At the second annual meeting of the British South Africa Company in November 1892, Rhodes told shareholders:
We are on the most friendly terms with Lobengula. The latter receives a globular sum of £100 a month in sovereigns, and he looks forward with great satisfaction to the day of the month when he will receive them. I have not the least fear of any trouble with Lobengula.
Yet Rhodes regarded war with Matabeleland as inevitable. An independent military power, it remained not only a potential threat to the company’s control of Mashonaland; it stood in the way of Rhodes’ plan for a federation of British territories in southern Africa - the Cape Colony, Natal, the Bechuanaland Crown Colony, the Bechuanaland Protectorate, Mashonaland and Manicaland.
What was uncertain was the timing of the war. At the beginning of 1893, Rhodes assumed that it was some years away. The company remained in a parlous state; its capital was all but exhausted; its bankers had refused to honour any more cheques without a guarantee; no significant revenue was likely for several years ahead; the share price continued to fall. Another heavy rainy season had disrupted communication.
But local factors produced a momentum of their own towards war. Once it was realised that Mashonaland was not going to deliver a gold bonanza, white settlers looked covetously at Matabeleland, believing it offered better prospects. So did Jameson. When Jameson was faced with the choice in 1893 between war and peace, he chose war.
Well aware of the danger that the advancing tide of white rule posed to his kingdom, Lobengula strove to avoid incidents that would give the company’s agents an excuse to intervene. But his regiments were restless. In 1891, a regimental commander told Lobengula that he should ‘think well over the whites’ invasion into his country and . . . allow them to go and exterminate the whites’. Lobengula replied that ‘he would never attack the whites, for see what over took Cetewayo’. Three months later, Moffat reported encountering a detachment of Ndebele warriors who had ‘behaved with the greatest insolence to me personally, shaking their clubs and cursing me’. To keep the regiments occupied, Lobengula authorised a number of raids, in the traditional manner. In November 1891, he sent an impi to chastise the Shona chief Lomagunda for his refusal to recognise Ndebele supremacy or to pay tribute; Lomagunda and three of his indunas were killed. When Jameson told Lobengula that in such circumstances the ‘proper course’ for him to take would be to ask the company to intervene, Lobengula retorted: ‘I sent a lot of my men to go and tell Lomagunda to ask you and the white people why you were there and what you were doing. He sent word back to me that he refused to deliver my message and that he was not my dog or slave. That is why I sent some men in to go and kill him. Lomagunda belongs to me. Does the country belong to Lomagunda?’ Lobengula was careful, however, to instruct his soldiers to avoid any contact with whites.
In June 1893, Lobengula sent a warrior group to the Fort Victoria area to punish a Shona chief, Bere, for allowing his people to steal Lobengula’s cattle, warning the police commander at Fort Victoria, Captain Charles Lendy, in advance of his intentions:
Sir - an impi is at present leaving this neighbourhood for the purpose of punishing some of Lo Bengula’s people who have lately raided some of his own cattle. The impi in its progress will probably come across some white men, who are asked to understand that it has nothing whatever to do with them. They are likewise asked not to oppose the impi in its progress. Also, if the people who have committed the offence have taken refuge among the white men they are asked to give them up for punishment.
Lobengula sent similar messages to Jameson in Fort Salisbury and to Moffat in Bechuanaland, but none of his warnings arrived before the impi attacked.
Although whites in Fort Victoria were left untouched, Lobengula’s impi laid waste to Shona villages in the area, slaughtering several hundred people and seizing cattle. Several Shona were killed in the settlement itself. An Ndebele commander who arrived at Fort Victoria with Lobengula’s letter demanded that all the Shona men, women and children seeking refuge there should be handed over to him, but Lendy refused.
At his headquarters at Fort Salisbury, Jameson was at first inclined to treat the incident lightly. He told Rhodes in Cape Town that the whites were in no danger; he told Lobengula to keep his impis out of Mashonaland and to return stolen cattle; he cautioned Lendy that ‘from a financial point of view’ war ‘would throw the country back till God knows when’. Rhodes, however, was more concerned. The Ndebele raids, he said, not only called into question the company’s authority over the Shona and its ability to protect them but disrupted the labour supply to mining and agriculture. When a mass meeting of white settlers in Fort Salisbury demanded company action, Jameson changed his tune. After travelling to Fort Victoria, Jameson reported to Rhodes on 17 July:
The labour question is the serious one. There is no danger to the whites but unless some shooting is done I think it will be difficult to get labour even after they have all gone. There have been so many cases of Mashona labourers killed even in the presence of white masters that the natives will not have confidence in the protection of the whites, unless we actually drive the Matabele out.
