When white residents of the new town of Bulawayo heard in October 1895 that virtually the entire white police force was to be sent to Bechuanaland, they drew up a letter of protest. A three-man delegation delivered it to Jameson, the administrator of Matabeleland, in his office in Bulawayo, and demanded to know whether it was true that the police were being withdrawn as part of a plan to invade the Transvaal. Jameson denied it, saying that they had been assigned to Bechuanaland to deal with a dissident African chief. Their absence would be only temporary. Furthermore, he said, he had made all the necessary arrangements for calling out volunteers in the unlikely event of any trouble with the Ndebele population, and he had also ensured that there was an ample supply of arms and ammunition for everyone. Two months later, when Jameson launched his invasion, Matabeleland was left with only forty-eight white policemen; in the whole of Rhodesia, there were no more than sixty-three.

Once it became known that Jameson’s police force had been defeated in the Transvaal by the Boers and locked up in Pretoria prison, the Ndebele seized the opportunity to revolt. Deprived of most of their cattle and much of their best land, subjected to forced labour and harsh treatment, they were seething with discontent. Drought, locusts and rinderpest, a cattle disease, added to their grievances. Despite the demise of Lobengula in 1893, their old regimental system had remained largely intact; their arms had been hidden, not surrendered. Members of Lobengula’s family and senior indunas were still at large. Among those who joined the revolt was Babayane, the Ndebele envoy who had met Queen Victoria at Windsor Castle.

The whites were taken completely by surprise. The renowned hunter Fred Selous, who had returned to Matabeleland to manage Willoughby’s 200,000-acre estate at Essexvale, close to the Matopo Hills, recalled that he had been closely questioned by a prominent Ndebele leader, Mlugulu, about the arrest of Jameson and the fate of the police, but did not consider it a cause for suspicion at the time. The Ndebele, he wrote, were ‘as quiet and submissive in their demeanour towards Europeans as they ever had been since the war, and there was absolutely no evidence of any secret arming amongst them’. The veteran missionary Charles Helm also believed that there was no prospect of trouble from the Ndebele. ‘They acknowledge themselves to be a conquered people,’ he said. A month before the revolt, Weston Jarvis, a former Tory member of parliament, who had arrived in Matabeleland to inspect Willoughby’s properties, wrote to his mother: ‘There is a rumour of a possible rising among some of the tribes in the Matoppo Hills but that was of course all moonshine . . . This is grand country, exceeding my most sanguine expectations. It is undoubtedlyvery rich and fertile. The natives are happy, comfortable and prosperous and the future must be magnificent. ’

The revolt began in March 1896 with attacks on whites at isolated farms, mining camps and trading stores in outlying districts. Whole families perished. In all, about 200 whites died in the onslaught. Within a week, no whites were left alive in outlying districts. Those managing to escape fled to the main settlements of Bulawayo and Gwelo, raising the alarm. In Bulawayo, there was a brief moment of panic as crowds besieged the government’s armoury, clamouring for weapons. ‘Men fought their way up to the source of supply, clambering on to each other’s shoulders, grabbing and snatching the coveted weapons . . . until the last of the supply had been given out,’ wrote one eyewitness.

By attacking outlying districts first instead of the main settlements, the Ndebele rebels lost the advantage of surprise and enabled the whites to throw up hasty defences. ‘If two thousand of them, or even a smaller number, had made a night attack upon the town [of Bulawayo] before the laager had been formed,’ said Selous, ‘I think it more than probable that the entire white population would have been massacred.’ At great personal risk, volunteers went out in search of survivors. They returned with tales of terrible scenes, of men, women and children hacked to death and mutilated, ‘vowing a pitiless vengeance against the whole Matabele race’.

Reinforcements were sent from the Cape and from Natal - colonial volunteers from Kimberley; imperial troops from Natal; and African units from the Cape - ‘Cape Boys’. Rhodes arrived at the Gwelo laager from Fort Salisbury with a detachment of 150 Mashonaland volunteers. At Chamberlain’s insistence, all were placed under the command of imperial officers, though the British South Africa Company was obliged to pay for the full cost of the campaign.

