The 1893 Conquest Of Matabeleland
By Dennis Bishop
Possibly the best Victorian hero model for a Kiplingesque story would be Cecil Rhodes. In 1890, with a small army of mercenaries, Rhodes set about to carve a country out of Africa for himself. His successes during the next six years created a nation named Rhodesia in his honor.
There is no doubt that Rhodes intended great things as he planned the conquest of Mashonaland and Matabeleland to control all of Zimbabawe. With money from the diamond mines near Kimberley, Rhodes floated the British South Africa Company in 1890 and founded Fort Victoria in Mashonaland after negotiating with King Lobengula for the mineral rights to that region. This was a gutsy political move. The Ndebele amaJaha were incensed by this act, and waited for the opportunity to confront the white interlopers into their territory. Meanwhile, the British Colonial Office was convinced only with the
arguments that Rhodes would share any mineral profits with the crown and stop Boer expansion into the region.
However, King Lobengula, while allowing the trickle of white hunters and miners into the Shona
region, was not willing to allow the either the European or Shona to forget that the Shona were still
subjects of the Matabele kingdom. To this end, the king sent a raiding party into Mashonaland in
November, 1891 when a Shona Chibi (chieftain), Lomagundi, took advantage of the European presence to
refuse to pay the traditional tribute to the Matabele king. On November 23rd, the punitive force arrived at
Lomagundi's kraals and killed Lomagundi and three indunas as an example to other Mashona Chibi who
might try to follow Lomangundi's example.
This was the last raid north of Tuli, but not the last of the bloodshed as Lobengula continued to
attempt to assert Matabele control over the Mashona. The Europeans exasperated the situation by offering
to protect any Mashona Chibi who refused to pay tribute to the Matabele. Meanwhile, the Ndebele
warriors continued to enter Mashonaland to collect the traditional tributes of the Mashonaland vassals.
The 600 Ndebele tax collectors would move to Mashona kraals, camp outside, collect the tribute
and return to Buluwayo usually without incident. Although there were five minor incidents that occurred
during 1892 as the Ndebele "bumped into" Europeans, and a dispute over two telegraph lines which were
cut, the border remained relatively quiet. In November of that year, another Mashona Chibi, Mazorodze,
refused to pay tribute. The story is that he was captured and taken to Buluwayo where he was skinned
alive. Jameson's policy of attempting negotiations with Lobengula appear to have been based on
misconceptions of both Lobengula's intentions and the Europeans' intentions. The result could only be a
military confrontation as both parties attempted to control the Mashonaland peoples.
In 1893, the opportunity for an open military confrontation presented itself. In June of that year, a
Mashona Chibi Bere stole some Matabele cattle. Lobengula sent an impi of seventy warriors to punish
Chibi Bere's people and return the cattle. The impi accomplished this objective, but returning were
routed by a small force of five Europeans led by Captain Charles Lendy, Resident Magistrate at Victoria.
The impi induna stopped and revealed to Lendy that the impi had been sent only to reclaim the Matabele
cattle and punish the Mashona, but had been instructed not to touch European property or to fight with the
The imminent confrontation culminated in July between the Ndebele and Europeans. A Mashona
Chibi, Makoombi,relying upon the European settlers' protection, refused to pay a traditional tribute to the
Ndebele in June. Lobengula dispatched an impi of 2500 warriors under on a punitive expedition to restore
Matabele prestige in July. This impi killed 400 Mashona whenever they found them, often in front of the
Mashona's white employers to whom the Mashona had fled for protection. Significantly, no Europeans
were killed or injured which points to the discipline of the impis. However, Dr. Leander Starr Jameson,
Rhodes' agent in Mashonaland, collected a small party of European volunteers to confront the Ndele impi.
There were only eighty horses in the Victoria Magistrate and only fifty of these were considered fit for
cavalry use. Further, European volunteers were slow in responding so that by the end of the first week,
only about forty-six volunteers and policemen constituted Lendy's force. By July 15th, Captain Lendy's
aggressive use of this small force allowed more volunteers to arrive at Victoria. The 400 volunteers were
divided into two units;
- the Victoria Rangers, commanded by Lord Henry Paulet, and the Victoria Burghers, led by
Commandant W. J. Judd. These were mostly infantry as even the artillery contingent lacked transport
Jameson arrived at Victoria on July 17th and decided that the forces at Victoria were strong enough
to confront the Ndebele impi. On July 18th the two opponents entered into a confused confrontation.
Something happened to spark hostilities. The Ndebele claimed that they were attacked by the Europeans
and the Europeans claimed that the Ndebele fired the first shot, or threw the first assagai. Even this is
confused by the evidence that Idaba Manyao had lost control of two small impis of young warriors who
refused to stop the raid and retire as Jameson had ordered.
When the impi of fifty to eighty warriors, under Induna Umgandan, did not retire from the field
near Mashona Mazabili's kraal held by Captain Lendy's patrol of the Jameson force, the Europeans
probably opened fire on the warriors. Several warriors and an important, un-named, induna were claimed
to have been killed. This was probably an exaggeration, as was Lendy's report of the size of the impi.
The impi retreated with the information that the Europeans had attacked them, and Jameson cabled
Rhode's the request to raise an army to confront the Ndebele.
