22 Jul 2014

Effects of Ndebele raids on Shona power

Posted by K Chikuse

FROM the 12th to the 19th centuries the southern Zambezia plateau was dominated by the Shona-speaking peoples. Although the Portuguese influenced chiefs in the north during the seventeenth century, they did not destroy the basic Shona economic, social and political structure of the country. But the beginning of the 19th centuries saw the permanent loss of Shona territory in the south-west and south-east to the Tswana and Tsonga-Hlengwe, as well as the invasions of the mfecane period, when Nguni and Sotho speaking peoples crossed the plateau. The middle of the century saw two Nguni speaking dynasties established, the Ndebele under Mzilikazi in the southwest and the Gaza under Soshangane in the eastern highlands. Finally, in the 1890s, the whole country was claimed by the Portuguese and the British, the latter making a large-scale settlement under the control of Cecil Rhodes’s British South Africa Company.

The precise extent and nature of Gaza influence upon the Shona has not been given much attention by historians, largely because the Gaza state moved bodily to the south-east in 1889. Although the Ndebele have been examined more closely, several factors have affected both the available evidence on the Ndebele relations with the Shona and the viewpoints of historians. Firstly, most European observers of Shona-Ndebele contacts were influenced by the fact that they approached the subject both literally and figuratively from the angle of the Ndebele state itself, which added to the preconceptions they already possessed. Secondly, exaggerated estimates of the number, scope and brutality of Ndebele raids on the Shona were later used to justify the conquest of the Ndebele by the British South Africa Company in 1893. Thirdly, Rhodes’s claims to the Shona country were based upon an exaggeration of the extent of Ndebele power. Fourthly, most accounts of Ndebele history after 1840 have tended to interpret the Ndebele in terms of their Nguni ancestry, ignoring the fact that the Ndebele state was a successor to the Shona-speaking Changamire Rozvi state, which influenced it in many ways.

This article aims to place the impact of the Ndebele upon the Shona in perspective by relating the foundation of the Ndebele state to the Rozvi state it succeeded, and by showing how the balance of power between the Ndebele and the independent Shona changed during the 19th century.

The basic population of the area occupied by the Ndebele in the 1840s spoke the Kalanga dialect of Shona and was descended from the people of the Leopards Kopje culture, who occupied the area from about .

In the 15th century, people of the Zimbabwe culture moved west into the Kalanga country, and some time after 1450 the Torwa dynasty ruled over a state that was a successor to Zimbabwe, based at Khami. Some time between 1644 and 1683 the Torwa dynasty was succeeded by that of the Changamire Rozvi, whose main centres were the stone buildings of Danangombe (Dhlodhlo) and Manyanga (Tabazikamambo). But although the Khami culture was a continuation of that of Zimbabwe, the Kalanga remained the basic population, and by the nineteenth century the Rozvi of the Changamire dynasty were speaking a variant of Kalanga.

The dry environment of the southwestern plateau favoured cattle breeding, and from the earliest days of Kalanga settlement the economy of the area was strongly committed to the build-up of herds. In addition, until the early nineteenth century the goldfields of the area were in production on a reduced scale and the Torwa and Changamire dynasties exported gold and ivory to the Portuguese centres on the Zambezi and the coast in return for cloth and beads, as well as other articles.

When, in the early nineteenth century, the migrations of Mpanga, Ngwana Maseko, Zwangendaba and Nyamazana, set off by the mfecane, struck the Changamire state, it was poorly prepared to stand the shock. Droughts, wars with the Karanga advancing from the north-east, Tswana raids, strife between the royal dynasty and the Mwari cult and civil wars within the dynasty had seriously affected the strength of a state that had earlier been one of the foremost military powers of southern Africa. By the early part of the 19th century the most important Rozvi families were grouped in a ring around the Changamire capitals of Danangombe and Manyanga east of the Bembesi river. West of the Bembesi, the Khami area was under a Kalanga sub-ruler, Ndumba. The most serious split within the Changamire dynasty was between the houses of Miutinhima, a son of the Changamire Gumboremvura, and of Chirisamhuru, who was Changamire in the early 1830s.

The Mutinhima faction occupied the Mulungwane hills and influenced a wide area east of the upper Lundi. Other Rozvi sub-rulers of the main dynasty were Lukuluba of the Ghoko hills, Rozani of the Vungu river, Swabasvi of the Somabula forest, and a ruler praise-named Dlembeu on the Mpopoti range. Nevertheless, weakened as it was, the Changamire state withstood the attacks of Mpanga, Ngwana Maseko and Zwangendaba, who were driven off, although they did a great deal of damage, taking grain and cattle. Even the death of Changamire Chirisamhuru at the hands of Nyamazana’s group did not destroy the Changamire state. It seems likely that no Mambo was installed immediately after Chirisamhuru’s death, but at some point well before 1852 his son Tohwechipi succeeded him, and as he received the support of the Mutinhima house he can fairly be said to have been the next Mambo.