After conferring on himself the rank of colonel, Rhodes joined the campaign, riding into combat wearing white flannel trousers and armed only with a riding crop. ‘He is very like Napoleon,’ Weston Jarvis wrote to his mother. ‘He quite thinks that he was not intended to be killed by a damned nigger . . .’ Rhodes was as keen on vengeance as most whites. His aide, Gordon Le Sueur, recalled a conversation between Rhodes and an officer who had just returned from an engagement:

On Rhodes asking how many [enemy] were killed [the officer] replied, ‘Very few as the natives threw down their arms, went on their knees, and begged for mercy.’ ‘Well,’ said Rhodes, ‘you should not spare them. You should kill all you can, as it serves as a lesson to them when they talk things over at their fires at night.’

Other eyewitnesses described how after an engagement Rhodes would arrive on the scene to count the number of corpses. Weston Jarvis wrote of how he and Rhodes accompanied a patrol which had burned down villages and crops and captured cattle and women. ‘I have been out with Rhodes looting corn all morning and he is now keen to be off again.’ In Olive Schreiner’s contemporary novel Trooper Peter Halket of Mashonaland, Rhodes is the undisguised villain of the story.

By June, Ndebele forces north of Bulawayo were falling back to defensive positions in the Mambo Hills, harassed at every turn by mounted patrols. Rhodes was confident that the revolt was nearly defeated. ‘I see daylight’, he told Lord Grey, the new administrator appointed in place of Jameson. Grey was less optimistic. ‘Until we catch them and thoroughly convince them that this country is to be the country of the white, and not the black, man we must go on hammering and hunting them.’

But just when it seemed that the tide had turned in Matabeleland, the Shona joined the revolt. Once again, the whites were taken by surprise. Believing the Shona to be a docile people, only too grateful for having been liberated from Ndebele raids, white residents of Mashonaland had willingly despatched 150 of their fighting men to help in Matabeleland without any qualms about their own safety. Yet Shona resentment about white rule - over hut taxes, harsh treatment and the loss of land - had been mounting with similar intensity. Taking advantage of the Ndebele uprising, the Shona turned on the whites with greater ferocity than any resistance they had previously shown against the Ndebele. Within a week of the beginning of the Shona revolt in June 1896, more than 100 men, women and children were murdered in outlying districts of Mashonaland. Survivors struggled to reach Fort Salisbury and four other settlements. In all, during the course of the 1896 revolts, white casualties amounted to 372 killed and 129 wounded - about 10 per cent of the entire white population.

The impact on the fortunes of the BSA Company was severe. Critics accused the company of gross mismanagement. Evidence of war atrocities began to filter through. Even worse, the cost of two simultaneous campaigns threatened to drive the company into bankruptcy.

In Matabeleland, the campaign had reached deadlock. The main Ndebele stronghold in the Matopo Hills, a region of huge granite boulders, deep clefts, caves and tangled bush stretching for 1,500 square miles south of Bulawayo, seemed impregnable. A major assault in the Matopos on 20 July ended in little else but high casualties. Another assault on 5 August was no more effective and nearly culminated in disaster. Over camp dinners at General Frederick Carrington’s base camp in the Matopos, Rhodes started to calculate aloud how long it would be, given such a high casualty rate, for Carrington’s force to be exterminated. ‘As may be imagined,’ wrote his friend Hans Sauer, ‘these calculations were not appreciated by the military gentlemen.’

The deadlock convinced Carrington that only with massive reinforcements would he be able to take the Matopos. He proposed a new campaign, starting in the dry season of 1897, with 2,500 more white troops, one or two thousand carriers, engineers for blasting operations, mountain guns and a string of forts. Carrington was bent on military victory whatever the cost.