As the month of September passed, Sir Henry Loch mobilized the BBP at Tati while Jameson
mobilized volunteer columns at Salisbury and Victoria. Meanwhile, King Lobengula sent desperate
messages to Jameson requesting what wrong he had done. He had maintained his agreements with the
Europeans, which did not include the payment of Mashona tributes. He had raided the Mashona only to
maintain the Matabele influence over these subject peoples. He even wrote a letter to this effect to Queen
Victoria. He asserted in all of these correspondences that he would not pay reparations until the Mashona
were returned as legal vassels of the Matabele kingdom. This simple demand fell on deaf white ears who
preferred to believe Jameson's fabricated reports of menacing Ndebele impis mobilizing on the frontiers of
Victoria and Tati.
The volunteer "army" created at Victoria and Salisbury was a motley collection of European
adventurers, prospectors, hunters and settlers who had arrived during the three years since the opening of
Mashonaland at Salisbury and Victoria. Each was promised clothing, weapons and ammunition, and
horses. In addition, each man was promised a farm and mineral rights in Matabeleland as a reward for
his services. With the uniquely European idea of the need for indigenous native levies, several hundred
Mashona warriors were also enlisted to accompany the columns for some unspecified reward, perhaps
looting and revenge.
Although this organization was less than optimal, there were more problems that confronted Major
Patrick Forbes of the 5th Iniskilling Dragoons, when he was selected as the military commander of both
columns. First, there were not enough horses and oxen for the columns. Forbes purchased these from
South Africa with Rhodes' money. One can only imagine the quality of beasts that supported the Rhodes'
columns. Then there existed the lack of time to train the polyglot companies and troops in any disciplined
military maneuvers. This lack of training, and terrain, caused the columns to straggle at river fords and
in forests and rough terrain. This was complicated by questions concerning command and cooperation
between the two Rhodes columns, between Majors Forbes and Wilson, not counting the independent Tuli
Column of which Rhodes had no authority. Compounding these problems was a finite amount of
ammunition and supplies. The last problem Forbes had to deal with was the weather. The summer rains
could begin any time within two months after the starting dates for the intended invasions. If the rains
began, the columns would be stranded in a sea of mud unable to advance or retreat. Should the rains
begin early, the whole expedition could quickly become one of the bloodiest fiascoes suffered by
Europeans in the exploitation of Africa. The columns would be stranded in a sea of mud unable to
advance or retreat. The Ndelebele would only need to siege the stranded columns until their ammunition,
or supplies, ran out. Then, it would only require a sharp attack and a massacre of refugees.
Forbes had only three advantages. The artillery crews appear to have been well served by
competent officers. He also had several mounted companies and a company of bayonet armed infantry.
The most important advantage was the amazing ability of the Europeans to laager in fifteen minutes, and
in one case in only six minutes.
The Salisbury Column started from Fort Salisbury on October 2nd with 258 Martini-Henry armed
men, 60 Shona warriors, 16 ox-wagons, 276 oxen, two Maxims, a seven pounder, a Gardener and a
Nordenfelt gun. There was no supply tail, and the column carried all its munitions and supplies with it.
The ammunition consisted of 176,000 rounds of Martini-Henry cartridges, 16,000 Gardener rounds, 100
seven pounder rounds, 4000 Maxim rounds and 5000 revolver rounds.
The Victoria Column left Victoria on October 14th with 414 Martini-Henry armed men, 400 Shona
warriors, 22 ox- wagons, three Maxims, a one pounder Hotchkiss and a seven pounder gun. This column
also carried its own munitions and supplies. The ammunition consisted of 180,000 rounds of Martini-
Henry cartridges, 1000 Hotchkiss rounds, 300 seven pounder rounds, and an unknown number of Maxim
and revolver rounds. This column also had 250 bayonets for Martini-Henrys.
Meanwhile, to safeguard Imperial interests, the High Commissioner for the Cape, Sir Henry Loch
mustered a force of 60 infantry, the Bechuanaland Border Police Regiment (12 officers and 212 men, 215
horses, 4 Maxims, 2 seven-pound guns, 15 wagons, 4 watercarts, 1 Scotch cart, 8 mules and 240 oxen),
the South Africa Constabulary Police Regiment (225 officers and men, 191 horses, 1 Maxim, and 10
wagons) together with 250 Boers, and later 1000 Bechuana warriors. Information concerning the
munitions and supplies for this column have not been found at this time. The column was called the Tuli
Column, and placed under command of Colonel Henry Goold-Adams, and left Tati on October 11.
The Salisbury and Victoria columns arrived at the designated consolidation point of Iron Mine Hill
on October 14th and October 16th. At this point, Major Forbes was concerned about any questions about
his seniority. For this reason, he kept the two columns separated by a hundred yards during the day, but
laagering side by side at night. Forbes also did not wish to enter the dense Somabula forest, so he directed
the columns a few miles south of the old hunters' road. On October 24th, the columns crossed the
Shangani River and laagered.
Forbes must have known that the combined columns were being shadowed, but he could not know
that it was by an impi of Zansi inSukameni and Mareni ambutho. During the halt of the Salisbury
Column as it awaited the Victoria Column, Forbes lost his Ordinance Store Officer, Captain Campbell,
who was shot while helping to herd cattle from an abandoned kraal. On October 23rd, near the Shangani
River one of the scouts, Ted Burnett, was shot while searching an abandoned kraal. A few days later,
Captain Williams was killed by Ndebele warriors.