Ndebele State and Its Tributaries

Ndebele State and Its Tributaries

The Ndebele invasion differed from those of the Ngoni in several ways. Firstly, Mzilikazi’s people made no attempt to attack the central part of the Changamire state, but settled in the western province of Ndumba, west of the Bembesi river. Secondly, they consolidated their power by exploiting the splits between the Rozvi, and by entering into an economic relationship with them.

The main body of Ndebele under Gundwane arrived from the Umzingwani valley in I838-9. Ndumba’s dynasty vanished from the scene relatively early, and the main resistance in the immediate area was led by Mutinhima from the Mulungwane hills. Mutinhima, nicknamed mafuta, was at first successful in his defense, and may not have been pushed out of the hills until after Mzilikazi arrived.

The Ndebele succession crisis undoubtedly delayed the impact of the Ndebele upon the Shona, but even so it seems to have been surprisingly mild. There are reports of some raids made upon the local people in the first year, but tradition from the Kalanga pointed out that although ‘they killed a lot of people . . . none of my family were killed. We did not regard the Matabele as bad people. The only thing they fought over was grain…. There was no trouble when the Matabele came’.

This was contrasted with the rapacity of the Ngoni during previous invasions. On the Manzamnyama river the local Kalanga fled briefly and then returned as tributaries of the new overlords.  In short, west of the Bembesi the place of the Ndumba dynasty was simply taken by Mzilikazi and his followers, who settled down among the Kalanga as the Rozvi had done before them. It was thus logical that the Ndebele should not remain on hostile terms with the local Shona because they needed supplies of grain, which would not be forthcoming if raiding was continued for a long time. In I854 Moffat noted the Ndebele prosperity in grain, and in 1858 he confirmed that the Shona were continuing to live inside the Ndebele-settled area in their own villages.

The Ndebele had thus become rivals of the Rozvi as rulers of the Kalanga and other Shona peoples, and in the period when the Changamire dynasty was weakened by the death of Chirisamhuru, Mzilikazi actually took his place as overlord of certain Rozvi families of the main dynasty. These, including Swabasvi, Lukuluba and Rozani, may have been motivated by internal political jealousies among the Rozvi such as their exclusion from the centre of power and the succession, but they also had an economic motive. The Ngoni invasions had resulted in the loss of a great number of the prized Rozvi cattle, so that there was a considerable shortage.

The Ndebele, on the other hand, had plenty of cattle but desperately needed more people. The result was that an exchange took place, in which Mzilikazi distributed cattle to the Rozvi mentioned above in return for young people, who were incorporated into the Ndebele state and society. This state of affairs extended over the eastern half of the Changamire state and even as far as Tsunga, the land between the upper Umniati river and the Mwanesi range. There, the Nyandoro dynasty had acted as intermediaries between the main Rozvi dynasty and the peoples north-east of them. At some time before the great campaigns in that direction in the 1850s and 1860s Ndebele cattle were distributed there as well.

It was not likely that this situation would endure for long without serious trouble. Firstly, there was the problem of the main Rozvi dynasty, which had withdrawn into the hills that fringed the Changamire state to the east. It was hardly likely to accept the loss of its position without making some attempt to regain it. Secondly, the economic exchange created by the Ndebele was, in the long run, extremely disadvantageous to the Rozvi and other Shona who took part in it. The Ndebele appear to have retained ultimate ownership of the cattle that they distributed, although the milk and limited slaughter rights would presumably have been accorded to the herders, but the young people who were levied by the Ndebele were not allowed to return to their own societies.

Moffat noted in 1854 that ‘there is nothing they deplore so much as their children being taken from them just at a time when they become useful to their parents‘, and this practice, taken to excess, could ruin a Shona society. Later the Ndebele did not need to recruit so many from their tributaries, and so caused less damage and created less resentment. But the combination of a serious grievance and the existing organization of the Rozvi state led to the first serious Shona resistance to Ndebele rule.

