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The Ndebele and Mashona Rebellions of 1896 - Part 2

By Dennis Bishop

While the news of the MacFarlane and Plumer columns was less than satisfactory, Speckley's patrol was a boost to morale. This moment of elation was plunged into doom on June 16th. On this day, Salisbury reported that the Mashona had risen in rebellion. One hundred and thirty unsuspecting Europeans were hacked to death during the first week by the warriors of peoples Rhodes had sought to defend in a war against the Ndelebe.

This first shock was soon replaced by a second. The Company had always been contemptuous of the martial abilities of the Mashona who were not Bantu. Mashona warriors attached themselves to their local cheiftains without a centralized military structure. It was a perfect guerrilla configuration that would confound the Company and Imperial forces.

After the first onslaught, the Mashona retreated to their traditional strongholds. This diverted Imperial reinforcements commanded by Lt. Colonel Edwin Alfred Harvey Alderson from subjecting the Ndebele. Known as the Mashonaland Relief Force, it was organized at Beira with a complement of 1500 Europeans, 400 Xhosa warriors under Ndapfunya, two 7 pdrs and two Maxims.

Alderson was faced with a difficult task. The Mashona were well supplied with firearms and adopted skilful defensive tactics. They had acquired past military experience resisting the Ndelebe. On being attacked, the warriors invariably took refuge in strongly fortified kraals, or in caves in broken country. It was the kind of guerrilla warfare that the Europeans always dreaded. Since there was no centralized Mashona command, warriors attached themselves to leaders. These warriors suddenly appeared then disappeared into the broken hill country.

Alderson began his subjugation of the Mashona by carefully building forts to secure his line of communication while sending out mounted patrols to keep the impis on the move and capture cattle and grain stores. He did not burn kraals, as he must have correctly considered the logistic basis for the continued hostilies would be better addressed through economic rather than terrorist measures.

First blood for the Europeans came in September 1896 when the Salisbury Column attacked Chibi Simbanoota's fortified kraal. The kraal was shelled, then rushed and burnt. The Mashona retreated to caves that were systematically blown up. In October, a strong European force captured Matshayangombi's kraal in the Hartley District and the prophet's main headquarters. Following this carefully aggressive strategy, Alderson's forces later pacified the Lomagundi District and in November the important Chibi Chiquaqua agreed to surrender thirty miles north-east of Salisbury.

Colonel Alderson had opened all the lines of communication to Salisbury by this time. However, he was running short of supplies and the Company objected to funding the mounting Imperial bills accompanying these successes. It was decided to turn the work of the final pacification over to the reorganized British South African Police and by December Alderson's troops were withdrawn from the country.

However, the guerrilla war continued on in early 1897. Prophets Kagubi and Mkwati sought refuge near Chibi Nyanda's kraal in the Mazoe Valley at this time. Evidently, the prophets intended to revive the ancient Rozwi monarchy at this point, but lacked the resources to accomplish such an enterprise.

The BSAP proved to be better adapted to this guerrilla type of warfare than either the Company or Imperial units. Mkwati was killed by the Mashona themselves and Kagubi surrendered. Chibi Nyanda was later captured. Both Kagubi and Nyanda were hanged and resistance slowly ebbed throughout the country. The Company confiscated most of the Mashona guns and instituted an efficient system of supervision consisting of extensive patrolling throughout the backveldt. This proved so effective that the 'war party' in Mashonaland disintegrated. The long, bloody war against the Mashona was over.

Back in Matableland by the end of June 1896, the military situation was static. General Carrington decided that the Mambo Hills should be cleared first. Command of the expedition of 1,000 men was given to Colonel Plumer. This force was the largest army ever assembled in Rhodesia consisting of 750 Europeans, 200 Cape Boys and two mountain guns. This martial force was accompanied by numerous non-combatant wagon drivers and spectators as it began a twenty mile night march through difficult country in a mile long column.


At the 'West's Store' Plumer divided the column into two units. The stakes were high as the European officers surveyed the boulder strewn, bush covered kopjes confronting them and considered Plumer's plan to collapse the Ndebele resistance in one battle. One combined infantry and mounted unit under Major Kershaw was to mount a frontal attack while Plumer commanded another combined mounted and infantry force in the north that would threaten the Ndebele rear with a flank attack by the infantry and encirclement with the mounted contingent.

