Hundreds of men, women and children crowded into the dusty streets of Bulawayo. Vivid rumors of Ndebele atrocities terrified the refugees, even as barricades of meal bags and boxes were being erected on the town’s periphery. It was feared that as many as 15,000 warriors were preparing to attack. To make matters worse, in 1896 most of the mounted police force raised to protect Matabeleland were in the Transvaal, languishing in a Boer prison.
Trouble had been brewing in Matabeleland since the coming of white settlers nearly a decade earlier. Located in the southwest region of old Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), Matabeleland had been carved up by the British South African Company (BSAC) under Cecil Rhodes in 1893. Hoping to expand their agricultural holdings and pay off debts, the company greedily eyes acreage owned by the Ndebele people. The problem was, of course, that the Ndebele were not interested in giving up their prime cattle grazing areas.
Kin to the Zulus of South Africa, the Ndebel-or Matabele (‘people who duck behind their shields’) as the Sotho called them-had a long warrior tradition. Breaking away from their Zulu allies in the 1820s under the leadership of Mzilikazi kaMashobane, the Ndebele raided north of the Zambezi River and enslaved such people as the Mashonas; those living under Ndebele control were referred to by the contemptuous caste term of Holi. The Ndebele amabutho (regiments)-similar in organization to those of the Zulus but much smaller, seldom exceeding 500 men-had last clashed with whites in the 1830s, but since that time had managed to maintain a tenuous peace. King Mzilikazi’s son and successor, Lobengula, had witnessed the decimation of the Zulus by the superior firepower of British regulars in 1879, and hoped to steer clear of confrontations with the BSAC.
Unfortunately for the Ndebele, Rhodes and his company administrator, Dr. Leander Starr Jameson, concocted a scheme to draw Lobengula into a war. Mashona cattle thieves had recently rustled a herd of Ndebele cattle, then sought refuge within the walls of Fort Victoria. Reacting in a traditional fashion, a large Ndebel raiding party attacked the Mashonas, massacring as many as 400 before the eyes of horrified white residents. As a pall of fear and revulsion swept over the white community, Jameson raised a band of 700 freebooters scraped from the streets and veldts of South Africa to punish the Ndebele and forestall an imagined invasion.
By mid-October 1893, Jameson’s mounted column had crossed the Umniati River into Matabeleland. Amred with two 7-pounder field guns and a number of machine guns, the troopers were at first virtually unopposed. Small pox had recently scourged Lobengula’s camp, and the king vainly tried to negotiate peace. It was not until October 25 that the Ndebele finally attacked. Six thousand warriors slashed at Jameson’s wagon-laagered encampment on the Sthangai River. Hundreds of Ndebele died under the flaming muzzles of Martini-Henry rifles and Maxim machine guns. Less than 10 members of Jameson’s column were killed or wounded.
A week later, on November 1, a second frontal assault on Jameson’s laager at Bembesi resulted in more than 1,000 Ndebele casualties. Lobengula fled. In an effort to overtake him, a 30-man detachment of troopers under Major Alan Wilson recklessly crossed the Shangani on December 3, but was cut off by the king’s amabutho and cut down to the last man.
That minor Ndebele victory, however, only lent irony to a war that Lobengula, at the time suffering from small pox, knew was lost. In January 1894, he took poising with his chief counselor and was buried sitting in a cave, wrapped in a black ox skin.
The 1893 campaign had been wildly successful for Rhodes and the BSAC. Ndebele cattle were considered loot and were divided among Jameson’s volunteers. Each trooper had been promised 6,000 acres of land. By mid-1894, more than 10,000 square miles had been docketed for farmland. Lobengula’s royal village of Bulawayo grew almost overnight into a European-style city, featuring tree-lined streets 120 feet wide, banks, hotels, a cricket club, a golf club and a roller-skating rink.
To the Ndebele, the white invasion seemed to be the harbinger of a series of disasters that struck the countryside. Plagues of locusts had ravaged croplands since 1890, culminating in a terrifying cloud of insects that darkened the noonday sky in 1895. At the same time, drought parched the Ndebele lands, shriveling the streams and pools needed to water the remnants of their herds not taken by the whites. Perhaps worse was the scourge of rinderpest, a malignant cattle disease that erupted in Somaliland in 1889 and had spread like a plague through Uganda and Barotseland before invading Matabeleland in 1896. By March, the road to Bulawayo was littered with abandoned wagons and the rotting carcasses of transport oxen.
