This is the second installment in a series about Rhodesia.
King Lobengula of the Matabele found himself extraordinarily popular with white men—too popular. Day in and day out, they rode in their wagons to the royal residence at Bulawayo, where they pestered him with requests. Some wanted only permission to hunt or to prospect for minerals within specific areas. Others came wanting to negotiate concessions or treaties of international significance.
The white men’s camp outside the royal kraal hosted not only traveling petitioners but permanent residents of the sort found at remote frontiers—traders, adventurers, drunks. John Smith Moffat, a missionary who knew Lobengula well, amused himself by making a list of these men with notations such as “moral invertebrate” or “intelligent man—but utterly demoralized.”* Moffat would eventually negotiate with Lobengula to make a treaty with the British crown: the High Commissioner gave him an administrative post in the belief he could wield influence over the Matabele king.
The Matabele (known more correctly as the amaNdebele) had once been part of the Zulu kingdom, which occupied lands much further south, in Natal.
In the first decades of the 1800s, the warrior king Shaka united many clans into a powerful nation. Lobengula’s father, Mzilikazi, had been chief of one of those clans. In 1822, Shaka sent him out on a cattle raid against the Sotho, who lived in the Drakensberg. Mzilikazi succeeded in capturing many cattle, but he decided he’d rather keep them for himself. When the king sent messengers to demand the booty, he refused. Shaka’s warriors attacked Mzilikazi’s rebels but failed to wipe them out. Mzilikazi escaped with about 300 fighting men, accompanied by their wives and children. They marched north, raiding villages, taking cattle, and enslaving many captives as they went. This kept them occupied for years until eventually they reached the Marico district of the Transvaal and settled there. Lobengula was born soon after they arrived, around 1833.
Unfortunately for them, another group of warriors with a history of snatching up territory also came to settle there: the Boers. For about a year they were blissfully unaware of each other’s presence, but when they finally met—it must have been quite a shock—the Matabele massacred a party of Boers. The white men circled their wagons to fend off the next attack and began to retaliate. In a battle that lasted nine days in November 1837, 300 Boers with firearms and horses defeated 12,000 Matabele fighting on foot with spears.
Mzilikazi moved his people north again, crossing the Limpopo and settling around a place that came to be called Bulawayo. They soon chased off or subjugated the clans who already lived there, known collectively as the Shona. Many of the Shona moved to the northeast, which became known as Mashonaland, but even there they were in effect a tributary state of the more warlike Matabele.
Mzilikaze died in 1868, and Lobengula succeeded him in 1870. The new king was a tall, imposing man who grew somewhat obese—his weight has been estimated at 19 stone, or 265 pounds—but he continued to project an aura of dignified power, even to whites who generally referred to Africans as savages. However, some of his own young warriors thought he was not as much of a fighter as his dad, whom they’d grown up hearing stories about—this would cause trouble later. One white observer said, “He was not sufficiently civilized to break his word, and not savage enough to force his people into submission.”**
And so he sat on his throne made out of an old packing case, in a palace constructed from parts of a covered wagon, wearing only a loin-cloth, and received his many visitors.
The Boer treaties
Once the Matabele were firmly established in the lands between the Limpopo and the Zambezi, their white neighbors sought to gain influence and control. In 1853 Mzilikazi had agreed to a treaty with the Boers, negotiated by Hendrik Potgieter, that made Matabeleland a Boer protectorate—at least, that’s what the document said. Mzilikazi had not made any mark on it to authenticate it. This did not prevent the Volksraad (people’s council) from ratifying it as soon as they saw it, but Andries Pretorius, seeing the crucial omission, sent representatives back to Matabeleland to do a better job.
A lot of this had to do with confusion in the newly established Transvaal republic and rivalry between the Potgieter and Pretorius families. The republic did not have an organized central government until 1856 (when it took the official name of South African Republic), and it operated more like the contentious gathering of an extended family than a nation in the modern sense. At any rate, Mzilikazi did put his mark on a second treaty, which placed the two parties on equal footing and provided for “perpetual peace.” The Boers slipped in a provision that required Mzilikazi to prohibit arms traffic in his territory and to admit white hunters, which Mzilikazi simply disregarded as soon as the Boer negotiators went away.
(The hunters succeeded in gaining admission around 1860, and within five years had driven most of the elephants into “The Fly”—tsetse-fly country, where horses quickly died and game could only be hunted on foot.)