It is important to stress that the Ndebele did not believe in total war any more than the Shona believed in total peace. During the warfare between the Chirumanzu dynasty and the Ndebele in the 1850s Moffat was able to note that between the fighting in 1854-5 and the surrender of Chirumanzu in I857 there had been no further fighting. In August 1866, the Ndebele attempted to trade with Mashayamombe’s people, despite their attack on the latter earlier in the year. As for the Shona, even the Njanja, whose exploitation of the Wedza ironfield and wide-ranging hoe-selling network was one of the great economic success stories of the late 18th and 19th centuries, and who depended for their sales on good relations with the surrounding peoples, did not hesitate to rob Portuguese zungu traders passing through their territory, even though this hardly endeared them to the peoples who expected to receive the trade goods that the zungu were importing.

Even when Ndebele raids were major ones, directed against specific targets on the orders of the king, there was a tendency for other people in the area to suffer as well. This was because the Ndebele, whose famed military discipline existed far more in the minds of European writers than it ever did in reality, were prone to scatter across a wide area in search of cattle and women. This emerges clearly from all detailed accounts from Europeans living among the Shona.

Thus, quite unlike Montagu Kerr’s fictitious stereotype of a surprise attack on a surrounded village, Mauch, in 1872, gives a picture of a series of raids which continued over a period of about three weeks over a very wide front, from the western Duma on the Mtilikwe-Pokoteke confluence to the upper Pokoteke, an area of some forty miles. The Shona, who had at least three days’ warning, suffered various losses but were rarely taken completely by surprise. The same picture emerges from accounts of the 1892 raids on the country from Chivi to Gutu and from those of 1893 on Zimuto.

Ndebele raiders also tended to follow up their targets if they fled, as when they pursued people from the Chaminuka medium’s base near the Umfuli to the northern Shawasha country beyond the Umwindsi in I883.

If the main stimulus behind the great Ndebele campaigns of the 1850s and 1860s was the political threat of the Rozvi dynasty, the economic stimulus of the Shona trade system was also extremely important. Indeed, it appears to have provoked the first important expansion of Ndebele power. In inheriting the Changamire state, the Ndebele had inherited its basic economic framework, which, in spite of a regional emphasis on cattle, was also aligned to the traditional exchange of gold and ivory for cloth and beads.

Thus, even during the fighting of 1854-5, the trade system linking the Ndebele with the Zambezi and the coast through the north-eastern Shona country continued to function. Nevertheless, by the 1850s it had become clear to Mzilikazi that the Shona were difficult to dislodge from their mountain strongholds. At this point neither side had guns in quantity, although the Shona had been importing a certain number of guns for a very long time.

The Ndebele had learned from their experiences south of the Limpopo that guns were useful, and in the 1850s and 1860s they did their best to acquire them. The basic Kalanga population of the Changamire state had been accustomed to import cloth, and their needs also had to be supplied. Although supplies of both guns and cloth were available through the variously friendly, neutral or hostile Shona dominions to the east, it was obviously desirable for the Ndebele to control the trade routes to a greater extent.

The first expansion of the Ndebele was to the north-west, however. One reason for this was probably that the Ndebele state was too weak in the 1840s to attempt the more hazardous-because more heavily populated and thus better defended-route to the north-east. The badly-watered sand country to the north-west was almost uninhabited and thus offered no resistance to raiders who could easily cross it to strike at the Shona under Hwange, Pashu and Saba on the Deka, Gwai and Zambezi rivers. These people were not only vulnerable but also offered access to one of the trade routes to the sea.

This route was along the Zambezi through the Tonga country to Zumbo, Tete, Sena and the sea, and was economically viable in spite of the distance involved because nearly all the distance could be covered by some sort of water transport. Water transport, as Selous noted, made goods from these Portuguese ports much more competitive than those hauled by wagon from the South African ports, and in the 1860s ‘Portuguese traders were operating near the Victoria Falls.

By the early I850s the Ndebele appear to have established their authority over the Zambezian polities, especially after the death of the Hwange in 1853, although intermittent raids on the area occurred for various reasons as long as the Ndebele state survived.
A Rozvi tradition from the Insiza area suggests that Mzilikazi extended his policy of co-operation with the Rozvi to the point of requesting Chirisamhuru’s son Tohwechipi to return from his exile in the direction of the eastern Highlands and settle down in his own country, and that it actually worked for a few years before Tohwechipi broke away.

It seems certain that the Ndebele tried to get the Mutinhima house to join them, but that they refused. The 1850s saw a rapid revival of the Rozvi power, and as mentioned above they seem to have sunk their differences sufficiently for the Mutinhima group to recognize the paramountcy of Tohwechipi. Even the Swabasvi house broke away from the Ndebele and joined the Mambo’s Rozvi. But it does not seem that there was a single Rozvi command over the rest of the Shona.

