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Footsteps Through Time - A History of Travel and Tourism to the Victoria Falls

To The Victoria Falls

Development of Rhodesia

The Matabele Wars

The name Bulawayo comes from the name of the Zulu King Chaka’s kraal: GuBulawayo – translated as ‘he who has been hunted down to be killed’, although it is nowdays more commonly translated as 'the place of slaughter'. When Lobengula, the son of Mzilikazi, came to power after a bitter civil war, he remembered the name of the old kraal in Natal, and decided to call his capital by the same title, since, he is claimed to have said, "I have been injured by my people".

Ransford (1968) recorded:

After Lobengula became King of the Matabele in 1870 he departed from his fathers’ custom by allowing a number of white men to live in the vicinity of his chief kraal. Major Stabb tells us that in 1875 there were about a dozen white traders, concession-seekers, and hunters, as well as some general hangers-on, living outside Old Bulawayo, which was some 12 miles south of the present city. Some of them had put up quite pretentious homes for themselves: thus Mr H Greite lived ‘in a large one-storey cottage constructed in stone’ which he later sold to the Jesuit missionaries for £500, while another trader named Martin occupied a comfortable house on top of Lion’s Kopye a mile or two away.

When Lobengula moved his capital to the hill of Umhlabatini, which today bears the buildings of Government House, he allotted an area on the other side of the Amajoda stream (now called the Bulawayo spruit) as a concession where Europeans might live. There, James Fairbairn built a residence which he grandiloquently named ‘New Valhalla’. Close by and overlooking the spruit stood the compound of his partners, the Dawson brothers: it contained several buildings including a well-built brick store house with a corrugated iron roof; beyond it James Dawson farmed a long strip of land adjoining the perennial stream. Towards the end of 1888 the Rev James Smith Moffat settled down nearby: he lived in a tent at first but soon replaced this with a mud hut. Captain Ferguson who visited Bulawayo in 1890 writes of other Europeans’ huts nearby which were ‘surrounded by ring fences of thorny mimosa bush’. We know that the largest compound belonged to the British South Africa Company and that it was three-quarters of a mile from the Matabele town; near to it were the enclosures of the Bechuanaland Exploration Company in which lived E A Maund and another one set up by Edward Renny-Tailour, which according to Mrs Lippet actually boasted a water-closet. When Mrs Lippet paid her visit to Matabeleland in 1891 she found Johan Colenbrander and his wife were camping out on the Umvutcha Road, some four miles north of Bulawayo, but a year or so later Colenbrander too put up a cottage beside the Chartered Company’s thatched hut.

Some traders and hunters however, were content to live in their wagons at 'White Man’s Camp'. Moreover some of the more permanent residents changed their quarters and moved to other compounds when Lobengula’s grant of the Rudd Concession sparked off all sorts of company amalgamations and changes of allegiance.

Wagon under attack, 1893 [From The Illustrated London News, Saturday, January, 1893
In 1893, when war clouds began to gather over Matabeleland, many of the Europeans living in the country slupped away to safety. The missionaries at Inyati left for the south; ‘Matabele’ Wilson trekked to Mashonaland; William Tainton, the court interpreter, panicked and one day left Bulawayo hurriedly without the King’s permission; and so the exodus continued. Two weeks after the Fort Victoria ‘incident’ the only Europeans left at Bulawayo were P D Crewe, the Colenbranders, Harry Grant, W Usher, James Fairbairn, and James Dawson. Then Grant succeeded in persuading the King to allow him to leave with some of the royal cattle. Next, on 20th August, Crewe set off to Cape Town on an official mission to carry Lobengula’s case against the Chartered Company to Cape Town and lay it before the British Government. A little later Colenbrander received permission to obtain guns for the Kings impis from Palapye, and finally Dawson got away too, setting out with three Indunas to make contact with the southern column of the white invasion forces.

But the King steadfastly refused to allow either Fairbairn or Usher to leave Bulawayo, explaining that he intented to hold them as hostages until Crewe’s return. And there is no doubt that the lives of these men were in very great danger when Jameson’s column, after sweeping the Matabele impis aside on the Shangani and at Bembesi, approached the capital. But it must be recorded that Lobengula went out of his way to protect his two hostages, even detailing a guard for them when he himself withdrew to Umvutcha; the guard commander had instructions to obtain a note from Usher to say he had carried out his duty, before leaving when the white troops drew near. It is no wonder then that Major Howard, our informant on this matter, remarked that such consideration ‘speaks volumes for Lobengula’, and that ‘Matabele’ Wilson should have written a little later ‘If ever a native deserved to be called the white man’s friend, it was Lobengula... May his spirit still have a good time fluttering over the country he once ruled.’

