To The Victoria Falls
Enter the Ndebele
Mzilikazi (meaning the 'path of blood') was a grandson of Zwide. His father, Mashobane, chief of the Khumalo had died by the hand of his father-in-law, Zwide, and Mzilikazi in turn fled to the protection of Shaka.
Brought up within the Zulu army, he became the commander of a raiding Zulu regiment and lieutenant to Shaka. Indeed his subsequent actions lead many to consider him to be the greatest southern African military leader after the Zulu king himself.
During the early 1820s Mzilikazi, during a raid into the Transvaal, captured so much cattle that he decided not to return with the rich rewards in tribute to his chief, instead escaping westward with a few hundred followers until he was far enough away to settle in safety and establish his own leadership free of Shaka's influence.
They first trekked across the Vaal River into what is now the northern part of South Africa before continued enemy attacks pushed them south west, to establish themselves on the Transvaal. Mzilikazi found easy pickings among the resident Sotho tribes. In 1823 he established a base in the region, his people becoming known as the Ndebele. [Mzilikazi and his followers called themselves Zulu yet were known to others as 'Ndebele' or 'Matabele'. 'Ndebele' is an Anglicised form of the Nguni word 'Amandebele', which in turn derives from the Sotho word 'Matabele'. The original meaning of the word 'Matabele' is unclear but it may have been used by Sotho speakers to mean 'strangers from the east'.]
By 1825 he had built a prosperous and cosmopolitan army. Large numbers of conquered local clans and individuals were absorbed into the Ndebele people, adopting the Ndebele language (a Zulu variant) but enjoying a lower social status than that of members of the original clans from the Zulu kingdom.
Fearing his success would attract the attention of the Shaka, they moved north again in 1827, to an area above the Magaliesberg mountain range, near modern Tshwane (Pretoria). Here, a long the banks of the river Aapies, Mzilikazi and his followers founded a settlement called Mhlahlandlela.
During this period, Mzilikazi was visited by several Europeans, finding him and his people living well off the misery of the Sotho. Intrigued by their talk of trade and a world beyond the lands he knew, Mzilikazi sent two ambassadors to make contact with this outside world. They duly arrived at the mission station at Kuruman, and introduced themselves to the doctor and missionary Robert Moffat. After telling him of their people and history, Moffat, in November 1828, set off with the two men to meet Mzilikazi himself.
Robert Moffat joined the London Missionary Society aged 19, and after two years of study had arrived in Africa. His eldest daughter, Mary, would marry a man he would inspire to follow in his footsteps – David Livingstone.
Moffat was welcomed with much respect by Mzilikazi, who even tolerated his preaching. He was however, under no illusions about his hosts, writing:
Here there is neither judge nor jury. Often, while the individual has not the shadow of an idea that he or she has done wrong... he is transfixed with a spear or the head broken with a club and then dragged out to the hyenas... They think they are made or ‘grow’ only to eat, drink (I wish I could add dress) and live for Mzilikazi. ...Although one becomes accustomed to look upon them in comparative nudity, the Christian mind can never become accustomed to their savage songs, their boasts of bloody feats... I felt glad when the day came that I could return home.
Moffat however eventually returned to Kuruman, and Mzilikazi returned to his raiding of the Sotho.
In April 1830 a raiding Zulu regiment found the Ndebele. Two years later the Zulu army marched across the highveld straight at Mzilikazi. The whole valley of Aapies was thoroughly looted and the remaining Ndebele under Mzilikazi yet again fled further north.
Establishing a new base in the Marico valley, close to the modern-day borders of South Africa, Botswana and Zimbabwe, the Ndebele found themselves in an area with yet more unfortunate and undefended people to raid, the Tswana. The land was fertile and rich, and the Ndebele grew fat off their pickings.
Yet more Europeans visited Mzilikazi, including again Robert Moffat, who was received like a long-lost brother in 1835. As result of this trip was permission for a group of American missionaries to settle in the area.
Mzilikazi even sent one of his ambassadors, Mncumbati, who had travelled to Kurman to meet Moffat, to Cape Town with the returning Europeans. His brief was to examine the white man’s world and negotiate friendship with the British. He returned with the American missionaries in 1836, carrying a treaty of friendship signed by the British Cape Colony governor, Sir Benjamin D’Urban, and bringing with him an ox-wagon sent as an official present to Mzilikazi.
Mzilikazi, king of the Matabele, sketched by Captain William Cornwallis Harris in 1836
The first exploratory patrols of the Voortrekkers had already crossed the Vaal river in 1834. Whereas previous visiting hunters and traders had recognised Mzilikazi’s authority in the region by visiting him and securing permission for their travels, the Voortrekkers refused to recognise him.