For Rhodes, this meant financial ruin. In secret, he set up his own peace initiative, recruiting a handful of trusted individuals, including Hans Sauer and Johann Colenbrander, a former chief native commissioner. A captured royal widow, Nyamabezana, was sent back into the hills with a white flag and simple instructions: if the rebel leaders were interested in peace, they were to show the white flag. Risking their own lives, two Mfengu scouts - Jan Grootboom and James Makhunga - spent a week in the hills making preliminary contact. On 21 August, after telling Carrington of his plan at the last minute, Rhodes set out for an ‘indaba’ in the hills. He was accompanied by three whites - Sauer, Colenbrander and Vere Stent, a correspondent for the Cape Times - and Grootboom and Makhunga:

It was a lovely winter’s day [wrote Stent], the sun just beginning to western; comfortably hot; the grasses, bronze and golden, swaying in the slight wind; the hills ahead of us blurred in the quivering mirage of early afternoon. We talked very little. Must I confess it? - we were all a little nervous.

Sauer reminded Rhodes of the fate of Piet Retief, the Boer leader killed on the orders of the Zulu king, Dingane, after he and his followers entered the royal enclosure unarmed.

At the appointed rendezvous, a small clearing in the hills, the party dismounted and tied their horses. Escape was now impossible. With Rhodes leading the way, they sat down on an old ant heap, watched from the hills by a mass of Ndebele warriors. From a distance, a group of about forty indunas approached, escorted by Makhunga, bearing the white flag on a stick. Among them were Babayane and Mlugulu.

Prompted by Colenbrander, Rhodes gave them a greeting of peace in Sindebele: ‘Amehlo Amhlophe’- ‘the eyes are white’. A chorus of ‘Amehlo Amhlophe’ came in reply. When they were all seated, the old chief Somabhulana, at Rhodes’ request, rose to explain their grievances.

After a long recital of Ndebele history, Somabhulana spoke of the white war of conquest of Matabeleland:

You came, you conquered. The strongest takes the land. We accepted your rule. We lived under you. But not as dogs! If we are to be dogs it is better to be dead. You can never make the Amandebele dogs. You may wipe them out . . . but the Children of the Stars can never be dogs.

There was an angry murmur, a restless stirring, among the group of indunas. ‘The moment was inflammable,’ wrote Stent. ‘The least indiscretion might precipitate a massacre.’ Rhodes calmly asked Somabhulana to continue. ‘By whom and how were they made dogs?’

Somabhulana referred to the arbitrary rule of white officials, citing as an example how he himself had been humiliated by the chief magistrate in Bulawayo. He spoke of the ‘brutality’ of the native police and an incident in which tax-collectors had shot dead four women in cold blood for refusing to disclose the whereabouts of cattle. Rhodes promised reform and assured Somabhulana that the indunas would face no reprisals or punishment.

It was late in the afternoon. Somabhulana stood up, signifying that the indaba was concluded. ‘Is it peace or war?’ Rhodes asked. An intense silence followed. ‘It is peace,’ replied Somabhulana and lifted a stick and placed it on the ground before him. ‘Here is my rifle. I lay it down at your feet.’

Rhodes spent the following eight weeks camping in the Matopos, meeting Ndebele delegations, trying to reassure them that their demands would be met. Some of the encounters were tense occasions, as Stent recorded:

A young chief who might best be described as insolent to the elders of his own tribe and particularly so to the white men put in a pertinent question. ‘Where are we to live when it is over?’ he said. ‘The white man claims all the land.’ Rhodes replied at once, ‘We will give you settlements. We will set apart locations for you; we will give you land.’ The young chief shouted angrily, ‘You will give us land in our own country! That’s good of you!’

Rhodes then objected to talking to the young chief while he still had his rifle in his hand. The young chief said: ‘You will have to talk to me with my rifle in my hand. I find if I talk with my rifle in my hand the white man pays more attention to what I say. Once I put my rifle down I am nothing. I am just a dog to be kicked.’

After further protracted meetings, the terms of a peace deal were agreed in October. Much to the fury of white residents and many imperial officials, the leaders of the revolt went unpunished; and indunas who proved their loyalty were given appointments and salaries.

Thus Rhodes saved his company. The Ndebele, however, still lost most of their land. Despite promises he had made about restoring land to the Ndebele, the whites had no intention of giving it up. Two-thirds of the Ndebele people returning home found themselves living on ‘white’ land.

In Mashonaland, there was no peace treaty. Shona rebels were hunted down and blasted from caves until the last pocket of resistance had been eliminated. As the British government subsequently acknowledged, Rhodesia was established by right of conquest.

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