoral tribes, some being Swazis and others of Basutu origin, who belonged to an older period of Bantu invasion than the Zulus and Bechuanas of the south. The principal of these were the ama-Kalanga, who are referred to by early Portuguese writers as having been there in the days of Monomotapa, the ba-Tonka, found in the north-western part of the country near the Zambesi, the ama-Zwina (Mashona), and the aba-Nyai or aba-Lozi. None of these could make any stand against the annual raids of the newcomers; some fled towards the Zambesi or the far east, while others remained, but only as slaves, to till the land for their conquerors. For thirty years Mzilikazi and his people waxed fat at the expense of their neighbours. Regularly each dry season regiments were despatched to pillage some one or other of the weak tribes on their borders, and these operations extended westward as far as Lake Ngami, northward across the Zambesi, and eastward to the villages of Lomagunda, if not further.

During his boyhood Lobengula, who was the youngest of the chief's three principal sons,1 became the heir-apparent, owing to his father, in a fit of jealous rage, having caused the murder of his two brothers, Kuruman and Ubuhlelo. There is little doubt that these two were killed, though the deed was concealed at the time and was only brought to light when a false Kuruman appeared many years afterwards in Natal.

Mzilikazi's reign of terror came to an end in 1868, when he died at his capital town Mhlahlanhlela of an attack of gout, but it was not until two years later, and only after satisfying himself that the claims of the Natal pretender had no justification, that Lobengula accepted the sovereignty of the nation.

Immediately after his accession, the new chief made many professions of his intention to put an end to abuses which had existed under his father's regime. At this time he was undoubtedly influenced for good by the clergy of the London Missionary Society, two or three of whom had settled in Matabeleland. Among the reforms which Lobengula promised were the cessation of the annual slave-raiding expeditions, and the abolition of the death sentence for suspicion of witchcraft.

His promises were vain talk, or his good impulses soon evaporated. Both of these practices were so deeply ingrained into the Matabele constitution that, even had he really so desired, Lobengula could never have suppressed them, but it is unlikely that he ever intended making the attempt. Be this as it may, the slave-raids were doubled during his chieftainship and the cruel devastations were carried much further westward than before, while, so far from interfering with the capital punishment for witchcraft, Lobengula employed this system (of which more hereafter) as the principal means of removing his private enemies, and of bolstering up his own despotic power.

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Page last modified: 23-10-2012 19:12:39 ZULU