The inSukameni ibutho, commanded by induna Manondwan, was placed on the border between
Mashonalnd and Matabeleland to watch the border. When the armed European columns began moving
into Matabeleland, Manondwan waited for an opportunity to unleash his warriors. He had his opportunity
to defeat the lone Victoria Column before October 16, but, due to the aggressive use of European scouts
and the laagering each night of the invading column, he could not find an opportunity to attack in force.
His warriors could only kill an occasional inefficient or unlucky white man.
Sometime between October 23rd and October 24th, Manondwan was reinforced by three impis
consisting of the Ihlati, Amaveni, Siseba, Jingen, Enxna, Zinyangene and Induba amabutho. The Mareni
ibutho may have been placed in reserve as it is not identified as having participated in the coming battle.
The remaining amabutho prepared to attack during the night of October 24th, too late to defeat the
independent columns piece-meal.
Forbes always ordered reveille an hour before dawn , which was the favored Matabele time for
attack. But on October 25th, the Ndele attacks occurred before the bugles at 3:55am. The first attack fell
upon Quested's Mashona encampment and routed the sleeping warriors from their thorn-bush enclosure.
The attack continued until the combined laagers that opened fire with Maxims and artillery. The
Europeans could not discern the effect of the guns in the pre-dawn darkness at 5:00am, and the first
attacks were pressed to the laagers, to be repulsed by a slim margin. Meanwhile, within the Salisbury
laager, Troop C, under Captain Spreckley, mounted at the first alarm. The rest of the Salisbury laager
was defended by A Troop on the right face and B Troop on the left face of the laager. The Victoria laager
responded in defense as the Salisbury as their pickets were driven in.
At 4:30am, the Insukameni abandoned their shields in a ruse which almost worked. Seeing the
apparently unarmed men approaching the laagers from a kopje from the south, Forbes ordered a cease-
fire. The Insukameni advanced within a few yards of the laagers before they opened fire with their
concealed rifles. The ruse almost worked, but once the impetuous Zansi disclosed themselves
unsupported, the full weight of the European ordinance fell upon the warriors. When this second Ndele
attack failed, Forbes aggressively dispatched the mounted A and C Troops, under Captains Heaney and
Speckley, to follow the routed Insukameni. Meanwhile, Wilson mounted 1 and 2 Troops, under Captains
Fitzgerald and Bastard to the southwest of the Victoria laager. At about 8:10am, the Ndebele launched a
third concentrated attack from the north, east and south. This attack drove all of the mounted columns
toward the laagers, as the artillery opened fire in support. The artillery and Maxims broke the last
Ndebele attacks and saved almost fifty percent of the European combatants who had been prematurely
committed to pursuit of an undefeated enemy.
An objective analysis of this first major battle does not reveal that the Europeans possessed a
substantial superiority over the Ndebele. Nor does it indicate that the Ndele were substantially inferior to
the Zulu in strategy, maneuvers, or courage. The Ndebele amabutho successfully surrounded and
assaulted fortified positions for four hours. The amabutho routed the Mashona contingent, attempted a
ruse that nearly succeeded in breaching the defense, and successfully counterattacked the attempted
European mounted pursuit.
The Salisbury and Victoria columns had corralled their Mashona defended oxen between the
laagers on the night of October 24th, and their horses within the laagers. This poorly hygienically planned
configuration probably saved most of the columns' transports. The well-placed artillery and pickets, as
well as sacrifice of the Mashona contingent, allowed the Europeans time to deploy adequately within their
laagered wagon fortifications to cause enough casualties among the Ndebele to break the initial attacks.
The premature commitment of almost half of the combined columns' strengths nearly cost them the
Lobengula had committed one third of his army to this attack. Of the four Ndebele impis of 5000
Enhla and Zansi warriors, these had suffered 200 killed and 400 wounded. A respectable 12% casualties
were inflicted upon the Ndebele before the amabutho were broken. The Amaveni, Jingen, Enxna,
Zinyangene and Induba amabutho would never take the field again until 1896. The Zansi inSukagameni,
with the Ehhla Siseba and Inhlati amabutho, would reorganize to fight again in 1893. The battle must
have been a sobering first notification of the intent of the Matabele Kingdom to defend itself.
The combined European columns expended 2,645 rounds of Martini-Henry (1%) and 1000 rounds
of Maxim ammunition (25%). The columns also expended seven rounds of seven pounder shells (1%), 28
rounds of Hotchkiss shells (02%) and 400 (03%) Gardiner rounds. They suffered one European and 46
Shona warriors killed. There were also six Europeans and three Shona wounded.
The total of 600 Ndebele casualties to 56 European casualties results in a decisive 10-1 casualty
ratio. But, while the Ndebele lost only 12% the combat effectiveness of its total combat effectiveness, the
Rhodes' columns lost 12.5%, plus the expenditure of irreplaceable ammunition. The Europeans held the
field and inflicted more casualties among the Ndebele, but an objective analysis of the battle and statistics
show that any evaluation of the battle must be evaluated as a draw.
