Second Matabele War

From ScoutWiki, For Everyone, Everywhere involved with Scouting and Guiding...
Jump to navigation Jump to search

Template:Infobox Military Conflict The Second Matabele War, also known as the Matabeleland Rebellion and in Zimbabwe as the First Chimurenga, took place from 1896-1897.

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 War of Independence. Mlimo, the Ndebele spiritual/religious leader, is credited with fomenting much of the anger that led to this confrontation. He convinced the Ndebele and the Shona 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 nearly defenseless. The British would immediately send troops to suppress the Ndebele and the Shona, but it would cost the lives of many settlers, Ndebele, and Shona alike, take months before British forces would be adequate to break the sieges and defend the major settlements, and war would rage on until October of the following year.


Mlimo planned to wait until the night of March 29, the first full moon, to take Bulawayo by surprise immediately after a ceremony called the Big Dance. He promised, through his priests, that if the Ndebele went to war against the white settlers their bullets would change to water and their cannon shells would become eggs. His plan was to kill all of the settlers in Bulawayo first, but not to destroy the town itself as it would serve again as the royal kraal for the newly reincarnated King Lobengula. Mlimo decreed that the white settlers should be attacked and driven from the country through the Mangwe Pass on the Western edge of the Matobo Hills, which was to be left open and unguarded for this reason. Once the settlers were purged from Bulawayo, the Ndebele and Shona wariors would head out into the countryside and continue the slaughter until all the settlers were either killed or fled.

But several young Ndebele were overly anxious to go to war and the rebellion started prematurely. On March 20, Ndebele rebels shot and stabbed a native policeman. Over the next couple of days, additional Ndebele killed a few outlying settlers and prospectors. Selous, the famous big-game hunter, had heard rumors of settlers in the country-side being killed, but he thought it was a localized problem. When news of the policeman murder reached Selous on March 23, he knew the Ndebele had started a massive uprising.

Nearly 2,000 Ndebele warriors began the rebellion in earnest on March 24. Many of the young native police quickly deserted and joined the rebels, although some older native police remained loyal. Armed with Martini-Henry rifles, Winchester repeaters, and Lee-Metfords, as well old and obsolete guns, assegais, knobkerries, and battle-axes, the Ndebele headed into the countryside. When the rebellion first erupted the white settlers gave no thought to leaving the area. But as news of the massive rebellion spread, and the Shona joined in the fighting, the settlers headed toward Bulawayo. Within a week, 141 white settlers were slain in Matabeleland, an additional 103 were killed in Mashonaland, and hundreds of settler homes, ranches and mines were burned.

Siege of Bulawayo

With few troops to support them, the settlers quickly built a laager in the centre of Bulawayo on their own. Oil-soaked fagots were arranged in strategic locations in case of attack at night. Blasting gelatin was secreted in outlying buildings that were beyond the defense perimeter, to be exploded in the event the enemy occupied them. Empty bottles were gathered, broken, and the fragments thrown into a mass several inches deep and about twenty feet wide in front of the wagons. Barbed wire and a laager of sandbagged wagons was added to Bulawayo's defenses. Except for hunting rifles, there were few weapons to be found in Bulawayo. But fortunately for settlers, there were a few working artillery pieces and a small assortment of machine guns.

Rather than wait passively the settlers immediately mounted patrols, called the Bulawayo Field Force, under legendary figures such as Selous and Burnham who rode out to rescue any surviving settlers in the countryside and went on attack against the Ndebele. Selous raised a mounted troop of forty men to scout southward into the Matobo Hills. Maurice Gifford, along with 40 men, rode east along the Iniza River. Whenever settlers were found they were quickly loaded into their wagons and closely guarded on their way to Bulawayo. Within the first week of fighting, 20 men of the Bulawayo Field Force were killed and another 50 wounded.

In the First Matabele War, the Ndebele had experienced the effectiveness of the settler's Maxim guns, so they never mounted a significant attack against Bulawayo even though over 10,000 Ndebele warriors could be seen near the town. Conditions inside Bulawayo, however, were quickly becoming unbearable. During the day, settlers could go to homes and buildings within the town, but at night they were forced to seek shelter in the much smaller laager. Nearly 1,000 women and children were crowded into the city and false alarms of attacks were common. But the Ndebele did make one critical error during the siege; they neglected to cut the telegraph lines connecting Bulawayo to Mafeking. This gave both the relief forces and the besieged Bulawayo Field Force far more information than they would otherwise have had.