Rhodes replied, ‘If you do strike, strike hard.’
Jameson summoned Lobengula’s commanders to a meeting at Fort Victoria to give them an ultimatum to withdraw. One of the witnesses of the meeting on 18 July was Hans Sauer, who had just arrived in Fort Victoria on a prospecting expedition. The commanders, Sauer recorded, listened intently to what Jameson had to say; then the senior induna among them rose to reply. They were acting on the orders of the king, he said. Mashonaland was still a province of the Ndebele kingdom. Lobengula had never ceded any governing rights to the company, only the right to dig for gold and other minerals. He was entitled to assert his overlordship of the Ndebele nation, as he had done in the past. ‘To those of us who were acquainted with the conditions under which the Chartered Company had been permitted to enter Mashonaland,’ wrote Sauer, ‘the reply of the old Matabele induna was conclusive. The old man had correctly stated the facts, and from the legal point of view there was no answer to him.’
Jameson, however, had no time for such arguments. The Ndebele impis, he said, must depart for ‘the border’ within an hour or they would be driven out by force. Two hours after the meeting ended, Jameson sent out Captain Lendy and a posse of forty armed white volunteers, mostly Boer transport riders, to find the Ndebele with instructions that ‘if they resist, shoot them’. A few miles outside Fort Victoria, Lendy encountered a group of Ndebele. Obeying Lobengula’s command to avoid conflict with whites, they offered no resistance. Lendy nevertheless ordered his men to fire. About ten were killed. Lendy claimed the number was about thirty.
On their return to Fort Victoria, Lendy’s men, carrying shields and spears as mementoes of their victory, were given a rousing welcome. One of the troopers exulted that the encounter had been ‘as good as partridge shooting’; and said that ‘fox-hunting couldn’t hold a candle to it’.
Jubilant at how easily a group of white volunteers had defeated Ndebele warriors, Jameson impulsively decided that a war of conquest of Matabeleland might be feasible. He asked Hans Sauer to consult Boers in the Fort Victoria settlement, knowing their long experience of fighting African wars, about the number of men they thought would be needed. Sauer returned to say that a mounted force of 800 to 1,000 men would suffice. Jameson at once said: ‘I’ll do it’.
That evening, Jameson sat in the telegraph office in Fort Victoria determined to convince Rhodes and Loch in Cape Town of the merits of going to war. ‘We have the excuse for a row over murdered women and children now and the getting of Matabeleland open would give us a tremendous lift in shares and everything else. The cost of the campaign could be kept to a minimum by paying volunteers in land, gold and loot [cattle].’
Rhodes replied: ‘Read Luke xiv 31.’ Jameson recalled:
I asked for a Bible and looked up the passage and read: ‘Or what king going to make war against another king, sitteth not down first, and consulteth whether he be able with ten thousand to meet him with twenty thousand?’ Of course, I understood at once what the message meant. The Matabele had an army of many thousands. I had nine hundred settlers available for action. Could I, after careful consideration, venture to face such unequal odds?
I decided at once in the affirmative, and immediately telegraphed back to Mr Rhodes at Cape Town. ‘All right. Have read Luke fourteen thirty-one.’
Losing no time, Jameson headed back to Fort Salisbury to organise his campaign. He prevailed upon Rhodes to sell £50,000 worth of shares to finance the war - ‘You have got to get the money. By this time tomorrow night you have got to tell me that you have got the money.’ He then ordered the purchase of a thousand horses from the Transvaal and the Cape Colony and issued contracts to volunteers promising them 3,000 morgen (6,350 acres) of land ‘in any part of Matabeleland’, twenty gold claims and ‘loot’. Jameson and Rhodes also worked hard to convince the press that the need for war had been forced on the company by the Ndebele themselves.
In Bulawayo, Lobengula reacted angrily to the news that his men had been gunned down by Lendy’s posse without provocation. ‘I thought you had come to dig gold,’ he told a company official on 27 July, ‘but it seemed to me that you have come not only to dig the gold but to rob me of my people and country as well.’ He fired off protests to Queen Victoria, to Loch and to Moffat. But he also made clear repeatedly that he wanted to avoid conflict.
