The betrayal of Lobengula

This was the seal Lobengula used to indicate his approval of concessions and treaties. It was made for him in England. documents and

This was the seal Lobengula used to indicate his approval of concessions and treaties. It was made for him in England.

This is the sixth installment in a series about Rhodesia.

Lobengula had investigated the white concessionaires and the missionaries, and determined that the Rudd concession was a fraud. Its sole purpose was to deceive him into giving away his country. He’d written his letter to the white Queen repudiating the concession. And now, two months later, in June 1889, the letter arrived in England.

Also in June, the Colonial Office in London was changing its position—for the second time. Early in the year, Lord Knutsford had encouraged Rhodes and his rivals to amalgamate. Then Knutsford pulled back, advising Lobengula in the famous  “herd and ox” letter that a king should not give away all that he owned, but only a part of it. The letter was being conveyed to the king by his two envoys, Babayane and Mshete, who would not reach Bulawayo until August.

Knutsford’s reversal came partly from an attack of conscience over dealings with the Matabele king. But it also stemmed from worries over expenditures and commitments that might be required from the British government. The Colonial Office feared that once these concessionaires had enticed the public into investing in a chartered company, they would leave the government to “take up the work of preserving the peace, and settling the details.”*

But now the pendulum swung back. Rhodes had been in England for two months raising support for his enterprise. It looked now as though he would get involved in Matabeleland one way or another, and so the Colonial Office might as well try to influence the details. Where exactly would the company’s field of operations be located? The Foreign Office joined the discussion out of concerns about Portuguese and German expansion in the region. In the end, the geographical boundaries would be left undefined, giving Rhodes a free hand to acquire land anywhere in vague regions north of the Limpopo (and probably north of the Zambezi too), and west of Portuguese Mozambique.

Lobengula’s letter of repudiation reached the Colonial Office June 18. Although his words clearly rejected the entire basis for Rhodes’ company, there was no response whatsoever to its substance. A letter was drafted to the High Commissioner in Cape Town asking him to give Lobengula the polite but empty message that his letter had been received and to convey the thanks of the Queen.

To make sure Lobengula’s repudiation did no harm, the ever-active Rhodes enlisted the support of Rudd’s associate James Rochfort Maguire, who had returned to London from Bulawayo. No doubt he was happy to leave behind the Matabele, who’d been angry with him, as we’ve seen, for cleaning his false teeth in their sacred spring. Maguire now presented himself as an expert on Matabele ways. Under Rhodes’ instruction, he wrote a letter to the Colonial Office. “Those acquainted with Matabeleland, as a rule, attach little importance to any document stated to be signed by Lobengula which is not witnessed by one of the missionaries whom the Chief regards as his most independent advisors.”** Maguire claimed that other documents supposed to be signed by Lobengula had been proven not to be genuine, though he gave no examples; he further said that the king had taken possession of rifles promised under the concession (false—they were in custody of agents of Rhodes), and that Lobengula was accepting the monthly payments also promised (true).

King Lobengula of the Matabele.

King Lobengula of the Matabele.

In late June, Prime Minister Lord Salisbury approved the granting of a royal charter. It remained to work out the details of how, for instance, the company’s shares would be allotted. The key for the directors was to select only shareholders who fully supported Rhodes’ aims. It would be another two months before the Queen formally signed the charter for the British South Africa Company.

Prime Minister Lord Salisbury.

Prime Minister Lord Salisbury.

Among the Matabele, nothing was known about these proceedings. The two envoys, Babayane and Mshete, finally reached Bulawayo two months after the Prime Minister’s decision. They gave Lobengula the now-irrelevant “herd and ox” letter and a communication from the Aborigines Protection Society urging the king to be “wary and firm” in his dealings with concession hunters. Mshete furthermore claimed that the Queen had said at their meeting that no white men should be allowed to dig for gold except on behalf of Lobengula on his servants.

Storms of fury now rose among Lobengula’s indunas and his warriors. The white concession hunters must no longer be tolerated!

Two individuals in Bulawayo had particular reason to fear for their lives. One was Francis Thompson, the associate of Rudd and Maguire—he’d reluctantly remained at the king’s kraal when Maguire returned to England. Lobengula demanded that Thompson bring him the original concession document, which was in Rhodes’ possession. All during the king’s investigations, a copy of the document was used. Lobengula suspected that the copy differed from the original, implying that the original would prove he’d been defrauded. Thompson pleaded with Rhodes to send it, saying it would be “a matter of life and death to me.”# Rhodes feared that the document might be destroyed, but finally sent it along with instructions not to hand it over “until the knife is at your throat.” When Thompson received it, he put it into a pumpkin gourd and buried it.

The Rudd document.

The Rudd document.

The other individual with reason to be fearful was Lotshe, Lobengula’s head induna. During the negotiations for the concession, he’d taken the lead in backing the agreement and calling for a friendly stance toward the white men. On September 10, he and his entire clan, numbering as many as 300 men, women, and children, were executed, every one of them beaten to death.