Even some of the Rozvi under Lukuluba and Rozani remained under the Ndebele, and accounts of the period are full of stories of quarrels and warfare between the Rozvi and rulers such as Hwata, Gutu and the people of the upper Sabi valley. Other Shona rulers did attack the Ndebele at the same time as the Rozvi, but it appears to have been on their own initiative.

If the Ndebele exactions of young people provided the basic motive for the Shona resistance to Ndebele rule in the early 1850s, and the revival of the Changamire dynasty gave an example to be followed, the resistance took a thoroughly traditional form. Shona raiders penetrated deep into the country of the Ndebele, stealing cattle and-according to the Ndebele committing atrocities on women. The most prominent of the raiders were the Mambo Tohwechipi, his relative Mutinhima, and Chizema the son of the Govera ruler Chirumanzu on the Shashe. But these raids provoked an Ndebele response that proved too strong for the Shona.

Battles were fought in the mountains to the east of the Ndebele state: at the Mipopoti range against the Rozvi ruler Dlembeu Kupengobuta, at Guruguru (Umgulugulu) mountain, and against the Mhari ruler Zingwe, who was killed for refusing to supply young people as tribute. Tohwechipi was forced to retreat through Chivi past Nyaningwe hill in the direction of Zimbabwe, and it may be near there that he won the defensive battle of Chikato. By employing zvitunya – strong people who came from the Zambezi to trade and who possessed guns – he was able to defeat the Ndebele some time before 1852, winning himself the name of Chibambamu in the process.

The fighting continued into 1854, and then there was a lull. But by 1857 the situation had resolved itself in Mzilikazi’s favour. The Chirumanzu dynasty surrendered early in 1857, and from then until 1889 became a strong ally of the Ndebele. Indeed, Chizema, who had been so prominent in raids on the Ndebele, was aided by them in his unsuccessful attempt to win a new land for himself in southern Buhera in the years that followed.

As for the Rozvi, they suffered from the lack of unity among the Shona peoples. In July 1857 it was noted that ‘the rulers holding these lands [goldfields in the central Shona country] were tributary to the emperor Changamire, but today, by a betrayal, the “Uata Mezir case” has taken possession of them from the said Changamire, who lives as a refugee in Njanja, land of the ruler Gambiza, in the district of the Hera, on the edges of his vast domains.’  This ‘Uata‘ could have been Mzilikazi, but ‘Uata‘ was also the Portuguese rendering of ‘Hwata’. Hwata was the ruler of a comparatively small Hera polity at the head of the Mazoe valley, but if his territory was small his economic influence was considerable. He controlled the goldfields in the northern Shawasha country to the east of him, and the locality of the old Portuguese feira of Dambarare.

This strategic position-probably of importance far back into early Shona history enabled Hwata to dominate much of the trade of the central Shona country, buying ivory and reselling it to the Portuguese traders, whose houses were to be found in the upper Mazoe valley. Hwata guarded this economic advantage jealously, and when the people near the old feira of Maramuca – probably the Devera group that owned the Shurushuru goldfield – attempted to re-open it to Portuguese trade in c. 1830-50, he attacked both them and the Portuguese. He lost the battle but won the war, for the feira was not re-opened. Mzilikazi devoted as much effort to the defeat of Hwata as he did to Tohwechipi, and the continued subjection of Hwata to Ndebele rule until I889 suggests that Mzilikazi was fully aware of the economic importance of Hwata’s area and intended to profit by it.

There seems to have been a period of peace from 1854 to 1860, but from the latter date to 1873 the Ndebele made what was probably their greatest concerted effort to dominate the Shona. They raided over a wide front from Chivi in the east to Mangwende in the north-east and Hwata in the north, and in the northern areas in particular the relatively few raids mentioned in traditions most probably occurred during this period. Even so, it does not seem likely that the Ndebele were numerous enough to affect all these areas at once, and in one year, 1863, when the main strength of the kingdom was turned against the Ngwato to the south-west, the only noted effort to the north-west was a raid by associates of the Ndebele on the Deka river area, while another force raided Hwata’s associate, Chiweshe, in the upper Mazoe valley.

The Ndebele effort of 1860 was confined to a small raid to the north-east and another to the south-east. After this, it is possible to make some estimate of the sequence of events in each area affected by the surge of Ndebele activity. In the east, the peoples of Chivi, Bere, Zimuto, and the Njanja were attacked in 1861. Bere’s Mhari bore the brunt of the attack, and were severely weakened in consequence, while Chivi’s Mhari appear to have succumbed to the power of the newly-imported guns and became tributary to the Ndebele. A combination of ambition on the part of Chivi Matsweru’s son, Makonese, and the Ndebele expansion led to the deaths of both Chivi and Bere at about this time.

