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The Ndebele and Mashona Rebellions of 1896 - Part 1

By Dennis Bishop

The Ndebele Rebellion is really a misnomer for the third phase of the 1893 war. After the first phase of aggressive action failed, King Lobengula intended to relocate upon Nkantola once Bulawayo had fallen and to continue a defensive war until the rains began. Once the rains began, the Ndebele impis would again assume the offensive. He was, however, convinced by Induna Mblimo to choose a northern path to the 'Gusu'. Significantly, the king died while still undefeated and less than half of the amabutho had seen combat due to the long term strategy for the war. The numerical losses in 1893 were only 1,000 warriors out of 15,000 to 20,000, and most of these were lost during the first phase.

The ten original amabutho who had conquered the Ndebele kingdom under King Mzilikazi kaMashobane ceased to exist, however, these amabutho had existed sixty-six years, something the Zulu were incapable of sustaining. Also, the Imbezu ibutho had lost 70% of its strength, but this loss had not demoralized the Zansi class. The second phase of the war ended with the Ndebele amabutho simply burying their weapons and hiding their shields undefeated as no serious attempt was made to disarm the warriors. Retaining a sense of corporate unity, the old royal amabutho awaited their opportunity to follow King Lobengula's last instructions to await their opportunity to avenge his death.

For three years the Ndebele passively endured the incompetent European administration of Matabeleland and Zimbabwe. While the Europeans persuaded themselves that their new subjects welcomed the downfall of King Lobengula, war-drums and war-horns sounded from the Mambo Hills to the Matapos Hills. The proud Ndebele could not tolerate the change in their status and subsequent 'wrong-doings' of the Europeans. These 'wrong-doings' included the confiscation of 300,000 head of royal cattle and land which threatened the economic basis of the kingdom. The Ndebele conquerors of the Mashona and Maholi were not to be treated as equals to their former subjects. A sad lesson, unlearned by politicians untutored in its ethnic history, that devastated Zimbabwe in the 1970's.

While the Europeans celebrated their success in hymns glorifying God's benevolence, the Ndebele became more influenced by the Karanga god known as Mwari-Mlimo. This god spoke through several oracles who operated from several sacred caves. By 1895, two Mlimo oracles in the Mambo Hills, Mkwati and Mwanbani, began advocating a renewal of hostilities. Although not military commanders, Mkwati and Mwanbani preached death to Europeans from Matonjeni and Thabas-zi-ka-Mambo beyond the Inyati River. Of these two oracles, Mkwati was the most influential as he made promises that directly impacted the Ndebele cause.

In 1895-96 there was a drought that was economically disastrous to the Ndebele. Added to this was an epidemic of rinder-pest that affected the few remaining unconfiscated royal cattle. The Charter Company exasperated this situation by killing these few remaining cattle. Mkwati eerily prophesized that once the Mfecane, "the crushing," began that the drought would be broken. This did occur as the editor of the Rhodesia Weekly Review commented, "curiously enough, no sooner had the fearful murders at Filabusi had been committed than the rain came down in that district for four days."

The networking of the Mlimo oracles reached from the Karanga to the Ndebele and beyond to the Mashona was wider than the influence of one man. Ultimately, however, it was Mkwati who placed "lieutenants" on the staffs of all the Ndebele impis. Unbelievably, although the Europeans appear to have known of the cult movement, they took no direct action to abort it. The only actions appear to be centered upon the Company's intelligence department that saw no problem and the heavy- handed actions of the Matabeleland police officers against minor chiefs for insignificant offenses.

Mkwati established his "battle headquarters" at the cave shrine of Thabas-zi-ka-Mambo in 1896. He advocated that the Mfecane should begin on Saturday, March 28 when the moon was full. While the Ndeble impis were to surprise the European town of Buluwayo, a fifth column of African servants would murder their employers with secreted weapons from within the town. The liberation of Bulawayo would re-establish the former capitol and allow the ascendancy to the legitimate throne of any of Lobengula's heirs, who had been removed from Ndebeleland by Rhodes.

This plan was frustrated by the premature attack by a small impi of warriors upon a patrol of Company's African Police near the Umgorshlwini kraal on Friday, March 20 for unknown reasons. However, the result of this minor action was to ignite the Mfecane. The flames of "the crushing" soon engulfed all of the Insiza and Filabusi provinces eventually claiming 140 European lives of men, women and children. The reports of the events in the Insza and Filabusi provinces alerted Bulawayo and other towns of the seriousness of the situation. Hampered by rains and disorganization, the Europeans began to build laagers by March 23rd as the initiative remained with the Ndelebele izinduna.