The Ndebele impis disappeared and the columns were free to move forward. The European
advance continued for a week without opposition. During that week Lobengula, and his council,
considered the options available to them. The Tuli Column was advancing from Tati toward Buluwayo
and the combined Salisbury-Victoria columns were advancing from the east. Both threats had to be
defeated with an army depleted by a third of its combatants in one battle, and no doubt many anxious eyes
looked into the skies for the rain clouds. There were also the young warriors of the Zansi Imbezu and
Ingubu amabutho who laughed at the survivors of the Shangani battle. These warriors naively boasted
that they would merely walk into the laagers and lead the white men out as prisoners. Lobengula had
always maintained his throne by appeasing the Zansi, and he had to allow the warriors the chance to
"wash their spears" in a real battle.
However, this opportunity must not result in a situation where too many Zansi might be killed or
maimed. There were only a limited number of male children born in this class each year. Losses to the
amabutho would require years to reconstitute from young men who came of age and passed the required
steps to become warriors. These conflicting political and military objectives would end in one bloody
The council decided to send one impi of 5000 warriors against the combined columns and 5000
warriors against the Tuli column. The warriors were given strict instructions not to attack laagers during
daylight, but to seek combat against these mobile fortresses as they crossed river drifts. The columns were
most vulnerable at these crossings as they were forced to straggle and the artillery and maxims were
limbered. This amounted to the entire mobilized national amabutho in a desperate gamble to turn each
European column short of Buluwayo.
The Ndebele induna must have been attempting to follow these instructions. On October 27th, the
Jingen ibutho lost 40 warriors skirmishing with C Troop/Salisbury Horse, supported by B Troop near a
tributary to the Shangani River. It was at the drift at the Bembesi River on October 31st that C
Troop/Salisbury Horse and units of the Victoria Horse skirmished with a stronger number of Matabele in
the hills above the drift.
What happened on November 1st is difficult to understand from either side. Forbes established
new campsites on a small hill west of the Bembesi River and turned the oxen and horses out graze at a
stream to the south of the laagers. Forbes' horse units had encountered increasing Ndele resistance for
five days, he was deep in enemy territory without support, and he risked his essential transport animals. It
can only be considered a spectacular blunder, or an act of genius to force a decisive battle. Some assert
that the Ndele were surprised in line of march, but a look at the Ndele deployment does not support this.
The left horn was comprised of the "blooded" Insukameni and Inhlati amabutho with the Imsingweni and
Innobo amabutho in support. The chest was composed of the Zansi Imbezu and Ingubu amabutho, and the
left horn contained the Godhlwayo and Umswansi amabutho. This deployment of amabutho indicates that
the Ndebele were gambling on defeating the Europeans outright, or allowing the enemy to retreat to the
The right horn opened the battle with the Insukameni ibutho attacking at 12:50pm. This attack
was driven to ground about 1:00pm by the artillery. At 1:00pm, the Inhlati ibutho attacked and
stampeded the Salisbury Column's horses which were being driven into the laagers. Meanwhile, part of
the Insukameni attempted to intercept the horses, but were shelled by the artillery as they pursued the
It must have been a crazy ride for Captain Borrow, and a few men who followed him, to save the
animals. The Ndele were running after the horse herd which had bolted away from the laager, but were
driven in by Borrow and the Maxims under Naval Lieutenant Tyndale-Biscoe, that fired short bursts to
direct the path of the horses. Had the Salisbury horses been lost, the column would have been stranded in
the middle of Matabeleland.
Sometime after 1:00pm, the chest attacked out of the protective thorn bush. The 700 warriors of
the Zansi Ingubu ibutho gained the "dead zone" beneath the Salisbury Column. The 1000 warriors of the
Imbezu ibutho were driven to ground by Martini-Henry and artillery/Maxim fire losing 700 warriors in
one attack. Pinned and decimated by enemy firepower, the arrogant, young Zansi learned the lesson of
their načve boasts. There would be no "easy walk into a laager," but the Zulu could not boast of higher
losses before breaking. The attacks by the amabutho of the chest had withered only a few yards from the
laagers. The young, married elite of the Matabele kingdom had made the supreme effort and suffered the
The left horn attempted to support the chest, but were driven to ground at the edge of the thorn
bush protection by the Victoria Column artillery. There were to be no laurels for The Victoria Column as
it was only minimally engaged while the Salisbury Column took the brunt of the Ndele attacks. Fighting
from the laagers, the Europeans could claim unequal victories of firepower over courage.
By 2:00pm, the battle was over as the Ndebele amabutho retreated into the thorn bush and the
Europeans collected their scattered transport animals. Appropriately, John Woolford, noted that "disaster
hid itself only thinly behind victory" for the Rhodes' columns. Had the herds been lost, or the Salisbury
laager been over-run, the battle would have been a Ndebele victory.