Thompson happened to be away on an errand that day. As he drove back toward Bulawayo in a cart, he received word of the executions. A group of warriors then materialized, telling him ominously, “The killing is not yet over.”  Thompson was terrified. He unharnessed one of the cart-horses and rode it bareback to an outpost, where he obtained a saddle and bridle. Leaving word that he was traveling to tell the news to the missionary Helm, he headed off instead as fast as he could toward Mafeking in the Cape Colony, crossing miles of Bechuanaland desert, where he nearly died of thirst.

Poor Thompson! Rhodes insisted that he return to Bulawayo, for he was the only one of the Rudd party still in the area, and only he knew where the pumpkin gourd was buried. Rhodes arranged for three armed associates to accompany him back.

The unwilling Thompson duly returned and dug up the concession document, which was translated for Lobengula. As it turned out, Thompson was off the hook. The words indeed matched those of the copy.  The king said to him, “All you white men are liars. Thompson, you have lied the least.”

It was November before Lobengula learned that the  Queen had signed the royal charter for Rhodes’ company. The news was broken to him by John Smith Moffat, the missionary who’d induced him to sign a treaty back in February 1888 pledging an alliance with Britain rather than with the Boers.

This news of the Queen’s approving Rhodes’ company rightly puzzled Lobengula. For had not the Queen written to him (in the words authored by Knutsford) that he should give only an ox and not his whole herd? The Colonial Office and the directors of the chartered company put their heads together. The Queen must send another letter to the Matabele king. A new message was concocted in lengthy and tortuous language that explained that dealing with “one approved body of white men” was the  “wisest and safest course” and assuring him that his wishes would be constantly consulted. “The Queen, therefore, approves of the concession made by Lobengula to some white men….” In a late revision, the phrase “some white men” was replaced by the name “Rhodes,” and a close associate of Rhodes, Leander Starr Jameson, was named as a representative of the British government with “the duty of deciding disputes and keeping the peace among white persons in [Lobengula’s ] country.”   In the original version, Thompson had been named as the representative, but he had fallen out of favor.##

Leander Starr Jameson.

Leander Starr Jameson.

To make the best possible impression on Lobengula, the letter was carried to Bulawayo, in January 1890, by a party of five officers and men of the Royal Horse Guards, dressed in full regimental regalia—red coats and glittering breast-plates. The king admired their uniforms, taking time to inspect them thoroughly. But when the letter was read to him, he was unimpressed. He said that the Queen’s letters had been “dictated by Rhodes” and that the Queen “must not write any more letters like that to him.”

Royal Horse Guards in the present day.

Royal Horse Guards in the present day.

But preparations for a massive arrival of white settlers had long since begun, and roads must be dug for the many wagons that would travel beyond Bulawayo into the regions of Mashonaland said to be rich in gold.

Leander Starr Jameson, who’d been in Bulawayo for some time now, also happened to be a doctor. He befriended Lobengula and gave him helpful injections of morphine to ease the pain of the gout from which the king suffered. Under these friendly ministrations, Lobengula gave his approval for a new road to be dug east of Bulawayo.

Advertisement for relief of morphine addiction, 1900.

Advertisement for relief of morphine addiction, 1900.

*The words of Edward Fairfield of the Colonial Office, quoted in Arthur Keppel-Jones, Rhodes and Rhodesia. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1983.

**Quoted in Keppel-Jones.

#Quoted in Keppel-Jones.





About Jenny

I am an off-trail hiker, a student of history, and author of "Transvaal Citizen," "Murder at the Jumpoff," and "The Twelve Streams of LeConte."
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3 Responses to The betrayal of Lobengula

  1. Brian Reed says:

    This is quite a story so far Jenny. You do a good job of describing all the twists and turns and characters, but it’s still tough to keep track of it all. It’s strange how much bother the British go through to make it all “legal” when they are planning to grab what they want anyway. Is it just another way for different groups of investors to compete with each other? Or are they actually trying to pretend for the folks back home that the Matabele are getting a square deal?

    • Jenny says:

      Thanks, Brian. Yes, it’s amazing how complicated this particular story is. I’ve spent hours reading and comparing accounts and trying to figure out how to condense the complexity and not bewilder my readers too much. There was such a huge cast of characters, and there were always several things going on at the same time. The folks in the Colonial Office were very concerned about public opinion, and Britain was democratic enough that politics mattered. The businessmen were motivated mainly by commercial self-interest, but you see even someone unscrupulous like Rhodes wanting to put a veneer of propriety on what he did. Appearance versus reality is a big theme in the Rhodesian story, maybe more so than in other nations’ African colonies.

  2. Stephen says:

    The British should honour the Lippert Lease/Treaty of a Century from1891. They must confess that they made a big mistake in 1980 by handing Matabeleland to freedom fighters without refference to the Lippert Treaty. The situation can be solved by separating Matabeleland and Mashonaland. The politicians to whom the country was given have made a bad job of it. The Matabele coming out worse of. :My reply as above: Stephen.

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