The Company's forces in the face of this onslaught were in a deplorable state having been lulled into a state of inefficiency by three years of peace and Dr. Jameson's aborted raid into the Transvaal. Jameson's raid had depleted the eligible male population of the colony to only 800 men at Bulawayo, and another 800 men throughout the rest of the colony. Only half of these men were armed by with Company Henry- Martini rifles, while the rest were armed with personally owned weapons. Mounted patrols were provided mounts by confiscation of draft and sport animals. The Company artillery was undermanned, under- supplied with ordinance, and without horse transport.

Jameson's aborted raid had dispelled the myth of European invincibility and the portents of ultimate victory prophesied by Mlimo oracles appeared to be valid. However, the white "wizards" frustrated the impis, and created doubts among the izinduna about ultimate victory, as the laagers appeared invincible while the Europeans continued to mount aggressive patrols to rescue isolated Europeans.

Colonel Maurice Gifford commanded one of the first patrols,of 40 mounted Europeans, to Cumming's Store on Tuesday, March 23rd. This patrol found a small number of European colonists and created a miniature "Rorke's Drift" battle when the Ndebele, under Induna Msindazi, attacked the fortified position the next morning. The Ndebele attack pressed through the barricades to the verandah of one of the two- story buildings before being defeated by the concentrated fire of the Europeans. Gifford then extricated the thirty eight men, one woman and one child with his combatants to Bulawayo. He had lost one European killed and "several" wounded. He was not so lucky on April 4th, when he led a patrol toward Shiloh that was surprised by an impi, and lost three men and his arm.

Colonel W. Napier left Bulawayo soon after Gifford on March 23rd with a mounted commando of unknown number to the devastated Insiza District in search of European refugees. Fortunately for this patrol it did not encounter any real Ndebele resistance as Napier lost a day at Armsrong's Store on the Salisbury Road awaiting ammunition which was delayed until Thursday, March 25th. That he had ammunition shortages indicates that the commando must have been engaged in skirmishes with the Ndebele. Napier resumed his patrol and returned to Bulawayo on April 1st with fifty rescued Europeans.

Captain George Brand left Bulawayo on April 2nd toward Gwanda in search of European refugees with 100 mounted men and a Maxim gun. He found no Europeans, but was ambushed by the 1000 strong Ndebele impi under Induna Babyaan. There was a running fight that ended in a stand on a flat rock. The impi was only "run to ground" by the fire from the single Maxim gun. This action resulted in the loss of eight Europeans killed and twenty wounded.

By the beginning of April, it was clear that the Bulawayo patrols were no longer viable as they had seriously depleted the besieged resources of this laager. The patrols had rescued ninety Europeans at a cost of approximately fifty casualties. Of 400 active combatants, this amounted to 12% of the Company's offensive strength. Gifford had encountered Induna Mtini's elite royal impi of 4000 warriors based upon the Umgusa River. Napier had fortunately followed Gifford and benefited from this commando's combats. Brand had encountered the impi commanded by Izinduna Umlugulu and Sikombo of 2000 warriors based on the Tuli Road. This left three impis of 6800 warriors at large and investing the other towns.

One last sortie led by Captain 'Mickey' MacFarlane went out on April 19th. Of all the officers in the Bulawayo laager, Captain MacFarlane was probably one of the most flamboyant. He was the popular Secretary of the Bulawayo Club at the time of the crisis and had learned his military skills in the 9th Lancers. He had resigned his commission and emigrated to Rhodesia on a "fancy."

Captain MacFarlane's place in Rhodesian history would come as a result of several aborted patrols. The first patrol was mounted by Captain George Grey. Captain Grey had recruited forty-five men into the Grey's Scouts, who wore a uniform of white shirts and pugrees on their bush hats. These tough fighters probed the Ndebele positions near the Umgusa River in a series of sorties designed to regain the initiative from the izinduna who were closing in on the Bulawayo laager. The Grey's Scouts actually were able to penetrate across the river into the thickly bushed steep hills against Induna Mtini's impi. This might have been a ploy by Induna Mtini as the Ndebele center gave way as the horns attempted to close to encircle the Europeans in a deadly trap. Grey's narrow escape to Bulawayo was followed closely by the Ndebele impi to the very outskirts of the town on April 16th.


While morale in the Bulawayo laager eroded by defeats and famine, the Ndebele morale soared. Desperate measures were required by the European officials to stay internal unrest as well as the Ndebele. On April 19th, Captain MacFarlane abortively attempted to drive back Induna Mtini's impi by a different route upstream and more to the east from the Grey's Scouts. At Colenbrander's Farm, the MacFarlane patrol was attacked by the Mtini impi. MacFarlane had planned to draw the Ndebele warriors out of their defensive positions onto his Maxim. The plan almost worked, but the Maxim jammed. MacFarlane was able to retreat to safety and continued to the west. The next day he was threatened by another impi, but refused battle by retreating back to Bulawayo.


