This is the eighth installment in a series about Rhodesia. It concludes this portion of the series. We will leave Rhodesia for a while to explore other topics, but we will return to the subject to cover the Matabele Wars and the establishment of Southern and Northern Rhodesia.
Throughout the months of contact between Dr. Leander Starr Jameson and Lobengula, there was talk about “the road,” the route by which the miners, or settlers, or pioneers—whatever exactly they were—would travel to those mystical realms of Mashonaland reputed to be rich in gold.
While “Dr. Jim” and the Matabele king danced their strange dance of friendship and repudiation, advance and retreat, other interested parties were deep into discussion about “the road.” Cecil Rhodes was not a man to stand by while others reached a decision. As we saw in the last post, he was ready to push ahead with armed assaults on Matabele strongholds. If this had been carried out, his pioneers wouldn’t have needed a new road. The expedition would have simply forced its way through Bulawayo. But after high commissioner Sir Henry Loch got wind of plans for an armed invasion, Rhodes had to go to Plan B.
In late 1889, Frederick Selous proposed to Rhodes a route that would run roughly parallel to the existing road but staying south and east, away from Matabele villages where conflict could erupt. It would lead to a place called Mount Hampden in Mashonaland. Rhodes liked the plan. In January 1890 the contract was signed that called for Selous to act as a guide along this road. Frank Johnson, the adventurer who was to have led the assaults on Matabele strongholds, would now take on the task of recruiting the 200-odd settlers. Johnson later wrote, “It comprised clergymen, doctors, lawyers (in those days, in my ignorance, I thought them a necessity to civilised society), farmers, miners, sailors, builders, tailors, butchers, etc.”* These were all men—the women would come later—all armed and in theory prepared to fend off Matabele attacks.
On January 10, Rhodes and Selous met with high commissioner Loch and other top colonial officials. Loch approved the contract; its contents were wired to Colonial Secretary Knutsford in London; he also approved. It is a wonder how a document going so far beyond the scope of the Rudd concession could be okayed by these representatives of the British government.
Jameson had been with Rhodes during the contract talks. On January 31 he returned to the royal kraal at Bulawayo. He brought along a map of the Selous route and showed it to Lobengula. At this stage Jameson said nothing about the concept of a Pioneer Column. The pretense was still maintained that these wagonloads of people would only be miners on their way to look for gold. Lobengula looked at the map and said yes, he approved of a road there. Jameson quickly departed to carry the message of the king’s after-the-fact approval to Rhodes.
On March 17, Selous came to see Lobengula, wanting to talk about details of road-building, as he needed to get moving with the project. Jameson was still away. Selous found, much to his annoyance, that the king had changed his mind. Lobengula told him he must use the old road through Bulawayo. Perhaps Lobengula was prone to agree with the friendly Dr. Jim and not with other white men who came to see him. Or perhaps Selous let drop some tidbit of information about the real purpose of the expedition that gave the king cause for worry. Whatever the reason, Lobengula had changed his mind and would not budge.
It was in April that Jameson returned to Bulawayo and finally told a sullen Lobengula about the Pioneer Column—the settlers and the police who would accompany them—with much emphasis on how the Queen needed to protect her subjects. The conversation ended without agreement about the road. However, another conversation took place a few days later. Several versions of this dialog exist in Jameson’s memoirs and other accounts, but the one most psychologically convincing goes:
Jameson: The King told me I might make that road. Did the King lie?
Lobengula (after a long silence): The King never lies.
Jameson: I thank the King. (And departs, never to see Lobengula again.)**
The Colonial Office might have found this vague assent insufficient, but right about then officials had something else to worry about. The Boers were rearing their ugly heads again, this time threatening to make one of their “treks” in the direction of Mashonaland. In fact, two treks were proposed, one by a British subject named Bowler in the Transvaal who claimed to have his own separate concession, and another by a pair of Boers, du Preez and Vorster, looking to bring 2000 of their countrymen to settle in an area further southeast. For the Colonial Office, the really troubling thing about this second trek was that its organizers claimed to have support from Portugal, a rival power that already had a colony between Mashonaland and the Indian Ocean.
Transvaal president Paul Kruger met with Rhodes and high commissioner Loch to talk things over. Kruger was willing to guarantee the Boers would stay out of Mashonaland if the British would give him their interest in Swaziland, which he wanted for a seaport. The British would agree to give up Swaziland only in exchange for conditions the Transvaal would not accept. Kruger did agree to keep out the Bowler trek, but he would not stop the du Preez – Vorster trek, so the threat of Boer/Portuguese occupation remained. In the end, the Colonial Office decided to support the immediate advance of the Pioneer Column into Mashonaland as a counterweight against Boer trekkers.
The Pioneer Column
Unlike men of a normal military background, the folks in charge of the Pioneer Column represented wildly varying personal histories, and friction developed quickly. But somehow they pulled through together.
