Map of Zimbabwe showing Matabeleland
Map of Zimbabwe: Matabeleland is on the west

Modern day Matabeleland is a region in Zimbabwe divided into three provinces: Matabeleland North, Bulawayo and Matabeleland South. These provinces are in the west and south-west of Zimbabwe, between the Limpopo and Zambezi rivers. The region is named after its inhabitants, the Ndebele people. The Ndebele people are an agglomeration of Zulus led by Mzilikazi, Sotho, Kalanga, Venda, Tonga and other tribes normally referred to as minorities by the government. Some of the ethnic groups considered under the Ndebele umbrella term prefer to be identified separately. The Zimbabwean statistics office asserts the Population as at (1992) 1,855,300. Area: 181,605 km². The languages spoken are Kalanga, Sotho, Tonga, Venda, Ndebele and other dialects of the aforementioned. The major city is Bulawayo, other notable towns are Plumtree and Hwange. The land is particularly fertile but dry. This area has important gold deposits. Industries include gold and other mineral mines, and engineering. There has been a decline in the industries in this region as water is in short supply. Promises by the government to draw water for the region through the Matabeleland Zambezi Water Project have not been carried out. The region is allegedly marginalised by the government.



The San People and various ironworking cultures

Stone Age evidence indicates that the San people, now living mostly in the Kalahari Desert, are the descendants of this region's original inhabitants, almost 100,000 years ago. There are also remnants of several iron working cultures dating back to AD 300. Little is known of the early ironworkers, but it is believed that they put pressure on the San and gradually took over the land.

Rozwi Empire

Around the 10th and 11th centuries the Bantu-speaking Kalanga arrived from the north and settled in southern Africa in the Mapungubwe ruins. Later they moved north and both the San and the early ironworkers were driven out. By the 15th century, the Kalanga had established a strong empire, known as Munhumutapa, with its capital at the ancient city of Zimbabwe. This empire was split by the end of the 15th century with southern part becoming the Rozwi Empire.

Ndebele Kingdom


In the late 1830s, some 20,000 Ndebele, descendants of the Zulus in South Africa and led by Mzilikazi Khumalo, invaded the Kalanga Rozwi Empire. Many of the Kalanga people were incorporated and the rest were made satellite territories who paid tribute to the Ndebele Kingdom. He called his new nation Mthwakazi, a Zulu word which means something which became big at conception, in Zulu "into ethe ithwasa yabankulu" but the territory was called Matabeleland by Europeans. Mzilikazi organised this ethnically diverse nation into a militaristic system of regimental towns and established his capital at Bulawayo. He was a statesman of considerable stature, able to weld the many conquered tribes into a strong, centralised kingdom. In 1852, the Boer government in Transvaal made a treaty with Mzilikazi. However, gold was discovered in Mashonaland in 1867 and the European powers became increasingly interested in the region. Mzilikazi died on 9 September 1868, near Bulawayo. His son, Lobengula, succeeded him as king. In exchange for wealth and arms, Lobengula granted several concessions to the British, the most prominent of which is the 1888 Rudd concession giving Cecil Rhodes exclusive mineral rights in much of the lands east of his main territory. Gold was already known to exist, so with the Rudd concession, Rhodes was able to obtain a royal charter to form the British South Africa Company in 1889.

British South Africa Company

In 1890, Rhodes sent a group of settlers, known as the Pioneer Column, into Mashonaland where they founded Fort Salisbury (now Harare). In 1891 an Order-in-Council declared Matabeleland and Mashonaland British protectorates. Rhodes had a vested interest in the continued expansion of white settlements in the region, so now with the cover of a legal mandate, he used a brutal attack by Ndebele against the Shona near Fort Victoria (now Masvingo) in 1893 as a pretext for attacking the kingdom of Lobengula. Also in 1893, a concession awarded to Sir John Swinburne was detached from Matabeleland to be administered by the British Resident Commissioner of the Bechuanaland Protectorate, to which the territory was formally annexed in 1911 and it remains part of modern Botswana, known as the Tati Concessions Land.

First Matabele War

Battle between British soldiers and Matabele (Richard Caton Woodville)

The first decisive battle was fought when on 1 November 1893 when a laager was attacked on open ground near the Bembesi River by Imbezu and Ingubu regiments. The laager consisted of 670 British soldiers, 400 of whom were mounted along with a small force of native allies, and fought off the Imbezu and Ingubu forces, which were considered by Sir John Willoughby to number 1,700 warriors in all. The laager had with it a small artillery of 5 Maxim guns, 2 seven-pounders, 1 Gardner gun, and 1 Hotchkiss. The Maxim guns took centre stage and decimated the native force.

