This is the seventh installment in a series about Rhodesia.
The party of Royal Horse Guards in their dashing uniforms had brought the Queen’s message to Lobengula: the “wisest and safest course” for him was to carry out his agreement with “one approved body of white men”—namely, those associated with Cecil Rhodes. And the Matabele king had remained unimpressed, saying, “The Queen’s letter had been dictated by Rhodes.”
But despite Lobengula’s accurately cynical view of the white men’s machinations, his actions over the next months would be indecisive, even confused. He changed his mind more than once about where the white men would be permitted to build their road and where they could dig for gold. And when, later that year, his warriors clamored for permission to attack the white settlers who marched in a column across his country, he held the fighters off. Was this weakness, or was it the wisdom of understanding that his nation could not defeat the Europeans? After all, he had seen the mighty Zulu king Cetshwayo vanquished by the British.
Some of the fog that surrounded Lobengula undoubtedly stemmed from his strange relationship with Leander Starr Jameson, the morphine-dispensing doctor and the associate of Rhodes. Jameson, “Dr. Jim,” was one of those controversial figures—best known for the ill-fated “Jameson Raid” that precipitated the Boer War—who seem fascinating to some, despicable to others. Arthur Keppel-Jones, a painstaking historian, introduces him in an understated way: “His intelligence, such as it was, was misdirected and circumscribed, but the main root of his follies was a mercurial temperament.”* Thomas Pakenham, in The Scramble for Africa, describes Jameson as “the charmer”—“the only man who dared laugh in the king’s presence, and the man who carried morphine in his bag.”** I have found another useful account in the blog Peter Baxter Africa. Baxter writes in “The End of the Matabele Road”: “The manner in which [Jameson] was able to capture the affections of a savage African tyrant while extracting from him in the most cynical manner possible leave to bring the curtain down on 66 years of amaNdebele existence, and 1000 years of native self-government, was marvellous at the very least.”
Jameson acted chummy with Lobengula in a way no one else dared. White men typically approached him with exaggerated politeness, bowing and scraping, because they believed that was the best way to wheedle out of him the concessions, permissions, and agreements they wanted. Blacks and whites alike were required literally to crawl on hands and knees as they entered his presence in the royal kraal, and his own subjects behaved in strict accordance with their rules of ceremony. In late 1889 and early 1890 Lobengula had become psychologically exhausted by the strain of dealing with the array of whites with their conflicting claims and their dubious reassurances. He also dealt with demands from his own warriors to fight these intruders, trying to keep the peace. All through this, he suffered from painful attacks of gout. Dr. Jim could help with that.
Jameson would slap the Matabele king on the back and crack jokes with him (the jokes had to be translated by Jameson’s interpreter, Denis Doyle, but perhaps this added another layer of humor). Baxter describes how, when the Royal Horse Guards came to Bulawayo with the Queen’s letter, Lobengula reciprocated by inviting them to attend a “Great Dance” of his people. Amazingly, Jameson appeared among the dancers as an induna in a plumed headdress and a kilt of animal tails. It was reportedly while in the pleasant afterglow of this entertainment that Jameson mentioned, “by the way,” certain details about the gold-digging and the location of the wagon roads, to which Lobengula replied along the lines of “by all means, go right ahead.” He would later retract his permission.
This occurred in January 1890. But Jameson’s actions back in October 1889 cast a rather sinister light on all this friendliness. He and Edward Maund met on the 30th to talk about invading Matabeleland with an armed force. A few days after that, Jameson was writing to Rutherfoord Harris, one of the big shareholders in Rhodes’ chartered company, that even the missionaries (Moffat, Helm, and Carnegie) agreed that “we will never be able to work peaceably alongside the natives, and… the sooner the brush is over the better.”#
Jameson may have exaggerated the missionaries’ acquiescence, but it didn’t matter. By December 1889 Rhodes had signed a contract that called for an adventurer named Frank Johnson to lead an “auxiliary European force” of 500 men to “carry by sudden assault all the principal strongholds of the Matabele nation.”## This was accompanied by suitably rationalizing language stating this was for the purpose of emancipating slaves of the Matabele, stopping them from raiding on neighboring tribes, and enabling the British South Africa Company to operate “in peace and safety.”
It wasn’t written into the contract, but plans also called for the auxiliary force either to take Lobengula hostage or, if that were not possible, to kill him.
As it turned out, the series of assaults never took place. A pal of Frank Johnson’s had too much to drink and spilled the beans to a man with close ties to colonial officials. The information was passed along to the commissioner in Bechuanaland and then to his boss, the high commissioner in Cape Town, who summoned Rhodes for an explanation. The plan had to be abandoned—the Colonial Office may have turned a blind eye on certain occasions, but outright invasion of Matabeleland was too much for them to stomach.
There would be no “sudden assaults,” but Rhodes continued with plans to bring a party of settlers through Lobengula’s territory and into that promising gold-bearing region of Mashonaland. Frederick Courtney Selous, the famous big-game hunter, would guide this expedition. Through most of 1889 Selous was in fact working on behalf of competitors of Rhodes—a Cape Town syndicate—but in December the syndicate sold out, as typically happened with Rhodes’ business opponents. It is interesting to note that the hunting expeditions of the late 1880s described by Selous in his popular books often had a second objective, the exploration of areas believed to be rich in minerals and the obtaining of concessions.
By spring of 1890 Lobengula heard rumors of a large force of white men being trained in Kimberley for a movement toward Mashonaland. Were they coming as an occupying force? As miners? As settlers? Lobengula sent an envoy to Cape Town, the same Mshete who’d gone to London to meet the Queen, to question the high commissioner, Sir Henry Loch. Why were the white men gathering? Was this an impi preparing to invade his country? Loch told Mshete these were forces of the chartered company gathering to guard his country against encroachment, and that they were his friends.
In April, Jameson paid the Matabele king a visit. He told Lobengula that these were men of the “Pioneer Column,” who planned to go to Mashonaland in accordance with the concession Lobengula had granted. Lobengula “looked pretty grave and hummed a tune to himself during the recital, as much to say ‘What damned impudence!'”###
In these discussions, it was never spelled out whether the pioneers were going for mining or to settle the land. The Rudd concession had only spoken of mining, had it not? And the Colonial Office accordingly approved only of mining activity, did it not?
The visit between Lobengula and “Dr. Jim” was their final one. They would never meet again.
Next: Union Jack at Fort Salisbury.
*Arthur Keppel-Jones, Rhodes and Rhodesia. Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press, 1983, p. 88.
**Thomas Pakenham, The Scramble for Africa. New York: Perennial, 1983, p. 389.
# Keppel-Jones, p. 154.
## Keppel-Jones, p. 154.
### As reported in Keppel-Jones, p. 159.