The Ndele had pressed the chest forward with combined strength of 1500 Zansi warriors, and had
been beaten back with 70% casualties to the Imbezu ibutho. The Ndebele induna had attempted to capture
all of the Rhodes' herds, while attacking the northern laager. It was the lack of success to capture the
European cattle herds, and the losses to the elite Zansi amabutho that convinced the indunas to call off the
It was a very good plan that went awry due to the fortunes of war that included luck and firepower over
The Salisbury Column had fired 8,000 rounds of Martini-Henry ammunition, and a considerable
amount of Maxim and artillery rounds. The total European casualties amounted to three killed and six
wounded. This battle, though narrowly won, would result in an under-appreciation of the Ndebele ability
to wage war. No one could predict that the Ndebele had maintained any cohesion of the amabutho
following the battle. However, a number of amabutho remained intact and continued to be willing to
continue the defense of the kingdom and king.
Meanwhile, the politically controversial South African column had occupied Tati on October 18th.
Commanded by Colonel H. Goold-Adams, the Tuli Column was somewhat straggling as it incorporated
1000 Makalaka warriors under Chief Khama who had set out from Palapye the same day. The Raaff
Rangers were causing part of the problems to the column as these Boers were considered "an
undisciplined lot" capable of little more than scouting on animals in poor condition. However, Colonel
Goold-Adams was also part of the problem as he planned a long campaign and appeared to be in no
particular hurry to reach Buluwayo.
The column was two miles from the Rhodes' columns when the impi of 5000 warriors under
Induna Gambo skirmished at the ford on the Tchangani River, losing 200 warriors, and another 200
warriors at the ford across the Lower Tchangani River. There can be little doubt that this was a ruse used
by Gambo to allow a strike at the European supply column with the bulk of his amabutho.
The full weight of the Ndebele impi fell upon the column at the ford across the Impembesi River
on November 1st 2nd. During the furious, confused action around the transport column, the Raaff's
Rangers maintained the initiative supported by the BBP men as had been pedicted. Captain Thomas
Angus Tancred was advancing with 20 wagons, 10 BBP, 10 SACP, and 50 Makalaka warriors to join the
main column. The supply column was ambushed by 600-700 Ndebele warriors. Hearing the gunfire, the
mounted troops from the main column "marched to the guns." The mounted troopers covered the retreat
of the supply wagons on to the main laager where the Maxims opened fire upon the Ndebele amabutho.
With neglible losses, the South African column claimed to have inflicted 500 Ndebele casualties.
However, Induna Gambo retreated his intact amabutho toward Buluwayo, fighting one more delaying
action at the Inguesi River ford losing 100 more warriors. Had it not been for this one battle, the Tuli
Column may have been lost to history as a mere footnote.
The delay on the Tuli Column caused by the Gambo impi had significant political ramifications.
On November 5th, Khama withdrew his 1000 strong impi claiming that small-pox was infecting his
warriors. The European commanders saw this as desertion in the face of an undefeated enemy, but
Khama had grown weary of what appeared to him to be an inconclusive campaign. After the Rhodes'
columns entered the abandoned and burned, Buluwayo kraal on November 4th, Rhodes and Jameson
considered the war concluded just before the dreaded rain clouds appeared. By a slim margin, Rhodes had
beaten both the Ndebele and the British South African column to the ultimate geographical objective.
One hundred men of the BPP, under Captain Coventry, of the Tuli Column arrived at Buluwayo on
Meanwhile, European reinforcements were being recruited in South Africa and England. Loch
raised an additional 300 volunteers with seconded officers and men from the Cape and Natal into the
Cape Mounted Rifles Regiment based at King William's Town. President Kruger of the Transvaal was
willing to cooperate with the transfer of the British troops to Matabeleland so long as they wore "plain
clothes." These troops arrived at Mafeking on October 25th and were divided into three troops
commanded by Major Raleigh Grey. These men were equipped and supplied through Loch's personal
efforts and concern about the success of the campaign. Eventually, 500 British/South African volunteers
would be deployed into Matabeleland before the end of hostilities.
King Lobengula, the council, and several amabutho had left Buluwayo following the news of the
Battle of Bembesi. This presented an anomaly unique to the Bantu cousins of southern Africa. While
Rhodes set about distributing land awards and paying off the volunteers, the defeated, but unbroken
Ndebele army traveled north into the veldt. The Europeans did not appear to understand history of the
Ndebele. So long as the central elements of the culture remained intact, the kingdom remained
Only Dr. Jameson appears to have recognized that until King Lobengula was captured and forced
to acknowledge his victors, the war was not over. Sir Henry Loch appears to have thought in more
conventional terms of defeating the Ndebele impis and occupying territory to win the war. The rains had
begun making movement difficult and malaria would soon begin decimating the European ranks. Should
the Ndebele reorganize the remaining 37,000 warriors of the amabutho, the stranded European columns at
Buluwayo might be defeated through an extended siege.
Jameson first attempted to induce King Lobengula to surrender at Buluwayo through a letter dated
November 7th. The content of the letter was both military threat and promise of peace. The letter was
written in English, Dutch and Zulu to ensure that it would be understood. King Lobengula's
ungrammatical, ambiguous reply was no answer. Basically, he wanted to know about the safety of his
messengers and where he was to live.
Jameson waited two extra days before organizing a volunteer patrol of 320 men of the Salisbury
and Victoria columns, and 150 men of the Bechuanaland Border Police and Raaff's Rangers who had
arrived at Buluwayo ahead of the main column. The patrol was supported by three maxims and two
hundred native carriers. Major Forbes led this force in pursuit of the Ndebele on November 14th.
