top of page

Africa During the Scramble: Company Rule

By Gary Oswald

Picture of King Lobengula of the Matabele; by Ralph Peacock, based on a sketch by E. A. Maund

The Shona people, the largest ethnicity in modern day Zimbabwe, have a much longer history of strong centralised Empires than most of Southern Africa. Great Zimbabwe was the dominant force in the country in the early middle ages, the Mutapa ruled much of it from the 15th to 18th centuries and during the late 18th and early 19th centuries the Shona were united under the Rozvi. These Kingdoms had been in regular contact with the Europeans since around 1515, as they traded heavily with the owners of the Swahili coast, selling their minerals to Asia and Europe in return for luxury goods. They had also fought off numerous Portuguese invasions, who desired to control those minerals themselves, meaning, despite a lack of direct presence, the Portuguese would continue to claim to be the rightful owners of that land up until 1891.

By the early 19th century however, the Rozvi Empire was in decline, thanks to droughts, internal strife and decreasing trade with the Portuguese. They were also increasingly faced with invasions from the people to their south, such as the Swazi, during the period of war and migration that defined Southern Africa in the early 19th century. In 1840, the last blow to Shona dominance came when the Zulu warrior Mzilikazi led his own forces into Zimbabwe after having been driven out of the Transvaal by the Boers. Mzilikazi and his Matabele Kingdom would destroy the Shona armies and took on the role of the new dominant power in Zimbabwe. Mzilikazi would also defeat a second Boer invasion from 1847 to 1851 which eventually led to the Transvaal Republic recognising their Northern limits in 1852.

Mzilikazis's son Lobengula thus inherited one of the greatest military forces in Southern Africa, an army 15,000 strong based on Shaka's model, which every able bodied man in the Kingdom had to serve in. Lobengula claimed to be the overlord of the Shona and ruler of all of modern Zimbabwe, which included the old gold mines of the Mutapa and Rozvi Empires, where they had obtained the minerals they had sold at the Swahili ports. In the aftermath of the discovery of the gold fields in the Transvaal, Lobengula's land became seen as a new El Dorado in the eyes of many South Africans and in particular in the eyes of Cecil Rhodes, a British born member of the Cape Parliament.

As a result, the British advance into what is modern day Zimbabwe, Zambia and Malawi was not organised by London. It was entirely the brainchild of members of the Cape Colony led by Cecil Rhodes, and funded partly by his own money earned as a Diamond Magnate and partly by what partners he could get investment from, such as the Rothschilds. Without this private investment, the British Government would have almost certainly not stumped up the Millions of pounds required to conquer the area, the Portuguese claims would have gone unchallenged and the fates of a vast area of Africa, and the people who lived there, would be very different.

Rhodes' political project was a unification of English and Afrikaner whites in the Cape Colony, at the expense of its non white citizens, and then that colony becoming the driving force in a united Southern Africa. His aim was therefore to extend the area which the Cape controlled. He had pushed for the Tswana lands to be annexed to the Cape, and though he'd been unable to achieve all his goals, with Khama III maintaining his throne as a British protectorate in modern day Botswana, he had managed to get his hands on the Southern Tswana lands. As Prime Minister of the Cape Colony and as a man who had made a personal fortune in mining diamonds and gold, Rhodes was ready to go after Lobengula. If he could find mineral wealth in the new lands of the Matabele equal to that the Boers had in their own lands, than the Cape would be much less economically dependent on the Transvaal Republic, and could take a leading role over them.

And because of his own personal fortune, he had the luxury of being able to bypass both London, who he had never forgot had been convinced by the Christian Tswana people to keep them as a protectorate rather than hand their lands to Rhodes, and the very Cape government he was a part of, who would rather spend their tax money on building railways and then paying off the debt from building railways than on conquering land thousands of miles away. All Rhodes needed from Britain was a Royal Charter so that his land was part of the British Empire and so other European powers would not touch it.

