The discovery of gold on the Witwatersrand produced a surge of speculation about the likelihood that even richer gold deposits would be found further north in Zambesia, the land of Ophir. Since Carl Mauch’s explorations there in the 1860s, the legend had continued to grow. In 1871, after further travels in the region, Mauch suggested that impressive stone ruins he had encountered there known as Great Zimbabwe could once have been the capital of Ophir, built by Phoenicians; the central structure, he said, was probably a temple based on the design of a palace where the Queen of Sheba stayed when she visited King Solomon. In a book entitled The Gold Fields of Southern Africa and How to Reach Them, published in 1876, Richard Babb declared flatly: ‘So the question of ancient Ophir is at last settled. ’ In 1881, a book written by a 30-year-old elephant hunter, Fred Selous, A Hunter’s Wanderings in Africa, about his journeys through Matabeleland, stimulated widespread interest in the region. Rider Haggard used Selous as the model for his hero, Allan Quatermain, when writing his novel King Solomon’s Mines. Published in 1885, King Solomon’s Minesbecame a best-seller, giving the legend popular status. Both Rhodes and Kruger coveted this fabled land.
The gateway to Zambesia was controlled by the Ndebele king, Lobengula, a son of Mzilikazi. The Ndebele army, consisting of 15,000 men in 40 regiments based around Lobengula’s capital of GuBulawayo - ‘the place of slaughter’ - was feared throughout the region; for years, it had raided neighbouring peoples - the Shona of Mashonaland, Tswana groups in northern Bechuanaland, and the Lozi, Ila and Tonga to the north of the Zambezi - exacting tribute from them.
Like Mzilikazi, Lobengula was vigilant about the entry of whites into his domain. Military posts were established along the frontier, where all travellers were stopped, interrogated and detained for a week or more until the king allowed them to proceed - in his own phrase, ‘gave them the road’. A handful of missionaries were permitted to operate in Matabeleland. Lobengula tolerated their presence, as his father had done, recognising the advantage of being able to summon men who could read and write letters for him, but otherwise he gave them no encouragement.
White hunters too were allowed to enter for limited periods. Fred Selous was one of them. Having left his London home at the age of twenty in search of adventure, he arrived in Lobengula’s capital in 1872. The king, a man of huge physique, with a fondness for meat and drink, was not impressed by his visitor. ‘He asked me what I had come to do,’ wrote Selous. ‘I said I had come to hunt elephants, upon which he burst out laughing, and said, “Was it not steinbucks [a species of small antelope] that you came to hunt? Why, you’re only a boy.”’ Lobengula made further disparaging remarks about Selous’ youthful appearance and left.
But Selous persisted and again asked for permission. ‘This time he asked me whether I had ever seen an elephant, and upon my saying no, answered, “Oh, they will soon drive you out of the country, but you may go and see what you can do!”’ When Selous asked him where he might go, Lobengula replied impatiently, ‘Oh, you may go wherever you like, you are only a boy.’
All visitors were made to feel they were in the country on sufferance, and were expected to pay for the privilege of entry by arriving with gifts for the king and his entourage - beads, blankets and brass wire. Lobengula acquired a particular liking for champagne. The royal store was soon replete with an immense collection of rifles, saddlery, furniture and household goods. In exchange for payments and bribes, Lobengula also allowed a few traders and hunters to settle permanently on the outskirts of his encampment at Bulawayo, but their presence was always dependent on the king’s whim.
It was Kruger who first began to show an interest in Lobengula’s kingdom. In 1882, as the Transvaal, newly liberated from British rule, sought to extend its borders to the east and to the west, the commandant-general Piet Joubert sent a letter to Lobengula, couched in effusive language, reminding him of a friendship treaty said to have been made in 1853 between Matabeleland and the Transvaal. Joubert expressed the Transvaal’s ardent desire to live in amity and peace with its northern neighbour - a peace, he said, ‘which is so strong that the vile evil-doers were never able to destroy it, and never shall be able to, as long as there shall be one Boer that lives, and Lobengula also lives’. Referring to the annexation of the Transvaal, Joubert warned of the English appetite for land. ‘When an Englishman once has your property in his hand, then he is like a monkey that has its hands full of pumpkin seeds - if you don’t beat him to death he will never let go.’ He assured Lobengula that ‘when the stink which the English brought is blown away altogether’, he would ride up to Bulawayo to pay him a special visit to cement their long-standing friendship.
