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Matabeleland - July 1893 - January 1894

In the mid-19th Century the people called Matabele were living in what is now the Transvaal. The Boer founders of the South African Republic, after much fighting, drove them across the Limpopo; whereupon they set up a military despotism over the Mashona, Makalaka, and other unwarlike natives between the Limpopo and the Zambesi. Their government was cruel; but it would not have been interfered with had not white men coveted the land, and the gold with which it was supposed to be well stored. Accordingly, a concession was obtained from Lobengula, which served as an excuse for planting settlements in the eastern and southern parts of the country, away from the homes of the Matabele.

In May 1891, difficulties arose with the Portuguese on their north-west frontier, both parties claiming a tract of territory in which a Portuguese trading station had been established. The result was a skirmish, in which a small company of British South Africa police were victorious. In 1891 Leander Starr Jameson (1853-1917), who had joined the pioneer force, was appointed administrator.

Ever since the advent of Mosilikatze north of the Limpopo the unfortunate Mashonas had been the prey of the Matabele; they therefore readily accepted the British occupation. The Matabele, however, were loath to abandon their predatory excursions among the Mashonas, and in July 1893 a large impi (native force) was sent into Mashonaland, and entered not only native kraals, but also the streets of the new township of Victoria. An attempt was made to preserve the peace, but it was evident from the attitude taken by the Matabele that nothing short of the authority which only superior force could command would settle the question.

The Matabele were a proud and fearless race of warriors; the men of that generation had never come in conflict with Europeans, and had never been defeated in their conflicts with native foes. Jameson's forces were slender, and Rhodes, on being consulted, urged him by telegram to “Read Luke fourteen, thirty-one." On obtaining a Bible, Jameson read the words: “Or what king, going to make war against another king, sitteth not down first, and consulteth whether he be able with ten thousand to meet him that cometh against him with twenty thousand?" He telegraphed in reply: “All right. I have read Luke fourteen, thirty-one.”

The position, though dangerous, admitted of no delay, and Jameson determined to risk an expedition with the forces at his command. His success on this occasion doubtless weighed with him on another and less fortunate one. The force available consisted of about 700 volunteers and 225 British Bechuanaland police, with some 700 natives. Jameson determined to march to Bulawayo, the headquarters of Lobengula and the capital of Matabeleland. The force was divided into two columns, and was to be met by a further column of Bechuanas marching from the south under Khama, the most influential of the Bechuan chiefs and a loyal friend of the British.

The first engagement took place on the Shangani river, where the two columns which had started from Fort Charter and Fort Victoria were both engaged. Majors Forbes and Allan Wilson commanded in these engagements; and after a hot contest with between 4,000 and 5,000 Matabele, the latter were repulsed, machine guns being used with terrible effect upon the enemy. On the 1st of November a second fight occurred on the high ground, in which it was estimated that 7,000 of the Matabele attacked the laager of the two columns. The oldest and most tried regiments of Lobengula dashed right up to the muzzles of the guns, but were swept down before the modern rifles and machine guns with which the invaders were armed.

Meanwhile the column of Khama’s men from the south had reached the Tati, and won a victory on the Singuesi river on the 2nd of November. On the 3rd of November Bulawayo was reached, and the columns from Mashonaland, accompanied by Jameson and Sir John Willoughby, entered the town, Lobengula and his followers being in full flight towards the Zambezi. An endeavour was made to induce Lobengula to surrender; but as no replies were received to the messages, Major Forbes, on the 13th of November, organized a column and started in pursuit.1 The pursuing party were delayed by difficult roads and heavy rains, and did not come up with Lobengula until the 3rd of December. Major Allan Wilson, in command of thirty-four troopers, crossed the Shangani river in advance, and bivouacked close to Lobengula’s quarters. In the night the river rose, and reinforcements were unable to join him. During the early morning the Matabele surrounded the little band, and after fighting most gallantly to the last, Major Allan Wilson and all his followers, with the exception of three messengers, who had been sent back, were killed.

In January 1894 Lobengula died — from fever, or as the result of a wound, accounts differ — at a spot about forty miles south of the Zambezi. After his death his indunas submitted to the Chartered Company's forces, and the war, which cost the company over one hundred lives and £110,000, was thus ended. An order in council of the 18th of July following defined the administrative power of the company over Matabeleland. Charges were made against the company of having provoked the Matabele in order to bring on the war and thus secure their territory, but after inquiry the company was expressly exonerated from the charge by Lord Ripon, then colonial secretary. With the close of the war the Matabele appeared to be crushed, and for over two years there was no serious trouble with the natives.

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Page last modified: 15-12-2016 11:12:04 ZULU