Following the 'incident' at Fort Victoria, to where a column of troops of the British South Africa Company had been sent from Salisbury in September 1893, the colunm was on the march again. Bound by the orders of Dr Lender Starr Jameson for Bulawayo, where, never a man to miss an opportunity, he intended to use the situation to maximum advantage to subdue Lobengula and the Matablele 'problem' once and for all. The column, defended with Maxim guns and seven-pounder artillery, was easily defended during the occassional engagements with the Matabele impis, whose animal-skin shields and wooden spears offered little hope against these machines of war. There were minor skirmishes along the way, but the Matabele soon learnt to retreat and fight another day rather than to die amongst the hail of bullets.

Strage (1973) records:

The Matabele War – if that is the correct term – consisted of two engagements lasting little more than an hour each, and was adequately summed up as a military history by Hilaire Belloc’s famous couplet:

‘Whatever happens, we have got
The Maxim gun and they have not.’

Jameson had five Maxim guns, only recently perfected by their inventor in his London garage-workshop, as well as three other machine guns, two seven-pound field pieces, some 1,000 mounted troops, and a gaggle of Mashonas who tagged along to retrieve their missing sisters and daughters. The Matabeles fielded against them approximately 18,000 men, few of whom got to within stabbing range of the attackers. After the second exercise in target practice, Sir John Willoughby, a former Guards officer serving with the Company’s forces, extended himself in praise: ‘I cannot speak too highly of the pluck of these regiments. I believe that no civilized troops could have withstood the terrific fire they did for at most half as long.’

Brendon, in his monumental work 'The Decline and Fall of the British Empire', reflected on the impact of these weapons, and the opinions and actions of the men who used them, and whilst representing the prevailing attitudes of the time, their comments stand as cold witness to their attitudes:

In 1869 the British army began to adopt the tough, accurate Martini-Henry, though its mule-like kick gave men nosebleeds as well as bruised shoulders. This rifle, which could fire six shots a minute and had an effective range of a thousand yards, turned colonial fighting into hunting. Soldiers actually referred to the ‘nigger’ as ‘game’ and Robert Baden-Powell thought that pursuing those ‘laughing black fiends’ the Matabele was the finest ‘sport’ in the world...

...Cecil Rhodes was more ruthless. Describing how each wave of Matabele (Ndebele) warriors ‘left a thick deposit of corpses on the ground’, he remarked happily : ‘There is no waste with the Maxims.’

Later, when the Company’s town eventually rose on the abandoned site of Lobengula's royal kraal at Bulawayo its hotel was named ‘The Maxim’.

The Matabele (or Matabili as it was spelt at the time) War - Battle of Novemeber 1st, 1893 [From The Illustrated London News, Saturday, January 13th, 1894

Strage, in his uncompromising work, Cape to Cairo, expands on Lobengula's efforts to achieve peace:

Under the terms of the Charter, Her Majesty’s Government clearly retained the responsibility to mediate in differences which might arise between native chiefs and the Company. In the spirit of discharging this responsibility, the High Commissioner sent a note to Lobengula on August 16th – two days after Jameson had started organizing vigilantes: ‘Let there be peace between you and the white men. I understand that you intend to send two of your indunas to speak to me. I shall be glad to receive them...’

The statesman-like tone may well have been lost on Lobengula. For five years, he had watched the inexorable intrusion of the white men. First they had come bearing gifts and begging favours. Then they had tricked him again and again. ‘There is a wall around the word of a king,’ he had once told Moffat when his friend, the son of his fathers’ friend, had asked him to put his mark on a piece of paper. What weight did the paper carry, compared to a solemn, verbal promise?

Still, he would try one more time. To one of the indunas whom he sent to see the Commissioner he gave a letter, again addressed to the Great White Queen. It began:

‘I have the honour to respectfully write and state that I am still keeping your advice, laid before me some time ago, that if any trouble happened in my country between me and the white men, I must let you know. I dispatched an army for my cattle, stolen by Mashonas. My impi was told to leave their arms behind, coming into the camp, which they did. The white men, after holding a meeting with them, shot my people without cause...’