The assault began on the morning of July 5th. Kershaw's infantry barely moved forward against Ndebele resistance, but his mounted troopers penetrated the Ndebele defenses to Robertson's Kopje in the confused fight. Plumer committed Major Robertson's Cape Boys in support of Kershaw's mounted units. The Xhosa Cape Boys fought with such valor in the face of intense fire, that the Ndebele were forced to retreat after a deadly hand-to-hand engagement. By noon the northern kopjes had been cleared of all but dead Ndebele warriors and hidden women and children.

Plumer's mounted units worked around the eastern fringes of the hills harrying Ndebele refugees and capturing cattle. But, even these were being ambushed in the intricate maze of gullies and hills. Plumer's command was completely disorganized at this point and he feared that "the losses would be too great if fighting continued." So, at noon he had his bugles signal a general consolidation of all his units upon Mambo's kraal and began a retreat to Bulawayo by 2:30 p.m.

It is difficult to understand exactly what happened in this action from a tactical point of view. However, it might be the most interesting battle near Bulawayo. Contemporary accounts provide enough evidence to perceive it as a confused battle of small contingents engaged in savage hand-to-hand skirmishes. The Europeans lost eighteen killed and fourteen wounded, but had captured 600 Ndebele women and children, 1,000 head of cattle, and 2,000 head of sheep and goats, plus having killed or wounded uncounted Ndebele warriors. Even Rhodes, who had ridden to the battle, was at one point isolated and only barely escaped as the European volunteers plundered the worthless stores of the Ndebele.

This action had a profound effect upon the continuation of hostilities as it was the first time that Rhodes considered coming to terms with Ndebele izinduna to avoid further blood shed according to Vere Stent. If a smaller impi of Ndebele could force a retreat from the field by the largest European concentration of martial force in Rhodesia, Rhodes must have pondered upon his prospects of ultimate success without Imperial support. Within three weeks of this battle, General Carrington was insisting that he would need an additional 5,000 European troops to assault the anticipated 10,000 Ndebele warriors commanded by the best of their izinduna in the Matopos Hills.

General Carrington and his staff at this point had to consider two individual campaigns. One was against the Ndebele and the other was against the Mashona. The only dubious advantage in Matabeleland was that the Mambo Hills had been cleared of the Ndebele impi, but it was not occupied by European troops, while Mashonaland was still in full revolt.

The 10,000 Ndelebe warriors concentrated in the Matopo Hills belonged to amabutho of varying strengths struggling for survival and national existence. The amabutho of Izinduna Babyaan and Dhliso occupied the central position based upon the Nkantola kopje. Iziduna Nyanda, Sikombo and Umlugulu commanded the amabutho of the Ndebele right horn that stretched to the Tuli Road and Iziduna Mabiza and Hole commanded the amabutho anchored on the Ififi, Inungu and Kalanyoni Hills. The majority of women and children along with their livestock were hidden in an area near the confluence of the Tuli and Nyokani rivers.

General Carrington faced this last bastion of Ndebele resistance with 1100 European soldiers, the mountain gun battery, 160 Cape Boy Xhosas, 100 Matabele irregulars raised by Johann Colenbrander and a motley group of 'friendlies'. Carrington divided his command into into two columns for the attack. The main striking force, under Colonel Plumer, consisted of 800 Europeans and Robertson's Cape Boy Corps. These troops were based first at 'Three Sisters' hills and later pushed forward to Fort Usher immediately below Nkantola. The smaller flying column of 200 Europeans and Colenbrander's levies under Major Tyrie Laing was sent to operate from the Figtree area.

The attacks were coordinated to commence on July 19th after days of reconnaissance by Colonel Baden- Powell and Captain Jesser Coope. The troops moved out at 10:30 p.m. on July 19th and stumbled up paths blocked by rocks and small trees while being sniped at by Ndebele fortified in hidden caves. This must have been the Ndebele first line of defense as it slowed the advancing European troops and alerted the concentrations of amabutho as to the directions of the attackers.

If this was intended as a surprise night attack by Carrington, morning found the Europeans still attempting to clear the paths and caves. Baden-Powell, Carrington's Chief of Staff, did identify Bayaan's stronghold and a large concentration of Ndebele warriors in "one dense brown mass, with their assegai blades glinting sharply in the rays of the morning sun." The mountain battery was unlimbered and began firing into the mass of warriors. Unlike the Mambos operation where the Cape Boys Corps was used as reserve, in this engagement the Xhosa were committed as assault troops into the supposedly disorganized Ndebele amabutho. The tactical plan might have been to drive the Ndebele out of their strongholds into the path of Plumer's Maxims.