In 1887 the Boers were back again to negotiate a “renewal of friendship.” In reality, their concern was to stave off any formal connection between the Matabele and the British. Piet Joubert, commandant-general of the Transvaal and hero of the 1880-81 First Boer War against “the English,” had already sent a message of warning to Lobengula: “When an Englishman once has your property in his hands then he is like an ape that has its hands full of pumpkin seeds, if you don’t beat him to death he will never let go.” #
So Piet Grobler, the Boer emissary, went to visit Lobengula and came away with a document, duly marked by the king and his indunas (advisors), that gave the Transvaal considerable powers. It did not explicitly make Matabeleland a protectorate of the Boers, but it required Lobengula to provide troops or other assistance whenever called upon; to recognize and assist any Transvaal consul; to provide any and all Transvaalers with passes to hunt or trade; and so on.
The Boers kept the treaty secret, fearing British interference, but rumors began to circulate, and a report appeared in the “Transvaal Advertiser” that Matabeleland had been made a protectorate. The British indeed became concerned. Cecil Rhodes’ business partner Alfred Beit asked a Boer associate to investigate—pretending to his contact he wanted to know the political situation only because he might invest in certain gold reserves in the region. The associate duly went to see President Paul Kruger, who was usually available to visitors at his bungalow in Pretoria. Kruger couldn’t resist boasting that Matabeleland was now officially under the protection and sovereignty of the Transvaal.
That really set the British wasp nest buzzing. Beit immediately told Rhodes, and Rhodes dashed off messages to his contacts among senior colonial officials. They decided to ask John Smith Moffat, the missionary and newly appointed commissioner, to investigate the matter with Lobengula and try to obtain a copy of the Grobler treaty. More important, he was to get Lobengula to sign an Anglo-Matabele treaty that would prohibit further agreements with any power other than Britain.
The Moffat treaty
Lobengula had learned that what he’d thought of as a “renewal of friendship” was interpreted very differently by the Boers. He became suspicious of approaches by foreigners. Although he felt friendly toward Moffat, he did not care to rush into another treaty. His bond with Moffat was an inherited one: his father had taken a mysterious and powerful liking to Robert Moffat, John Smith’s father, that had little to do with religion, as neither Mzilikazi nor Lobengula converted to Christianity. And he had no particular desire to become “English,” despite a fascination with the Queen on her faraway throne whom visiting Britons made so much of.
Moffat said of the Matabele, “They may like us better, but they fear the Boers more.” Grobler had reminded Lobengula that, after all, the Boers had defeated the English at the famous battle of Majuba in the 1880-81 war and won back independence for the Transvaal, which the British had annexed. So Moffat made little headway at first.
And there was another obstacle: unbeknownst to Moffat, a party of concession hunters representing Eduard Lippert, a competitor of Cecil Rhodes, had visited a few weeks earlier and allowed Lobengula to believe their mission was backed by the Queen. Thus it appeared to the Matabele king that the Queen was approaching him through two rival channels.
Eventually, though, Moffat learned about the Lippert party and persuaded Lobengula that his treaty represented the true bond of connection with the Queen. After all, the Lippert group had tried to keep its objective secret, and wouldn’t the Queen want the full blaze of publicity for all of her undertakings?
This made sense to Lobengula. He signed a treaty that proclaimed that “peace and amity shall continue for ever between Her Britannic Majesty, Her subjects, and the Amandebele people.” Moreover, Lobengula promised to refrain from entering into “any correspondence or treaty with any Foreign State or Power.”
But what about the Grobler treaty that he’d signed not long ago? It took some wheeling and dealing back in London to take care of this problem, but within two months the British government came up with a devious justification to satisfy any scruples. Prime Minister Lord Salisbury declared that the Moffat treaty superseded the Grobler treaty because the London Convention of 1884 precluded the Transvaal from making treaties with any state apart from the other Boer republic—the Orange Free State. The Boers were allowed to make treaties with individual “native tribes,” but not with the Matabele, who—Salisbury said—constituted a nation rather than a tribe.
With that detail out of the way, the treaty was announced publicly April 1888. A formal relation had been established between the British and Matabele peoples, and the way was now clear for Cecil Rhodes to make a big move.
Next: The Rudd concession.
* Quoted in Arthur Keppel-Jones, Rhodes and Rhodesia. Kingston and Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1983.
** This was Ellerton Fry of the Pioneer Column, speaking years later. Quoted in Keppel-Jones.
# Quoted in Keppel-Jones.