Pioneer Days

2011 was the 115th anniversary of the First Chimurenga (or Umvukela as it is known in Matabeleland). Throughout that year, the Zanj Financial Network 'Zfn', in Harare, Zimbabwe, prepared a number of historical reports briefing on this bloody uprising that resulted in much attritution and misery on both sides, some of which are reproduced here.

March 20th saw the beginning of the first disturbances and in the following briefing, Zfn analysed the causes and events as well as profiling the main protagonists in Matabeleland.

The start of the First Chimurenga / Umvukela (1)


Give us the background to the situation

Until the end of 1895, the story of the activities of the British South Africa Company (BSA Co) was – superficially – only a success story. In fact, the Company had run close to disaster on several occasions including the death of the Alan Wilson patrol. The BSA Co controlled most of the gold fields in the country and since Cecil Rhodes was able to conceal their poverty (when compared to both his promises and the Johannesburg goldfields) from his shareholders and most settlers, the future of his grand scheme seemed assured. Since 1890 in Mashonaland and 1893 in Matabeleland the Company had built up a great deal of infrastructure countrywide including roads, towns, mines and nascent commercial farms as well as creating a large administrative framework that was, publicly at least, trumpeted as bringing "the light of civilisation to Darkest Africa". Moreover, as historian David Beach (1975) points out, the Company had undeveloped interests north of the Zambezi, and was on the verge of annexing Bechuanaland.

If everything was rosy, then why the insurrection?

First, lets recount the traditional Rhodesian opinion, quoted here from the publishers' 1971 introduction to a reprint of With the Mounted Infantry: "The principle causes of the Rebellion were the incompleteness of the conquest of the Matabele nation in 1893, and the incapacity of a war-like and aristocratic race to give up their old habits and accept their natural place in the peaceful and industrial organisation of a settled community. These were exacerbated by the overbearing actions of the native police towards their own people, the extraordinary influence of the Mlimo, a drought of abnormal duration, a plague of locusts and perhaps the most serious of all in its consequences, the severe loss of their cattle through rinderpest … The withdrawal from the country of the main body of white police who became involved in the abortive Jameson Raid of December, 1895 provided the opportunity for which the Matabele had been waiting." This precis relies heavily on the accounts given by Hugh Marshall Hole and Earl Grey in their reports submitted to the shareholders of the BSA Co in 1898 which differed in style and substance from the Martin Report, the British Government's account of the events of the years 1896-1897. As Beach (1975) wryly comments, "Those familiar with the workings of Cecil Rhodes's British South Africa Company will not be surprised to learn that the Reports on the Native Disturbances in Rhodesia 1896-97 explains very little".

Is this a fair assessment?

The causes of the First Umvukela (or Chimurenga or Rebellion or Uprising or War of the Red Axe; we will use these terms interchangeably throughout the briefings) have been debated by historians for over 100 years. There are no definitive answers but neither can we simply accept the account given above at face value. There are a number of points with which to quibble and we will unpack each one in sequence. It is important to note that the early Rhodesians made fundamental but incorrect assumptions about the nature of both Matabele and Shona society and culture in their assessment of the causes of the uprising against white rule. Added to this was the fervent desire to absolve themselves and their shareholders from responsibility which led to a great deal of propaganda and misinformation being produced. They also did not discuss or reveal many of the real factors underlying the eruption, most of which were a direct result of bad policies we harshly (and perhaps unfairly) condemn as stemming from simple greed and avariciousness.

Should the whites have disarmed the Matabele after 1893?

Summarising the public opinion of the Rhodesian authorities, Gale ( : 176) comments "The Matabele seemed to have accepted their conquest with submissive equanimity. Men who, with rifle and assegai, had hurled themselves at the invaders' maxim guns, now carried nothing more lethal than sticks. Their old martial formations had been disbanded and they appeared content to plant their crops, herd their cattle and work for the white man". Privately, other settlers wondered when the real war against the Matabele would begin. Cobbing (1976: 370-371) caustically comments, "not only defeat, but the 'demilitarisation', even the disarming, existed only in the imagination of Jameson and his subordinates". Some authors claim that the Matabele were primarily a warlike people who could not accept their "defeat" in 1893, most forgetting that the campaign of that year had ended in disaster for the BSA Co forces as Allan Wilson and his men were killed. From various accounts, both published and unpublished, it is clear that the military might of the Matabele had been forgotten or dismissed, the general assumption being that with the disappearance of Lobengula they were leaderless and feckless. They had forgotten about the authority of the rest of the royal family and displayed an extraordinary myopia regarding the structure and formation of the Matabele army. The army relied on men and the structures of traditional leadership that were largely untouched after conquest. The BSA Co administration failed to collect significant numbers of weapons – spears, guns, axes, etc – and began desultory operations to create demilitarised villages where the people were to be sequestered. Incredibly though, despite the lack of demilitarisation of the country, Jameson began to specify certain conditions that the Matabele were to follow or face dire punishment. Most seriously, the BSACo laid claim to all the cattle in the area, decided they could allocate land to whomever they liked and began to interfere with the traditional authority of the indunas as well as Matabele culture (for example, witchcraft was declared to be punishable by death without really specifying how it would be recognised).

Continue to Page 2

Sourced from the Zanj Financial Network 'Zfn', Harare, Zimbabwe, email briefing dated 14 March 2011