Rarely might an engagement be considered splendid, but this one could nearly fit this description. The Ndebele of the Ingana and Mhlahlandhlela amabutho were not broken by artillery fire and held each kopje for as long as possible, then fell back to the next kopje. The Xhosa of the Cape Boys Corps stalked among the boulders exposing themselves to the Ndebele fire to locate the enemy and then rushed in with bayonets. All this time the disgruntled European soldiers "were held in reserve and were simply spectators of the fight from the surrounding heights," and the Maxims never fired a shot. Meanwhile, heavy gunfire was heard from the direction of Laing's position that ceased about 10:00 a.m. The Cape Boys had succeeded in burning a few kraals and driving the Ndebele into the Tokwe Gorge before being forced to retreat with the loss of one European NCO killed and ten Xhosa soldiers wounded.

The heavy gunfire that had been heard that morning from Laing's position resulted from his poor choice of encampment in a shallow valley surrounded by hills. Before dawn, the Laing column was surprised by the Amabuto and Igapa amabutho pouring down on them from the north, supported by Dhliso's impi. Unfortunately, the Colenbrander levies and 200 'friendlies' had built their camps directly in the path of the attack. The Ndebele fell upon the levies with a vengeance and the three European Maxims opened fire upon the mixed mob of fleeing levies and pursuing Ndebele warriors causing casualties on both. This confused action must have reached its crescendo about 10:00 as the Ndebele attack was run to ground short of the European laager by heavy gunfire and the 7pdr. The Ndebele began withdrawing around noon, but had forced Laing to change his line of advance closer to Plumer's base at Fort Usher.

This had been a close run battle. The Ndebele izinduna must have envisioned another "Isandhlwana" as they collapsed the levies and drove in the European patrols in the first attack. If the Dhliso impi had attacked the west or south of the laager they would have succeeded in destroying the flying column. As the situation stood at this moment, the Europeans noted that Ndebele confronting them "made a peculiar burring sound." The Ndebele were "beating their shields" precipitating a second attack which was carried to within five to forty yards of the laager before being broken. As Laing noted regarding the situation, "I never hope to see such an abject lot of human beings." He had lost four Europeans killed and ten wounded, he had also lost 28 killed levies and 100 wounded while the Ndebele losses were estimated at only 100 warriors.

The situation facing both sides by noon is best described as "Macit i breakfast", "spoiler of the white man's breakfast." The Ndebele still refer to this as the "Macitu", or "the spoiling." Both sides settled down to a gun duel between snipers for two hours until both antagonists disengaged and Laing moved to support Plumer while the Ndebele merely walked into their former positions confronting Plumer and Laing.

The Europeans had suffered two bad defeats in a single day, but General Carrington was intent upon exacting revenge. On July 24th, a reorganized European column under Captain Nicholson consisting of 250 European soldiers, 200 Cape Boys, Colenbrander's levies, two mountain guns and three Maxims attempted to storm Inungi against Izinduna Mabiza and Hole. Colenbrander's levies immediately ran into trouble, and as the main column attacked it suffered several casualties. Nicholson withdrew with the loss of ten men compared to two Ndebele killed. This was another defeat that prompted the editor of the Bulawayo Sketch to observe on the morning of July 25th, that "if things don't look up it will be our backbone that will be broken, not the rebels." The war was stalemated in favor of the Ndebele as they did not need any European money to survive, but the Europeans were accruing increasing debts and driving the their economy down.

General Carrington did not think that he could renew the offensive unless he was reinforced by a brigade of regular troops and a battery of mountain guns. Plumer, however, convinced Carrington to make one more assault on the Ndebele in the eastern part of the Matopos as he thought this might be weakly held. In fact, 4000 Ndebele held this area under izinduna Sikombo, Umugulu and Nyanda.

Plumer moved out of Fort Usher along the Tuli Road and after some aggressive patrolling determined that most of the Ndele were concentrated around Tsalime kopje. This was then the objective of Plumer's column which relocated further south for a more advantageous position from which to attack. The assault began on the morning of August 5th.

At 7:30 a.m. Beresford moved forward and soon passed out of sight. This column of 130 dismounted men and two screw-guns passed below the Tsalime kopje headed northwest up a valley. As the column attempted to ascend a designated kopje to support Plumer's main assault column, it became evident that something was wrong.

The Ndebele had observed Beresford's column from the onset of its forward movement. Without Beresford's knowledge, one ibutho moved on to the Malumika kopje to cut the Europeans off from Plumer. Meanwhile, 3000 Ndelebe in three amabutho secretly moved into positions from which to attack from three sides. The initial attack caught Beresford in column and routed the "friendies" in the command. Beresford rallied the Europeans in a square, but it was Lieutenant Llewellyn who saved the day with his single Maxim that broke the rush of the Ndebele center ibutho at 30 yards. Lieutenant Hervey followed this with an attack, in which he was mortally wounded, that broke the ibutho.

