To The Victoria Falls
Discovery of the Victoria Falls
In Livingstone's Footsteps
One of the first established European traders in the region, an Englishman called George Westbeech, had established himself at Pandamatenga, on the hunters road to Kazungula (following the present Botswana/Zimbabwe border) from the south in about 1871. This route was extensively used by Westbeech, specifically as it by-passed Ndebele territory, through which Europeans first had to obtain Chief Lobengula's consent before entering, although he was on good terms with Lobengula.
For many years the Kazungula crossing was the only was into the Lozi kingdom from the south. From about 1874 until his death in 1888, the keeper of this gate to Barosteland was George Westbeech, an English ivory trader who had befriended King Mzilikazi and his son and heir, Lobengula, at Bulawayo in the 1860s. He went on in the 1870s to befriend Sipopa, king of the Lozi, and his eventual successor, Lubosi Lewanika, who seized power in Bulozi in 1877. Sipopa had latterly ruled from Sesheke in the Zambezi valley, but Lewanika returned the capital to the central flood plain, 250 miles to the north. He made his headquarters at Lealui. Lewanika valued Westbeech for his links with Lobengula, and for his ability both to prevent Ndebele attacks and keep out undesirable white traders. Westbeech made his base at Pandamatenga, about fifty miles south of Kazungula, but he also had stores at various times at Lishome, ten miles to the south of the Zambezi, at Sesheke and, for a while, at Kazungula itself. In return for services rendered, including the supply of guns and powder, Lewanika granted Westbeech the exclusive right to hunt elephants in the Linyanti-Chobe marshes – the future Caprivi Strip.
Kazungula became the terminus of Westbeech’s Road, also known as the Old Hunter’s Road. Westbeech developed it as a wagon route in the 1870s and 1880s. It was a continuation of the Missionaries’ Road, which led northwards from Shoshong in Khama’s Ngwato kingdom. The road bypassed Lobengula’s Ndebele kingdom, leaving its boundaries to the east, but also avoided the tsetse-fly belts of the Kalahari, and the Makgadikgadi saltpan, which lay to the west. A succession of traders, travellers and explorers, including Serpa Pinto, Emil Holub and Frederick Courtney Selous, as well as aspiring missionaries, all passed this way in the 1870s and 1880s.
Westbeech had emigrated from his home in Lancashire, arriving through Natal and moving north into Matabeland in 1863. Sampson (2008):
... it was there that began the remarkable story of how he became the trusted confidant of a whole series of mighty African warrior-kings, inlcuing Mzilikazi and Lobengula in Matabeleland, and Sepopa and Lewanika in the Zambezi Valley. Starting out with no other assets but his education, and with a warm and generous personality, and perhaps a flair for learning thoroughly the African languages he had to content with, this youth beginning at nineteen years of age, achieved over a period of twenty five years an unequalled record and played a substantial part in the story of the penetration of white people into Central Africa.
Baxter (1952) records:
George Westbeech first visited the Falls soon after 1871. He was a trader and with his partner George (‘Elephant’) Phillips, gained a worthy reputation with natives. Somehow, they managed to obtain permission to hunt in regions of the country to which only Livingstone had been, and they established their permanent headquarters at Panda-ma-tenka, about fifty miles south of Kazungula. Until his death Westbeech paid an annual visit to the Paramount Chief of the Barotse to purchase ivory. George Westbeech was one of the most remarkable men among the traders and hunters who have been connected with this part of Africa. For many years he enjoyed the confidence alike of Lobengula of the Matabele, and of Sepopa and Lewanika of the Barotse. There were very few travellers who could afford to dispense with his assistance, and it was always generously given. Arnot, Holub, Depelchin, Schulz, Hammar and Coillard were among those indebted to him in this respect. Coillard met Westbeech on a number of occasions and spoke very well of him and presented him with a gold watch as some little return for the services he rendered. Westbeech himself was a little cynical concerning the help he afforded travellers, and at one time, suggested in his diary that he might charge for his help and advice.
Tabler (1963) in his introduction to the published diaries of Westbeech (1885-1888) outlines these early years;
...the trader and his men continually improved and shortened the wagon roads to the Zambezi from Tati and Shoshong, and he established a postal service of African runners from Shoshong to Pandamatenga. Westbeech had at first to complete with many half-caste Portuguese traders, all slave and ivory buyers, and he beat them out and established a near monopoly by bringing in better goods and by ingratiating himself with chiefs and headmen. His activities tended to reduce the slave trade by substituting other commerce for it, and he did much to raise the British name in the eyes of the Africans. The upshot of all this was that Portuguese influence with the Barotse was neutralized and British influence firmly established.