The attack on the Njanja mentioned above brought the Ndebele back into contact with the Changamire Rozvi, who had arrived in the Hera country-dominated by the two Hera rulers Mutekedza and Nyashanu and the rapidly-expanding Njanja confederacy under Gambiza-by 1857. The Rozvi, led by the Mambo Tohwechipi Chibambamu and his cousins of the Mutinhima house, occupied hills on the frontier between Nyashanu and Gambiza such as Bedza and the Mavangwe range.

It is stated that the Ndebele made three major attacks in order to rid themselves of the menace of the remnant of Rozvi imperial power, until in 1866 a prolonged siege forced Tohwechipi to surrender. He was brought to Mzilikazi but later allowed to leave. Tradition is emphatic that he left Mavangwe and went to Gutu, where he died, but in view of the fact that in 1873 Mtikana Mafu led a major force against the Rozvi in Gutu it seems possible that even the defeat of 1866 did not crush Rozvi resistance to the Ndebele.

In view of the tendency of Ndebele raiders to spread across country it seems likely that most of the damage suffered by the Njanja and the Hera of Mutekedza and Nyashanu occurred at this time. Certainly by 1870 the Ndebele had raided Mutekedza, since they had mutilated his sub-ruler Nyoka. This may also be the period of Chizema’s attempt to conquer southern Buhera from Nerutanga, which was repulsed by that ruler and the Njanja in spite of his Ndebele backing. The Njanja recall having aided Gutu after this, which may coincide with the I873 raid there.

The Nhowe of Mangwende remembered in 1898 that ‘it was in following up the Abarosis that the Matabele first came to know our country, with the result that they commenced killing and raiding through the different districts’. The Rozvi were not the only ones responsible, however, because the Ndebele tendency to follow up their enemies applied to Nyandoro of Tsunga as well. Nyandoro had been herding cattle for the Ndebele, but at about this time the murder of an Ndebele nduna led to hostilities, and the Ndebele attacked Tsunga, which was flat and nearly indefensible.

This was thus one of the very few areas occupied by the Shona that was depopulated by Ndebele action, as the Nyandoro people left en masse in the general direction of their 17th century home in Fungwe. They moved to the nearby Nyoka river, and after a year or two raids pushed them further north-east to the Chirume. A few years later more raids drove them to the Matswitswi caves in Samuriwo’s land, from which they fled after Nyandoro’s death and further raids as refugees to Mangwende.

Like the Rozvi, they brought the attention of the Ndebele to those peoples who lived nearby, so that Samuriwo, Chihota, Svosve and Mangwende all suffered. But, as the Mangwende people pointed out in 1898, ‘The first time they entered the country very few of Mangwende’s tribe were killed, and very few were taken prisoners, but they took away with them large numbers of cattle and goats…. The Matabeli never came back into this district again but every year they were raiding the districts on the Sabi river.’ This marked the farthest point of Ndebele raiding to the north-east.

The pursuit of the Rozvi Mambo and his associate Nyandoro led the Ndebele straight to the north-east up the watershed of the whole country, over open, grassy plains. These were of little significance to their economy except as sources of cattle to replenish their herds, after the lung sickness of 1861 had so reduced them that the kingdom actually contracted in size at this time. The route to the north, however, not only led to the trade routes of the heart of the old Mutapa state, but was also of considerable economic importance in itself, running as it did through some of the biggest goldfields still being worked in the early part of the century and across river valleys running west from the watershed, that were full of elephants. The great Ndebele efforts of 1860-8 in this area hit the inhabitants very hard. The Ngezi dynasty of Rimuka partly broke up, and the Mashayamombe and Chivero people of the Umfuli valley also suffered, so that at one point their rulers were forced to flee to the north.

However, Mashayamombe at least appears to have returned to his land by 1866, in time to be raided once more. Mzilikazi’s attempt to trade for ivory later that year suggests economic motives. Economic motives almost certainly also lay behind the very determined efforts made to subject the Hwata trading centre. For four years from 1860-1 the Ndebele attacked, even sending Lotshe to raid Hwata’s associate and neighbour Chiweshe at a time when the greatest need for men lay on the Ngwato front to the south-west in 1863. Finally Hwata surrendered in 1864, and was captured to be returned to his home as a tributary ruler. However, Hwata, like the Mambo Tohwechipi, appears to have attempted to break away from this relationship, because a major campaign was required in 1868 to subject him again. Even in 1870 his allegiance to the Ndebele was thought to be superficial, but he remained at least nominally tributary until 1889.