Many of the Ndebele amabutho had not suffered any casualties in the 1893 war. Seemingly quiescent, the former warriors labored under the Company’s rule, paid a burdensome tax and had their cattle confiscated when they could not meet the tax rolls. Unknown to the white administration, however, the Ndebele had hidden 2,000 Marinti-Henry rifles they had seized during Jameson’s campaign. All they needed to reclaim their lands from the whites was a window of opportunity. And that window suddenly appeared in December 1895. In an ill-fated and reckless venture, Jameson and 600 horsemen invaded the Boer-held Transvaal to claim the area for Britain and the BSAC. The Boers, however, surrounded the raiders at Doornkop, pinning them down with long-range rifle fire. On January 2, 1896, Jameson surrendered. Imprisoned with the raid’s leader was most of the Rhodesian mounted police force. When news of the fiasco reached Bulawayo, there were only 48 policemen left to protect the whole of Rhodesia.
The Jameson Raid seemed to fulfill the prophesy of a white man’s disaster predicted by a mlimo-a medicine man from a cave in the Matopo Hills to the south, through whom the Ndebele believed a god spoke. Warriors listened as the mlimo outlined a plan to rid the land of white settlers. The rebellion was to erupt on the night of March 29-beneath a full moon-during a ceremony called the Big Dance. Quite simply, the Matabele and their Holi vassals would kill all the white people they found.
The Ndebele plan, however, went awry. Several hotheads shot a native policeman on March 20, then stabbed him with their assegais. News of the murder reached Frederick Courtney Selous on March 23. Selous, a noted big-game hunter employed by the Company as a rinderpest inspector, at first felt that it was merely a localized problem and not an insurrection. But when rumors surfaced of white farmers being killed, he knew that the settlers were in imminent danger. ‘I kept awake all night with my rifle and a belt of cartridges alongside of me,’ he later wrote.
In the course of the following week, the Ndebele raided the countryside. White ranchers, miners and rural travelers were cut down indiscriminately, as were a number of Indian farm laborers. As news of the rebellion spread, surviving whites streamed toward Bulawayo. Selous managed to escape with his wife, Gladys, although his farm was burned to the ground.Bulawayo became a city under siege. Without the Rhodesian police for protection, it was up to the settlers and townspeople to prepare for an attack. Oil-soaked fagots were arranged in strategic locations in case the Ndebele should attack at night. Blasting gelatin was secreted in outlying buildings that were beyond the defense perimeter, to be exploded in the event the enemy occupied them. Barbed wire and a laager of sandbagged wagons were added to Bulawayo’s defenses. ‘As further protection,’ noted Frederick Burnham, and American scout in Matabeleland, ‘we gathered up all the empty bottles around the town, broke them, and threw the fragments in a mass several inches deep and about twenty feet wide in front of the wagons.’
Rather than wait passively for an assault, the white colonials decided to reconnoiter the countryside for survivors and, when possible, carry out mounted attacks on the Ndebele. Although there was a shortage of weapons and horses, about 40 men under the command of Maurice Gifford rode east along the Iniza River. On March 26, they reached Cummings’ Store, finding 38 men, women and children in laager with the sheet-metal farm building as their base. Gifford ordered loopholes made in the sandbag wall, then stationed pickets. Just before dawn the next morning, the store was attacked ‘by about three hundred natives, who came on in the most fanatical and plucky style,’ wrote Gifford after the battle. The settlers answered with a fusillade of rifle and shotgun fire. Stabbing through the loopholes with their assegais, the Ndebele killed two and wounded six whites before begin driven off. The settlers quickly loaded their wagons and retreated to Bulawayo.
In the capital, in the meantime, a militia unit dubbed the Bulawayo Field Force was organized under Colonel William Napier. His subordinates were settlers who had previous military experience. Unfortunately for the defenders, available armaments consisted mainly of hunting rifles and shotguns. A store of old Martini-Henry rifles was discovered and put into operation. A few 7-pounder field guns were adapted to the laager-they were unserviceable in the open field because their carriages had been eaten away by white ants. There was also a small assortment of Maxim, Nordenfeldt and Gatling machine guns.
