The Matabele Wars

6 mins read

US military historian Fred Chiaventone explains the backdrop to the little known Matabele Wars.

The Last Stand of the Shangani Patrol, a fatal action for British colonial units during the Matabele Wars.

We know the story. Goaded into a hopeless war by an expanding colonial empire, thousands of warriors rise against their oppressors – and inadvertently spawn a legend.

There is a twist: present-day Zimbabwe, seemingly always a place of conflict and bloodshed, is the site of this desperate fight by a few white soldiers against a horde of tribesmen, resentful of European attempts to colonise their territory.

While we are very familiar with the struggle for South Africa and the desperate encounters at Isandhlwana, Rorke’s Drift, and Ulundi during the Zulu War of 1879, this was only the beginning of a generation of brutal conflict across the ‘dark continent’.

In the waning years of the 19th century, South African businessman and political leader Cecil Rhodes made plans to enlarge the holdings of the British Empire in Africa and construct a railroad linking Cairo to the Cape of Good Hope.

In October 1889, having acquired a Royal Charter from Queen Victoria, Rhodes was authorised to conclude trade agreements with local tribes, establish banks, and own and manage land in the region.

But Rhodes, who had made a fortune in the diamond industry and gone on to become the Prime Minister of Cape Colony, had grander ambitions.

It was Rhodes’ view that the native population of Africa existed ‘in a state of barbarism’, and that it was the Anglo-Saxon’s obligation to subjugate and govern the continent. As he put it: ‘the more of the world we inhabit the better it is for the human race’.


King Lobengula, leader of the Matabele tribe.

There were, however, a number of obstacles to be overcome – especially opposition to these plans from the ruler of Matabeleland, a region that stood directly in Rhodes’ path.

King Lobengula had employed his army to great effect in the areas surrounding his kingdom, but had maintained a rather cordial relationship with Anglo-Saxon groups who had arrived more recently.

Under King Mzilikazi, the Matabele had scrapped unsuccessfully with Boer settlers in the late 1840s, but, suspecting this was a no-win situation, his successor Lobengula had studiously avoided confrontation with the whites, encouraging hunters and traders, and even looking the other way when Bechuanaland, a favourite target of Matabele raids, was made a British Protectorate in 1885.

Trouble began to brew in June 1890 when Rhodes sent a force he termed the ‘Pioneer Column’ from Bechuanaland into Shona territory – north of Matabeleland – ostensibly to exploit mining opportunities, but really to gain a foothold for the expansion of British colonial holdings.

Colonial mining magnate and politician Cecil Rhodes wanted to paint the length of Africa from Cairo to the Cape in British red.

The column consisted of 200 civilians escorted by more than 400 paramilitary personnel. His plans did not bode well for the Matabele.

In Rhodes’ words,

It must be brought home to them that in future nine-tenths of them will have to spend their lives in manual labour, and the sooner that is brought home to them the better.

Rhodes was under no illusion that the Matabele would willingly accept this transparent land grab and the prospect of their transformation into wage-labourers for imperialists like himself. Conflict was inevitable.


Originally known as the Ndebele (‘men of the long shields’), the Matabele were a fierce warrior tribe. Originally a faction of the Zulu nation, they had fled north after Mzilikazi had a falling out with Shaka in 1823.

The Matabele had first moved into the Transvaal, but a series of setbacks against the lately arrived Boers forced them to move further and finally settle south-west of the current border of Zimbabwe in what is now called Matabeleland.

Following their dismal performance against the Boers, Mzilikazi set about reorganising the Matabele army. His followers were detailed into separate impis or regiments (also called ibuthos) based around their home kraals (villages of huts) and drilled into efficient fighting units.

Depiction of Matabele warriors by 19th-century artist Thomas Baines.

Despite his reforms, the Matabele were not a match for their much stronger Zulu cousins, so they instead turned their attention to subjugating the less-aggressive tribes in the region where they had settled.

With Mzilikazi’s death in September 1868, the throne was inherited by his youngest son, Lobengula, but only after a two-year civil war against his older brother Nkulumane and the chiefs who supported the latter. Thereafter he consolidated and expanded Matabele territory, and continued reorganising the army.