Lobengula was aware that he was the next target of European expansion, with the Portuguese, German and Boers sniffing around his lands and the other powers in the region like the Zulu and Bapedi conquered. He had seen his rival Khama III of the Tswana react to similar pressure by aligning himself with the British and had seen that pay off with Khama maintaining control of most of his lands. Some sort of deal with the whites seemed to be his only hope. Unfortunately for him, Rhodes only planned to made a deal so he could break it.

In 1888, Lobengula agreed to allow Rhodes' British South Africa Company complete rights over any minerals found in his Kingdom in return for 100 pounds a month and regular supply of weapons. But the company were given no rights over the land at all, as he was aware how the Boers had used the granting of land concessions to break the power of the Swazi. Lobengula was also assured, verbally, that the company would obey the rules of his Kingdom entirely, would use only black workers and would not dig near towns. This verbal agreement was, of course, not written down and so would be entirely ignored but the written contract was also meant to be disregarded. Rhodes openly boasted that he was going to annex the entire land.

Rhodes' rivals in Britain, who feared that all these new mineral riches would be locked up by the Cape and not their own companies, leaked details of Rhodes' actual intentions to Lobengula who wrote a letter to Queen Victoria, asking for clarification that he would get what he had been assured of verbally. This could have sank any chance of the Company gaining a Royal charter, but Rhodes simply had the letter delayed from reaching London until he could bribe his rivals in the Royal court into changing their tune, and they quickly switched their support towards the Company they had been given shares in. The Company was granted a Royal Charter for governing land in Zimbabwe and Zambia and Lobengula's protests, which arrived after the Charter was granted, were completely ignored.

Having obtained a Royal Charter, Rhodes reached out to other polities in the area. In 1890 he signed an agreement with Lewanika of the Lozi in Zambia, who had earlier refused an alliance with Lobengula as he felt the Matabele were a greater threat than the British. Lewanika, much like Lobengula, was lied to. He thought he had signed an agreement with the British directly like Khama had, which kept him firmly in control but instead he had signed an agreement with a Company which was interested in direct exploitation of his land. Mwata X of Kazembe in Zambia also signed a treaty under false pretences. He would try and withdraw from that treaty in 1897 when the British attempted to collect taxes on his land, which he had not agreed to. He defeated the local militia but British reinforcements burned down his capital and forced him to capitulate to Company rule.

Much more eager to deal with Rhodes was the African Lakes Company, an almost bankrupt Scottish venture which had been set up to work alongside Scottish Missionaries around Lake Malawi. It was a trade and transport concern that worked in close cooperation with the missions and aimed to combat the slave trade by introducing legitimate trade which would also give its directors a profit. The venture was however proving harder than expected. It could not compete with the existing Swahili traders due to a difficulty in obtaining European goods to sell and its treaties with the local Ngonde people inadvertently dragged it into wars with their rivals, the Henga.

In 1888, the Company appealed to the British for aid and they sent a regiment to reinforce the company against a joint attack by the Henga and the Swahili. This saved the Company from being driven out entirely, but the Swahili were too numerous to be defeated, resulting in a stalemate that saw both forces still in the field. And in the same period the Portuguese were increasingly active in the area, signing treaties and fighting battles with the local polities. The African Lakes Company clearly couldn't control the area by itself. London, and Cape Town, resolved to step in.

In 1891, Britain forced Portugal to withdraw entirely from the area and give up their claims to Zambia, Zimbabwe and Malawi entirely, much to their anger (this will be covered in more detail in the next article) and they declared the Central African protectorate, with Rhodes' British South Africa Company essentially buying out the African Lakes Company. New British troops, mostly Sikh or African, were sent to conquer this new protectorate for the British. Armed with artillery and Machine Guns, the British took down the native polities one at a time in a series of surprise attacks, destroying the Yao from 1891 to 93, the Swahili and Henga in 1895 and the Ngonde in 1896. The only exception was the Northern Ngonde Kingdom, who had been firmly allied with the Scottish Missionaries. They accepted British rule peacefully in 1904, with their King paid a salary to act as the paramount Chief of the region.