Several relief columns were organized to break the siege, but the long trek through hostile countryside would take several months. Late in May, the first two relief columns would appear near Bulawayo on almost the same day but from opposite directions -- Cecil Rhodes and Col. Beal arriving from Salisbury and Fort Victoria in Mashonaland 300 miles to the North; and Lord Grey and Col. Plumer from Kimberley and Mafeking, 600 miles to the South. The Southern relief forces were nearly ambushed on their approach to Bulawayo, but Selous discovered the whereabouts of the Matabele and the maxim guns of the relief forces drove back the attackers. Not long after relief forces began arriving in Bulawayo, Gen. Carrington arrived to take overall command along with his Chief of Staff, Col. Baden-Powell.

With the siege broken, an estimated 50,000 Matabele retreated into their stronghold of the Matobo Hills near Bulawayo. This region became the scene of the fiercest fighting between the white settler patrols and the Matabele. By June, the Shona kept their promise and joined the fighting on the side of the Ndebele. But lacking a clear leader similar to Mlimo, the Shonas mostly stayed behind their fortifications and conducted few raids.

Assassination of Mlimo

The turning point in the war came when a Zulu informant gave up information on the whereabouts of Mlimo. Burnham and a young scout named Bonnar Armstrong were dispatched to find Mlimo's sacred cave, which was also used as a religious temple, and to kill the Ndebele spiritual leader. Burnham and Armstrong traveled by night through Motobo Hills and closed in on the sacred cave. Not far from the cave was a village of about 100 huts filled with many warriors. The two scouts tethered their horses to a thicket and crawled on their bellies, screening their slow and cautious movements with branches held before them. Once inside the cave, they waited until Mlimo entered.

Mlimo was said to be about 60 years-old, with very dark skin, sharp-featured, and had a cruel, crafty look. Burnham and Armstrong waited until Mlimo entered the cave and started his dance of immunity, and then Burnham shot Mlimo just below the heart. The two scouts then leaped over the dead Mlimo and ran down a trail toward their horses. Hundreds of warriors, encamped nearby, picked up their arms and started in pursuit. To distract the Ndebele, Burnham set fire to the village. The two men got on their horses and rode for the next two hours back to Bulawayo, with Ndebele not far behind.


Upon learning of the death of Mlimo, Cecil Rhodes boldly walked unarmed into the Ndebele stronghold and persuaded the impi to lay down their arms.[1] The Second Matabele War thus ended on October 1897 and Matabeleland and Mashonaland would later be renamed Rhodesia.

Rhodes decreed in his will that he was to be buried in Matobo Hills, so when he died in the Cape in 1902 his body came up by train and wagon to Bulawayo. His burial was attended by Ndebele chiefs, who asked that the firing party should not discharge their rifles as this would disturb the spirits. Then, for the first and probably the only time, they gave the white man the Ndebele royal salute "Bayete". Rhodes is buried along side Jameson and the 34 white soldiers killed in the Shangani Patrol.


It was during the Second Matabele War that Baden-Powell and Burnham first met and began their life-long friendship. In mid-June 1896, during a scouting patrol in Matobo Hills, Burnham first taught Baden-Powell woodcraft, the fundamentals of scouting. As a boy growing up in the American Old West during the Indian Wars, Burnham had learned woodcraft from Indian trackers, frontiersman, and cowboys, so as a scout in Africa he was simply practicing the art and applying it as a soldier. So impressed was Baden-Powell by Burnham's scouting spirit the he fondly told people he "sucked him dry" of all he could possibly tell. Woodcraft was not generally practiced outside of the American Old West, but it was vitally needed in places like colonial Africa, so Baden-Powell and Burnham discussed how this art might be taught to young boys. These young boy scouts envisioned by Baden-Powell and Burnham during those evenings camping in the Matobo Hills was one of fighters first whose business it was to face their enemies with both valor and good cheer, and as social workers afterwards. While Baden-Powell went on to refine the concept of scouting and eventually become the founder of the international scouting movement, Burnham can legitimately be called the movement's father.

See also



  • History of Rhodesia, by Howard Hensman (1900) -- the full-text of the book can be found online for free PDF
  • The Story of Baden-Powell, by Harold Begbie (1900)
  • Scouting on Two Continents, by Major Frederick Russell Burnham, D.S.O., Autobiography. LC call number: DT775 .B8 1926. (1926)
  • Taking Chances, by Major Frederick Russell Burnham, D.S.O., LC call number: DT29 .B8. (1944)
  • The Matabele campaign, 1896; being a narrative of the campaign in suppressing the native rising in Matabeleland and Mashonaland, by Col. Robert Baden-Powell, ISBN 0-8371-3566-4

External links