It was to no avail. By early October, Jameson had assembled a force of 650 volunteers and 900 Shona auxiliaries and was ready for action. To fortify the case for war, he continued to paint Lobengula as the aggressor, sending out false reports of Ndebele manoeuvres, claiming at one time that an impi of 7,000 warriors had passed north-east of Fort Victoria. Lobengula’s denials were ignored. ‘Every day I hear from you reports which are nothing but lies,’ he cabled to Loch on 12 October. ‘I am tired hearing nothing but lies. What Impi of mine have your people seen and where do they come from? I know nothing of them.’
The Matabeleland missionary Charles Helm expressed his distaste in a letter to a friend on 9 October: ‘As you know it is my opinion that we shall never do much good in Matabeleland until the Matabeles have had a lesson. And their treatment of the Mashona and other tribes deserve punishment. But I wish we entered on a war with clean hands.’
The war was soon over. As Jameson’s army advanced into Matabeleland, Lobengula unpacked his Rudd Concession rifles, but they were of little assistance. Armed with machine guns and artillery, the whites mowed down Ndebele defenders in their hundreds. Facing defeat, Lobengula ordered the destruction of his capital and fled northwards. When an advance column reached Bulawayo on 4 November, they found only a smoking ruin and two white traders playing poker on the roof of a store, left unmolested on Lobengula’s orders.
Pursued by company troops, Lobengula made a last, desperate attempt to get away. Addressing a council of his indunas at a camp on the Shangani River, he told them: ‘The white men will never cease following us while we have gold in our possession, for gold is what the white men prize above all things. Collect now all my gold . . . and carry it to the white men. Tell them they have beaten my regiments, killed my people, burnt my kraals, captured my cattle, and that I want peace.’
Lobengula’s gold was said to amount to a thousand sovereigns. Two messengers were entrusted to deliver it, along with a message conceding defeat. Approaching the main body of troops, the messengers came across two white stragglers. They handed them the gold and the message and left with assurances that they would be passed on to the right quarters. But neither the gold nor the message was delivered. Lobengula died a few weeks later after drinking poison.
Rhodes arrived in Bulawayo in December and authorised Jameson to hand out cattle, land and mining concessions to the volunteers. A ‘Loot Committee’ was established to manage the distribution of Ndebele cattle. Virtually all the highveld for sixty miles around Bulawayo, the very heart of Ndebele territory, was pegged out as white farmland. The Ndebele themselves were assigned two ‘native reserves’ in outlying areas.
Several of Rhodes’ officials managed to accumulate massive land-holdings in Matabeleland and Mashonaland. Major Sir John Willoughby, who had been seconded from the Royal Horse Guards to act as chief staff officer to the pioneer column, acquired 600,000 acres on condition that he raised £50,000 for the development of his property; he failed to raise the money but retained possession of the land. Rhodes’ surveyor-general, on taking up his post, was ‘awarded’ 640,000 acres.
A senior British official, William Milton, who was subsequently required to sort out the land mess in Matabeleland and Mashonaland, declared in horror: ‘Jameson has given nearly the whole country away to Willoughbys, Whites and others of that class so that there is absolutely no land left which is of any value for the settlement of Immigrants.’ Jameson, he suggested, ‘must have been off his head.’
As with Mashonaland, Jameson was oblivious of the danger he was creating.
In 1894, the British government recognised the British South Africa Company’s jurisdiction over Matabeleland and left Rhodes to rule there as he saw fit. And in 1895 the company adopted the name of Rhodesia in place of Zambesia to describe its territories there. ‘Well, you know,’ Rhodes told a friend, ‘to have a bit of country named after one is one of the things a man might be proud of.’
At a banquet in Cape Town to celebrate his victory over the Ndebele, Rhodes told an enthusiastic audience that he had pursued expansion for the benefit of the Cape Colony, which he hoped would provide the nucleus of a united South Africa. In a long conversation he had with Queen Victoria in December 1894, he dwelt on the same theme. When she opened the conversation by asking him politely, ‘What are you engaged on at present, Mr Rhodes?’ he replied, ‘I am doing my best to enlarge Your Majesty’s dominions.’ Since they had last met, he said, he had added 12,000 square miles of territory. But there was more to be done. He expressed his belief that the Transvaal - ‘which we ought never to have given up’ - would ultimately return to the Empire, an idea the queen found gratifying.