In early April, a mounted force of 100 riders, supported by a cart-mounted Maxim gun drawn by mules, began combing the district north of Bulawayo. Under the command of Captain Ponty H. Van Niekirk, the patrol sortied through the rocky scrub brush of Matabeleland. Skirmishing was almost continuous as Ndebele marksmen targeted the riders. When the Maxim gun was brought into play the Ndebele scattered, remembering full well the futility of frontal assaults against the weapon they had experienced in 1893. Nearly trapped by the tribesmen, Van Niekirk managed to fight his way back to Bulawayo.
On April 4, 140 men led by Maurice Gifford dueled Ndebele riflemen perched on kopjes (hillocks) and hidden in the brush. Riding toward Fonsecas Farm, Gifford’s patrol encountered as many as 1,500 warriors. Concentrating rifle fire on the Maxim gunners, the Ndebele began inflicting casualties. A bullet shattered Gifford’s arm, which eventually had to be amputated. His second-in-command, Captain J.W. Lumsden, formerly of the 4th Battalion Scottish Rifles, fell mortally wounded. Relying on their mounted mobility and superior marksmanship, Gifford’s men managed to extricate themselves and return to Bulawayo.
Surprisingly, the Ndebele never mounted a concerted attack on either the city or on other fortified towns such as Belingwe and Gwelo. Nor had they blockaded roads leading to Bulawayo. Or cut telegraph lines connecting Matabeleland to Mafeking on the Bechuanaland border. The mlimo had, after all, predicted that true believers would be magically protected from the white man’s bullets. Investing enemy strongholds and cutting their lines of communication seemed to be of little consequence to those warriors who had faith in the mlimo. But overlooking the destruction of the telegraph lines was a major Ndebele blunder. As early as March 29, a plea was sent to Kimberly for a relief column. Sir Hercules Robinson, high commissioner in South Africa, was ordered by the British Colonial Department to raise a force of 500 volunteers and place them under the army’s command. Robinson chose Lt. Col. Herbert Plumer to head the newly designated Matabeleland Relief Force.
Plumer immediately ran into difficulties. He had little problem in raising a volunteer force at Mafeking, but the plague of rinderpest prevented him from using oxen to pull the supply wagons. He was compelled to use mule teams, which meant the wagons had to be more lightly loaded. Nearly two-thirds of the tonnage per wagon would have to be fodder to feed the transport animals and cavalry horses. In need of firepower, Plumer was forced to purchase 10 new .45-caliber Maxim guns on tripods from a Durban company at a price of 4,500 pounds sterling-‘considerably in excess of their value,’ he later observed.
While the relief column was being organized, the colonials continued their operations against the Ndebele. Selous estimated that 10,000 warriors were spread in a semicircle from the Khami River 12 miles west of Bulawayo to the banks of the Umguza River three miles to the northeast. To keep the roads to the south open, he was ordered to establish fortified outposts at Fig Tree and Manyami. Meanwhile, conditions inside Bulawayo were becoming unbearable for the nervous settlers. Nearly 1,000 women and children were crowed into the city. By day, families could return to homes and buildings within the town, but by night, they were forced to seek shelter in the laager. False alarms of Ndebele attacks were common. ‘Five cartridges went off by mistake,’ recalled Gladys Selous. ‘We were woken up by cried of ‘they are on us.” TheNdebele were, in fact, not far away. On April 17, 45 men commanded by Captains Van Niekirk and George Grey skirmished with a Ndebele ibutho (regiment) on the Umguza River barely three miles from Bulawayo. Unable to drive the native warriors from the area, the militia returned to the city. At about the same time, a Ndebele ibutho attacked Colonel Napier’s fortified farmstead at Maatjiumschlopay, three miles to the south. The 16-man white garrison, supported by friendly natives, managed to drive off the attackers.