It is possible that this was the 2000 strong impi led by Izinduna Matisa and Godhlo from the Shangani District that was part of the 6800 warriors who were unknown to the Europeans at that time. However, MacFarlane did not identify any ibutho, which would have assisted in this conjecture. If this was correct, on April 20th , the Bulawayo laager was loosely invested on three sides by three impis totaling approximately 6800 warriors.

On April 22nd, Captain Bissett attempted an offensive against the Mtini impi with 110 Europeans, supported by 200 African levies with a Maxim and Hotchkiss cannon. This was the strongest effort presented by the Bulawayo laager to this point. Bissett attacked in three sections that became disorganized in the rough terrain bordering the Umgusa River. The left column consisted of the Afrikander Corps, the center section was made up of the Cape Boys Regiment, and the right section was the Grey's Scouts. Induna Mtini again allowed his center to be penetrated by the Cape Boys Regiment as the Bissett patrol crossed the Umgusa. In a repeat of the tactics used against the Grey scout, the horns attempted to enclose the small column. The European column was only saved from destruction by the Afrikaner Corps success in supporting the Cape Boys. The Grey's Scouts suffered several casualties covering the successful retreat of the patrol to Bulawayo.


The failures of the European units to demoralize the slowly increasing Ndebele pressure on Bulawayo only continued to increase the starving demoralization of the laager. At this darkest moment, Captain MacFarlane mounted what could only be considered a forlorn hope patrol against Mtini's impi resting on the until then impenetrable Umgusa line. On April 25th, Captain MacFarlane again assaulted the Umgusa River with 116 Europeans and 200 Cape Boys, supported by a Maxim and Hotchkiss gun.

The battered Grey's Scouts were sent to the right to entice the premature commitment of Induna Siginyamatche's amabutho of the Ndebele left horn. The tactical use of horse succeeded this time as the Grey Scouts retreated upon the guns. The Ndebele left horn was broken by the combined fire of the Maxim and Hotchkiss within 200 yard of the guns. It was a "very near run thing."

For an hour after this action a savage fire-fight continued in the European center and left flank. Ignoring all rhetoric on this battle, both the Europeans and Ndebele had reached their respective limits. The Europeans were very low on ammunition and supplies while Mtini's impi had been unsupplied in the field for almost a month. Sensing victory, MacFarlane ordered the Afrikander Corps to attack.the right horn.


This was the defining moment of the battle, and breaking point of the Ndebele initiative. The mounted charge of the Afrikander Corps could have resulted in disaster, but the gods of war smiled on MacFarlane at this moment. The Ndebele right horn broke before the mounted charge as did Mkwati's magic. The belated counter-attack by the Matisa/Godhlo impi was turned by the fire from the guns and seeing Mtini's impi in route. MacFarlane had lost five men killed and six men wounded, but Induna Mtini's elite impi had suffered heavy losses and were no longer a threat to Bulawayo. Credit for this first European successful encounter must go to MacFarlane, but the re-establishment of communications between Bulawayo and Salisbury still did not exist.

One is at a loss to understand why the Rhodesians were so obsessed with the re-establishment of the communication between Bulawayo and Salisbury when the most readily available route of assistance was along the Tuli Road from Natal. It can only be contributed to the insistence of Cecil Rhodes who had resigned his position from the Board of Chartered Companies after the Jameson Raid, but who continued to exert his influence in the independent colony. The renewal of hostilities provided a new crisis for Rhodes' kingdom with the increasing assertion of British authority in the peace.

Rhodes did not want the Tuli Road opened to British intervention before the colonials defeated the Ndebele. As so often was the pattern of warfare in South Africa, the objectives of leaders were oriented more towards the peace than victory. Rhodes succeeded in re-establishing communications between Salisbury and Bulawayo when he accompanied the 150 strong Salisbury Horse to Bulawayo. However, Sir Richard Martin had arrived at Bulawayo to exert imperial interests in May with a 600 strong Cape Boys Corps.

During this respite, the Ndebele izinduna retreated their impis into traditional strong-holds of the Matopos and Mambos Hills to await the rains which would allow a resumption of their offensives. This situation is better understood as a simple retreat upon predetermined points, but is more complicated. While Mtini's elite impi retreated to the Matopos, Matisa and Godhlo's impi retreated to the Mambo Hills. We are at loss as to the dispositions of the Umlugulu/Sikomo impi, the Babyaan/Dhlso impi, or the Matisa/Godhlo impis to the south of Bulawayo. As the Rhodesian historians assert that 10,000 Ndebele warriors were in the Matapos, it might be assumed that these impis retreated to that area.