Most popular histories imply that the war was over with the capture of Buluwayo and King
Lobengula as a fugitive fleeing to the north pursued by a combined British-Rhodes column. However, this
was not Zululand in 1879 as British High Commissioner Sir Henry Loch and Colonial Secretary Lord
Ripon thought. The symbolic combination of imperial and colonial forces could not disguise the political
confrontation between the victorious colonials and defeated imperial interests. In the end, Sir Loch was
forced to recognize Rhodes' company's right by conquest to Zimbabwe. Colonel Goold-Adams was
ordered by the British Colonial Office to second himself to Dr. Jameson. This must have been a "bitter
pill" for an imperial officer who had assumed that his tardy arrival at Buluwayo would provide him with
authority by rank and affiliation.
However, aside from the political in-fighting between the Company and Imperial officials, this was
not the military situation that was viewed by the European commanders in the field. The rains were
setting in and with the rains came malaria, dysentery and possibly smallpox. Forbes knew that the
Ndebele impi north of Buluwayo was not indicating any intent of surrendering, and Goold-Adams knew
that Induna Gambo still controlled a large impi south of Buluwayo. The only hope for a quick resolution
to the debacle facing the field commanders was the capture of the king of the Matabele which might
induce the indunas to surrender. Failure might prolong the campaign, through the specter of a guerrilla
war, which might extend it beyond the economic resources and public patience with the campaign. These
were all pressures that impacted Forbe's decisions concerning his "patrol."
The patrol slogged through the rain soaked veldt for two days before arriving at the London
Missionary Society's station at Inyati. At this point the patrol scattered a large Ndebele cattle herd and
routed the Ndebele. However, the area was nothing more than a scene of looted and ruined European
possessions left behind when the station was abandoned.
Forbes left eighty men to garrison the station and continued in pursuit of Lobengula with the rain-
soaked remainder of the flying column. Aside from looting kraals of grain and cattle, the column had by
this time exhausted its initial supplies. When the column cleared the last of the kraals, discontentment
among the volunteers began to plague Forbes. The volunteers simply were willing to give up the chase
until the food situation was rectified. The regulars of the BBP were not consulted.
Understanding their position, Forbes also knew that to give up the pursuit might prove disastrous to
the entire adventure. He paraded the volunteers to determine their positions concerning continuing the
pursuit. Only the Victoria Column volunteers were in favor of continuing, so Forbes sent a letter
requesting a supply column from Buluwayo and set about reorganizing his command.
Enough supplies arrived to provide three-quarters rations for three hundred men for twelve days
and to see the disaffected volunteers back to Buluwayo. Forbes reorganized his remaining forces into the
following commands: Captain Borrow and twenty-two mounted men of the Salisbury Horse, Major Wilson
and seventy mounted and one hundred dismounted men of the Victoria Column, Captain Raaff and twenty
mounted Boers of the Rangers, and Captain Coventry and seventy-eight men of the Bechuanaland Border
Police. This resulted in a total of 290 men.
Forbes left Shiloh heading northwest and soon found evidence that the column was close to the
objective. It appears that Forbes must have been only hours behind Lobengula as the column came upon
smoldering Ndebele camp fires and signs of hasty abandonment of the camps. Forbes also found evidence
that convinced him that the Ndebele were abandoning equipment and heading for the Shangani River. It
must have been extremely frustrating for Forbes to know he was so close, but unable to find his objective.
The rain soaked veldt was affecting the Ndebele, but it also was impacting Forbes' column. His
transport oxen were collapsing and the column must have been straggling badly as a result. Again faced
with the problem of continuing or stopping, Forbes again divided his command. He formed a flying
column of one hundred and sixty mounted men, probably all that remained, and sent the wagons and
dismounted men to form a base camp at Umhlangeni.
The flying column captured an induna on November 30th, who told Forbes that the Ndebele were
dispirited by defeat, starvation, exposure and an epidemic of smallpox. The induna also indicated that
most of the Ndebele were ready to surrender, although the remnants of three of the most loyal amabuthos,
the Insukameni, the Ihlati and the Siseba were remaining with the king and what remained of the council.
With this information, Forbes continued toward the Shangani River and reached its banks on
December 3rd. Again Forbes found evidence that he had missed his prey by only hours. The Ndebele had
only just crossed the river and disappeared into the heavy bush with the last of their cattle herds. The
frustrated flying column could only watch the cattle herds disappear.
Forbes sent a small patrol of twelve men of the Victoria Column under Major Wilson to attempt to
located the Ndebele impi while he formed a camp on open ground about two hundred yards from the river.
It has been stated that this was a laager, but without wagons this would have been impossible. The camp
may have been a thorn bush enclosure. However, a Ndebele warrior had also been captured that day who
revealed Lobengula was ill, but that three thousand Ndebele warriors from various amabutho were still
with him. Considering all of the information he had acquired during the past few days of the pursuit,
Forbes must have found himself in a dilemma. Three thousand warriors exceeded his first report of only
three amabutho. However, if Lobengula was ill and the warriors demoralized, it might be possible to
make a daring surprise attack, rout the warriors and capture the king. Forbes must also have accounted
for the situation of his own column that was at this time had nearly exhausted its supplies. It was down to
100 rounds per man! Such a daring action might accomplish the objective of the column and return to the
base camp at Umhlangeni before supplies ran out. But, it would be only by a very small margin and speed
would be the deciding factor.