After these major campaigns the Ndebele succeeded in making a number of Shona political units tributary to them. This relationship involved the payment of articles of partly symbolic value, such as skins, feathers, hoes, tobacco or spears, or the provision of services, such as labour for hut building. Nevertheless, such tribute represented a considerable diversion of valuable man-hours among a people living in a largely subsistence economy. Consequently there was a tendency to break away from Ndebele domination. It was noticeable that in many of the tributary lands farthest from the main Ndebele state the tributary relationship took the form of an alliance between a Shona faction, that relied upon Ndebele support against its rivals within the dynasty, and the Ndebele, who themselves could rely upon this faction.

This seems to have been the case with Hwata, Mutekedza and Chirumanzu. The main body of Ndebele tributaries was bounded by a line that ran from the KweKwe river east to Chirumanzu, south to Chivi and then south across the lowveld to Matibi. This boundary varied from year to year, depending upon the political situation in the border areas. Hwange, the Shangwe of the Mafungabusi plateau, Nemakonde, Hwata and Mutekedza were all outlying tributaries, separated from the main body by almost uninhabited land or independent Shona lands.

The wars of the 1850s established the dominance of the Ndebele in the vicinity of the old Changamire state. The campaigns of the 1860s wiped out the last power of the Rozvi and gave the Ndebele strong economic advantages in the north. In spite of the dissensions of the succession crisis of 1868-72, in terms of relations between the Shona and the Ndebele the latter were, by 1873, at the zenith of their power. It is thus ironic, in view of the myths of Ndebele supremacy, to note that their first serious defeat, and the first sign of a change in the balance of power that was to lead in the end to the revolt of many of the Shona tributaries, occurred only six years later, in 1879. Ironic, but not surprising.

The Shona after all were descendants of the creators of the most impressive Iron Age material culture in southern Africa, the Zimbabwe-Khami culture. They worked what was left of considerable goldfields, and had access to many elephants. Their political institutions and territories were small only by comparison with the few super-states of southern, central and east Africa. By comparison with most polities of that area many Shona rulers held quite big territories. Most of them owned superb defensive sites. Moreover, developments to the south were beginning to aid the Shona.


The opening of the Kimberley diamond fields in 1867, the increased availability of guns as Europeans adopted rifles, the expansionist ambitions of Britain and the Afrikaners-and Portuguese counter-moves-all tended to aid the Shona in the short run, though not in the long. Under the circumstances it is surprising that the Ndebele accomplished as much as they did.

The sale of gold and ivory and the labour opportunities of Kimberley and the Rand made it possible for the Shona, who in the 1860s had been fatally short of guns by comparison with the Ndebele, to re-arm.

Guns, which entered the Shona country in the hands of Portuguese traders, Venda mercenaries and gun-runners from the Ndebele kingdom, as well as through Shona long-distance traders and migrant labourers, made the hill strongholds of the Shona almost impregnable even against gun-using Ndebele and Europeans, as the 1896-7 risings were to show.

In 1879 the missionary Cockin wrote that ‘latterly some of the kraals attacked have shewn fight and being many days away and the towns denser, the Amandebele are becoming afraid to go there so much. Cattle and sheep and slaves (are) not coming in so freely now from these distant raids . . .’ and it is probable that he was referring in particular to the war with Chivi. In the 1860s Chivi was evidently tributary to the Ndebele, but in the reign of Mazorodze, who ruled from 1870 at the latest, the Mhari began to acquire guns from the Venda and to build up a considerable herd of cattle, guarded by a group of men. This represented a threat to Ndebele power in the area, and in October 1879 a major force under Lotshe and Manyewu attacked the Mhari capital of Nyaningwe.

Although the Ndebele force consisted of the mbizo ibuto and probably outnumbered the defenders of Nyaningwe, they were repulsed with the loss of twenty men, their only success being the capture of Chivi himself on an outlying hill. The loss of twenty men was not significant in itself, but the defeat was, and even the execution of Chivi did not hide the fact that although the Ndebele could operate over the open ground, they could not take the hill-strongholds of the Mhari, who were henceforth independent.

The year 1880 saw the defeat of the Gaza by Gutu in the similar battle of Rasa mountain, and the beginning of a rift between the Ndebele and their ally the Chaminuka medium of the upper Umfuli. Up to then, Lobengula had paid the medium tribute in return for religious services, and in that year they combined to raid the Shona north of the Hunyani. But at the same time the Chaminuka medium claimed that he, and not Lobengula, had the power to grant hunting-rights to Europeans in the area, and his son Jugu ‘had said that his father would now show Lobengula that the country beyond the Umniati river belonged to him, Chameluga’ and that if necessary he could drive away the Europeans by his magic. It is therefore not surprising to find that in 1883 Lobengula had the Chaminuka medium killed. His men raided as far as the Shawasha country of Chinamhora, whose people had taken Chaminuka’s cattle, which in all probability had been taken from them in 1880.

