This is the third installment of a series about Rhodesia.
Lobengula had grown weary of the continuous stream of concessionists and big-game hunters who came to his royal kraal begging favors. He posted a notice at the entry point to his domain on the Tati River, proclaiming that his impis, or regiments, would stop any white man they found on the road.
Three men traveling on an urgent errand for Cecil John Rhodes did not let this deter them. They were Charles Rudd, a man experienced in negotiating with Boer land-owners about gold mining claims; Francis “Matabele” Thompson, a manager of black labor compounds at Rhodes’ diamond operations, fluent in Setswana; and James Rochfort Maguire, a barrister Rhodes had known at Oxford—“odd man out” on this expedition, conversant with legal documents but unfamiliar with discomforts of the African bush. Rhodes would use these men to gain control of Matabeleland. “Someone has to get the country, and I think we should have the chance,” Rhodes wrote to an acquaintance. “I have always been afraid of the Matabele king. He is the only block to central Africa, as, once we have his territory, the rest is easy.”*
The three men got into Lobengula’s territory on the pretence of having official business with John Smith Moffat, the missionary who’d recently negotiated a treaty with the king. Once inside Matabeleland, they encountered a local chief whom they bribed to let them pass. They sent a message to Lobengula reassuring him that they were not in his country to ask anything of him. This was a bald-faced lie, but Lobengula held off his warriors, apparently deciding he might as well receive the Rudd party, as they were already in his country.
The Matabele king was at heart an easygoing man who nine times out of ten avoided conflict. This aspect of his nature would eventually lead to his downfall.
But it took a while. The Rudd party arrived at Bulawayo September 21, 1888, claiming they had only come for a friendly visit. At that time of year, the dry season, Lobengula was occupied in ceremonies to make the rains come. “The impatient Europeans had to pass much time at whist, chess, and backgammon,” as Arthur Keppel-Jones describes it.#
Thompson at last began discussions by saying that his backers only wanted to mine gold, not to take control of land—unlike the Transvaal Boers. It was a favorite ploy of the British to contrast themselves with the Boers, whom they depicted as aggressive and greedy. Mid-October marked the arrival of an additional person key to the negotiations, Sir Sidney Shippard, commissioner of neighboring Bechuanaland. Shippard, who enthusiastically bought into Rhodes’ ambitions, repeated the warnings about the Boers and urged the cause of the Rudd party. Lobengula listened—he respected Shippard as a representative of the Colonial Office and, ultimately, a link to the white Queen across the seas. To him, it was important to deal with the Queen’s government and not with private businessmen. He didn’t realize that Shippard and his boss in Cape Town, Sir Hercules Robinson, were effectively acting as agents for Cecil Rhodes.
Many of Lobengula’s soldiers, especially the younger, hot-blooded ones, wanted him to refuse all requests for concessions and expel these pestering white men from his country. But Lobengula worried about the Boers, taking to heart the British warnings. Wouldn’t it be best to award exclusive mining rights to the Rudd party? After all, they weren’t asking for land. This would end petitions from rival interests—one such man, representing a competing London partnership, was on the scene at that moment—and it would ensure that the British would help keep out the Boers.
But then, he must have also considered, perhaps it would be better to allow these concessionist rivalries to continue? Then the king could play the various parties against one another… and so the debate went on between Lobengula and his advisors.
Eventually Rudd made an offer: for the concession he wanted, he would give 1000 Martini-Henry breech-loading rifles, 100,000 rounds of cartridges, an armed steamboat on the Zambezi, and a monthly payment of 100 pounds.
Shortly before Shippard was scheduled to end his visit, Rudd submitted a written proposal to the king. An interpreter was called in, a missionary named Charles Daniel Helm. The document, drafted by Maguire, called for Lobengula to concede “complete and exclusive charge over all metals and minerals in [his] Kingdom… together with full power to do all things that [the concessionaires] may deem necessary to win and procure the same.”
When the king hesitated, Helm asked Rudd for verbal reassurances. Helm then conveyed to Lobengula Rudd’s promise that “they would not bring more than ten white men to work in his country, that they would not dig anywhere near towns, etc., and that they and their people would abide by the laws of his country and in fact be as his people.”
Helm may have believed Rudd was sincere—his intentions remain unclear. At any rate, Lobengula trusted him. He put his mark on the document, which did not include any of the verbal provisions. Rudd set off immediately to present the document to Rhodes. When the tycoon saw it 20 days later, he gleefully described the concession as “so gigantic it is like giving a man the whole of Australia.”**
Within a few weeks, Lobengula began to hear rumors that he had been duped into giving away his country. Those rumors would prove quite accurate.
*Robert Rotberg, The Founder: Cecil Rhodes and the Pursuit of Power. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988.
#Arthur Keppel-Jones, Rhodes and Rhodesia. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1983.