Forbes waited in camp all day for the return of the Wilson patrol. Adding to his level of concern
for the missing patrol came information that Induna Mjaan had turned back with the bulk of the impi with
the intent to give battle that night. As the sun set, and the rain pelted the men in the enclosure, Forbes
prepared for the Ndebele attack he knew was eminent.
About nine o'clock, two riders appeared outside of Forbe's enclosure. These were messengers from
Wilson who informed Forbes that Wilson had found Lobengula's camp and Wilson thought it possible to
attempt the capture of the king. The patrol had been withdrawn to prevent being surrounded, but Wilson
thought it best to remain within visual contact with the objective. He also requested reinforcements with
the second group of messengers. Wilson had depleted his small patrol of thirteen men by five men as
messengers. That night, eight volunteers watched through the rain and waited for the column to arrive
which would put an end to the hostilities.
Forbes could not move the column out of its prepared defenses for fear of being attacked in column
in the rainy darkness by a hidden enemy. He had reduced his command to 100 rounds for each man and
2100 rounds between the two Maxims. He also couldn't call Wilson to abandon his position for fear of
losing Lobengula in the bush again. It was at this point, Forbes made his fateful decision to reinforce
Wilson with Captain Borrow and twenty men. This patrol reached Wilson's position sometime before
Wilson had thirty-two men in position as the dawn began to break. If Forbes had informed Wilson
that the main impi was outside the flying column enclosure readying for an attack, it probably influenced
Wilson's next decision. He ordered his men forward toward the King's wagon and camp. Outside of the
camp he called to King Lobegula to surrender. The call was answered with silence. It must have been a
very intense number of minutes while Wilson and his men awaited a reply.
Clicking rifle bolts filled the dawn from hundreds of invisible positions around the small patrol.
Wilson must have realized at this moment that the wagon was a ruse. The king had escaped once again
and all chance of capturing him had eluded the flying column. More immediately, Forbes had been
wrong, the main impi was not outside the flying column enclosure, but had prepared an ambush that
Wilson had walked into. Then, an induna appeared and fired his rifle as a signal for a ragged volley that
killed two horses, but mostly passed over the heads of the mounted men.
Wilson immediately ordered a retreat to the anthill that had served as his camp that night. The
patrol reached this position without losing a man, but he had lost several horses. The Ndebele pressed the
position, but this time there were no suicidal frontal assaults. As the fire from the Ndebele intensified,
more horses were killed and the volunteers were beginning to suffer casualties. Wilson ordered the patrol
into a tree line behind the former position that proved too exposed.
The Ndebele were not fighting as they had earlier in the war. This time, they were content to use
firepower to match the European firepower on a ground of their choice. Wilson had no choice but to
group the wounded and dismounted volunteers into the center of a column and attempt to retreat the five
long miles that separated his command from the safety of the flying column enclosure. Hope for success
must have been buoyed as the small column outdistanced the Ndebele rifle fire and marched unmolested
for nearly a mile. They could see the Ndebele warriors moving with them, but the warriors did not appear
inclined to do more than shadow the retreating column, perhaps to ensure that the "white men" were
properly escorted back with news of their defeat. This načve way of fighting had always been to the
Then, an impi was discovered in front of the column, blocking any further retreat. Wilson may
have contemplated the possibility of charging through the impi, but that would have required abandoning
his wounded. He could not do that, so he formed his command in a small clearing and waited.
The next few moments are among the most controversial of the entire campaign. Three men, one
American and two Australians, managed to escape through the Ndebele lines and succeeded in arriving at
Forbes' enclosure. Were these men deserters or messengers? Based upon Wilson's earlier configuration
of messengers, they might appear to have been sent requesting a relief column. However, it would be
convenient for Forbes, unwilling to support Wilson, to consider them deserters. And in this lies two
stories of what happened under that afternoon African sun.
Some accounts state that the three were indeed deserters who heard heavy gunfire and Ndebele war
cries which signaled the end of the Wilson patrol soon after the men escaped. Other accounts, some from
the Ndebele themselves, reveal that the siege continued throughout the afternoon. At one point, the
European survivors were even offered the opportunity to surrender that was rejected. If Wilson had sent
messengers to Forbes and expected to be reinforced, this makes sense. Forbes' reluctance to come to
Wilson's assistance makes the end of the patrol both tragic and ironic. It is tragic due to the
circumstances which resulted in the patrol's destruction, and ironic because the only Ndebele victory in
battle would occur too late to change the course of the war.
On December 5th, Forbes began retreating up the Shangani River without knowledge of the fate of
the Wilson patrol. During the retreat the column was attacked on December 8th, 10th and 12th, but
outdistanced the Ndebele impi after that date. The desperate situation of the patrol is indicated by the
abandonment of the gun carriages in the mud that required that the Maxims be carried on blankets and
the observation of Sir Henry Loch, that the retreat "degenerated into a complete route." The end of the
Ndebele offensive occurred short of Buluwayo where Rhodes, Jameson, and Sawyer had arrived with
Company reinforcements. All of these men were wet, sick and their equipment was wearing out, but the
impetus of the Ndebele had also been spent.
