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Matabeleland - March 1896 - October 1897

In 1893 the managers of the Chartered Company picked a quarrel with Lobengula, and, having defeated and hunted him to death, declared themselves masters of the whole of Matabeleland. The three most powerful regiments — the Ihlati, the Isukamani and the Imbizo — were completely beaten in 1893 at the battles of the Shangani and Bembesi, but the remaining regiments, which formed the greater part of the nation, took no part in either of these battles, and consequently did not feel directly the power of British arms.

It thus happened, that, although the whole nation would appear to have been completely stunned by the swift overthrow of their impis, and by the occupation of Bulawayo by Dr. Jameson, contact with the white man gradually modified the superstitious awe with which they had at first regarded the conquerors of Lobengula. It was remembered that the greater half of a nation of warriors, hitherto invincible, had never measured their strength with that of the white man, and many of the bolder spirits cherished the hope that opportunity alone was wanting to enable them to reconquer their country, and to expel the white intruder.

Although treated with great consideration by the Government; although no taxes were levied; and although every precaution was taken to prevent harassing and unnecessary interference by the white settlers; the fact remained that a warlike and hitherto unconquered people were daily reminded, that they, the former lords of the earth, were now expected to wear the livery of inferiority, and to perform industrial duties which formerly they had exacted from their slaves. Such of the natives as did not retire to the hills and forests they allowed to live on among them, but on condition of their working for their new lords.

In spite of the natural tendency to revolt, produced by the above causes, the opinion of the authorities — missionaries as well as officials—was, that the nation had accepted loyally the white man's rule, and that the steady and increasing influx of population rendered every day any chance of a native rising more and more remote; and no doubt this general confidence would have been justified, had it not been for the extraordinary influence of the M'Limo and the phenomenal combination of physical plagues, all attributed by him to the advent and continued presence of the white man.

A drought, abnormal alike in its duration and intensity, had set in with the coming of Dr. Jameson, and had continued ever since. The locusts, which, if they had been annual visitors, had never made their presence severely felt, now appeared in swarms that literally darkened the sky, devastating both the veld and the gardens of the country, and eating up the crops on which the natives depended for their food. It is stated, on the authority of Uinjaan and Sekombo, that until the occupation of Mashonaland, no locusts had been seen in any numbers for twenty-five years in Matabeleland. The simultaneous advent in Rhodesia of the white man and of swarms of locusts, of a kind unknown in the country for forty years, and much more destructive than the ordinary species, caused the locusts to be called by the Matabele "Tsintete za makiwa" (locusts of the white man).

And as if these plagues were not sufficient, the rinderpest, an absolutely new and unknown disease, suddenly seized the cattle of the Matabele and mowed them down in herds. The action of the Government in shooting live and healthy cattle with the view of checking the spread of the disease, although explained to the natives, appeared tb them more terrible and unaccountable than the rinderpest itself. "See," they said, "the white men are deceiving us; they first pretend to give us cattle, they then kill them, and they won't even allow us to eat them when killed. What greater proof can there be that they do not want us to live? Let us fight them; we would rather be killed than die of starvation."

In every step taken by the company the guiding hand was that of Cecil Rhodes, a fact which received recognition when, by a proclamation of the 3rd of May 1895, the company’s territory received officially the name of “Rhodesia.” During this year there was great activity in exploiting Matabeleland.

On the 29th of December 1895 Jameson crossed the Transvaal border and marched on Johannesburg, in his disastrous attempt to upset President Kruger’s administration. The “Jameson Raid” caused a serious crisis in the Chartered Company's affairs. Rhodes resigned his position as managing director, and Alfred Beit retired from the directorate in London. Jameson was, on the 9th of January 1896, oflicially removed from his office of administrator of the company’s territories, and was succeeded by Earl Grey. This was followed in March 1896 by a revolt of the Matabele, while in June 1896 the Mashona also rebelled. The occasion, but not the cause, of the Matabele rising was the withdrawal of the greater part of the company’s force to take part in the Jameson Raid.