Westbeech’s highway in the Barotse country was the Zambezi River, a broad, shallow stream with vegetation-lined banks and many islands and rapids. Its length of about 265 miles from the mouth of the Chobe to Lealui was navigated in native dugout canoes, and the services of skilled African boatmen were available, at the orders of the King or the headmen if necessary. Difficult terrain and the presence of tsetse fly barred the ox wagon (Coillard’s taking of wagons to Sefula was a 'tour de force') from a large area of the Zambezi, so the river was naturally the chief artery of trade and communication. All of the Barotse country, and especially the river valleys, was a malarial hell-hole in the wet summer season, and even in winter there were deaths among Europeans from this cause.
From the gateway, which was Impalera Village till 1877 and then Mambova Kraal till the building of Kazungula, the traveller was poled or paddled upstream past the Mambova Rapids (never a great obstacle) to New Sesheke, the centre of government for the Masubia tribe. At Mambova the river widens and passes through the Simalaha Flats, a distance of ninety miles. Two days’ journey above the Sesheke was Katonga or Sikhosi’s, the last Masubia town, and eight miles beyond it lay the Katima Mulilo Rapids, the first of a series of twenty-four such obstructions in the seventy-five mile stretch of river to Sioma. The first of these, Katima, was easily traversed, and at intervals of two miles and then seven miles above were the Mosila Ndimba and the Manyekanza rapids; next in order came the Nambire, where one had to make a short portage, the Lusu (Death), the Bumbui, and the Kali. Matome Island was below the mouth of the Lumbe River, and then the small Nangura Falls and the Sitamba Rapids were surmounted to the Gonye Falls, the biggest of all, where canoes and goods were surmounted to the Gonye Falls, the biggest of all, where canoes and goods were carried round for two miles and a half. The kraal of Sioma was about a mile above the Gonye, and a day’s journey beyond the twon began the wide, flat Barotse Valley or Barotse Plain, which extends past Lealui. The Zambezi was now free of major obstructions for a long distance, and the population was comparatively dense throughout this fertile region. The next town of importance was Nalolo, the residence of the King’s sister, the Mukwae, on the right bank, and at last one came to Lealui, the Barotse capital.
The skrimishes of the Boer War impacted on Westbeech's trade, and a complete ban on the export of all guns and powder from British South Africa into Arfican trial areas was introduced. Sampson:
It was these comodities which the African insisted on receiving in exchange for ivory, and without them, although it was possible to do trade in a small way, Westbeech's whole undertaking was endangered...
In June 1881 Westbeech went down to the Transvaal to have a conference with Leask. Whilst the ban on the transport of powder to the interior was in force, trade would be very much reduced, and it was necessary for Westbeech to make up the loss of income from other source. They then developed their plan to obtain a concession from Loengula, in order to ine and prospect for gold and other minerals in atabeleland. On the 3rd June 1881, a partnership agreement was drawn up between Westbeech, Thomas Leask, Philips and James Fairbairn. The effect of this partnership agreement was 'that in the event of any of us individually or, all of us collectively obtaining a said concession and right to dig for gold in any part of Lobengula's territory we each equally bear whatever expense may be connected therewith and we shall equally share all profits that may undoubtedly at Westbeech's urging, all parties undertook to ensure that he was admitted as a full partner in all respects. The negotiations with Lobengula were to be left to Philips and Fairbairn, who would continue to reside in Bulawayo although Westbeech did start discussions with Loengula for them during August on his way back to the Zambezi...
As 1882 dragged on, the trading position got worse. By September he wrote 'I have during the winter got together a wagon load of whips, sjamboks, and reims and a little ivory of which latter article there is no scarcity if I only had powder.' Apart from the actual loss in trading, the greatest fear Westbeech had was the possibility of the Portuguese regaining their place as the main traders with the Barotse people. Whilst the British had effectively closed off the import of guns and powder from the south, no such restriction was imposed by the Portuguese, and imports into the Barotse country, from both the east and west continued. Westbeech expressed his fears, 'I am living in constant dread that someone else will come in with the article knowing how scarce it is here, and get what I can (not) have myself'.
Without the assistance of Westbeech - who could be given the honorary title of the first guide to the Victoria Falls - it is doubtful if Holub, nor the rising number of visitors who followed him, would have reached the Falls. Majority of them travelled there with Westbeech or his partners, or at least with his support and advice, with the number of visitors increased significantly in the mid-1870s.
Westbeech travelled widely, hunting and trading ivory on a substantial scale. Westbeech also acted as local agent for the pioneers of the safari trade in this part of Africa, such as Harry Ware who, as early as 1876 organised hunting expeditions and sightseeing visits to the Victoria Falls which were advertised in the London sporting journal The Field.
Westbeech also assited the first of the missionaries, who arrived over twenty-five years after Livingstone. Francois Coillard of the Paris Evangelical Mission reached Leshoma, one of Westbeech's trading stations some 20 kilometres south of the Zambezi at Kazungula, in 1878. Although he soon obtained permission from Litunga Lewanika to establish a mission in the Barotse region, he was forced to leave the following year by unrest in the region. Several other missionaries came and went, and Coillard returned in 1884, succeeding in founding a mission at Old Sesheke, from where he moved to Sefula near the Lozi capital, and rapidly replaced Westbeech as the major European adviser of the Lozi rulers.