Lobengula went on to summarize his relations with Rhodes and Jameson. And he ended: ‘Your Majesty! What I want to know from you is, why do your people kill me?’

The letter never reached its destination. Indeed, the only mention of its existence, at the time, is a passing reference in a report from Cape Town to London: ‘The induna Umshete, who was in England, is on his way here... He is the bearer of a letter to the Queen, written ... in an illiterate style and containing nothing of importance.’

Early in October, Lobengula made a final attempt to avert war. On the basis of a safe-conduct from the High Commissioner, he sent his own brother and two other envoys down to Tati, the nearest white emplacement. They arrived in the midst of hectic preparations. Troops of the Bechunaland Border Police, rushed north by way of the railway, were being assembled, rations and ammunition distributed, orders circulated. In the confusion, the three Matabeles were arrested as spies. Before explanations could be made, two of them were killed and the third forced to flee. What ever message they carried was not delivered.

Despite Lobengula's apparent desires for peace, the new powers of influence over his land desired him, and his people, subdued and powerless, and were determinded on a coarse of action to achieve it.


By early November, Dr Jameson's troops were within reach of Bulawayo. Ransford (1968) continues:

By the morning of 3rd November, 1893, Dr Jameson’s column was only a few miles from the royal kraal, and acting on the King’s orders the Induna Silvalo blew up the Bulawayo magazine and set fire to the hut city. Through the crackling of burning thatch Usher and Fairbairn could hear the sound of rile fire coming from the direction of Thabas Induna and they knew that their ordeal was now nearly over. But its last hours might be the most dangerous of all for there were still a number of Matabele hanging about the town and Concession, and the two men decided to spend the night on the roof of Dawson’s store which was the strongest and most fire-proof building in ‘White Man’s Camp’. They took their rifles and plenty of ammunition up with them, as well as a pack of cards to help pass the time. Although there had been a plot to kill them according to Crewe, they were not molested. Yet it is easy for us to appreciated their overwhelming sense of relief when at 8 pm Captain Borrow rode into the Concession at the head of a cavalry patrol which had been sent by Major Forbes, the commander of the column, to reconnoiter the royal kraal. ‘They found them playing poker on the roof’ runs a contemporary account of the meeting of the patrol with Fairbairn and Usher...

Next day the main column rode into ‘White Man’s Camp’. Jameson’s force was made up of 652 Europeans and a similar number of African wagon drivers and levies. A company flag was nailed to the top of a prominent tree as the soldiers stood gazing at the kraal burning on the far side of the stream. After forming a strong point the men then fell out to find bivouacs for themselves. Forbes tells us that ‘the Matabele had not interfered in any way with the houses belonging to the white men’...

During the next few days the soldiers built a shanty town for themselves which stretched from the Concession overlooking the spruit to the northern end of the present cemetery, but [by] June 1894 everyone [had] packed up and moved to the new town site a couple of miles away to the south...

Raising of the BSA Company flag, Bulawayo, 1893

Lobengula had tried everything he could in his position to placate the white invaiders, but he had become a pawn in a rich man's game, and the rewards were too high and the odds too slim for him or his people to defend themselves against. Time after time he tried to avoid conflict with these superior forces, and his actions, to vacate his capital rather than fight, to leave his hostages behind, unharmed, and to leave white buildings and property untouched, all reflect his apparent desire for peace with the white man, even when pushed to the limit. All this however was still not enough to save him or his people.


[The Hunt for Lobengula]


Birth of Bulawayo

The first Standard Bank, Bulawayo, 1894

The first Standard Bank opened for business in Bulawayo on 4th May, 1894, using a bell tent in the Police Cap as an office until the Chartered Company's Administration building was completed a few weeks later. The first Manager was Alexander Thain and the Accountant D M Sanderson. The armed guard was supplied by the Chartered Company.

Bulawayo owes its spaciousness and wide streets to the idealism of Rhodes, who insisted that the streets were to be laid out on the grid pattern of an imperial Roman settlement, and that each should be wide enough to allow a wagon and a full span of 16 oxen to make a complete turn. To a young surveyor named Patrick Fletcher fell the task of putting these grandiose ideas into practice. Dr Jameson, in loco parentis, as it were, of the new town in Rhodes’s absence, insisted that each block must be quarter of a mile square. Fletcher questioned this by marking out a block to these dimensions, then asking Jameson to walk around it. The puffing doctor soon agreed that a tenth of a mile square would be a much more sensible size. Fletcher’s drawing board was concocted from packing cases for paper, he used white lining from biscuit tins, and survey pegs were converted assegais.