A Major E.G. Pennefather was put in command of the whole column, although nobody liked him: he was considered “petulant and irascible.”*** So he was nominally in charge of all the assorted parties, including Frank Johnson’s “butcher, baker, and candlestick maker” Pioneer recruits, numbering 186. The Pioneers carried rifles and revolvers, and brought along Maxim and Nordenfeldt guns. They were considered military personnel, not civilians. But in case they needed extra protection, they were accompanied by a body of 500 British South Africa Company Police. There were also 19 miscellaneous civilians, including Dr. Jim and a man named Archibald Colquhoun who was to head up the civil administration of Mashonaland—whenever it might be established. Rhodes had appointed him, confident that soon enough the Pioneers would constitute a nation governed in the usual British style. And last but not least, 350 African laborers came along to do the actual work of digging the road, together with assorted black cooks and drivers. The Africans were Ngwato, Griqua, Zulu, and Sotho—not Matabele—as Lobengula had ceased to cooperate.
Frank Johnson commanded the Pioneers, his responsibility thus overlapping and conflicting with Pennefather’s. Selous had the title of “intelligence officer,” a fancier way of saying he was the guide. Johnson, a 23-year-old who had left the Bechuanaland Border Police to take on bigger adventures, mused later in his memoir that Selous was overrated. It seems he simply envied the admiration shown for the famous man. Selous was one of those exceptional personalities who inspired respect in nearly everyone he met.
Before embarking on their journey, this motley crew were inspected by Major-General Paul Methuen, the man who would suffer a crushing defeat at Magersfontein in the Boer War. Thomas Pakenham, in Scramble for Africa, tells an amusing story about Methuen’s review. The general asked the officers if they had maps. “Yes, sir.” Did they have pencils? “Yes, sir.” “Well, gentlemen, your destiny is Mount Hampden. You go to a place called Siboutsi. I do not know whether Siboutsi is a man or a mountain. Mr. Selous, I understand, is of the opinion that it is a man; but we will pass that by…” And after some ramblings about the possible inaccuracy of Mount Hampden’s placement on the map, Methuen bid them good morning and gave them their “certificate of efficiency.”#
And thus the caravan of 2,000 oxen and 117 wagons set forth June 27, fording the Motloutsi River near the southwest corner of Matabeleland. By early July they were proceeding steadily through the dense brush of the Limpopo valley, always looking over their shoulders for Matabele warriors. And indeed they found themselves constantly shadowed by 200 or 300 warriors, but those men never made a move.
Lobengula was in a sad position these days. When Dr. Jim bid his final farewell, the king must have realized their unusual friendship had all been a sham. At the same time, as the Pioneers and the Police assembled to start their journey, his warriors pleaded with him to order an attack. Missionaries and other white civilians in the area feared for their lives, and most of them fled. But Lobengula never did make war on the Pioneers in the course of their trek. Probably he knew, deep down, that while the Matabele might be able to wipe out parties of white men here and there, in the long run they never could win. He resorted to sending letters and messages of complaint in all directions—to high commissioner Loch, to Jameson, to Pennefather. He sent envoys to Loch to personally carry the message that “he was being eaten up by Rhodes.” After a while, these messages seemed more like wails of anguish than any threatening ultimatum.
The Pioneers moved steadily northeast along two side-by-side tracks hacked out through the brush by their African laborers: their strategy was to form a Boer-style square laager every night for better defense, and with a single track, it would have been too difficult to move the wagons into position. Every night, also, they lit a large naval searchlight powered by a steam engine, and lay charges of dynamite around their camp.
On August 1 they reached a high vantage point into the open veld of Mashonaland, a place that came to be known as Providential Pass. Once beyond this point, the Pioneers could breathe a sigh of relief, as they had gone past the likely range of Matabele ambush. Close to the ancient city of Great Zimbabwe, they built another fort August 14—Fort Victoria. They reached the vicinity of Mount Hampden September 11 and sent a scouting party to select the best place for their center of operations. Finding a place with an ample supply of water, they declared it their final stopping place, to be christened Fort Salisbury in honor of the British prime minister.
On the morning of September 13 the column assembled before a flagstaff improvised from the straightest tree they could find. The Union Jack was raised, two seven-pounder guns fired a 21-gun salute, and the police chaplain said a prayer. With three cheers for the Queen, the British South Africa Company announced its annexation of these lands to the British Empire. This had no legal effect, but it was a bit of enjoyable swagger.
For the next ninety years, the day of their arrival would be celebrated as Pioneer Day.
In 1891, the Colonial Office discovered that the British South Africa Company had not actually owned the Rudd concession at the time shareholders invested in it. It was owned initially by an entity called Central Search Association established in 1889 by Rhodes, then transferred to another Rhodes concern called United Concessions Co. This company sold the Rudd concession to the Chartered Company for a million shares. When these manipulations were discovered, Colonial Secretary Knutsford was urged to revoke the concession, but no action was taken.
Also in 1891, the Chartered Company finally acquired something rather important that had been missing in the Rudd concession—land rights, as opposed to mining rights. It turned out that Lobengula had actually assigned the land under a competing agreement called the Lippert concession. After much manuevering and legal wrangling, Lippert agreed to transfer the concession to Rhodes in exchange for certain property in Matabeleland. But the agreement required that Lippert have his concession formalized by Lobengula. Thinking that Lippert was an enemy of Rhodes—never dreaming the two were now working together—Lobengula affirmed the deal with Lippert.
*Quoted in Arthur Keppel-Jones, Rhodes and Rhodesia. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University, 1983, p. 163.
**Keppel-Jones, note 21, p. 186.
***Keppel-Jones, p. 165.
#Thomas Pakenham, The Scramble for Africa. New York: Perennial, 2003, p. 174.