British Subdue African Resistance in Rhodesia Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

In contrast to the many sub-Saharan African countries colonized by European imperial powers, Zimbabwe was colonized by a private British company. British occupation began peacefully but soon faced violent resistance on such a large scale that imperial troops had to be brought in to impose order. The Ndebele and Shona revolts were among the largest, bloodiest, and most sustained attempts by Africans to resist colonization.

Summary of Event

Creation of the modern nation of Zimbabwe began during the 1890’s, when the region was occupied by agents of the British South Africa Company British South Africa Company and transformed into the colony of Rhodesia (later Southern Rhodesia). Before that time, the region was made up of scores of independent African states. Most were Shona-speaking societies, but the single largest African state was the Ndebele, or Matabele, Kingdom, in the southwestern region that Europeans called Matabeleland. Ndebele Kingdom Shona Rhodesia Zimbabwe;Ndebele Zimbabwe;conquest of Lobengula Rhodes, Cecil [p]Rhodes, Cecil;and Rhodesia[Rhodesia] Forbes, Patrick William Mashonaland Matabeleland [kw]British Subdue African Resistance in Rhodesia (October, 1893-October, 1897) [kw]Subdue African Resistance in Rhodesia, British (October, 1893-October, 1897) [kw]African Resistance in Rhodesia, British Subdue (October, 1893-October, 1897) [kw]Resistance in Rhodesia, British Subdue African (October, 1893-October, 1897) [kw]Rhodesia, British Subdue African Resistance in (October, 1893-October, 1897) Ndebele Kingdom Shona Rhodesia Zimbabwe;Ndebele Zimbabwe;conquest of Lobengula Rhodes, Cecil [p]Rhodes, Cecil;and Rhodesia[Rhodesia] Forbes, Patrick William Mashonaland Matabeleland [g]Africa;Oct., 1893-October, 1897: British Subdue African Resistance in Rhodesia[5880] [g]Zimbabwe;Oct., 1893-October, 1897: British Subdue African Resistance in Rhodesia[5880] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Oct., 1893-October, 1897: British Subdue African Resistance in Rhodesia[5880] [c]Expansion and land acquisition;Oct., 1893-October, 1897: British Subdue African Resistance in Rhodesia[5880] [c]Colonization;Oct., 1893-October, 1897: British Subdue African Resistance in Rhodesia[5880] Mtshani Khumalo Rudd, Charles Dunell Jameson, Leander Starr Wilson,Allan Plumer, Herbert Charles Onslow Alderson, Edwin Alfred Harvey

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Offshoots of South Africa’s Zulu who had adopted Zulu military techniques and organization, the Ndebele had settled in Zimbabwe under their founder-king Mzilikazi Mzilikazi in 1839. By far the most powerful state in the region, the Ndebele Kingdom maintained tributary relationships with many Shona states and often raided other communities in the region to the northeast and east that Europeans dubbed Mashonaland. When European hunters, traders, prospectors, and missionaries began entering the region during the 1850’s and 1860’s, they recognized the supremacy of the Ndebele and set a pattern of applying to the Ndebele rulers for permission to work in the region. By the late 1880’s, Mzilikazi’s son and successor, Lobengula, was generally recognized as the principal power in the region.

In 1888, South African industrialist Cecil Rhodes sent Charles Dunnel Rudd Rudd, Charles Dunell into Zimbabwe as the head of a negotiating team to seek an exclusive mining concession from Lobengula for his syndicate. On October 30, 1888, Lobengula signed what became known as the Rudd Concession. One of the most controversial documents in Southern African history, the written English version of the concession differed from the version presented to the Ndebele in their own language and later became a subject of misunderstanding and Ndebele resentment that contributed to the outbreak of war. The Ndebele saw the concession as a grant of severely limited prospecting rights, but in the view of Rhodes’s group, the concession granted it exclusive control over all mineral resources between the Limpopo and Zambezi Rivers. Rhodes used the concession to obtain from the British government a royal charter authorizing him to form a private commercial company to occupy, administer, and develop the region north of the Limpopo.

When Lobengula learned of Rhodes’s interpretation of the concession, he publicly repudiated it. Meanwhile, Rhodes used his royal charter to form the British South Africa British South Africa Company Company, a London-based organization that would eventually administer the territories that later formed modern Zimbabwe and Zambia. Rhodes’s immediate goal, however, was to establish a company presence in Mashonaland from which it could expand its authority. To that end, he sent his associate Leander Starr Jameson Jameson, Leander Starr to Matabeleland to persuade Lobengula to retract his repudiation of the Rudd Concession. Meanwhile, Lobengula sent envoys to England to solicit advice from the British crown on how to deal with the growing number of Europeans pressuring him for concessions.