The other Kingdoms were less lucky, their rulers were disempowered in favour of British Residents and around 15% of their land was handed out to white settlers, with hut taxes used to force the natives to labour for them on their coffee plantations.

Lobengula of the Matabele, would find himself increasingly worried that he would face this same fate as the treaty he had agreed to in 1888 was not being kept to. To attack the white settlers would, Lobengula knew, invite British retaliation, but he was worried that to not do so would lead to him just being attacked later. He was right, as early as 1889 Rhodes and his advisors had planned to launch a surprise attack upon Lobengula's capital with around 500 men, who were promised land in the colony as a reward. In our timeline, one of the settlers let the plan slip while drunk and the British commissioner firmly stopped any such foolishness. That's easily avoided and given the size of Lobengula's army, had this attack actually been carried out, there is every chance it would have been a disastrous failure on a level of the Jameson Raid. Which rather begs the question as to what do the British do if it is?

Would they write off Rhodes as a reckless idiot and allow the Portuguese to press their claims over the region instead or would they answer the call for vengeance for the deed settlers and launch a Punitive Expedition against the Matabele? It's hard to rule out the former, given the mixed feelings London had about Rhodesia but with Salisbury in charge my instinct is the latter. Unless other events get in the way.

Paul Kruger had aimed to pre-empt Rhodes by launching his own attack on the Matabele, but he was convinced by the British to stay out, in return for the British offering no complaint to Kruger flexing his power over Britain's old allies the Swazi. Had Rhodes messed up by attacking Lobengula, Kruger is likely to go ahead with this, and with the excellent quality of the Boer militia of the era, it is likely they will succeed where the Boers had failed 40 years earlier. They might not wipe out the Matabele entirely, but it's possible they move the borders of the Transvaal north. And that would certainly encourage Lobengula to make a deal with either Portugal or Germany, of which Portugal, still working under the informal empire model prior to the British ultimatum, would likely give the better offer.

That does not mean Salisbury will accept it, you might still see a British ultimatum to Lisbon, but if Rhodes has discredited himself with a failed attack on Lobengula and his funding has disappeared then London might be looking for an escape route. And their allies Portugal gaining land would be seen as preferable to the Boers doing so.

Lieutenant Edward Tyndale-Biscoe hoists the Union Jack on the kopje overlooking Fort Salisbury on the morning of 13 September 1890

But of course Rhodes didn't launch that attack and instead in 1890, the well armed but primarily civilian Pioneer Column arrived in the Shona land that Lobengula claimed control over and essentially annexed it. Lobengula not only refused to respond with violence to this fragrant breach of the treaty, he kept any hot heads in his army from doing so too. The Column flew the British flag and that meant something, he could not be the one to draw first blood.

The column was isolated from new supplies for the first year and they lived in grim conditions, dying from malaria without any access to medicine. The first reinforcements arrived in 1891 and included the first women settlers, both nuns (who ran the hospital) and prostitutes. What didn't turn up was gold, the settlers were unable to find the mineral riches they'd searched for (gold and diamonds were later found in Zimbabwe but not in the qualities hoped for, the main mineral wealth would prove to be the copper found much later in northern Zambia) and as a result was losing money hand over fist. Rhodes responded by cutting costs, in December 1892 he reduced the armed police from 650 to just 150. The Matabele, Rhodes argued, would not dare to attack the British Flag, while the Shona themselves were grateful to have been freed from Matabele over lordship, so there was no need for more armed men.

Rhodesia, as the new colony would soon be called, was losing vast amounts of money and borrowing that money from firms in London. Until a railway was built, there was little chance of either crops or minerals being usefully exported and without an export market, the Colony would never be profitable and would likely be handed over to London, who might well leave Lobengula in charge like they had Khama. To avoid that humiliation, Rhodes needed the Railway built and to do that he felt he needed to maintain the peace with Lobengula, so he continued to pay the rent he had agreed in 1888. He also offered to supply the promised 1,000 rifles, though Lobengula refused to accept them, lest he was seen as agreeing to the annexation of the Shona land.