The following extracts from Westbeech's diary give an interesting insight into his activities:
Left Leshoma on the 12th May 1885 for Panda-ma-tenga. After being there a few days saw a wagon coming down the valley, which turned out to be Messrs. Scott, Inman and Brock to see the Falls and get a little hunting. After being a few days here, and finding them jolly people, and as they could not get a guide to the Falls, went with them in that capacity and a jolly trip we had...
Quiet after their exodus for a few days, but on the 27th Harry Ware arrived, having brought gentlemen from England to see the Falls and hunt (a Mr Reid). Harry had broken his thigh on the Mata River whilst hunting, his horse having fallen on top of him; however the leg was re-set and was doing well, though he could not walk without crutches; so had him carried from his wagon up to my house and looked after him, he being an old friend of mine. I took all Reid’s affairs into my own hands, got boys to take him to the Falls, and as had occasion to go to Leshoma to see some native headmen, told Reid that I would meet him at that place, which I did, and got him hunting veldt across the Zambezi in my own hunting country...
Started on horseback for Leshoma, my last advanced post of civilisation near the Zambezi, where I have a store. Arrived on the 7th (May 1885). Saw Coillard, the missionary who, altho’ the country is so disturbed, against my advice, persists nevertheless in making ready to go thro’...
Coillard, however, the French Missionary, is at Sesheke but has received orders from Leboche [Lewanika] to remain at that place until I have been to the valley, as all his overtures have been made to the King... and I must first make things agreeable for Coillard before he will be permitted to go on, which means simply he won’t see the Barotse before next winter. So much for being strong-headed and refusing, or at all events, not taking my advice. Do not think I am egotistical, but it is a fact that people coming up to the Zambezi will find all their efforts, for whatever cause, fruitless if I refuse to help them. But that is not much to be wondered at when I tell you that I have lived amongst the natives here for fifteen years, and that those who were boys when I arrived, are now men, and trust me...
Westbeech’s diary is a valuable record of a critical period in Barotse history, a time when it was uncertain which claimant would become king and during which Lewanika was struggling to consolidate his position. Westbeech supported Lewanika, though he was careful to keep on as good terms as possible with everyone. We learn that the trader kept the Matabele from attacking the Barotse; that he prevented the Jesuits from getting a foothold in the country, not fro prejudice but because of a promise he made Coillard; and that Coillard would have been unable to establish his stations without Westbeech’s help, which was freely given because the latter wanted missionaries to blunt the savagery of the African in trans-Zambezi. His aid to Coillard is nowhere fully acknowledged by that missionary’s editor or biographer, and it is time that Joros had his due. He was no saint, as he himself admits, but an effective man who made his living among barbarians and at the same time rendered them good service in other ways than simply by providing goods.
Westbeech died on the 17th July 1888 at Kalkfontein whilst on trek from Panda-ma-tenka to Klerksdorp, and is buried in the cemetery of the Jesuit Mission at Vleischfontein, Western Transvaal.
The diary is also a record of the last and fatal illness of its author. Disease of the liver, not his old enemy fever, seems to have killed him. Westbeech was ‘...careless of his health, and often reckless in his habits’, [George Lacy in South Africa magazine (London), 1895, p 596] for he was a hard drinker and loved a session with his fellow interior men when the brandy arrived from Shoshong or Tati. His movements after the entries end can be traced. He set out for the Transvaal and was at Shoshong with his wagons, which were loaded with ivory, feathers, and skins, in late June or early July 1888 There he met a party of concession hunters bound for Matabeleland, and he gave them a letter of introduction to Lobengula and a gift of crane feathers for that chief. Westbeech died at Kalkfontein, Transvaal, on 17 July 1888 and was buried in the cemetery of the Jesuit mission at Vleeschfontein in the vivinity. He never reached home, although from another point of view his home was among the Barotse.
Westbeech particularly liked Holub, supporting his efforts and explorations, perhaps because he saw the importance of his scientific work. In Holub's second travelogue, published in 1890, two years after the traders sudden death, Holub prophetically wrote:
The country belonged to the most beautiful sceneries we had ever seen during all our travels, in spite of the fact that we were travelling there in the winter-time when plenty of trees were half leafless and grass was not as green as in the rainy season. Nowadays, Albert's Land [the name which Holub - with no success - proposed for Matabeleland and adjacent parts of Botswana] is still very poorly inhabited, although as for the soil characteristics, it might become a second Texas, if only there did not rage malaria there! Her fertile soil would bear all kinds of European crops and most of tropical plants as well.
I dare say, anyway, the time of removing the veil, which still covers the Falls, is not too remote. I conclude that the whole Albert's Land falls sooner or later under the British protectorate, and then the Natural Zambezian Wonder would become target not only for scholarly masters and educated travellers as it has happened with famous wonders at the Yellowstone and Missouri river basins or the valley of Yosemite in California which only 25 years ago were totally unknown.
Westbeech's Trading Post at Pandamatenga
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