In early 1890, the BSAC organized an expedition to occupy Mashonaland. Known as the Pioneer Column, that body comprised about seven hundred heavily armed European men and two hundred Ngwato auxiliaries from Botswana. In June, the column entered Zimbabwe from Botswana, moving along the southern and eastern fringes of the Ndebele sphere of influence. On September 30, after erecting forts in several locations, the column halted in northern Mashonaland, where it established Fort Salisbury on the site that later became Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare. Operating under the pretense that it was acting with Lobengula’s permission, the occupation was conducted without reference to the rights of the Shona peoples.

Contemporary drawing of an Ndebele regiment advancing on the British column at the Shangani River on October 25, 1893.

(Arkent Archive)

After establishing its presence in Mashonaland, the chartered company began building European settlements and distributing mining rights. In May, 1891, the British government declared a protectorate over both Mashonaland and Matabeleland and recognized the BSAC as the protectorate’s government. These developments naturally alarmed the Ndebele, but Lobengula merely continued to seek advice from the British high commissioner in South Africa. Meanwhile, the company worked to portray the Ndebele as dangerous predators by publicizing incidents involving Ndebele-Shona hostilities.

On July 18, 1893, the Ndebele mounted a punitive raid on the tributary Shona chiefdom near Fort Victoria. Jameson Jameson, Leander Starr , the company’s chief administrator in Mashonaland, ordered Patrick William Forbes, the commander of the company’s British South Africa Company British South Africa Police, to prepare for war. In early October, as Lobengula continued his efforts to negotiate peace, three separate British columns began marching on Matabeleland. On October 15, the columns starting from Fort Salisbury and Fort Victoria converged at Iron Mine Hill and continued moving southwest, toward Lobengula’s capital at Bulawayo. The third column, made up of members of the Bechuanaland Border Police, advanced on Bulawayo from the southwest.

The battles that ensued were comparatively brief conflicts with only a few significant military engagements. The first battle occurred on October 25 near the headwaters of the Shangani River, where Forbes’s main column fought a much larger Ndebele force commanded by Mtshani Khumalo Mtshani Khumalo , the chief of the Imbizo regiment. The Ndebele surrounded the British column and recaptured cattle Cattle;in Rhodesia[Rhodesia] that the British had collected but were repelled by machine guns Machine guns;in Ndebele War[Ndebele war] , which gave the British overwhelming superiority in firepower. Two days later, Forbes’s column repelled a second major Ndebele attack at the Bembezi River in a similar fashion. These battles were the largest actions in the war, but only a few hundred Ndebele were killed in them.

As Forbes’s column advanced on Bulawayo, Lobengula had his capital torched and retreated north, all the while continuing his futile attempts to negotiate with the invaders. On November 4, Forbes occupied Bulawayo, where the Bechuanaland Border Police column arrived one week later, after skirmishing with an Ndebele force commanded by Gampu Gampu at the Mangwe Pass. The British then turned their attention to capturing Lobengula. As the column’s progress was slowed by heavy rains and swollen rivers, Forbes sent three dozen men north under the command of Major Allan Wilson, Allan Wilson to continue the pursuit along the Shangani River. Wilson’s patrol was annihilated in early December.

Forbes’s main column then encountered heavy Ndebele resistance as it retreated to Bulawayo. After reports of Lobengula’s death—to unknown causes—were received, the British declared the end of the war and the abolishment of the Ndebele Kingdom. Under Jameson’s Jameson, Leander Starr direction, the British then began building settlements and setting up an administration in and around Bulawayo.

Despite the British occupation of Matabeleland, the war had not really ended. The conflict’s last major engagement had been a disastrous British defeat, large parts of Matabeleland remained unpacified, the Ndebele military system remained largely intact, and the Ndebele retained most of their firearms. The 1893 war was merely a prelude to the much larger conflict that began in 1896.

Between the spring of 1896 and the fall of 1897, a large part of Zimbabwe’s peoples rose in violent rebellion against the BSAC and European settlers. The Ndebele and Shona shared many of the same grievances: British seizures of cattle Cattle;in Rhodesia[Rhodesia] , forced labor, land encroachments, and abusive company administrators. Moreover, they recognized that the British had failed to legitimize their claims to sovereignty. The Ndebele also had the additional grievance of British refusal to let them restore their kingship.