Fearing another attack was imminent, Napier sent a relief force to the farmhouse. Finding no Ndebele, the mounted patrol swept northward to the Umguza. Crossing the road that led to Salisbury, the troopers clashed with natives near Colebrander’s Farm. As the Ndebele attempted to outflank the colonials, Frederick Selous crossed a nearby stream with a small skirmish line. The skirmishers prevented a large war party from advancing on the main column’s rear. Selous’ timing could not have been better, for at that moment the Maxim gun stationed near a corner of the farmhouse jammed. Accurate rifle fire allowed the column to withdraw, but not before the colonials discovered that another ibutho was nearby. Had the two Ndebele regiments joined forces at that time, the relief column would have been in serious straits.On April 25, 290 white troopers and friendly natives under the command of Captain Ronald Macfarlane left Bulawayo to scout the Unguza. Supported by a 1-pounder Hotchkiss gun and a Maxim, the patrol soon encountered several hundred Ndebele. A skirmish line of mounted scouts managed to draw the warriors into range of the two larger guns, and a fierce firefight erupted. ‘Bullets of all sorts came whistling along, from elephant-guns, Martinis, Winchesters, and Lee-Metfords, and for about an hour things were decidedly unpleasant, wrote Lieutenant Claude Grenfell. The Ndebele made two determined rushes to reach the Maxim gun, but were driven back with heavy losses.
Macfarlane, in the meantime, ordered a mounted charge against Ndebele warriors gathering behind a rock ridge to the left. With a rousing cheer, the horsemen swept over the ridges and drove the enemy across the river. On the right flank, a contingent of friendly natives wearing red capes, armed with assegais and commanded by Fred Burnham, dashed into tall scrub brush. In hand-to-hand combat, they cleared the area of Ndebele snipers. Several rounds from the Hotchkiss prevented the insurgents form returning.
The action along the Umguza seemed to signal a weakening in the Ndebele rebellion. Throughout the campaign, since March, the native izinduna (chieftains) had never been able to coordinate their activities. amabutho often stood idly by, even though the sounds of battle echoed but a few miles away. The Ndebele seemed to lack the central authority Lobengula had provided earlier.
By May 11, a relief force had finally reached the settlers. A column of 600 Rhodesians from Salisbury led by Cecil Rhodes fought its way through an opposing force of Ndebele between Movene Kraal and Gwelo on May 9, and linked with a mounted troop from Bulawayo two days later. The combined columns combed the district northeast of the city, skirmishing with Ndebele regiments and burning native kraals.
Plumer finally reached Bulawayo on May 24. Assisted by Macfarlane’s Bulawayo Field Force Corps, the Matabeleland Relief Force began scouring the Umguza River area, skirmishing as they rode. Within a week, two British officers, Maj. Gen. Sir Frederick Carrington and Colonel Robert S.S. Baden-Powell, arrived to take overall command of the various Matabeleland units and relief columns.
Carrington had barely settled into his headquarters when a Zulu informer brought news of the mlimo‘s secret cave in the Matopo Hills. At Baden-Powell’s recommendation, two scouts, Fred Burnham and Bonnar Armstrong, were chosen to penetrate the Ndebele defenses and assassinate the mlimo. Riding by night, the two scouts located the medicine man, surprising him as he entered his dwelling. After a well-placed shot, Burnham and Armstrong took to their heels. Setting several thatched huts ablaze as a diversion, they managed to reach their horses. Burnham later recalled that for two hours they were ‘hotly pursued and had a long hard ride and a running fight over rough ground’ before escaping their angry pursuers.
With the death of the mlimo, Carrington ordered Plumer’s force to proceed to Inyati, northeast of Bulawayo. There was evidence that a large Ndebele contingent was in force at Tabis-I-Mhamba, just to the north. On June 29, Plumer’s column of 752 troops, supported by two 2.5-inch mountain guns, departed from Bulawayo along the Gwelo Road. After several uneventful days of travel, they approached the tortuous collection of kopjes and brushland that made up the Tabas-I-Mhamba locale. On the night of July 4, the column eased past Ndebele outposts and took up positions. Plumer’s combined infantry and cavalry attacked at 5:30 a.m. on the 5th, plunging into the brush and carrying several fortified kopjes in vicious hand-to-hand combat. Horsemen cut off lanes of retreat. By noon, the fighting was over. Plumer lost two-dozen men killed and wounded. Ndebele casualties were estimated at 100, and the troopers captured about 500 women and children, 1,000 cattle and more than 2,000 sheep and goats.
