Mzilikazi (meaning The Great Road), was a Southern African king who founded the Matabele kingdom (Mthwakazi), Matabeleland, in what became Rhodesia and is now Zimbabwe. He was born ca. 1790 near Mkuze, Zululand (now part of South Africa). The son of Matshobana whom many had considered to be the greatest Southern African military leader after the Zulu king Shaka. In his autobiography, David Livingstone referred to him as the second most impressive leader he encountered on the African Continent.
The territory of the Northern Khumalo was located near the Black Mfolozi River, squeezed between the lands of two strong rival groups: the expanding Mthethwa chiefdom of Dingiswayo and the land of the equally ambitious and much more ferocious Zwide of the Ndwandwe. Mzilikazi’s boyhood was spent in the household of his grandfather Zwide. Inevitably, as he grew to manhood he observed the less powerful Khumalo being drawn into the conflict between Dingiswayo and Zwide.
On the death of Chief Mashobane, who had been murdered by Zwide, Mzilikazi was duly installed as chief of the Northern Khumalo clan. But, after Dingiswayo’s death, instead of siding with Zwide, in exchange for the protection of his people, Mzilikazi swore allegiance to Shaka, who had risen to power as a commander of Dingiswayo’s army and had usurped the Zulu chieftainship and taken over the Mthethwa confederacy after Dingiswayo’s death.
Proving himself a fearless warrior, Mzilikazi soon became one of Shaka’s advisers. Shaka’s trust, however, was misplaced. Mzilikazi dreamed of being a potentate himself. Dissatisfied with a life of subservience, he plotted to free himself and his people from Shaka’s influence. In June 1822, Shaka sent Mzilikazi’s regiments to attack the Sotho chief Ranisi (Somnisi). They pounced on the Sotho chief’s defenceless rabble and drove away their herds. Defying Shaka, Mzilikazi refused to give up the spoils of battle and in June 1822, he bolted with his followers.
Moving north and northwest, as he pillaged and slaughtered, Mzilikazi rounded up the strong men and women, turning the men into army recruits and the women into concubines for his warriors, his possessions increasing with his power and prestige, and his followers numbering, in due course, more Sotho youths than Zulu. Having cleared for himself a wide area, in about 1822-23 Mzilikazi temporarily joined forces with Nxaba, a chieftain of the Nguni-speaking Ndzundza Ndebele community who lived in the Middelburg area. Here, he built the royal kraal ekuPhumuleni (Place of Rest). By then, the size of the Khumalo clan was swollen by other Nguni-speakers who had settled in the area.
During the early years of their migrations Sotho-speakers of the highveld called Nguni-speakers ‘maTebele’, a name they used for all people who came from the coast, whereas the Nguni-speakers called themselves Ndebele. After the arrival of Mzilikazi on the highveld, the name Matabele became especially attached to his fearful hordes, and historians later wrote of this period referring to the Matabele wars. While living among the Ndzundza, Mzilikazi subjugated the old baPedi kingdom of Chief Thulare, killing five of his nine sons, but one son, Sekwati, fled north to the Soutpansberg Mountains, where his people were able to repulse Mzilikazi’s attacks.
Mzilikazi settled for a while along the Vaal River until Korana cattle raiders became a threat. In the winter of 1827, Mzilikazi decided to move northwards. The Matabele army swept through the Magaliesberg via Kommandonek near the present Hartbeespoort Dam. Mzilikazi established temporary settlements near present-day Rustenburg, then launched into action against the baKwena, roasting some alive, clubbing most to death, and piling the infants onto mounds of brushwood, which were set ablaze. After falling on the Kwena at Silkaatsnek the Matabele turned on the Po who were easily overwhelmed. Kgatla Chief Pilane fled to the hills that now bear his name. Mzilikazi ruthlessly, massacred the remaining Tswana groups in the area. Using the Magaliesberg as his centre, Mzilikazi expanded his kingdom, which by then stretched from the Vaal River in the south to the confluence of the Crocodile and Limpopo Rivers.
