The British South Africa Company, emanating from a flimsy agreement involving an illegal arms deal that had been obtained in dubious circumstances, and since repudiated repeatedly by its principal signatory, was formally granted a royal charter by Queen Victoria on 29 October 1889, with a remit similar to that of a government. Whereas Lobengula had granted Rudd a concession assigning to him no more than the right to mine metals and minerals, the royal charter empowered the BSA Company to build roads, railways and telegraphs; to establish and authorise banking; to award land grants; to negotiate treaties; to promulgate laws; to maintain a company police force; and to aid and promote immigration.
It was backed by substantial funds, with an initial capital of £700,000. Rhodes committed not only his own money to the venture but the support of De Beers and Gold Fields of South Africa. Other leading shareholders included Alfred Beit, Barney Barnato, Starr Jameson, Charles Rudd, Frank Thompson, Frank Johnson, Lord Rothschild and Sir Hercules Robinson. The shares were not opened to public subscription but offered at par to friends, associates and politicians who had been helpful. In South Africa, Rhodes used share offers to help overcome resistance within the Afrikaner Bond to his plan to build a railway northwards from Kimberley, through Bechuanaland to Matabeleland - a basic requirement of the charter.
What no one outside a small Rhodes clique knew - not even the British government - was that the BSA Company did not actually own the Rudd concession, on which the whole structure had been built. It was still owned by the syndicate known as Central Search Association formed in London by Rhodes, Gifford and Cawston to amalgamate their interests. It had been leased by Central Search Association to the BSA Company on the condition that the Company bore all the costs of development, then passed half of its profits back to Central Search Association. As with the BSA Company, a number of useful individuals had been admitted to join in the spoils - Beit, Rudd and Rothschild were participants in Central Search Association from the start. In 1890, the Central Search Association, with a nominal capital of £121,000 was transformed into the United Concessions Company, with a nominal capital of £4 million and with the same set of shareholders. Although shares in the United Concessions Company sold at less than par, they still gave the company a market value of more than £1 million, all based on an original investment of 1,000 rifles - lying untouched - and £100 a month.
It was not until 1891 that the government discovered - to its shock - who owned the concession. A confidential memorandum on the origins of the BSA Company, submitted to the cabinet, concluded that the government had been deliberately misled. A senior official declared that if the facts had been known in 1889, ‘the Charter would certainly have been refused’. Ministers declined to take any action, however, other than to insist that ownership of the Rudd concession be transferred to the BSA Company. The Central Search Association duly complied, exchanging its £4 million shares into £1 million in chartered shares, which were selling at a little above par at the time, and rose sharply shortly thereafter.
In view of the advice that Queen Victoria had given to Lobengula in her letter of March 1889, warning him ‘not to grant hastily concessions’ to passing Englishmen, the business of explaining why she had subsequently decided to grant a royal charter assigning vast powers to an English company without consulting him and in clear breach of the concession Lobengula had actually signed, proved awkward. A draft was written in the London office of the BSA Company and passed to the government for approval.
In the hope of demonstrating imperial splendour, the letter was conveyed to Bulawayo by a military mission consisting of five officers and men from the Royal Horse Guards. They arrived in Bulawayo in a gaudily painted four-wheeled coach adorned with the royal monogram and drawn by eight mules. Dressed in plumed helmets and glistening breastplates, they presented the letter to Lobengula on 29 January 1890.
Moffat was on hand to translate. Also present was Jameson whom Rhodes had chosen to replace Thompson. Thompson had made one last journey to Bulawayo, as Rhodes had requested, but wanted no further role there. The letter stated:
Since the visit of Lo Bengula’s Envoys, the Queen has made the fullest inquiries into the particular circumstances of Matabeleland, and understands the trouble caused to Lo Bengula by different parties of white men coming to his country to look for gold; but wherever gold is, or wherever it is reported to be, there it is impossible for him to exclude white men, and, therefore, the wisest and safest course for him to adopt, and that which will give least trouble to himself and his tribe, is to agree, not with one or two white men separately, but with one approved body of white men, who will consult Lo Bengula’s wishes and arrange where white people are to dig, and who will be responsible to the Chief for any annoyance or trouble caused to himself or his people.
The Queen, said the letter, had therefore decided to approve the concession made by Lo Bengula to the representatives of Rhodes - Rudd, Thompson and Maguire. After careful enquiry, she was able to assure Lobengula of the reliability of these men: ‘Some of the Queen’s highest and most trusted subjects’ were now associated with them.
They are men who will fulfil their undertakings and who may be trusted to carry out the working for gold in the Chief’s country without molesting his people or in any way interfering with the kraals, growers or cattle.
She announced the appointment of John Moffat as her representative at Lobengula’s court - a post paid for by Rhodes and described by Moffat as ‘a ghastly exile among unruly savages’.
Lobengula was not deceived by the honeyed words of the ‘Great White Queen’. After the guardsmen had left, he complained that ‘the Queen’s letter had been dictated by Rhodes and that she, the Queen, must not write any more letters like that one to him again’. He was later to accuse the Queen of speaking ‘with two tongues’.