Another grievance was the seizure by the company, after the death of Lobengula, of the cattle of the Matabele -— their chief source of wealth. Not only was there a first confiscation after the war, but subsequently there was a periodical taking away of cattle in small numbers — the company acting under the belief that nearly all the cattle in Matabeleland belonged to the king and were therefore lawfully theirs. However, before the end of 1895 the company had settled the question in agreement with the indunas, two-fifths of the cattle to go to the company and the remainder to become the absolute property of the natives.

Though the Company's seizure of the natives' cattle and the rinderpest that broke out may have mainly caused the rising of March 1896, it is certain that the system of forced labor, or "modified slavery," contributed to it. The Matabele had various grievances, chiefly that after the war of 1893 they were treated as a conquered people. All able-bodied young men were required to work for the white farmers and miners a certain number of months per annum at a fixed rate of pay —— a most irksome regulation, enforced, on occasions, by the native police in a tyrannical fashion.

It was neither the action of the company in the confiscation of cattle, nor the labor regulations, that induced the mass of the people to rebel; they were induced to act by chiefs who chafed under their loss of power and position and imagined themselves strong enough to throw ofi the yoke of the conquerors. The two principal causes were the incompleteness of the conquest of the Matabele Nation in 1893, and the incapacity of a warlike and aristocratic people to give up their old habits, and to accept their natural place in the peaceful and industrial organization of a settled civilized community. The discontent thus engendered, was undoubtedly increased by the dissatisfaction caused by the absence of any head; by their unsatisfied desire for a king; and by the irritation caused through the overbearing action of the Native Police, the old men especially resenting the indignity of being controlled by their "own dogs."

And so it happened, that with the locusts, the drought and the rinderpest to assist him, the M'Limo had little difficulty in working on the superstitious mind of the Matabele. "Until the blood of the white man be spilt," ran the M'Limo prophecy, "there will be no rain." When, therefore, the long overdue rains came down within a few days of Maddocks' murder on the 24th of March, the M'Limo's teaching—that the drought, the locusts and the rinderpest were all gifts of the white man, who wished to kill them, and that therefore there was no hope for them until the white men themselves were killed — found ready acceptance amongst the natives, and in a certain section of Matabeleland, especially in the Inseza, Umzingwani, Gwelo, Mavena, Bembesi and Inyati districts, became an article of faith.

Tyrants themselves, the Matabele were not willing to be tyrannised over, and in 1896 they joined with their former slaves in a desperate and disastrous effort to regain their independence. In the manner customary among savages, the Matabele began hostilities by the murder of defenceless white settlers—men, women and children. Bulawayo was threatened, and soon all the country south of the Zambezi was in a state of rebellion. Imperial troops under Sir Frederick Carrington were hurried up to the assistance of such police as the British South Africa Company still had at its command. Volunteers were enrolled, and much fierce fighting followed.

Rhodes hastened to Bulawayo, and after conferences with the military and other authorities he determined to go, with Dr Hans Sauer and Mr J. Coleubrander, a well-known hunter and pioneer intimately acquainted with the natives, and interview the chiefs. They went (September 1896) unarmed into the heart of the Matoppo Hills, and there arranged terms of peace with the indunas. The interview involved grave danger to the emissaries, and depended for its success entirely upon Rhodes’s personality and influence over the native races, but it terminated what promised to be a long and disastrous native war. The Matabele, whose legitimate grievances were acknowledged and met, ceased the war after the indaba with Rhodes.

The disaffection spread to Mashonaland in June 1896, and there is reason to believe that it was actively fomented by the agents sent by the M'Limo to the Charter and Hartley districts. The number of the independent and isolated tribes, all of which are commonly termed Mashonas, rendered it impossible to terminate the disturbance in this part of Rhodesia with the same rapidity as in Matabeleland, and it was not until September 1897, that the natives in some of the remoter districts were finally subjugated. The Mashona revolt was not finally crushed until October 1897, though all danger to settlers was over six months previously.

At this time the rinderpest had carried off nearly all the cattle in the country —- a disaster which, together with the destruction of grain during the war, had brought the natives almost to starvation — and steps had to be taken to supply their needs. Many of the white settlers too were reduced to sore straits and required assistance. The rebellions had cost the company fully £2,500,000.

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