Lobengula had 80,000 spearmen and 20,000 riflemen, against fewer than 700 soldiers of the British South Africa Police, but the Ndebele warriors were no match against the British Maxim guns. Leander Starr Jameson immediately sent his troops to Bulawayo to try to capture Lobengula, but the king escaped and left Bulawayo in ruins behind him. An attempt to bring the king and his forces to submit led to the disaster of the Shangani Patrol when a Ndebele Impi defeated a British South Africa Company patrol led by Major Allan Wilson at the Shangani river in December 1893. Except for Frederick Russell Burnham and two other scouts sent for reinforcements, the detachment was surrounded and wiped out. This incident had a lasting influence on Matabeleland and the colonists who died in this battle are buried at Matobo Hills along with Jameson and Cecil Rhodes. In white Rhodesian history, Wilson's battle takes on the status of General Custer's stand at Little Big Horn in the USA. The Matabele fighters honoured the dead men with a salute to their bravery in battle and reportedly told the king, "They were men of men and their fathers were men before them." Under mysterious circumstances, Lobengula died in January 1894, and within a few short months the British South Africa Company controlled Matabeleland and white settlers continued to arrive.

Second Matabele War

In March 1896, the Ndebele revolted against the authority of the British South Africa Company in what is now celebrated in Zimbabwe as the First Chimurenga, i.e., First War of Independence. Mlimo, the Matabele spiritual/religious leader, is credited with fomenting much of the anger that led to this confrontation. He convinced the Ndebele that the white settlers (almost 4,000 strong by then) were responsible for the drought, locust plagues and the cattle disease rinderpest ravaging the country at the time.

Mlimo's call to battle was well-timed. Only a few months earlier, the British South Africa Company's Administrator General for Matabeleland, Leander Starr Jameson, had sent most of his troops and armaments to fight the Transvaal Republic in the ill-fated Jameson Raid. This left the country’s security in disarray. In June 1896, the Shona too joined the war, but they stayed mostly on the defensive. The British would immediately send troops to suppress the Ndebele and the Shona, only it would take months and cost many hundreds of lives before the territory would be once again be at peace. Shortly after learning of the assassination of Mlimo at the hands of the American scout Frederick Russell Burnham, Cecil Rhodes showed great courage when he boldly walked unarmed into the Ndebele stronghold in Matobo Hills and persuaded the impi to lay down their arms, thus bringing the war to a close in October 1896.[1] Matabeleland and Mashonaland would continue on only as provinces of the larger state of Rhodesia.

Birthplace of Scouting

Baden-Powell's sketch of Chief of Scouts Burnham, Matobo Hills, 1896.

It was in Matabeleland during the Second Matabele War that Robert Baden-Powell, who later became the founder of the Scouting movement, and Frederick Russell Burnham, the American born Chief of Scouts for the British Army, first met and began their life-long friendship.[2] In mid-June 1896, while scouting in the Matobo Hills, Burnham began teaching Baden-Powell woodcraft and it was here that Burnham inspired and gave Baden-Powell the plan for the program and the code of honor of Scouting for Boys.[3][4] Practiced by frontiersmen of the American Old West and Indigenous peoples of the Americas, woodcraft was generally unknown to the British. These skills eventually formed the basis of what is now called scoutcraft, the fundamentals of Scouting. Baden-Powell recognised that wars in Africa were changing markedly and the British Army needed to adapt; so during their joint scouting missions, Baden-Powell and Burnham discussed the concept of a broad training programme in woodcraft for young men, rich in exploration, tracking, fieldcraft, and self-reliance. It was also during these scouting missions in the Matobo Hills that Baden-Powell first started to wear his signature campaign hat like the one worn by Burnham.[5] Later, Baden-Powell wrote a number of books on Scouting, and even started to train and make use of adolescent boys, most famously during the Siege of Mafeking, during the Second Boer War.[4][6][7]

British Rule

The flag of Southern Rhodesia
The flag of the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland

British settlement of Rhodesia continued, and by October 1923, the territory of Southern Rhodesia was annexed to the crown. The Ndebele thereby became British subjects and the colony received its first basic constitution and first parliamentary election. Ten years later, the British South Africa Company ceded its mineral rights to the territory's government for £2 million, and a deep recession of the 1930s gave way to a post-war boom of British immigration.