It must have appeared to the Company field officers that Jameson/Rhodes' gamble for empire had
been politically won, but militarily lost. The objective of Buluwayo had been captured, but neither had
King Lobengula been captured, nor had the strength of the Ndebele army been broken. In fact, the
Ndebele had mounted a successful counter-attack in the rain soaked veldt that had forced the Europeans
into a defensive laager at Buluwayo. It was the worst scenario that the European officers had imagined.
However, events were about to occur which would change once more inevitable defeat into victory.
On January 15th, King Lobengula sent Makasa as an emissary with a verbal message for Loch that
the king was willing to surrender if he would be honorably and courteously treated. This is interesting
because Lobengula was appealing to a representative of the Imperial British Empire, not to a mere
colonial company official like Rhodes. This shows some shrewdness on the part of King Lobengula that
has been overlooked. If the British colonial office protected the Matabele, it would divide the "white
men" between Ndebele and Mashona. This was a clever plan which not many historians have noted.
James Dawson replied in the name of Loch that such terms were acceptable and that Lobengula would not
be sent out of South Africa. This was the best compromise for both sides of the situation, and might have
been a Matabele political coup.
However, on January 22-23 King Lobengula died. Most historians assert that his death was the
result of a fever (dysentery or smallpox), but a minority assert that the king took poison. Never wanting
war, and watching the destruction of his kingdom in fire and flames, King Lobengula may have thought
that he had no other recourse if he had not received Dawson's reply. To die undefeated would place him
with the Matopos god and possibly preserve the Matabele kingdom. It is reasonable to believe that in an
act of self-immolation, King Lobengula sacrificed his life for the possibility of life for the peoples of his
kingdom. The irony is that such sacrifice might have been made when it was least necessary, he may
have won the political war without destroying the socio-military system of kingdom. As it turned out, his
death preserved the integral system of the kingdom, but lost the political war which would have preserved
the independence of the kingdom.
Meanwhile, south of Buluwayo, Induna Gambo still command a strong, if defeated impi. On
November 2nd, Gambo divided the impi into two parts. One impi, under Induna Masiwe retired to the
Matopo Hills, while the other, under Induna Gambo took up a position to the west on the Gwaai River. A
third impi, under Induna Gargo (Fargo) was still intact in the Matopos Hills near the Shashani River.
Another individual was as important as the king and iziinduna, this was a Makalaka prophet known as
Mlimo. Mlimo exercised a great influence over the Ndebele in believing that the "white men" would be
driven out of Zimbabwe. Ironically, this influential individual would remain unknown in the 1970s when
his prophesies would be fulfilled.
Colonel Goold-Adams decided upon the course of action of "a little forcible persuasion" to bring
about a conclusion to hostilities in this part of the kingdom on November 25th. Major S. D. Browne of the
BBP moved with 65 mounted men of the BBP, 30 infantry of the British South African Company and two
Maxims upon the Masiwe impi. This column met little resistance and continued until December 25th
accepting the surrender of arms of the impi which amounted to 101 guns and 1300 assegais. Captain J.
Spreckley led a column of 60 men of the British South Africa Company on what they considered a cattle
raid against the Gambo impi. To this end they captured 600-700 head of Ndebele cattle, but did not
capture Induna Gambo. He would remain at large until March, 1894. A BBP patrol of 50 men, under the
command of Lt. Williams, was dispatched against the Gargo impi. Major Raleigh Grey was dispatched
with 120 men of Imperial recruits to unsuccessfully capture Mlimo.
The close of the campaign is very messy. Loch began reducing the Imperial forces in Matabeleland
to 300 men by December 25th, and this force would be reduced to 50 men by March, 1894. The expenses
of the occupation of Matabeleland, in the eyes of Loch, should be absorbed by the Rhodes' Company. To
this end on December 22nd, Rhodes' Company organized a new police force of 150 mounted men drawn
from mainly those volunteers who had not voluntarily demobilized. The only real result of the campaign
from November, 1893 to March, 1894 was the "scorched earth" policy of destroying Ndebele military
kraals to ineffectually prevent a guerilla war.
The Ndebele kingdom had lost most of the battles, had watched the amabutho kraals and Buluwayo
destroyed, and much of the royal cattle captured. The king was dead, and the Zansi class had suffered
significant losses. The once formidable kingdom of the Ndebele was in flames. The warriors rolled their
shields and hid their guns and assegais rather than surrender these symbols of the kingdom. This was
characterized as possessing only a superficial nature of surrender. The warriors still possessed the spiritual
guidance, national integrity and loyalty to their amabutho to rise again in attempt to reclaim the former
glory of the kingdom. While the Rhodes and his mercenaries celebrated their victory, the Ndebele
patiently waited the opportunity to drive the "white man" out of Zimbabwe.
The following are a number of out of print, or difficult to obtain sources that require little more than
reference. These include: Pursuit of Lobengula, 1958, Miniatures Wargames 37, June
History December, 1983, Osprey's Queen Victoria's Enemies (1): Southern Africa (1989), The
War (1968), Path of Blood (1962), The Downfall of Lobengula (1897), How We
made Rhodesia (1896), The Matabele Campaign, 1897.
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