The duplicity, however, was far greater than he suspected. Even as the Queen’s letter was being read to him, endorsing the trustworthiness of Rhodes, Rhodes in the Cape was planning for an armed invasion across the Limpopo.
In December 1889, as Lobengula continued to prevaricate over giving anyone ‘the road’, Rhodes initiated a scheme to remove him by force. After a series of meetings at his cottage in Kimberley with Frank Johnson and his associate Maurice Heany, Rhodes gave them a contract to recruit 500 white mercenaries to overthrow Lobengula on behalf of the British South Africa Company. Under the terms of the contract, signed on 7 December, Johnson’s instructions were ‘to carry by sudden assaults all the principal strongholds of the Matabele nation and generally to so break up the power of the Amandebele as to render their raids on surrounding tribes impossible, to effect the emancipation of all their slaves and further, to reduce the country to such a condition as to enable the prospecting, mining and commercial staff of the British South Africa Company to conduct their operations in Matabeleland in peace and safety’. Rhodes agreed to bear all the expense of raising and maintaining the mercenary force for a period of six months ‘or longer if required’. If the campaign was successful, Johnson and Heany would receive £150,000 and 50,000 morgen of land (about 100,000 acres).
For his part, Johnson proposed either to kill Lobengula or, preferably, to take him hostage. In an extract from the manuscript of his autobiography Great Days - removed before its publication in 1940 - Johnson wrote: ‘I had an open mind as to the procedure after securing the King and his entourage. We might make a complete job of it by killing Lobengula and smashing each military kraal, before they had time to concentrate or organize. Or - and this I favoured most - I might dig myself in at Bulawayo with Lobengula and his entourage as hostages.’
Rhodes also invited Fred Selous to meet him in Kimberley. Selous had just returned to the Cape from an expedition to the Mazoe Valley in Mashonaland, travelling through Portuguese-controlled territory to get there. It was an area that he knew well. Since 1880 his despatches and maps had been published by the Royal Geographical Society in London. One of the landmarks he had identified was a hill near the source of the Mazoe River, which he named Mount Hampden. In 1884 he had written to the Royal Geographical Society describing the tract of highveld between the Hunyani and Mazoe rivers as the best-suited for European occupation in the whole of southern Africa. ‘It is splendidly watered, droughts and famines are unknown, and nowhere do the natives get such abundant and diversified crops as here.’ The local Shona population, he noted, was peaceable. ‘They seem to have but little of the ferocity which usually forms so marked a feature in the character of uncivilized races, and in their inter-tribal quarrels blood is seldom shed.’
During his travels in 1889, Selous had obtained a mineral concession in the Mazoe Valley from two headmen. In his report to the syndicate that backed his expedition, he wrote: ‘The concession is perfectly square, fair and genuine, and nothing can upset it. The Matabele claim to the country is utterly preposterous.’ He also encountered Portuguese activity in the area.
In discussing these matters with Rhodes in Kimberley in December, Selous made clear his intention to write articles in the British press confirming his opinion that a large part of Mashonaland - including the area for which he had the concession - was completely independent of Lobengula. Rhodes quickly set out to dissuade him. He later wrote to Abercorn in London: ‘It took me a long time to show him that if he could prove Mashonaland to be independent of Lobengula it would not help the Mashonas but simply help the Portuguese to get the country.’ What helped conclude the matter was a payment of £2,000 Rhodes made to Selous out of his private funds.
Rhodes then set out to recruit Selous for his own expedition. On learning of Rhodes’ scheme to overthrow Lobengula by force, however, Selous immediately opposed it. It would result in disaster, he said, provoking retaliation against traders and missionaries in Matabeleland and causing uproar in England. All in all, Selous told Rhodes, ‘This would be a bad beginning for the British South Africa Company’. Johnson continued to press for invasion, but Selous persuaded Rhodes to devise an alternative plan. He suggested that instead of heading for Bulawayo, his expedition should take a direct route to Mashonaland from the south, passing around the eastern fringes of Matabeleland through uncharted territory, avoiding Bulawayo altogether. And he identified Mount Hampden, near the source of the Mazoe River, as the most suitable destination.
The outcome was that, in Cape Town on 1 January 1890, Rhodes drew up a new contract with Johnson. The plan was for Johnson to recruit a corps of 120 ‘miners’, rather than mercenaries, who would travel to Mashonaland accompanied by an armed police force. Selous was to act as guide to the expedition. The plan was approved by the new British high commissioner, Sir Henry Loch, at an official conference in Government House, Cape Town on 10 January. What was clearly intended, despite some of the language used, was that the expedition should become the first step in the occupation of Mashonaland.