In 1882 Selous noted that Ndebele had reached the Mukwadzi river west of the Umvukwe range, and in 1887 there was a major raid on the Umvukwe area, probably the one led by Gwasagwasa against the Shona ruler Chipuriro, far to the north. This may have represented a revival of the policy of the 1860s of gaining control of the trade routes to the Zambezi, for beyond Chipuriro lay the prazos of Matakenya, Jose de Araujo Lobo, who had earlier been in contact with the Ndebele, buying their ivory. In 1888 a major raid struck at the Mashayamombe and Rwizi people of the Umfuli valley. The reason for this is not known. The attack on Rwizi may have been to prevent a renewal of the Chaminuka cult, while the fact that a very large number of people were removed from Mashayamombe’s may mean that this was the raid, recalled in tradition, that resulted from a civil war among Mashayamombe’s people in which one side called in the Ndebele.

But it may also have resulted from the fact that the Shona were undeniably growing stronger. Isolated Ndebele were liable to be killed if they were discovered. In 1887 a whole party of Ndebele was killed, and indeed the 1888 raid ‘suffered so severely that Lobengula was very angry and another one was sent out in another direction.’ Montagu Kerr, with his preconceived ideas, was amazed to hear the Shona at the head of the Mazoe valley in 1884 coolly discussing their chances of success, with some hope of victory, but it seems that in the 1880s the Shona were indeed beginning to turn the tide of Ndebele power.

This trend was greatly advanced by the Portuguese, who, seeking to counter British expansion by limiting the power of the Ndebele upon which Rhodes’s claims were based, sent two expeditions into the Shona country in 1889. Nominally led by Vitor Cordon and Paiva de Andrada, but actually relying upon the forces of such prazo-holders as ‘Kuvheya’, Manoel Antonio de Sousa, and ‘Chimbango’, Vicente Jose Ribeiro, they reached Nemakonde and Mangwende respectively, and made treaties with Shona rulers in a wide belt across the country from the Mafungabusi plateau to the upper Sabi. Portuguese flags were distributed in acts of vassalage that were not taken seriously by the Shona, and large numbers of guns were handed over by the Portuguese. The effect of the treaties was to give nearly every Shona polity north of the Umniati river a considerable increase in the size of its armoury.

The Portuguese zungu expedition to the whole Charumbira-Mapanzure-Bere group of peoples in 1872 had only had 48 guns for sale, but the 1889 expeditions gave this many to a single ruler. Even the small polities received ten guns, and powder and ammunition were supplied as well. This was a huge increase in Shona fighting strength, and from both oral traditions and some of Cordon’s treaties there is no doubt that the whole tenor of this major political development was anti-Ndebele. The implications of this in Shona history proper cannot be discussed here, but the effect on the balance of power between the Ndebele and the Shona was immense. Hwata, Nemakonde, Mutekedza and some of the Shangwe all abandoned their allegiance to Lobengula and accepted the Portuguese guns and flags which were to be found as far south as the Njanja country and beyond.

No major raiding forces of Ndebele ever entered the central Shona country again. There are strong suggestions that the revolt against Ndebele power even extended as far south as Gutu, where from 1889 the rulers no longer had the Gaza state to balance against the Ndebele, and to Chirumanzu, where the death of Bangure allowed his brother Chatikobo, aided by some Rozvi, to lead the people into their first revolt since 1857. But the arrival of the British in 1890 altered the situation.

Although there can be no doubt that Lobengula was thoroughly opposed to the arrival of Rhodes’s men on his eastern frontier, he remained functionally neutral to the extent that he did not attack the Pioneer column, and once the British had driven away the Portuguese and captured the formidable Sousa, he took advantage of the British presence to regain control over Nemakonde and Chirumanzu, although Hwata and Mutekedza remained lost to him. Even so, this was only possible with the co-operation of Shona interest groups. In a coup d’etat in 1891, Chinyama, son of Bangure, drove out his uncle Chatikobo and became the new Chirumanzu with Ndebele aid. At the end of the year an Ndebele force visited the Nemakonde area and, after consultation with the most important spirit medium, killed Nemakonde Hodza and four others in an action that has all the marks of a coup d’etat by an internal group.