The revolts were, in part, triggered by a series of natural disasters in early 1896 that many Africans blamed on the European occupiers. Within a short period, most of the country was beset by drought, Droughts;African locusts, and a cattle plague known as rinderpest, Rinderpest which had swept down through eastern Africa after first appearing in Somalia Somalia in 1889. Ndebele leaders appear to have begun planning their revolt in February, 1896, a few months after most of the BSAC’s police troops had evacuated the country to participate in the Jameson Raid Jameson Raid (1895-1896) in the Transvaal. The depletion of British troop strength left Zimbabwe vulnerable to disturbances.

On March 20, Ndebele men began killing African police officers and European settlers around Filabusi. By April, virtually all districts in the former kingdom and its tributaries were in revolt. The company responded by organizing the Bulawayo Field Force, which put both European and African volunteers under arms.

Most of the Ndebele joined the revolt, but they lacked a unified command structure. The rebels fought in three main groups. One centered on the Khumalo royal family in the north; another was based by the Insiza River in southeastern Matabeleland; and a third, less tightly organized, group fought in the rugged Matopo Hills. Some former military commanders, such as Mtshani Mtshani Khumalo , remained neutral, while others, including Gampu, supported the British, especially in the southwest, where they helped keep open the supply routes to South Africa.

In the initial fighting, the Ndebele drove European settlers from the outlying regions of Matabeleland and turned their offensive against fortified centers in Bulawayo and other major settlements. Unable to cope with the rebellion on its own, the company called in imperial help. In mid-May, the first imperial unit, the Matabeleland Relief Force, arrived under the command of British colonel H. C. O. Plumer Plumer, Herbert Charles Onslow . From that point, the Ndebele revolt became an increasingly defensive guerrilla war against imperial troops. In early June, General Frederick Carrington arrived to take command of all imperial troops. With him was Colonel Robert Stephenson Smyth Baden-Powell, who would later achieve renown in the South African War and found the Boy Scouts movement.

In late June, the Ndebele situation improved when the Shona began to revolt and when Lobengula’s son Nyamanda was proclaimed king by one faction of the rebels. However, by then many Ndebele were already surrendering because of supply and ammunition shortages. The conflict then became mainly a protracted guerrilla war in the Matopo Hills, in which difficult terrain greatly favored the Ndebele. In late August, Cecil Rhodes himself came to the Matopos and personally participated in peace negotiations that led to a settlement with the southern rebels. By December, almost all rebels had surrendered.

Meanwhile, a second revolt began in late June in central Mashonaland, where the Shona caught Europeans by surprise. Because the Shona had lived under scores of autonomous polities throughout the nineteenth century, both the causes and the course of their revolt were more complex than those of the Ndebele. Only about one-third of the Shona joined the revolt. Most Shona lived in areas in which British settlement had been most disrupted. Many rebel leaders had earlier traded with Portuguese coming up from Mozambique for firearms to use against Ndebele raids. Many Shona who collaborated with the British were from communities that had been preyed upon by the Ndebele but who had not traded with the Portuguese. Most Shona in the far northern, far eastern, and southeastern parts of Mashonaland remained neutral.

To an extent greater than in the Ndebele revolt, indigenous religious leaders played a prominent role in the Shona revolt. The most notable of these were the spirit mediums known as Kaguvi, or Kagubi, by the Upper Umfuli River, and Nehanda in the Mazoe Valley. Both mediums sent out messengers to exhort Shona chiefs to support the rebellion. The Kaguvi medium was supported by the Ndebele Mwari cult leader Mkwati, who went to Mashonaland to help encourage rebellion there.

The Shona revolt shocked Europeans, who had believed that the Shona had docilely acquiesced to European occupation. However, the ferocity and persistence with which the Shona fought rapidly changed European views. At first the Shona revolt was aided by the removal of all European troops to Matabeleland. In August, however, Lieutenant Colonel Edwin Alfred Harvey Alderson Alderson, Edwin Alfred Harvey arrived in Mashonaland at the head of fresh imperial troops in the Mashonaland Field Force. Alderson began launching assaults on Shona strongholds in Mashonaland’s rocky terrain, which gave the Shona more fortified positions than the Ndebele had outside the Matopos.