In August 1836 the Ndebele attacked a hunting party, killing four Europeans, and nearby on the banks of the Vaal they attacked another group, killing twelve, and taking four prisoners. One, a young boy, was later rescued, but the man was never heard of again, and two young girls were taken off into captivity. To emphasise his point, Mzilikazi crossed the Vaal south and went on to attack a temporary settlement of fifty wagons. Defended by Hendrick Potgieter and 35 followers, they fought off the Ndebele attackers, loosing only two of their number. However the Ndebele retreated taking with them all the trekker’s horses, 5,000 head of cattle and 50,000 head of sheep.
The trekkers swore to recover the hostages and their losses. Even the Zulu heard tale of this event and planned to take advantage. In January 1837 Potgieter led 107 of his men on a raid into the heart of Ndebele territory. Taking them by surprise, and with no loss to themselves, they captured 7,000 head of cattle and returned south. Six months later the Zulus arrived, wiping out Mzilikazi’s top regiments and plundering the Marico valley, returning to Zululand with a rich booty of livestock.
Having already heard tale of rich lands across the Limpopo river from his raiding parties, Mzilikazi was preparing to yet again lead his people north when, in November 1837, the Vootrekkers arrived again. For nine days they chased the Ndebele northward in full flight. Separated into two groups they were ejected from the Transvaal never to return, carrying with them the two girls they had taken hostage, one of who died during the journey.
Mzilikazi, with a close band of followers passed around the great Makgadikgadi salt pans and up into the area of the present day Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe. Apart from a few nomadic bushmen, and a small group calling themselves the Nambya, descended from the stone wall building people of Great Zimbabwe, they found few people living in these lands.
The Nambya were led by a chief under the hereditary title of Hwange. The holder of this title, Rusumbami, would be the last of his line. Story has it the he had two hearts, one old, the other young, and was able to transform himself into a child at will. Mzilikazi found Rusumbami at his capital, Bumbusi, cutting him open to see if the story was true. His successors became humble tributors of the Ndebele, and the walled settlements which they abandoned were probably the last of their kind to be built in Zimbabwe.
This group of Ndebele explored their new domain, which included the lands dropping down from the northern edge of the present-day Hwange National Park, down into the Zambezi valley. The region was watered by a series of streams, such as the Matedzi (the slippery one), corrupted today to Matetsi; the Teka (a place where perennial water could be drawn), corrupted to the Deka; the Dete (reedy), corrupted to Dett; and the Rwakozli, becoming the Lukosi.
It was during the course of these explorations that the Ndebele had their first sight of the Zambezi, which they named eGwembeni, the place of boats, from the ferry boats used by the Tonga people. Tradition has it that one of Mzilikazi’s raiding parties reached the Victoria Falls, which they named aManza Thunqayo - ‘the water which rises like smoke’.
The second group of Ndebele, which had included Mzilikazi’s eldest son and acknowledged heir, Nkulumane, had by this time given up on Mzilikazi as dead, and its elders were preparing to name Nkulumane as their new chief. However news reached Mzilikazi, who was apparently none to pleased of this premature story of his demise, or of his son’s premature claim to his title.
In 1839 Mzilikazi and his people followed the course of the Gwayi river and up a tributary, the Bembesi (the unpleasant one), to meet with his ‘lost’ tribe. On nearing their settlement he sent forth a messenger to announce his imminent arrival, causing chaos amongst the elders. They sent a messenger, begging for his pardon and explaining they had genuinely thought him dead. According to common historical tradition, Mzilikazi, after reuniting his people, had his son and key advisors sent south, and along the way, murdered.
However Nkulumane's grave was recently rediscovered, in Rusternburg, north-west of Johannesburg, South Africa, indicating that he did reach his intended destination alive and well. Why he did not return upon his father's death to claim the thrown is unknown, and he lived in the area until his death in August 1883. There are direct desendants of his still living in the area.
The lands Nkulumane had found met with Mzilikazi’s approval and became the new homeland for the Ndebele, later known as Matabeleland. Here Mzilikazi founded his last settlement, also called Mhlahlandlela, built in the Zulu style, the settlement essentially being an enormous circular stockade. Here Mzilikzi lived out his days to an old age unusual for Zulu chiefs.
Mzilikazi died in 1868 following a period of ill health. According to custom his death was kept secret for a period of time. His body was then placed in a wagon and, with a second wagon loaded with his possessions, taken to a hill named Entumbane in the Matopo Hills. Mzilikazi's body was placed inside a granite-walled cave which was sealed with stones. His possessions, which included clothes; utensils; sleeping mats; beads; ornaments and brass rings, were placed in another cave with the wagon which had transported them and sealed.
While his journey had begun with only a few hundred followers, under Mzilikazi's leadership the group's numbers had risen to, at their peak, some 20,000 people as conquered peoples were absorbed into the group. Mzilikazi's greatest success was infusing his diverse population with a sense of common nationhood, one shared by the Ndebele community today.