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Lobengula (died ca. 1894) was a South African Ndebele king. His kingdom was the last of the major African states to be destroyed by the colonialists in southern Africa.

From the second decade of the 19th century to about 1840 southern Africa had been convulsed in turmoil and destruction. Shaka the Great had usurped the Zulu throne in or about 1818 and had created a powerful military machine with which he laid waste large parts of southern Africa in the bid to create a united Zulu nation.

One of the most brilliant commanders of this period of destruction, which the Zulu call Imfecane, was Mzilikazi. He had been chief of the Kumalo clan and one of Shaka's ablest generals. After a quarrel with Shaka, Mzilikazi fled Zululand with his people and fought his way into what is now Rhodesia, where he established the Ndebele (Matabele) kingdom. Lobengula was his son.

Lobengula ruled the Ndebele during a time of crisis in central Africa. The Berlin Conference (1884-1885) was to cut Africa into spheres of influence for the European powers eager to establish colonies. The Ndebele kingdom's geographic position made it the center across which the ambitions of the Europeans collided.

Coming from the south, over what is now known as Botswana, the British worked through Cecil Rhodes to establish themselves in Lobengula's land. Rhodes, then premier of the Cape Colony, wanted to carve out a vast British colony which would stretch from the Cape of Good Hope to Egypt. The railway line he planned to build to link Cape Town and Cairo would run through Ndebele territory. He also wanted a British presence in central Africa to block Boer movement northward. The Portuguese dreamed of a link between Angola and Mozambique across Ndebele country, and the Germans wanted one between South-West Africa and Tanganyika. From the Congo the Belgians were pressing southward toward Lobengula's domains. The Boers from the Transvaal had their eyes on the fertile lands on the northern side of the Limpopo.

Concessions and Partitions

The British sent a missionary, John Smith Moffat, to Lobengula's court to keep an eye on British interests. Moffat was the son of a missionary who had made a name for himself among the Botswana to the south. Lobengula welcomed him as a bearer of spiritual tidings. The missionary persuaded the King to sign a treaty with the British by which Lobengula undertook not to cede land to any power without the consent of the British. Sections of the army opposed the treaty on the score that it surrendered the sovereignty of the Ndebele to the British. Lobengula believed and argued that the man of God wanted a friendship which would protect that very sovereignty.

Rhodes followed the Moffat maneuver with a delegation to Lobengula which asked for and got permission for Rhodes to trade, hunt, and prospect for precious minerals in Ndebele territory. This came to be known as the Rudd Concession (1888). In return Rhodes offered 1, 000 Martini-Henry rifles, 100, 000 rounds of ammunition, an annual stipend of £1, 200, and a steamboat on the Zambezi. He formed the British South Africa Company to explore the concession and organized 200 pioneers, promising each a 3, 000-acre farm on Ndebele land, and sent them north with a force of 500 company police.

Rhodes's plans infuriated the Ndebele. Lobengula canceled the concession and ordered the British out of his country. As he had only spears to ensure respect for his commands, the British ignored his order, proceeded to complete the road link with the south, and brought in more settlers.

Lobengula next tried diplomacy, an art in which he had never excelled. He gave a concession to Edouard Lippert from Johannesburg in the Boer Republic. Lippert was to make an annual payment to Lobengula for a lease which gave him the right to grant, lease, or rent parts of Ndebele land in his name for 100 years. This attempt to play the Boers against the British was Lobengula's undoing. Lippert turned round and sold the concession to the very company Lobengula had expelled. The company cut up Lobengula's land and distributed the promised farms to the pioneers.

The company's British shareholders were pleased with Rhodes's stratagem. Encouraged by his victory, Rhodes next planned to extend the railway line from Mafeking northward. This line was to run through Ndebele territory. But by this time Lobengula and his people were no longer in the mood to allow further incursions into their lands. Rhodes had to start thinking of war.

British telegraph wires were cut near Victoria. The company's police seized the cattle found near the scene of the crime. It turned out that the animals belonged to Lobengula. The Ndebele military clamored for their return. War was averted by the British negotiating a settlement.

While these developments were taking place, the British extended their control over land which Lobengula claimed. Black communities which had owed allegiance to Lobengula were encouraged to come under British rule. This was not difficult to do because Lobengula had not treated his weaker neighbors with much understanding. It became clear that British intentions and Lobengula's independence were incompatible. War broke out toward the end of 1893. The Ndebele army was crushed, and Lobengula died about a month later.

Further Reading

For background on Lobengula see Charles L. Norris-Newman, Matabeleland and How We Got It (1895); Ian D. Colvin, The Life of Jameson (2 vols., 1922); Eric A. Walker, A History of Southern Africa (3d ed. 1957; originally published in 1928 as A History of South Africa); and Gustav Preller, Lobengula: The Tragedy of a Matabele King (1963).

Additional Sources

Bhebe, Ngwabi. Lobengula of Zimbabwe, London: Heinemann Educational, 1977.

Cooper-Chadwick, J. Three years with Lobengula and experiences in South Africa, Bulawayo: Books of Rhodesia, 1975. □