In October, after the Ndebele revolt was effectively suppressed, Carrington shifted his troops into Mashonaland. Despite the concentration of imperial forces, the British made little progress during the next two months. In December, the BSAC asked the imperial troops to withdraw from the country to save money, and the company’s own police took over. Fighting abated during the ensuing rainy season, and attempts at peace negotiations in January, 1897, were unsuccessful. As heavy fighting resumed in March, the company forces scarcely knew where to strike because the Shona had no centralized command structure. Eventually, however, the British wore down the Shona by ruthlessly blasting rebels from caves with dynamite Dynamite . By October, all the major rebel leaders were killed or captured, and the revolts were over.

Significance

Although the brief Ndebele War of 1893 led to the occupation of central Matabeleland by the BSAC, it was actually an inconclusive affair that might be seen as a prelude to the Ndebele and Shona uprisings of 1896-1897. The 1893 conflict taught the Ndebele the futility of using traditional fighting techniques against British machine guns Machine guns;in Ndebele War[Ndebele war] . When they fought the British in 1896, they avoided open battles and concentrated on hit-and-run guerrilla techniques. The Shona fought the same way and managed to prolong their own rebellion by taking advantage of the many naturally fortified positions in their region.

The revolts involved the majority of Zimbabwe’s African communities and killed about one in every ten Europeans in the country. All European development of the country was halted for more than one year, and the BSAC’s inability to subdue the uprisings on its own nearly forced its collapse. However, with the help of British imperial troops, the risings were suppressed, and the conquest of Zimbabwe was effectively completed.

After the revolts ended, the British disarmed the rebels, executed many of their leaders, and replaced many traditional Ndebele and Shona leaders with government-appointed chiefs. The independence of the Ndebele and Shona was decisively ended and the BSAC was left firmly in control. From that time until the modern nationalist movement of the 1970’s, the country’s white administration experienced no significant violent resistance from the black African majority.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Baden-Powell, R. S. S. The Matabele Campaign, 1896. 1897. Reprint. New York: Negro Universities Press, 1970. One of many memoirs of the 1898-1897 rebellions written by a British army officer.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">British South Africa Company. The ’96 Rebellions. Bulawayo: Books of Rhodesia, 1975. Facsimile reprint of the chartered company’s own publication, Reports on the Native Disturbances in Rhodesia, 1896-7 (London, 1898), containing its official account of the revolts.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cobbing, Julian. “The Absent Priesthood: Another Look at the Rhodesian Risings of 1896-1897.” Journal of African History 18, no. 1 (1977): 61-84. Revisionist study of the Shona and Ndebele revolts that rebuts T. O. Ranger’s argument that religious leaders played a major leadership role. Includes a map.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dodds, Glen Lyndon. The Zulus and Matabele: Warrior Nations. Harrisburg, Pa.: Arms and Armour Press, 1998. Popular survey of the military aspects of Ndebele and Zulu history by a writer who grew up in Zimbabwe’s Matabeleland. Includes chapters on the Matabele War and the 1896 rebellion.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Glass, Stafford, The Matabele War. London: Longmans, 1968. Still the only full-length scholarly study of the Ndebele War.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ranger, T. O. Revolt in Southern Rhodesia, 1896-7: A Study in African Resistance. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1967. Innovative and influential study of the revolts that was the first serious attempt to discern patterns of organization and planning in the African revolts. Illustrations, maps, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rubert, Steven C., and R. Kent Rasmussen. Historical Dictionary of Zimbabwe. 3d ed. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, 2001. General reference work on Zimbabwe that contains extensive entries on all aspects of British colonization and African resistance. All the entries on precolonial history are written by an authority on Ndebele history.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Selous, F. C. Sunshine and Storm in Rhodesia. 1896. Reprint. Bulawayo: Books of Rhodesia, 1968. Facsimile reprint of a firsthand account of the Ndebele side of the 1896 revolts by a hunter intimately familiar with Matabeleland who fought against the Ndebele. Contains many contemporary photographs and drawings, a map of Matabeleland, and an index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wills, W. A., and L. T. Collingridge. The Downfall of Lobengula. 1894. Reprint. Bulawayo: Books of Rhodesia, 1971. Facsimile reprint of the British South Africa Company’s official history of the Ndebele War. Contains chapters by participants and eye witnesses. Most of the descriptions of military actions were written by Major P. W. Forbes, a British army officer who was the principal commander of the company forces during the 1893 war. Includes many illustrations, several detailed folding maps, and an index.

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