Joubert never made it to Bulawayo, but in 1887 Kruger resumed the initiative with a far more ambitious strategy, using the services of a Boer intermediary called Pieter Grobler. Grobler was a horse trader who had first tried his luck in Bechuanaland but, having fallen foul of the Ngwato chief, Kgama, had turned his attention to Matabeleland, making several trips to Bulawayo with horses and wagons for sale.
Grobler claimed to have gained great influence with Lobengula, and Kruger, believing him, personally drafted a seven-part agreement for Grobler to take to Lobengula. The agreement purported to bind the Transvaal and the Ndebele to ‘perpetual peace and friendship’. It acknowledged Lobengula as an independent chief and declared him to be an ‘ally’ of the Transvaal. For his part, Lobengula was expected to assist the Transvaal with fighting forces whenever called upon to do so; to extradite offenders to the Transvaal; to permit Transvaalers holding passes from their government to hunt and trade in his country; and to accept a resident consul with powers to try offenders from the Transvaal.
Returning to Bulawayo in July 1887 with his brother Frederick, Grobler gave Lobengula £140 in cash, a rifle and some ammunition, and obtained what he claimed was the king’s ‘mark’ of approval for the ‘treaty’, together with the signatures of four of his ‘councillors’. No announcement was made about the Grobler ‘treaty’ for six months.
Other operators were meanwhile sniffing out the prospects. A party of German travellers appeared in the neighbourhood. The Portuguese, hitherto content with coastal trading stations, suddenly took an interest, claiming a large part of Matabeleland for themselves. A growing number of concession-hunters made their way to Bulawayo.
Among the first in the field was Frank Johnson, a young English adventurer who had arrived in Cape Town at the age of sixteen, enlisted in Colonel Warren’s expeditionary force to Bechuanaland, then joined the Bechuanaland Border Police, a mounted unit set up by the British to control the Bechuanaland Protectorate. Finding police life tedious and hearing of gold finds to the north, Johnson left the police to organise support for a gold-prospecting expedition - the Northern Gold Fields Exploration Syndicate - winning the backing of twenty-two shareholders in the Cape, including four members of parliament, four bankers and the mayor of Cape Town.
In February 1887, he set out from Cape Town in possession of a letter from the syndicate to Lobengula asking his permission ‘to search for gold, silver, or other minerals, as well as precious stones’. On the way to Matabeleland, he stopped at Mafeking, the headquarters of the Bechuanaland protectorate, to discuss the expedition with the administrator, Sir Sydney Shippard, Rhodes’ old friend from Kimberley days. Shippard gave him a letter of introduction to Lobengula, recommending that he should be granted the concessions he sought. Further along the route, Johnson stopped at Shoshong, Kgama’s capital, obtaining from him the sole right to prospect and work minerals in a 400-square-mile area. He eventually arrived in Bulawayo in May 1887 after a journey of 1,300 miles.
Johnson spent nearly three months at Bulawayo trying to coax Lobengula into giving him ‘the road’ to Mashonaland. Lobengula was suspicious of Johnson’s intentions, interrogating him time and again. His councillors were even more hostile. ‘I cannot understand this digging for gold,’ Lobengula told Johnson. ‘There is no place in my heart where you can dig for gold. But I will look for such a place. I am sorry you have come so far for nothing, but my head is troubled at present. Time is made for slaves; therefore there is no need for hurry.’
Johnson presented him with a range of presents: rifles, ammunition, tobacco, matches, knives, scissors, field-glasses, needles and thread, and a barrel organ. But Lobengula continued to prevaricate. A German prospecting party arriving after Johnson soon gave up in despair, but Johnson persevered. ‘One needed the patience of a saint,’ he wrote. Finally, on 12 July, he offered Lobengula £100 for permission to prospect and £200 a year while digging lasted. Lobengula replied: ‘You are troublesome people, for when I say there is no gold in my country you do not believe me and insist on going on . . . You speak good words now, but after this there will be trouble.’
After further interminable discussions, Lobengula agreed to give Johnson ‘the road’. Johnson travelled as far as the Mazoe Valley in Mashonaland where he came across plenty of evidence of alluvial deposits, but on his return to Bulawayo in November 1887, he found Lobengula in an angry mood. Johnson was accused of spying, murder and showing disrespect to the king. After agreeing to pay a fine of £100, ten blankets and ten tins of gunpowder, he was allowed to leave Matabeleland but travelled back to the Cape empty-handed.