After the onset of self-government, a major issue in Southern Rhodesia was the relationship between the white settlers and the Ndebele and Shona populations. One major consequence was that the white settlers were able to enact discriminatory legislation concerning land tenure. The Land Apportionment and Tenure Acts reserved 45% of the land area for exclusively white ownership. 25% was designated “Tribal Trust Land” which was available to be worked on a collective basis by the already settled farmers and where individual title was not offered.

In 1965, the white government of Rhodesia led by prime minister, Ian Smith declared its independence from Britain, only the second state to do so, the other being the USA under George Washington in 1776. Initially, this state maintained its loyalty to Queen Elizabeth II as "Queen of Rhodesia" (a title to which she never consented) but by 1970 even that link was severed, and Rhodesia became a totally independent republic.

Sovereign Rhodesia

The flag of Rhodesia

The white-ruled Rhodesian government struggled to obtain international recognition and faced serious economic difficulties as a result of international sanctions. Some states did support the white minority government of Rhodesia, most notably South Africa and Portugal. In 1972, the Zimbabwe African National Union began a lengthy armed campaign against Rhodesia’s white minority government in what became known as the "Bush War" by White Rhodesians and as the "Second Chimurenga" (or rebellion in Shona) by supporters of the rebels. The Matabele, backed by Moscow, set up a separate war front from neighbouring Zambia. The Rhodesian government settled a ceasefire in 1979. For a brief period, Rhodesia reverted to the status of British colony, but in early 1980, elections were held and the ZANU party, led by Mugabe, exercised their rule over the independent nation of Zimbabwe. Matabeleland and Mashonaland would continue on as provinces of this new nation.


The flag of Zimbabwe

Following independence in 1980, Zimbabwe initially made significant economic and social progress, but tensions between the Shona and the Ndebele began to surface once again. The government responded with a series of military campaigns against the civilians, with the North Korean-trained 5th brigade killing tens of thousands of civilians in Matabeleland.[8] By early 1984, the army disrupted food supplied in Matabeleland and much of the Ndebele population suffered food shortages. Robert Mugabe and Joshua Nkomo, finally reconciled their political differences by late 1987.

In the early 1990s, a Land Acquisition Act was passed calling for the Mugabe government to purchase mostly white-owned commercial farming land for redistribution to native Africans. Matabeleland has rich central plains, watered by tributaries of the two rivers, the Zambezi and the Limpopo, allowing it to sustain cattle and consistently produce large amounts of cotton, and maize. But land grabbing, squatting, and repossessions of large white farms under Mugabe's program resulted in a 90% loss in productivity in large-scale farming, ever higher unemployment, and hyper-inflation. White residents fled the country and strikes further crippled production prompting ever more severe repression by the government. AIDS has also had a significant impact on this nation; more than 25% of the adult population is currently infected.

Matabeleland Freedom Party

People in Matabeleland generally describe the 1980s massacres as genocide and insist they plan to have the perpetrators placed on trial at the International Criminal Court at The Hague.

In 2006, a separatist organization, the Matabeleland Freedom Party or MFP was founded by exiles living in Johannesburg in neighbouring South Africa. The MFP seeks a referendum to regain Matabeleland independence that existed until 1894, under a constitutional monarchy.

The party has established chapters in Bulawayo, Lupane and in other districts of Matabeleland. Their website can be found at

See also


  1. ^ Farwell, Byron (2001). The Encyclopedia of Nineteenth-Century Land Warfare: An Illustrated World View. W. W. Norton & Company. pp. 539. ISBN 0393047709. 
  2. ^ Burnham, Frederick Russell (1926). Scouting on Two Continents. Doubleday, Page & company. pp. 2; Chapters 3 & 4. OCLC 407686. 
  3. ^ DeGroot, E.B. (July 1944). "Veteran Scout". Boys' Life (Boy Scouts of America): 6–7. Retrieved 2010-07-16. 
  4. ^ a b Baden-Powell, Robert (1908). Scouting for Boys: A Handbook for Instruction in Good Citizenship. London: H. Cox. xxiv. ISBN 0-486457-19-2. 
  5. ^ Jeal, Tim (1989). Baden-Powell. London: Hutchinson. ISBN 0-09-170670-X. 
  6. ^ Proctor, Tammy M. (July 2000). "A Separate Path: Scouting and Guiding in Interwar South Africa". Comparative Studies in Society and History 42 (3). ISSN 3548-1356. 
  7. ^ Forster, Reverend Dr. Michael. "The Origins of the Scouting Movement" (DOC). Netpages. Retrieved 2007-10-02. 
  8. ^

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