On 1st June, 1894, Dr Jameson officially inaugurated Bulawayo. Standing on a box outside the new Maxim Hotel in Fife Street, he announced: "It is my job to declare this town open, gentlemen. I don’t think we want any talk about it, I make the declaration now. There is plenty of whisky and soda inside, so come in."

The colonial foundations of the town saw 400 claims staked within two weeks of Jameson’s amicable invitation. Within a decade Bulawayo had a population of six thousand, growing to become a major transport hub for the southern African region.

The first months in Bulawayo were, by accounts, happy ones. A contemporary chronicler writes: "The gay reckless life went madly on... poker parties and dinners, tennis on new courts at the Bulawayo Club, dancing on the new rough floors, moonlight rides and picnics. Everybody was happy and confident that ‘tomorrow’ would reveal the gold that would make them all rich, that would make Bulawayo a second Johannesburg".

An opera house intended to seat ‘nine hundred at a pinch’ was being planned: a roller skating rink – entrance fee a shilling in the morning, half-a-crown after six in the evening – had opened in the Market Hall, and moonlight bandstand concerts in Market Square were very popular. The population was growing so rapidly that the ladies of the town began collecting for a maternity home, and so numerous were the flag days that angry males demanded some release. It was therefore decided that in return for a handsome donation, a gentleman could claim a metal lapel insignia inscribed rather piquantly: ‘Bulawayo Maternity Hospital. Immunity Badge’.


The Matabele Rebellion

The Matabele Rebellion in 1896 cast a dark shadow over Bulawayo. The population went into defensive laager, and the official report describes the tenseness of the first months. "For a time, Bulawayo’s position was desperate. The immediate difficulty was in getting food supplies, forage, arms, ammunition and reinforcements to a population over 500 miles away from the railway base at Vryburg, and beseiged by 15,000 natives. This trouble was considerable augmented by… the rinderpest. "

The Matabele Rebellion- The Laager in the Market Square, Bulawayo, March 1896 [From The Illustrated London News, May 2nd, 1896

After months of fighting, Rhodes persuaded the Matabele indunas to discuss peace terms with him. His first intermediary was somewhat unusual: in August, 1896, a British patrol found an old African woman alone in her deserted kraal. She turned out to be Nyambezena, a widow of Mzilikazi, and mother of one of the fighting indunas. Rhodes and J P Richardson, one of the Native Commissioners in the Bulawayo area, immediately saw her value as an envoy, and asked her to return to her home and make contact with the rebel indunas. If they wanted to make peace, she was to fly a white flag over her hut: if they elected to go on fighting, she was to hoist a red flag. After four anxious days, a white flag was seen fluttering from Nyambezana’s hut.

The Matabele Rebellion - On the North Side of the Laager, Bulawayo [From The Illustrated London News, May 16th, 1896

Rhodes himself met with the chiefs in the Matopo Hills to discuss peace terms. At the appointed meeting place, the men dismounted, and Rhodes sat himself on a large antheap. The huge crowd of Matabele approached. For the other men, those first few minutes were filled with trepidation, but Rhodes, exhilarated, was heard to murmur: "This is very exciting... this is one of the moments in life that make it worth living. "

After several hours of discussion, the chief Matabele spokesman said to Rhodes: "It is peace, you have our word... we have submitted to you, our father and great chief. Only remain in the country to look after us. "

Three more indabas were held before the final terms were agreed. Significantly, Bulawayo’s civic motto is now: ‘Let Us Go Forward Together’.

Next page: Cape to Cairo

Further Reading

Baxter, P (20??) Rhodesia, Last Outpost of the British Empire (1890-1980), Galago

Strage, Mark (1973?) Cape to Cairo, Jonathan Cape

Ransford, O N (1968) White Mans Camp, Bulawayo, Rhodesiana, No 18, July 1968


Sun, Steel and Spray - A History of the Victoria Falls Bridge

Corridors Through Time - A History of the Victoria Falls Hotel

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