This Week in History recalls memorable and decisive events and personalities of the past.

30th October 1888 – The Rudd Concession is granted by Matabeleland to agents of Cecil Rhodes

The Rudd Concession

The Ndebele people (meaning ‘men of the long shields’) of southern Zimbabwe, also known to the British and the Sotho-Tswana peoples as the Matabele, were originally a faction of the Zulu empire during its expansion in the 1810s. The founder of the Ndebele nation, a commander of Shaka Zulu called Mzilikazi, fell out with Shaka over a series of offences he was alleged to have committed against the Zulu leader.

King Mzilikazi, as portrayed by Captain William Cornwallis Harris, circa 1836

Mzilikazi along with his followers were driven from the Zulu kingdom, fleeing west into the Transvaal region. Along the way they attacked and absorbed clans of Sotho and Tswana peoples into their ranks, which began growing in number. These new – willing and unwilling – recruits quickly adopted Ndebele customs and became integrated into the martial culture and military structure of the Ndebele, which like the Zulu system upon which it was based, organised men into tightly knit and controlled regiments known as impis, enabling the Ndebele to raise large numbers of high-quality troops compared to their Sotho, Pedi, Tswana and Shona neighbours.

An early depiction of an impi

Mzilikazi’s first base of operations in the Transvaal was soon attacked by a regiment of Zulu warriors who had been sent by Shaka to finish the job of destroying the Ndebele. The Zulu defeated Mzilikazi, but he and the majority of his followers escaped to the north and set up a base near modern-day Pretoria.

For a time the Ndebele expanded their control over much of the Transvaal region, establishing loose control over many of the Tswana people in the region and forcing them to pay tribute to Mzilikazi. Sometime in the 1820s or 1830s the Ndebele clashed with the Griqua people, who had been one of the main military powers in the Transvaal. Their defeat allowed the Ndebele to become the main power in the Western Transvaal.

This continued until Mzilikazi came to blows with the Voortrekkers, who had begun to arrive in the region around 1836. When he was eventually defeated by a Voortrekker force, he moved his capital north across the Limpopo River into what is today Southern Zimbabwe. His former Tswana subject chiefs were absorbed into the Transvaal republic and, at first, probably didn’t notice a huge difference between Mzilikazi and the Boers; both were foreigners who extracted tribute and issued orders, but neither had the numbers to truly enforce total control of the region. 

Upon entering Zimbabwe, the Ndebele clashed with the local Shona peoples. Due to their superior organisation and training, they smashed all opposition and became the dominant force between the Limpopo and Zambezi rivers east of the Makgadikgadi salt pans.

After some moving around, Mzilikazi finally settled his capital at Bulawayo in 1840, in an area that would come to be known as Matabeleland. From here he exercised power over much of modern-day Zimbabwe, absorbing some of the local Shona and Tswana into his people and ruling over the others, and extracting tribute, with an iron fist.

Mzilikazi continued to clash with the Transvaal Boers to the south until, in 1852, he finally signed a treaty with them which established peace between the Transvaal and Ndebele.

Once the Ndebele were established north of the Limpopo, Mzilikazi settled down somewhat and opened his territory to European explorers, hunters, miners and missionaries. During the last years of his life he met famous European travellers such as missionary Robert Moffat (his good friend) and explorer David Livingstone, who visited his capital as his guests.

Robert Moffat and David Livingstone

When Mzilikazi died in 1868, he had established his kingdom and people as one of the major players in the politics of southern Africa.

His son, Lobengula, succeeded him as King of the Ndebele, and at first adopted a pro-European stance. For a time, Lobengula even adopted European-style clothing and encouraged European visitors. He would sell hunting and mining licences in exchange for British pounds, modern firearms and ammunition. This attitude changed at some point in the 1870s as he grew worried about the growing power of the Europeans in the region. He returned to the old forms of dress and custom and began blocking European travellers and settlers from entering his territory.

King Lobengula of the Matabele; by Ralph Peacock, based on a sketch by E. A. Maund

As the 1880s began, ambitious British, Boer, Portuguese and German imperialists began to eye the territory of the Ndebele hungrily – something which only intensified as the Berlin conference divided up most of Africa (but not the Ndebele territory) between the various great powers and was further encouraged by the discovery of gold in Johannesburg in 1886.

The ambitious and wealthy British imperialist, Cecil John Rhodes, and his associates in particular were interested in the territory as part of Rhodes’s dream of establishing a line of British control all the way from Cape Town to Cairo.

“The Rhodes Colossus” – a cartoon by Edward Linley Sambourne, published in Punch after Rhodes announced plans for a telegraph line from Cape Town to Cairo in 1892

Hoping to get ahead of the Boers and the other Europeans, in 1887 Rhodes began advocating for the annexation of the Ndebele territory into the British Empire. After convincing the colonial authorities of the value of the idea, Rhodes sent emissaries to negotiate with the Ndebele.

The British discovered at this point that the Boers had just signed a treaty with the Ndebele and that they themselves viewed the Ndebele territory as within their sphere of influence, and claimed to have signed a treaty to that effect. When the British asked Lobengula if this was true, he disputed the Boer’s claims and said that their treaty was simply a renewal of the previous peace treaty.

A cause of much of the tension in negotiations between Europeans and Africans at this time was the lack of writing in southern African societies. As a result, African kings and chiefs took verbal promises very seriously and held people to them, while Europeans tended to ignore any promises made that were not explicitly written into the text of agreements. Furthermore, the written treaties were written in Dutch or English and, as the Ndebele were illiterate, they relied on friendly Europeans to review the text of documents and confirm that the text matched their understanding. This was not always possible, as neutral or friendly Europeans were not always available or were not skilled and precise translators, and so African chiefs would sometimes sign documents which they understood differently from their European counterparts.