During 1892 a similar split in the Gutu dynasty and an appeal for Ndebele help by Makuvaza led to a joint Chirumanzu-Ndebele force installing him as ruler; at this time a small party of Ndebele even reached the highlands across the Sabi, perhaps the furthest point ever attained in that direction, in this last rather feeble demonstration of Ndebele power.

It is beyond the scope of this paper to discuss the events and negotiations that led to the war in 1893 that broke the Ndebele state, except insofar as they concern the Shona. The lowveld area had been subjected to raiding for years, partly at least by unofficial raiding parties, causing Matibi to move away from his northern lands into the remote lowveld in the late 1880s. But the decisive area was around Chivi and Zimuto. Chivi was raided in late 1891, to the delight of Rhodes, who was trying to prove Lobengula’s dominance of the area, but in July and August 1892 a major raid on the recalcitrant Chivi and Zimuto led to an appeal by Chivi to Rhodes’s deputy Jameson. This in turn led to a demand that Ndebele raiders stay away from the town of Victoria and the main road, a demand that was fully complied with, as far as the Ndebele ruler was concerned, until the crucial raid of July 1893.

Even this raid came about partly as a result of Shona actions. Early in June 1893 a joint party of raiders from Bere and the Makamure house of Zimuto stole cattle from Mpakame, a Shona tributary of the Ndebele at Guruguru hill. Mpakame complained to his overlord the Ndebele-rized Rozvi Lukuluba at the Ghoko range. Lukuluba raided Bere in retaliation, but on being turned back by Company police, reported in turn to his superior, Mgandane of Nxa. This led directly to the famous raid in July on Bere and Zimuto near Victoria, to the fight of 18 July and to Rhodes’s decision to overthrow the Ndebele kingdom.

Even before the British columns set out, however, Shona raiders were moving in to take Ndebele cattle. As the Victoria column began to move towards its rendezvous in the north with the Salisbury column, it was joined by large forces of Shona. Zimuto sent 120, Madziviri 50, and Gutu abandoned the Ndebele who had put him in power the previous year and sent 80 men. As the force approached Chirumanzu its ruler Chinyama followed Gutu’s example and offered 300 men. A few days later Chivi’s men marched through Victoria to catch up with the advancing columns. These Shona, acting in concert for the first time in their particular histories, fought at the Shangani battle with some success, considering that they were left outside the defensive laagers. Meanwhile in the south, Matibi, whose relations with the Ndebele had been deteriorating to the point of outright war as he was repeatedly raided, experienced a further raid in late 1893 and retaliated in force, together with the police. They penetrated deep into Godhlwayo. These Anglo-Shona alliances of 1893 had a profound effect on the subsequent history of the southern Shona, especially in 1896. As the Ndebele state fell, Shona raiders from all over the southern Shona country and from as far as the upper Sabi valley began to move towards the Ndebele herds, and the end of Ndebele power in the summer of 1893-4, saw Shona raiders striking deep into the Ndebele kingdom, as they had done in the early 1850s.

For a variety of reasons the extent, number and severity of Ndebele raids upon the Shona-speaking peoples have been greatly exaggerated in the past. Moreover most studies of the Ndebele have failed to take into account the fact that the Ndebele conquered an already well-established Shona state with an economy linked with the Indian Ocean trade. This article seeks to show that the bulk of Ndebele raiding before 1873 was a response to both the political and military threat of the Changamire Rozvi dynasty and to the economic needs of the state that had been taken over. Even so, Ndebele raids were limited in extent and duration, and the two decades after 1873 saw a steady revival of Shona strength. In spite of Ndebele raids aimed at preventing this process, the independent Shona strengthened themselves by re-arming and ‘alliances’, and were able to take part in the eventual overthrow of the Ndebele kingdom.



Author: D. N. Beach
Source: The Journal of African History, Vol. 15, No. 4 (1974), pp. 633-651
Published by: Cambridge University Press

The year falls into the period of Old World history known as the Middle Ages. The Muslim world was in its Golden Age. China was in its Song period. Japan was in its classical Heian period. India was divided into a number of lesser empires, such as the Rashtrakuta Dynasty, Pala Empire, etc. The New World and Sub-Saharan Africa were still in the prehistoric period, although Arab slave trade was beginning to be an important factor in the formation of the Sahelian kingdoms. World population is estimated to have been between 250 and 310 million

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One Response to “Effects of Ndebele raids on Shona power”

  1. i cant believe these raids went as far north east right in my backyard(chihota) only because shona people were not centralized.they were scatterd all over with the exception of the ROZVI STATE.I really feel embaraced by reading this piece of history.but now I know


    terrence ZEZURU chibvongodze

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