Earl Grey arrived in Bulawayo on May 2nd and replaced Duncan as Senior Company Official. Sir Richard Martin, an officer representing the Imperial Government, arrived soon after Grey followed by the end of May by the advanced elements of the Imperial Matabele Relief Force under Colonel Plumer. At the same time, 150 mounted men of the Salisbury Horse arrived in the Bulawayo area. Titled the Salisbury Relief Force, there had been some command problems as Cecil Rhodes accompanied the unit. With usual decisiveness, Rhodes announced that he had been gazetted a full colonel and appointed command to Colonel Beal. Company Colonel Napier arranged to meet the Salisbury Column south of Gwelo with 300 Europeans and 200 Cape Boys.

Napier's departure denuded the Bulawayo laager of most of its manpower and was not greeted with enthusiasm by the general population. The anxieties of the townsmen became a reality during the night of May 19th with an attack on the laager and ambush of a European patrol on May 23rd which forced Plumer to move his column to protect Bulawayo. However, Napier did attempt to rendezvous with the Salisbury Column and engaged a Ndebele impi near the Gwelo Road. This action near Thabas Induna hill, resulted in the impi escaping. Selous censured Napier's failure to exploit the opportunity to destroy the impi. Whatever Colonel Napier's reasons for allowing the impi to escape, he did succeed in joining with the Salisbury Relief Force near the Pongo River on May 19th.

Meanwhile, Colonel Herbert Plumer was determined to engage the impi that MacFarlane had broken a month earlier. He divided his command into two columns and departed Bulawayo at 11 p.m. on May 24th. The intention was to surprise the sleeping Ndebele, but it was Plumer who was surprised. The impi had rallied and moved closer to Bulawayo than Plumer's intelligence had led him to believe. They ambushed one column during the night and forced the second column to "march to the guns." The Ndebele ambush succeeded in forcing Plumer's columns into laager.

On the next day, Plumer resumed his offensive. This effort succeeded in driving part of the impi towards the Khami River, but stalled near a heavily defended kopje (hill). Information is sketchy at this point as to the situation of either antagonist. Apparently, Plumer had exhausted his ammunition and men. Although casualties are not available, probably had suffered enough wounded in the actions during the past 48 hours to convince him to retreat back to Bulawayo.

By May 25th, the combined Company and Imperial forces had failed to break the Ndebele impis investing Bulawayo. The "kingdom" of Cecil Rhodes was reaching a crisis while the general population of Europeans in Bulawayo had resumed their normal activities. Although Rhodes, "the man who wanted to be king" continued to dominate Bulawayo but by June 3rd supreme military command was officially shared between the Imperial representatives of Sir Richard Martin and General Sir Frederick Carrington. The crisis Rhodes faced was that the longer the Ndebele resisted equated into a greater Imperial influence and control over Rhodesia.

It was not until June 5th, however, that a combined effort was made again to clear the Mambos hills of Ndebele. Captain MacFarlane led one column of Company troops down the Umguza River, while Colonel Plumer moved with an Imperial column into the Gwaai valley. The columns burned every kraal they came upon hoping to force a fight, but the Ndebele izinduna refused to be lured into battle.

The reason for the Ndebele evasion of combat was more devious than the Europeans might have guessed. A special impi of selected warriors from eight amabutho (termed impis in the Official Report) was created through the efforts of prophets Mlimo and Mkwati. This impi was assured of success by Mlimo and invincibility if the Europeans crossed the Umguza River by Mkwati. An admirable gamble, it was to be a single decisive blow against Bulawayo to win the war.

The impi might have succeeded had not an accidental patrol been mounted by Mr. Jack Speckley on June 6th across the Umguza. Speckley left the Bulawayo laager with 200 mounted men, including Company officers like Selous, van Niekerk and Grey. It was a phenomenal combination of personalities to which was added the Imperial officer, Colonel (Lord) Robert Baden-Powell, with fifty Salisbury volunteers.

The patrol happened upon the special impi near Welsh Harp. The Ndebele fired an ineffective volley against the mounted horsemen and then broke in confusion. The Europeans had not "been blinded" by the Umguza. A fortuitous combination of good luck for the Europeans in being led by the "best" of the officers in the colony and the failure of the Ndebele prophets assurances resulted in more than 200 Ndebele dead as the Europeans rode down the fleeing warriors.


In one accidental encounter, the fate of both sides was decided. The result for the Ndebele izinduna was that Mkwati's reputation was destroyed and they moved their impis to the Matopos hills for a final confrontation. The Karanga, (amaHoli) and many Ndebele fled to the Mambo hills near his headquarters with their dependents and cattle. Speckley used his opportunity to re-establish Company control in the Shiloh and Inyati provinces where he built forts.

This ends Part one of "The Ndebele and Mashona Rebellions of 1896". Come back next month for the conclusion of this article.

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