The British envoy to the Ndebele hoped to turn them away from an alliance with the Boers in favour of an alliance with the British, revealing to the Ndebele that the Boers believed the treaty between them had made the Ndebele subservient to the Boers. This caused significant damage to the Ndebele and Boer relationship. However, the Ndebele were not willing to ally outright with the British, with the British emissary reporting that ‘they may like us better, but they fear the Boers more’.

On 11 February 1888, Lobengula signed a treaty with the British promising not to enter into any treaties with anyone else, and not to cede or sell any of his territory to any nation.

Rhodes by this time had consolidated his business interests and hoped that the treaty with the Ndebele would buy him time to get his own agreement signed before the Boers or Germans or other Brits managed to extract concessions from the Ndebele.

In June 1888, two British financiers with ties to the Bechuanaland Protectorate began making plans to enter into a treaty with the Ndebele with an eye to annexing it to the British Empire, under their control. This set off a race between Rhodes and the London consortium to be the first to get a deal with the Ndebele.

In August of 1888, Rhodes sent a party of his associates which consisted of Charles Rudd, as leader, Francis Thompson, barrister James Rochfort Maguire, J G Dreyer (their Dutch wagon driver), and five others, all unnamed – a white man, a Cape Coloured man, an African American and two black servants.

Charles Rudd

When they arrived at the Ndebele capital they found the king surrounded by European and Boer adventurers seeking to buy concessions for mining and hunting. On 30 October 1888, after some skilful negotiations, Lobengula signed an agreement known as the Rudd Concession, allowing Rhodes’s company a monopoly on mining rights in Ndebele territory in exchange for various gifts, including 1 000 modern Martini–Henry rifles. According to a British missionary present during these negotiations, Rudd and Rhodes’s team made various promises to Lobengula, orally. during these negotiations – that they would not import large numbers of white labourers to mine, that they would not settle Ndebele territory, and that those who did come would live under Ndebele law as the king’s subjects – but none of these promises were included in the final document.

The king did not allow his chiefs to sign the treaty, perhaps hoping to make it easier to back out of it later if he changed his mind.

Rumours quickly spread among the concession-seekers in Bulawayo that the king had just ‘sold his country’ and that in response the Boers would back his overthrow with an invasion. This panicked the king, who immediately moved to counter these rumours, requesting that two of his chiefs accompany the British to England to meet Queen Victoria so as to resolve the misconception that the country had been sold, and also to ask for British aid against the Portuguese, who had reportedly violated Ndebele territory in the east.

Queen Victoria

Upon hearing this, and fearing the Queen might side with the Ndebele, Rhodes immediately began discrediting the Ndebele emissaries, hoping to delay or block their meeting with the queen. After reconsidering, however, Rhodes changed his mind, believing that a meeting with the queen might actually favour the concession.

In January of 1889 newspaper reports of the ‘selling’ of the Ndebele lands began circulating, prompting Lobengula to put out a statement declaring:

I hear it is published in all the newspapers that I have granted a Concession of the Minerals in all my country to CHARLES DUNELL RUDD, ROCHFORD MAGUIRE, and FRANCIS ROBERT THOMPSON.

As there is a great misunderstanding about this, all action in respect of said Concession is hereby suspended pending an investigation to be made by me in my country.

Lobengula

During the investigation that ensued, the other European concession-hunters denounced the treaty and tried to persuade the king to reject it. When, after more negotiations, the first rifles arrived, as per the agreement, the king refused to accept them and rejected the concession, writing to Queen Victoria announcing that this was the case.

Meanwhile in England, the Ndebele emissaries toured London, being hosted at many dinners – including one by the Aborigines’ Protection Society, who warned them that they should be ‘wary and firm in resisting proposals that will not bring good to you and your people’.

In March of 1889 Rhodes arrived in London to get royal approval for his concession, but at first was refused due to the protests of some London merchants and humanitarian societies, and because the Ndebele king had now rejected it.

However, the British soon learned that the Ndebele may be planning to grant permission to the Portuguese or Germans to mine in their territory so as to keep the British out. This fear persuaded the British government to finally back Rhodes, and in June of 1889, he received the backing of the British crown for his activities in Ndebele territory.

Lobengula would later that year tell a missionary friend: ‘Did you ever see a chameleon catch a fly? The chameleon gets behind the fly and remains motionless for some time, then he advances very slowly and gently, first putting forward one leg and then another. At last, when well within reach, he darts out his tongue and the fly disappears. England is the chameleon, and I am that fly.’

Soon after, Rhodes began to settle Ndebele territory and relations quickly deteriorated, as the settlers claimed the king had no jurisdiction over them. The settlers also began to interfere in the Ndebeles’ traditional raiding of Shona villages to capture cattle; this was key to the wealth and power of the Ndebele king, and he could not tolerate pressure to end the raids.

In 1893 the two sides finally came to blows in the first Matabele War, in which a small force of 750 British troops supported by 1 000 Tswana auxiliaries smashed the 100 000 strong unmodernized Ndebele army and brought all of the Ndebele territory under British control.

The Battle of the Shangani, during the First Matabele War

Lobengula died of smallpox in January 1894 while on the run from Rhodes’s troops.

Just over a year later, in May 1895, the former territory of the Ndebele kingdom was renamed Rhodesia.

If you like what you have just read, support the Daily Friend