So when Lobengula, eager to attack someone to prove his legitimacy as a warrior after not responding to Rhode's provocations, invaded the land of Lewanika of the Lozi, who Rhodes had agreed to protect in that 1890 treaty, the settlers did not intervene. In 1893 however his army, het up from the humiliation of the settler's presence, massacred a band of around 400 Shona who had been raiding Matabele cattle herds. And that happened directly in view of the British Fort Victoria.

Leander Jameson, Rhodes' man in the colony, argued that the settlers had to react to this, to maintain their position in the area, and that if the Shona could not rely on British protection they would not tolerate the settlers' presence. Rhodes was reluctant but Jameson was convinced that if enough money could be found to arm 1,000 men he could break the Matabele once and far all, and remove that sword from over the settlers heads. Rhodes backed down and the money was found. Horses and men were bought from the Transvaal, much to Kruger's annoyance, with the recruits paid in the cattle or land they'd obtain from victory.

London had forbidden any offensive actions so would have prohibited this except Henry Loch, High Commissioner of the Cape Colony, lied to them. He claimed that the Matabele had attacked Fort Victoria. This was not true, the Matabele had been under strict orders to not do so and had not even fired back when Jameson had shot at them from the fort. But it was believed and so, as well as Jameson's army, Britain invaded from Botswana with their own force of around 2,500 led by King Khama, though in the end it would be delayed by Jameson and so only arrive after Jameson's force had already won the war.

The Company army was attacking in the aftermath of a devastating smallpox epidemic and Jameson had copied the Boer style of armoured wagons protected by machine guns that had been so effective in previous wars. Except this time, unlike any previous war, the British had the new Maxim machine guns, which would become the iconic weapon of the Scramble and would prove their effectiveness for the first time here. The Matabele were mown down in their thousands without landing so much as a scratch on the British.

Bulawayo, the Matabele capital, was captured in late 1893, and Jameson sent a message to Lobengula demanding his surrender. Lobengula offered his submission alongside a pouch of gold, but the note was destroyed by British soldiers, who stole the gold. Instead a column of around 40 soldiers was sent to hunt him down, they found him and recklessly marched forward to kill him, at which point they were surrounded and killed by Lobengula's royal guard. After that one last victory Lobengula and his advisors took poison and killed themselves. The Matabele Kingdom had been wiped out.

So could this be avoided? It could certainly be delayed if Rhodes doesn't agree to Jameson's plan or Loch is honest to London. But the two powers were on a collision course and the discrepancy in weapons was huge. An earlier war, before the Maxims and the reinforcements arrived could see a Matabele victory but they didn't have the artillery to take forts quickly, and a group of men besieged in Fort Victoria, are going to be the target of a relief expedition, which likely would overpower the Matabele. But that would be significant in itself as the fact it was a colony, not British, victory, did a lot in restoring confidence in the Company from its investors. If instead London needs to come to the rescue, that might see the Company be bought out.

Instead, with their main enemy defeated, the Company set about establishing white rule. The Matabele Cattle and Land were divided among the existing settlers and new farms were set up with white owners. The proud Shona and Matabele aristocracy were instead reduced to forced labour on those farms, with their cattle and land taken from them for arbitrary reasons. Any labour needed, whether building farms or digging ditches was done by the native blacks not the white settlers who wished to live instead as an aristocracy. And to supply that, a 10 shilling hut tax, to be paid for in cash, food or labour was applied. And forced labour was obtained at gunpoint and enforced by the lash.

It is difficult to think of any way the British could have acted in a way more likely to provoke a rebellion. They were almost cartoonishly brutal and gave no thought to trying win over hearts and minds, the idea seemingly being that with Lobengula dead, the Africans were too cowed to ever resist again. This would prove a deep miscalculation.

To make things even worse the land, like the rest of East Africa, was hit by disease and famine. The Rinderpest Epizootic hit the Rhodesian cattle herds and the El Niño droughts led to crop failures, something not helped by particularly large locust swarms. People began starving. And the authorities reacted to this crisis with even more cartoonish brutality. In order to protect their own cattle herds from the rinderpest infection, they started rounding up cattle herds from the natives and slaughtering them to try and stop the spread, even if the cattle was not yet infected.

