- King Lobengula Khumalo of the Matabele, the fall of a King -
The fall of Lobengula, King of the Matabele: Michael McKeown
Evelyn Waugh, who visited Bulawayo and the Matopos in 1864, likened the Matabele King to a deeply tragic figure from Shakespeare, combining as he did elements of Lear, Macbeth and Richard 11. It is an apt comment evoking, as it does, the picture of a figure, irreversibly caught up in the toils of history and singled out by the Fates for Nemesis. During the height of his powers, Lobengula ruled over some of southern Africa's richest and most sought after lands. He was the commander of a superb army modeled on the impis of the great Shaka Zulu and subject to the same ferocious discipline. Lobengula was a shrewd statesman and but for the European arrival in Africa Lobengula's dynasty might have continued unbroken. Instead he has passed into posterity largely unrecognized, his lands forfeited, and his achievements strangely neglected.
Lobengula succeeded his father Mzilikazi in 1870. It was a time of discovery of gold and diamonds in South Africa and already prospectors, traders and hunters were flocking northwards from Johannesburg drawn by tales of a land and riches across the Limpopo river.
During the early part of his reign Lobengula befriended many of the white missionaries and hunters who arrived in his kingdom, allowing the London Missionary Society to establish centres near his capital at Bulawayo whose name is derived from the Matabele word bulala, to kill. He developed a special friendship with the hunter and naturalist Frederick Courteney Selous, whose total honesty he greatly admired and to whom he referred admiringly as "a young lion".

However, as prospectors and concession hunters of various nationalities continued to flood into the region, Lobengula became uneasily aware of the Great Powers behind them who were casting increasingly covetous eyes on his lands and who would one day invade them. Illiterate he may have been but he was also astute and highly intelligent and the defeat of Cetshwayo and his Zulus had not been lost on him.
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No African army, however powerful and self-disciplined could hope to win against an enemy, armed with artillery and Maxim guns. The answer, as he saw it, was to temporise with the Europeans and postpone decisions whilst conceding as little as possible in the process. More than once King Lobengula compared his position to that of a fly in front of a chameleon that "advances slowly and gently, one leg at a time until he finally darts out his tongue." Very well then. Since he could not hope to win on the battlefield he would shield his people by diplomacy, playing off the English, Germans, Afrikaaners and Portuguese against one another.
By 1888 however, Cecil John Rhodes, already a multi-millionaire through gold and diamonds, was making plans to move into Matabeleland, the lynch-pin for his grand design to extend the British Empire from the Cape to Cairo. As befitting a man whose meteoric career had taken him to managing director and the largest shareholder in De Beers, Cecil Rhodes was not exactly overburdened with scruples or sensibility. A mining or lands concession needed to be extracted from the Ndebele King and the means were secondary to the result.
To secure this priority Cecil Rhodes dispatched a delegation of three men, led by Charles Rudd, a member of De Beers and an expert in sorting out mining claims. The party arrived in Bulawayo in September 1888, impatient to settle matters quickly and return to Cape Town. They had underestimated Ndebele court etiquette however which required time for an audience to be arranged and so had to wait for nearly six weeks.
King Lobengula of the Matebele Lobengula was still an impressive figure, six foot tall, naked except for a loincloth and handsomely suited for his role. When he rose to conclude an audience, his councillors crouched on the floor crying out his praise, "Oh, prince of princes! Thou black one! Thou great bull elephant!" Little in fact had changed at his court since Frederick Courteney Selous attended a three day celebration fifteen years earlier when he estimated there were some 4000 warriors, "tall and magnificent in their war dress, in capes and head-dresses of black ostrich feathers and girdles of swinging leopard tails and monkey skins, the indunas (officers) with bonnets of otter skins and. waving crane feathers."
From the outset king Lobengula was deeply suspicious. He was only too aware that King Mbandezi of Swaziland had forfeited the major part of his lands through granting concessions to Europeans. Officially Rudd was asking only for mineral rights and emphasised that as Cecil John Rhodes had the total support of the British government this would guarantee Matabeleland protection from European colonialisation. How could he be sure though? Sooner or later they would want "land rights" and this as leader of the Ndebele he would not contemplate.
Quite possibly Rudd and colleagues would have gone away empty handed had it not been for the timely appearance of Sir Sydney Shippard, British Commissioner for Bechuanaland (now Botswana). Shippard, as the representative of Queen Victoria, was highly regarded by Lobengula and it was Sydney Shippard, together with a trusted missionary, Charles Helm, who finally convinced the king that Cecil John Rhodes really was to be believed and that this was the best way out of his dilemma with other concession seekers. At Helm's insistence, an oral translation of the agreement was explained to king Lobengula including assurances that no more than ten white men would be allowed to work in his country and that all their firearms would be surrendered on arrival.

And so it was that at midday on the 30 October 1888, trusting in the integrity of one of Her Majesty's appointed representatives and the word of a man of the cloth, Lobengula put his elephant seal to the agreement. He was soon to discover
that he had been tricked and although he dispatched envoys to England to  intercede with Queen Victoria, by then it was too late. He had been duped into  signing a document that contained few of the assurances promised to him during the negotiations and one which was to lead to the annexation of his country five years later by Cecil John Rhodes and troops of his British South African Company (BSAC).
When Lobengula, accompanied by his remaining impis, abandoned Bulawayo to the advancing columns of British South African Company soldiers early in November 1893 he left behind two Europeans, William Usher of the Salvation Army and James Fairbairn, a gold prospector. Both men had settled in his capital many years before and the king had expressly instructed his Ndebele warriors that they should be left unharmed. So it was that his reputation as a man of his word, remarked on by many of the early missionaries and hunters, was maintained to the end. Major Wilson and his troops were given the task of capturing Lobengula.
For over twenty years of his reign Lobengula was under constant pressure from government officials and prospectors seeking concessions. To resist them without provoking a war called for statecraft and cool nerves as well as skillful control of his warriors impatient to wash their spears in European blood. His last words to his people as he rode away northwards into exile come down to us with a defiant, even valedictory, ring. "You have said that it is me who is killing you. Now here are your new masters the white men coming. You will have to pull and shove wagons which under me you never had to do. Remember I never I wanted to fight with them and tried always to prevent it." .
Related documents:
The fall of Lobengula, King of Matebele
The Khumalo Royal family
The Last Stand a.k.a Shangani Patrol
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