Between 1827 and 1832, Mzilikazi built himself three military strongholds. The largest was Kungwini, situated at the foot of the Wonderboom Mountains on the Apies River, just north of present day Pretoria. Another was Dinaneni, north of the Hartbeespoort Dam, while the third was Hlahlandlela in the territory of the Fokeng near Rustenburg. By 1829, the total Matabele population numbered about 70, 000, consisting of the Matabele elite and a vast number who had been enslaved. Most of the Tswana settlements were desolate.
In 1830, Mzilikazi received a visit from Robert Moffat (1795-1883), the Scottish missionary who worked among the Tswana from 1821 to 1870. Moffat’s friendship with Mzilikazi is one of the most remarkable stories to emerge from Southern Africa. Moffat described the king as charming, dignified, good-looking, with a ready smile; and added, had he not himself been present at some executions it would have been hard to believe the man’s terrible reputation. Mzilikazi admired Moffat so much that he honoured him with the name of his own father, Mashobane, and called Moffat the King of Kuruman’. Henceforth, ordered Mzilikazi, all traders and hunters had to enter his country on the road that led from his friend Moffat’s mission at Kuruman. In the spring of 1830, Dingane’s Zulu regiments advanced on the Matabele. On the upper reaches of the Sand River, they fell on each other. Three Zulu regiments were wiped out before they fell back.
Early in 1832, the Matabele razed the Rolong villages. Matabele raiding expeditions conquered the Hurutshe, whose capital Mosega became the king’s most southern military headquarters guarding the route to Kuruman. At Tshwenyane, he built another military stronghold, and near the Great Marico River, he built the colossal settlement of eGabeni (Kapain).
In May 1835, Mzilikazi was overjoyed when he heard that Moffat wanted to visit him again, this time accompanied by a group of explorers who were undertaking a scientific expedition led by Dr Andrew Smith. Hoping to stay on good terms with the British and to learn more from them about the use of firearms, Mzilikazi gave the expedition permission to enter his country. The party’s journey from Kuruman took them around the northern tip of the Magaliesberg, teeming with game. There, they encountered some Tswana survivors who had built grass huts on scaffolds within a gigantic tree as a safeguard against nocturnal visits of some rather bold lions. This old Ficus ingens, with long, massive branches drooping to the ground, where they have struck root, is now known as ‘Moffat’s Tree’ or the ‘Inhabited Tree’. It was identified in the 1960s and can be seen on the farm Bultfontein at Boshoek, a farming area between Rustenburg and Sun City.
The doting king feted Moffat. He allowed him to lecture him about his cruelty and ungodly ways. When Moffat said he was looking for timber for his new church at Kuruman, the king personally assisted him in finding good wood for his church, travelling with him in his wagon, enjoying the company of his esteemed friend and the surprising comfort of the mattress on his bed. During this visit, Moffat gained Mzilikazi’s permission for missionaries of the American Board to settle at Mosega. Soon after Moffat’s visit, in 1836, Mzilikazi welcomed William Cornwallis Harris, a captain in the Indian Army, who was hunting and sketching in Africa. His paintings and his diary became prized Africana.
Early in 1836 Louis Trichardt’s company and the Van Rensburg trekkers moved into Matabele territory and were wiped out by fever and by hostile warriors. Hendrik Potgieter’s party followed. They trekked north across the Vaal searching for a permanent place to settle. Captain Cornwallis Harris was still at the royal headquarters in August 1836 when Mzilikazi heard that the Voortrekkers were crossing the Vaal without his permission. Moffat records that Mzilikazi saw this as a threat to the Matabele state. When he heard they were poaching his game, his warriors were ordered to expel them as bandits. Mzilikazi’s warriors butchered the Erasmus party, but were repulsed by the Steyn and Botha families in their laagers. The Liebenburgs were not so lucky, although the Matabele spared two girls and a boy who were carried off as gifts for Mzilikazi.
Potgieter laagered the trekker wagons at Vegkop, between the Wilge and Renoster rivers, and waited for the Matabele to attack them. On 16 October 1836, the Matabele, led by Mzilikazi’s general Kalipi, encircled the wagons. At noon, they charged; only to be met, repeatedly, with a viciously accurate fusillade. At length the Matabele called off the attack and retreated, taking with them all the trekkers’ cattle. The Rolong eventually rescued the stranded trekkers and brought them to Thaba Nchu, where a large group of trekkers had assembled under Gert Maritz. Meanwhile, Cornwallis Harris was exchanging gifts with the king and was discreetly refrained from mentioning that he had heard about the massacre of the trekkers. His party had not continued far on their journey when they came upon a section of the Matabele army returning from the battle at Vegkop. The meeting was tense until Harris explained they had been the personal guests of the king himself.