Meanwhile, in June the Mashonas joined the revolt. To the whites, who regarded themselves as liberators of the Holi caste, the decision by the Ndebele’s Mashona vassals to commit their warriors to the uprising came as an unwelcome shock. After a few raids, however, the Mashona chiefs, lacking the Ndebele’s centralized command, retired behind their fortified kopjes and stayed on the defensive.
Scouting to the south, Baden-Powell reported several Ndebele amabutho under the induna Babyan gathered in the Matopo Hills. Carrington ordered Major Tyrie Laing, formerly of the Black Watch, to take the newly arrived Belingwe Field Force to the fort at Fig Tree and begin operations against the Ndebele left under the izinduna (chieftains) Hliso and Mholi. The main body of troops-more than 1,100 including friendly natives, supported by a pair of mountain guns, three Maxims and a Hotchkiss-proceeded due south of Bulawayo.
At dawn on July 20, Laing’s column was attacked. Several Ndebele fought their way to the laager, but were killed before breaking inside. The battle lasted three hours before case shot from Laing’s 7-pounder and his machine guns drove the warriors away.
By early August, Plumer and Baden-Powell had engaged several Ndebele detachements in the Matopo Hills, and had put them to flight. On August 5, they encountered Sikombo Mguni’s ibutho holding a mountain pass near the Tuli Road. Fighting dismounted, the troopers scrambled over steep ridges and through treacherous ravines. The Ndebele tried to outflank the mountain guns, wounding the gunnery officers as they attacked. Captain Noel Llewellyn of the Bulawayo Field Force Corps, operating a Maxim gun in support, was struck in the face by a splintered stone and nearly blinded for a few seconds, but he’stuck there working his gun single-handed till the enemy were driven off,’ recalled Plumer.
Coming under fire form a series of kopjes, Plumer ordered his native troops and dismounted horsemen under Major F.E. Kershaw to attack uphill. ‘The ascent was extremely difficult,’ Plumer noted, ‘the men having to climb over immense boulders and rocks.’ Kershaw was felled by a Ndebele bullet when he was halfway up the central kopje, as were several noncommissioned officers. Once the beleaguered Matabeleland Relief Force contingent reached the summit, a swirling battle in heavy brush developed before the defenders retreated.
Plumer remained in the hills for two more days, reconnoitering the kopjes and receiving a few scattered shots from tribal snipers in the process. By then, peace feelers were being sent to the izinduna. For all practical purposes, the fighting in Matabeleland ground to a halt. Forts were still constructed in strategic locations, and Carrington ordered Baden-Powell to sweep the area to the northwest of Bulawayo for recalcitrant amabutho. By August 13, a detachment of 50 mounted infantry of the 2nd Battalion, York and Lancaster Regiment, had ridden into Plumer’s Matopo encampment-the first regular British infantry to arrive on the scene.
On August 18, envoys of the izinduna Sikombo and Inyanda arrived in the colonial camp, requesting a peace meeting. Three days later, Cecil Rhodes met with Sikombo, Inyanda and nearly 40 other tribal and district chiefs. In a four-hour session, the Ndebele voiced their grievances and requested an end to the fighting. By August 28, Rhodes had arranged a meeting with Dholi, Mlosi and other izinduna in the eastern Matopos. The Ndebele were persuaded to turn in their arms so they could begin the planting season. Baden-Powell’s fast-paced sortie along the Shangani River netted several izinduna who were less anxious to surrender. The Mashonas were even less ready to lay down their arms; the last of their chiefs did not surrender until October 1897.
The Second Matabele War left Rhodesia badly scarred. Hundreds of white settlers and soldier had been killed and homes, ranches and mines burned. ‘We had lost everything-clothes, house-and all our work had been destroyed,’ noted Gladys Selous. Ndebele casualties are unknown, but are generally assumed to have been close to 2,000. Rinderpest continued to plague the land, and there was such a shortage of mules in the colony that large numbers had to be imported from Buenos Aires and Monivideo in South America. It would take generations for the countryside and its inhabitants to heal.
This article was written by Kenneth P. Czech and originally published in the March 1996 issue of Military History magazine. For more great articles be sure to subscribe to Military History magazine today!