Two other bits of Rhodes’ African jigsaw now became the focus of his attention: the Bechuanaland Crown Colony and the Bechuanaland Protectorate. The future of the Crown Colony in the southern half of Bechuanaland was settled with little difficulty. When it was established by Britain in 1885, its likely destination had always been annexation to the Cape. The British government was only too keen to be relieved of the expense of administering it. During discussions in London in December 1894, Rhodes urged that it be handed over to the Cape within a year.
Two southern Tswana leaders, Montshiwa, the Rolong chief, and Mankurwane, the Tlhaping chief, raised objections, but their views were ignored. In 1895 Rhodes rammed through legislation in the Cape parliament, incorporating the Colony as part of the northern Cape.
Rhodes’ attempt to take over the Bechuanaland Protectorate, however, encountered stronger resistance. He approached the task in the same impatient manner he had used with the Crown Colony, writing to the new colonial secretary, Joseph Chamberlain, in June 1895: ‘I am anxious to take over the Bechuanaland Protectorate at once. It will save you £80,000 a year and if you give it me I promise to build the Railway from Mafeking to Bulawayo in four years and to begin the Railway a month after the transfer.’ Seeing no need for haste, Chamberlain replied smoothly: ‘As far as I understand your main lines of policy I believe that I am in general agreement with you, and if we differ on points of detail I hope that as sensible men of business we shall be able to give and take, and so come to an understanding.’
In July, Rhodes sent his confidential agent, Dr Rutherfoord Harris, to London to pursue the matter. A series of meetings followed in August between Chamberlain, Colonial Office officials and representatives from the British South Africa Company. The company proposed that it should acquire a strip of land along which to build its railway and a 400-square-mile block of land around Gaberones for settlement; it further asked for permission to station its police force at Gaberones to protect against possible Tswana disturbances; and it wanted these arrangement to be carried out with the least possible delay.
While these negotiations were under way, three Tswana chiefs - Kgama, Sebele and Bathoen - arrived in London to make clear to the Colonial Office their vehement opposition to any plan to hand over the Bechuanaland Protectorate to the company. Mindful of the experience of Matabeleland, they expressed fears that they would lose their land under company rule as the Ndebele had done:
You can see now that what they really want is not to govern us nicely but to take our land to sell it that they may see gain. And we ask you to protect us . . . The Company have conquered the Matabele, and taken the land of the people they conquered. We know that custom: but we have not yet heard that it is the custom of any people to take the best lands of their friends. In Bathoen’s country [around Gaberones] they seek a large piece of land, and in that land Bathoen’s people have gardens and cattle posts. In Kgama’s country they seek nearly all the best parts . . . Where will our cattle stay if the waters are thus taken from us? They will die. The Company wants to impoverish us so that hunger may drive us to become the white man’s servants who dig in his mines and gather his wealth.
Their case won widespread sympathy. The Colonial Office was flooded with resolutions and petitions from church and welfare organisations.
The outcome in November 1895 was seen as a compromise. Chamberlain agreed to continue with imperial protection for the lands of the Tswana chiefs, but allowed the company to obtain control of the balance of the Protectorate - about 100,000 square miles of territory, including a strip of land along the eastern border with the Transvaal.
Rhodes was furious at being forced to compromise, inundating Harris with telegrams: ‘It is humiliating to be utterly beaten by three niggers. They think more of one native at home, than the whole of South Africa . . .’; ‘settlement is a scandal’; ‘I do object to being beaten by three canting natives.’ In a letter to the Duke of Fife in December, Rhodes expressed his disgust:
A large country as big as the British Isles will now be definitely beaconed and dedicated to these people. It will be very difficult in future to alter these reserves. Who are these people? They are only sixty thousand in number and the worst specimens of humanity - certainly in Africa - and perhaps in the whole world. It means trouble in the future. And why was this done? Simply to please the temperance and missionary section of the English people.
Nevertheless, Rhodes had gained one vital immediate objective. For months he had been engaged in a conspiracy to overthrow Kruger’s government in the Transvaal. Chamberlain and senior Colonial Office officials had known of his intentions since August. Now, with the British government’s approval, he had secured a territorial base on the Transvaal border, only 170 miles from Johannesburg, from which he could launch an armed invasion.