Plumer had no idea of Beresford's situation although he could hear the gunfire. He thought the Europeans were giving the Ndebele a beating. This is ironic as Beresford was signalling frantically for help and even fired a distress rocket that went unobserved. It was only when a runner arrived that Plumer got the message that Beresford was in trouble, but thought he could hold the kopje he occupied until help arrived.


Plumer dispatched three squadrons of mounted troops to Bereford's relief. These squadrons under Major Kershaw. He dismounted two squadrons in front of the Mulumika kopje as he received heavy Ndebele fire from that direction. He dispatched the other squadron to relieve Beresford. Kershaw's assault on Mulumika carried the heights but cost the life of Major Kershaw, the wounding of his sergeant-major, and mortal wounding of another NCO. The third squadron effected the withdrawal of Beresford as bugle calls signalled a general retreat about 3:00 p.m. As the command reached the Sugar Bush camp about 8:00 p.m., roll call was missing twelve Europeans killed and fourteen wounded. More importantly to Plumer was not the loss of European manpower, morale, or loss of another battle, but the loss of his "right-hand man" and friend, Major Kershaw.

The European morale sank to an all time low. Three days of fighting had resulted in nearly 100 European casualties with very little impression on the Ndebele who still held their original positions. Worse, the rains were coming and Carrington had to turn his attention to his logistics problem of provisioning over 1000 regular troops until the rains subsided. Plumer, evidently discouraged by the loss of Kershaw and the Ndebele successes, proposed that a ring of forts be established to isolate the Matopos to starve the Ndebele into submission.

Baden-Powell exerted his influence to break the stalemate with one last attempt. His plan to have Plumer attack the Tshingengoma heights in a surprise night attack which began on August 8th. However optimistically planned, this was a sad affair in execution. The attacking Europeans lacked initiative, and Babyaan's ibutho was not enclined to engage the scattered European units. Both sides were weary of war and ready to negotiate peace.


The Ndelebele izinduna were concerned with retributions for the European deaths which had occurred during the first week of the uprising, but if this could be resolved they were willing to negotiate peace terms. The Europeans were weary of this type of warfare, and with the rains were faced with serious military logistic problems. Further, politically, Rhodes needed to rid Rhodesia of Imperial military influence.

Desperate times bring desperate measures. When an old woman tottered out of the Matopos in August into the European camps, Rhodes had his solution to the debacle. She carried a message from the izinduna that they were ready to negotiate a peace. In a bold move, Rhodes personally rode out in the rain into the Matopos to meet with the Ndebele izinduna.

At this tense meeting Rhodes listened to the fears and grievances of the izinduna. In the end, he asked, "Is it to be peace?" Induna Sikombo stepped forward with two twigs. He broke one twig, then the other and declared, "This is my spear and this is my rifle. It is to be peace."

It would require several more meetings to arrive at a settlement, but by the end of August most of the Ndebele izinduna had agreed to Rhode's lenient terms. But as peace once again descended upon Matabeleland the story did not end. Already shaken by the Jameson Raid, Rhodes' political career collapsed and he died in 1902 in the Boer War. He was buried in Matopos at a kopje known as "The world's view."

This began as one man's story of "a man who would be king", but ends in two men's stories. It began with a homeless assemblage of refugees from Zululand who created a mighty kingdom under the leadership of a single man, Mzilikazi kaMashobane, lasting almost seventy years. It ended with a group of European entrepreneurs led by Cecil Rhodes who created a country that lasted almost seventy years. Like the Kipling story that inspired this discussion. Induna Sikomo expressed it best as he walked down "The world's view" after Rhodes' interment. "It is curious that both Mzilikazi and Rhodes are buried upon the tops of mountains in the Matopos quite close together. We Matabele have thought much of this thing, and now we know that the spirit of Mzilikazi was indeed always with Mr. Rhodes." Both men who would be kings.

Suggested readings: Ian Knight's Queen Victoria's Enemies (1) Southern Africa (1989), Ian Knight's artcle in Miniature Wargames (1986), Oliver Ransford's Bulawayo, Historic Battle-Ground of Rhodesia, (1968), T.O. Ranger's Revolt in Southern Africa (1967), and Baden-Powell's The Matabele Campaign (1897).

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