To The Victoria Falls
Enter the Ndebele
The Ndebele, the people of the long shields, are a branch of the Zulu who rebelled against King Shaka in the early 1820s. Migrating north under the leadership of Mzilikazi, a former general in Shaka's army, they establishing their own warrior nation in the area which became known as Matabeleland, later part of modern-day Zimbabwe. They were called Matabele by the British.
They fought on foot in impis, highly disciplined units, armed with an assegai - a short spear with a large, iron blade - and a shield. Their economy depended on herds of livestock, predominantly cattle, which they frequently raided from other tribes.
During a turbulent period of African history known as the mfecane ("the crushing") or difaqane ("the scattering"), two resolute rivals, the Zulu leader, Shaka, and the Ndwande leader, Zwide, clashed over supremacy of the region during 1818 and 1819. Eventually the Ndwande army was broken and scattered. Zwinde fled to the Eastern Transvaal, living out his days. However three separate groups of his former followers, made their way north into the Zambezi valley, raiding and looting local tribes as they went.
One of these groups, lead by Zwangendaba, pushed their way up into the lands between the Limpopo and Zambezi rivers, later known as Mashonaland (part of modern day Zimbabwe), finding the Karanga people of the region completely defenceless against his power.
Zwangendaba named his people the Jere, looting, murdering and raiding the region at will, including the forbidding walled labyrinths of Great Zimbabwe, and bringing an end to the great stone wall building traditions of its people. They would later become known as the Ngoni.
Behind Zwangendaba, another group, under the leadership of Soshangane were being pushed north by Zulu raids. Moving up the Save river, they met Zwangendaba and his people, and the resulting three day battle saw them thoroughly defeated and Zwangendaba driven off to the west.
Zwangendaba and his people eventually crossed the Zambezi, in 1835, on the day of a total solar eclipse, and he led them north into modern-day Malawi and to the shores of Lake Tanganyika, where he died.
Meanwhile Soshangane unleashed a second wave of terror over the Karanga region, reducing them to a state of utter destitution. When the hunter and explorer, Selous, travelled through the area in 1872, he recorded widespread destruction:
”Hundreds of thousands of acres that now lie fallow must then have been under cultivation, as is proved by the traces of rice and maize fields which can still be discerned in almost every valley, whilst the sites of ancient villages, long ago crumbled to decay, are very numerous all over the open downs… On almost every hill traces of the stone walls will be found which once encircled and protected ancient villages. At that time the inhabitants of this part of Africa must have been rich and prosperous”
He even turned his attention to the Portuguese, systematically wiping out their trading settlements. Sofala fell in 1836, and two years later Soshangane was on the banks of the Zambezi. Sena fell to his army, and the whole Portuguese trade route with the interior vanished. In the resulting period, it was the Portuguese who paid annual tribute to Soshangane for permission to re-establish trade.
For an overview of Portuguese activity in the lower Zambezi basin, see Early European Explorers page.
The third group of people scattered from the events of the mfecane, led by Nxaba, had also found themselves in the region between the great Limpopo and Zambezi rivers. Sandwiched between the two more powerful rivals of Zwangendaba and Soshangane, Nxaba had fled ahead of Zwangendaba, arriving in the Caprivi region just as Sebitwane of the Makoloko was over throwing the Aluyi river people.
Sebitwane was suspicious of Nxaba, and luring him to talks of an alliance, he sprung a trap, killing most of his followers. Nxaba managed to escape, but only as far as one of the local Aluyi chiefs, who threw him to the crocodiles.