The implications were quickly grasped in London by the Colonial Office official Edward Fairfield when he read a report of the conference. ‘The cat is being now let out of Mr Rhodes’s bag, and proves a very ferocious animal indeed.’ Fairfield thought that the plan was bound to involve Britain in a war with Lobengula. ‘The people in South Africa are getting out of hand,’ he wrote. On 14 February, the colonial secretary, Knutsford, cabled Loch, making clear that the government could not ‘sanction movement in force in Matabeleland or Mashonaland which is not specifically sanctioned by Lo Bengula’.
But Lobengula still refused to give his approval to any expedition. Impatient with the delay, Selous travelled to Bulawayo in March to talk to him, but made no headway. ‘There is only one road to Mashonaland, and that goes through my country,’ Lobengula said. Lobengula complained that he always had to deal with subordinates. ‘Let Rhodes come, let Selous go for him tomorrow.’
Jameson tried next, reaching Bulawayo on 29 April on his fourth and last visit. In a long interview with the king the next day, Lobengula was told, for the first time, about the proposed expedition. Jameson recalled:
He looked pretty grave and hummed a tune to himself during the recital, as much to say ‘What damned impudence!’ Then asked minutely after the police - what they were going to do, what we were going to do etc., etc.
Three days later, there was another interview. Jameson informed Lobengula he was going back to Rhodes to tell him that Lobengula had refused the road. Lobengula replied: ‘No, I have not refused you the road, but let Rhodes come.’ On that, they shook hands, and Jameson left at once for the south.
It was hardly the ‘specific sanction’ the British government wanted. What tipped the balance were reports from the Transvaal that Boer expeditions to Mashonaland were being organised by groups wanting to escape the influx of Englishmen into the republic following gold discoveries there. Lord Salisbury intervened to warn that ‘It would be dangerous to withhold much longer from the High Commissioner authority to sanction the advance of the Company’s armed police force into Mashonaland’.
By this time, Johnson had nearly completed the recruitment of volunteers - ‘pioneers’ as they were called - setting up a base camp for them, Camp Cecil, on the northern bank of the Limpopo in Bechuanaland. Each was provided with a uniform and weapon, paid seven shillings and sixpence a day, and promised fifteen mining claims and 1,500 morgen (about 3,000 acres) of land. Many were prospectors, drawn by stories that gold could be found in abundance, close to the surface, in Mashonaland, but there was a cross-section of other trades and skills. Rhodes insisted that Johnson find members of leading Cape families. When Johnson asked him why, Rhodes replied:
Do you know what will happen to you? You will probably be massacred by the Matabele, or at least we shall one day hear that you have been surrounded and cut off! And who will rescue you, do you think? I will tell you - the Imperial Factor [the British government]. And who do you think will bring pressure to bear on the Imperial Factor and stir them to save you? The influential fathers of your young men.
On 27 June 1890, the pioneer column moved out of its base camp and headed eastwards for the Matabeleland border at Tuli. It consisted of 186 volunteers and 19 civilians, including two Anglican priests, a Jesuit father and Dr Starr Jameson, Rhodes’ personal representative. The column was accompanied by a paramilitary police force of 500 men - the British South Africa Police - equipped with field guns, machine guns, and a searchlight with a portable steam dynamo borrowed from Her Majesty’s naval station at Simonstown - ‘to impress the superstitious Matabele’. Also in the column was an assortment of African scouts, drivers, artisans, cooks and labourers, numbering nearly a thousand.
Rhodes had arranged for a British major-general to give the column a ceremonial send-off:
LORD METHUEN: Gentlemen, have you got maps?
OFFICERS: Yes, sir.
LORD METHUEN: And pencils?
OFFICERS: Yes, sir
LORD METHUEN: Well, gentlemen, your destiny is Mount Hampden.
The British high commissioner, Loch, despatched a message to Lobengula giving assurances he knew to be false. ‘I wish you to know,’ he said, ‘that these people come as your friends.’ Lobengula was still not fooled. ‘The Chief is troubled,’ he replied. ‘He is being eaten up by Mr Rhodes.’ Lobengula also sent a message to the police camp at Motloutsi in Bechuanaland, that arrived on 30 June, asking: ‘Why are so many warriors at Macloutsie? Has the king committed any fault, or have the white men lost anything that they are looking for?’ Yet, mindful of the fate of the Zulu king, Cetshwayo, he held back from attacking the column, even though his own warrior regiments were thirsting for blood.
With Selous and a bevy of African scouts leading the way, the column crossed the Tuli river on 6 July, traversing the lowveld of the Limpopo valley, and climbed up into the open grasslands of Mashonaland, passing by the ruined city of Great Zimbabwe - the supposed capital of Ophir. Just to the north, they constructed a fort, naming it Fort Victoria. On 12 September, after a journey of 360 miles from the Tuli crossing point, the main party of settlers and police reached the vicinity of Mount Hampden, found the Makabusi River, and decided that they had attained their destination, naming it Fort Salisbury. At a ceremony the next day, Lieutenant Tyndale-Briscoe hoisted the Union flag up a crooked msasa pole; Canon Balfour offered a prayer; the police force fired a royal salute of twenty-one guns; and the pioneers gave three lusty cheers for the Queen.