While the Matabele army was away in the north, Potgieter’s trekkers fell upon Mosega at dawn on January 17th, 1837, and destroyed it. Dingane, the Zulu king, seized the opportunity of attacking the weakened Matabele forces. But again, they were beaten off, though this time the Matabele suffered heavy losses. Mzilikazi then decided to move to eGabeni.
In November 1837, Potgieter, Maritz and Uys launched another attack on the Matabele. In a battle lasting nine days, they destroyed eGabeni as well as other Matabele camps along the Marico River. Fearing utter destruction at the hands of the Boers who had gained dominance in the Transvaal, Mzilikazi decided to move much further north. His people, now numbering some 15,000, streamed out of the Marico valley, and after crossing the Limpopo River into the present Botswana, they split into two groups.
It was nearly two years before Mzilikazi’s group met up with the other section, who having arrived in about 1837, had subjugated and incorporated the Shona, Kalanga and Rozwi. Believing they had lost sight of Mzilikazi forever, they appointed as successor, Mzilikazi’s senior son. Meanwhile, Mzilikazi had halted his journey and established himself in the centre of the old Rozwi kingdom, at Nyathi, giving his new headquarters in the Matopo Hills the Zulu name kwaBulawayo. When Mzilikazi heard that his councillors had appointed a successor, he summoned them to Bulawayo, accused them of treason and had them all executed. Then he ordered the execution of all his own sons. But Fulatha, the daughter of a Swazi chief, managed to hide her son, Lobengula, who escaped death. Having killed his rivals, Mzilikazi reorganized his army and proceeded to subjugate the neighbouring tribes, most of whom in time adopted the Ndebele language and culture, which was in turn influenced by the conquered groups.
The remarkable friendship between Robert Moffat and Mzilikazi was resumed when Moffat visited the king at Nyathi in 1854, 1857 and 1859. Moffat surveyed the old king’s swollen body and palsied legs with shock. He was saddened to note that though the king still enjoyed the devotion and respect of his followers, he was no longer the mighty Bull Elephant, the fearsome ruler of the past. As before, these visits opened the way to British hunters, traders and missionaries. The king allowed Robert Moffat’s son John to become a missionary in Matabeleland. John Moffat and missionary colleagues were useful translators, but they achieved no converts because they refused to repair firearms and make bullets. After Mzilikazi’s favourite wife Loziba died in 1861, Mzilikazi left Nyathi and moved to a new great place that he called Hlahlandlela after his previous stronghold.
Then followed a hard period for his people: they endured a great drought and were stricken by smallpox and measles; while lung-sickness, brought in by the infected cattle of missionaries and hunters, killed off the Matabele cattle. In 1863, prosperity returned to Matabeleland. Rains fell, harvests were plentiful, and the raiding Matabele regiments returned with large herds of cattle.
Only white hunters who supplied the king with firearms and ammunition were allowed to hunt in the east of his territory. The big-game hunter, Henry Hartley became a good friend of Mzilikazi after treating the ailing king with success. During 1865, while hunting in Mashonaland, Hartley accidentally discovered gold. Soon afterwards, Hartley, Adam Renders and the geologist Carl Mauch, while exploring north of Great Zimbabwe, realized the extent of gold present around the old African mining villages along the Mfuli and Tati Rivers. At Potchefstroom, in December 1867, Hartley and Mauch announced the extent of gold present in Mashonaland, thus beginning the first gold rush as prospectors and miners from Europe and Australia began the long trek northward up the missionaries’ road. The Transvaal Government did its utmost to get hold of the Tati goldfields, but the ailing king, remembering old enmity with the Boers, steadily refused to allow them a grant.
In 1868, 9 September, Mzilikazi died at Ingama, Matabeleland (near Bulawayo, Zimbabwe) and Lobengula was installed as king in 1870, but strife between contesting groups led to civil war that weakened the Ndebele Empire. British imperial expansion later caused the collapse of Ndebele power, but the Zimbabwean Ndebele language and culture survived.