British officials too began to cast their attention towards Matabeleland. In May 1887, Shippard wrote to Robinson, the high commissioner in Cape Town, pointing out the advantages of controlling Zambesia. ‘The Power that can acquire that territory . . . will hold the key to the wealth and commerce of South and Central Africa,’ he said. ‘The whole would support itself, and thus hardly cost the British Treasury a penny.’
In June 1887, Robinson established a new post of deputy administrator for the Bechuanaland protectorate to assist Shippard, appointing John Moffat, a former missionary with first-hand experience of Matabeleland. The son of Robert Moffat, John Moffat had helped set up the mission station at Inyati, forty miles north-east of Bulawayo, serving there from 1859 to 1865. He spoke Sindebele as well as Setswana and was trusted by Lobengula because of the family connection. But Moffat’s missionary activity had not fared well. After thirty years of effort, the London Missionary Society in Matabeleland had won, at most, a dozen recruits. Moffat regarded Lobengula’s Ndebele empire as a brutal tyranny, inflicting misery on ‘myriads of other people’ and standing in the way of Christian advancement. ‘It will be a blessing to the world when they are broken up,’ he remarked.
In December 1887, Shippard sent Moffat to Bulawayo to discuss a local border dispute between Bechuanaland and Matabeleland and to establish amicable ties. Moffat talked at length with Lobengula and found him anxious about the number of white suitors importuning him. ‘I think he wants to be left alone,’ Moffat reported to Shippard.
While Moffat was engaged on this mission, the British consul in Pretoria, Ralph Williams, who kept in close touch with both Robinson and Rhodes, discovered that Kruger was about to send a special envoy to Lobengula. While playing cricket one afternoon, he had been summoned from the pitch to an urgent meeting with a British merchant in his office. Telling Williams to look out of the window, the merchant said: ‘Do you see that man out there loading his wagon? That man is . . . Grobler. He is starting tomorrow . . . to try and revive an old half-promise alleged by the Boers to have been made many years ago to General Joubert, to the effect that if any rights were in future granted to any white man over Matabele territory, they should be granted to the Boers and not to the English. If that mission succeeds there is an end of British expansion to the north.’
Alerted to the danger, Rhodes and Shippard hastened to Grahamstown to inform Robinson, who was on a ceremonial visit there. On the day after Christmas 1887, Robinson authorised Shippard to instruct Moffat to persuade Lobengula to sign a treaty acknowledging Britain’s predominant influence in Zambesia. A messenger bearing these instructions reached Moffat at the end of January.
Moffat’s negotiations with Lobengula were concluded with unusual speed. No other white man was trusted by Lobengula as much as Moffat. Lobengula denied the validity of the Grobler ‘treaty’ and thought that official British ‘protection’ - a treaty of friendship, as he saw it - provided a way of safeguarding his independence while fending off the predatory intentions of the Transvaal. Under the Moffat Treaty signed on 11 February 1887, Lobengula acknowledged Zambesia to be within Britain’s sphere of interest, and agreed to refrain ‘from entering into any correspondence or treaty with any foreign State or Power to sell, alienate, or cede, or permit or countenance any sale, alienation or cession of the whole or any part of the said Amandebele country . . . without the previous knowledge and sanction of Her Majesty’s High Commissioner for South Africa’. Britain acknowledged Lobengula as ruler not only of the Ndebele but of the Shona.
Rhodes was delighted. ‘I am very glad you were so successful with Lobengula,’ he told Shippard. ‘At any rate now no one else can step in.’>
Grobler’s appointment as Transvaal’s consul to Lobengula’s court was short-lived. After presenting his credentials to Lobengula in July 1888, he set out for Pretoria to collect his wife, taking a short cut across a disputed part of Kgama’s territory, having failed to obtain permission in advance. Approaching the Limpopo River, he was stopped by Kgama’s men on the British side of the river and mortally wounded in an exchange of fire. Kruger was convinced to the last that Rhodes was behind the killing. ‘There is no doubt whatever,’ he remarked in his memoirs, ‘that this murder was due to the instigation of Cecil Rhodes and his clique.’