Lobengula’s entire army has been estimated at 15,000 men, divided into 40 impis. Some of the more prominent units were the Ingubo, ‘The Blanket’ (Lobengula’s personal bodyguard); the Imbizo, ‘Drafted’; the Insuga, ‘Stand Up’; the Inzimnyama, ‘The Black Ones’ (an elite regiment); the Inyati, ‘Buffalo’; and the Amahlogohlogo, ‘Golden Weaver Birds’.

Both Lobengula and his cousin Mtshane Kumalo served in the Amahlogohlogo in their youth, and the latter was commanding the regiment in 1893. The name was a reference to the warriors’ headdresses.


While they frequently operated independently, the impis could be drawn together for large engagements, where their tactics mirrored those of the Zulu, utilising the traditional ‘horns of the buffalo’.

The formation usually consisted of a centre flanked by two wings – ‘the chest’ flanked by ‘the horns’ – sometimes augmented with a reserve called ‘the loins’. This became the favoured tactic, possibly the singular tactic, of the Matabele, with the chest crashing into the enemy’s front as the horns converged on his flanks in a classic double-envelopment.

The warriors’ usual armament consisted of two long throwing spears (assegai) and a short, broad-bladed stabbing spear (iklwa) for close-quarters fighting. Some warriors would also carry an iwisa or knobkerrie – a sort of mace used to club one’s enemies.

Shields were large ovals, usually 5 feet in length and 2 feet in width, constructed of ox-hide stretched over a long wooden centrepole. The shields were black, white, red, or spotted, depending on the designation of the impi which carried them.

As a sort of uniform, the warriors wore a headdress, a short cape of ostrich feathers, a kilt made of leopard or civet skins ornamented with the tails of white cattle (some of which might have been suspended from their arms and calves as well), and around their ankles rings of copper, brass, or similar metals.

While the Matabele were exceptionally successful in raids against the Tonga, Ila, Barotse, and Shona peoples, they were no match for white colonialists – despite the recent introduction of firearms in the form of the Martini-Henry rifle – many of them recycled following Chelmsford’s defeat at Isandhlwana in 1879.

Unfortunately for the Matabele, they were not very proficient in the use of these weapons. They tended to fire high in the belief that the bullets would fall into their enemies like thrown assegais.


British South Africa Company Police photographed on campaign in 1893.

Those called on to face Lobengula’s impis were essentially a colonial police force. The British South Africa Company Police was a paramilitary force of mounted infantry formed by Rhodes in 1889.

Modelled on the Royal Irish Constabulary, many of its members were actually trained in Dublin before being dispatched to South Africa. The unit was commanded by Major Patrick William Forbes, a former officer of the 6th Inniskilling Dragoons, who had come to South Africa in 1880. The entire force consisted of no more than 700 men.

It was this force that Rhodes employed to accompany and protect his Pioneer Column when it was dispatched to establish settlements in Mashonaland in 1890. Though few, the BSA Company Police had the benefit of being equipped with more modern technology than anything available to the Matabele.

In addition to Martini-Henry rifles and Webley revolvers, they possessed two 7-pdr artillery pieces, five Maxim and three other machine-guns, and a powerful searchlight.


Theoretically, Rhodes’ enterprises, in exchange for British government authority to acquire and develop land, were required to uphold free trade in the region and respect the laws and customs of native inhabitants.

It was a requirement that was honoured more in the breach than the observance. Mining rights were exacted from Lobengula without his assent and Rhodes demanded that the Matabele stop attacking the Shona people, the usual targets of their raiding.

Clearly, serious trouble was brewing between the white settlers and the Matabele. Lobengula, incensed by the arrogance of the whites, set his warriors loose in June 1893 to rampage through the area of Mashonaland near Fort Victoria (present-day Masvingo).

Although white settlers were left alone, Matabele warriors burned kraals and slaughtered any Shona tribesmen they encountered. Neighbouring whites were appalled, with one recalling how the ‘insolent Matabele swaggered through the streets of the town with their bloody spears and rattling shields’. It was precisely the sort of reaction Rhodes had hoped to provoke.

This is an extract from a 13-page special feature in the June 2018 issue of Military History Monthly

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