Leander Jameson

At that point, three years after Lobengula's death, Leander Jameson took 500 armed men south to invade the Transvaal Republic where they failed miserably and were captured by President Kruger, as covered previously,. This, in many ways, was a sequel to the attack on Lobengulas's Matabele Kingdom. In both cases Jameson wanted to remove a powerful numerous neighbour with a pre-emptive unprovoked attack so they could not threaten the colony and so Rhodes could gain access to their resources. But what worked against the Matabele, thanks to huge advantages in weapons and discipline, failed miserably against the Transvaal, where Jameson overestimated disunity in the Republic. Jameson was a habitual gambler who eventually played against too big odds and lost. This is at least partly why I expect an 1889 attack on the Matabele, prior to the arrival of the Maxims, would also fail.

And the consequences of Jameson losing 500 men from the colony were profound. The Shona and Matabele peoples, seeing that the settler's armed police had just been vastly reduced in number, (there were less than 50 left in the colony) rose up en mass. The Matabele rose up first, in March 1896, because their spiritual leader, the Mlimo, was preaching that the destruction of the region could only be reversed by killing the white invaders, and the remaining secular aristocracy wished to regain their previous prominence. But it was more than that, Rhodesia was ruled by fear and force, with no attempt to make things bearable for the black natives. Remove the police and all you had, was a lot of white people surrounded by people who they'd given good reason to hate them.

Across the colony, white settlers were attacked and native policeman were either shot or switched sides. No mercy was shown, women and children were also killed in indiscriminate massacres, which killed around 400 of the settlers. Around 2,000 Europeans with an equal amount of loyal servants were put under Siege in the old Matabele capital of Bulawayo, where fear of their maxim guns prevented a serious assault. The rebels were well organised, most of them had served in the war three years earlier and had around 2,000 top quality rifles so they were able to keep up a siege with 10,000 men and conditions within Bulawayo quickly deteriorated.

But it was a spontaneous uprising and so there'd been no real plan. The Shona and Matabele had not cooperated, nobody had thought to go after Bulawayo until it had been fortified and nobody had managed to cut the telegraph wires, which meant reinforcements came quickly. After that initial success, the British rallied militarily. The settlers won a few skirmishes with the rebels and then around 1,000 volunteers arrived from South Africa to break the siege which, after a failed ambush by the Matabele, they managed to do.

At this point, in June, the Shona also rose up in rebellion, and attacked their own white settlers, killing another 100. Had the rebellion been more clearly led, this could have been coordinated with the Matabele but after generations of being a vassal people of the Matabele, the Shona had no clear leaders and would quickly feud among themselves. They relied far more on spiritual leaders who claimed to be able to block bullets which led to inefficient tactics, with them largely restricting themselves to protecting their own fortresses until they were taken one by one by machine gun fire. And by this point, new British armies were already arriving, with aid from the Portuguese, who put aside their anger over the ultimatum when faced with a black uprising that they feared could spread to their own colonies.

The new armies would take another 16 months to win the war entirely, but that was a slow but methodical destruction of the rebels by a superior force. June was when the rebellion had lost, if they were to win they needed to do it in the first four months. And that needed better organisation then a spontaneous rebellion could ever really have. They needed a Louverture type leader to emerge and one didn't.

Nor did the Colony learn anything from the rebellion. Having killed tens of thousands of rebels, they felt no need to appease the black residents of their colony and ran the colony on the same brutal lines of white supremacy as they had before. Southern Rhodesia has rightfully become a byword for the worst of European racism and the scars left from it are still felt in the Zimbabwe of today.

Rhodesia and Cecil Rhodes as much as German South-East Africa and Lothar von Trotha, were an example of how brutal imperialism had got by the end of the scramble. The good intentions and velvet gloves of elsewhere were not be seen. This was the iron fist unmasked.


Gary Oswald is the editor of the 'Grapeshot and Guillotines' and 'Emerald Isles' Anthologies.


bottom of page