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Map of Zimbabwe showing Matabeleland
Map of Zimbabwe: Matabeleland is on the west

Modern day Matabeleland is a region in Zimbabwe divided into two provinces: Matabeleland North and Matabeleland South; and the Administratively separate city of Bulawayo. These two provinces are in the west and south-west of Zimbabwe, between the Limpopo and Zambezi rivers. The province is named after its inhabitants, the Ndebele people, who took control of the area in 1837 after having been pushed out of other areas of southern Africa during the Mfecane. Population (1992) 1,855,300. Area: 181,605 km². The language spoken is Ndebele. The major city is Bulawayo. Another notable town is Hwange. The land is particularly fertile and this area has important gold deposits. Industries include gold and other mineral mines, and engineering.



The San People and various ironworking cultures

Stone Age evidence indicates that the San people, now living mostly in the Kalahari Desert, are the descendants of this region’s original inhabitants, almost 100 000 years ago. There are also remnants of several ironworking cultures dating back to AD 300. Little is known of the early ironworkers, but it is believed that they put pressure on the San and gradually took over the land.

Rozwi Empire

Around the 10th and 11th centuries the Bantu-speaking Shona arrived from the north and the both the San and the early ironworkers were driven out. By the 15th century, the Shona had established a strong empire, known as Munhumutapa, with its capital at the ancient city of Zimbabwe. This empire was split by the end of the 15th century with southern part becoming the Rozwi Empire.

Ndebele Kingdom


In the late 1830s, some 20 000 Ndebele, descendants of the Zulus in South Africa and led by Mzilikazi Khumalo, invaded the Rozwi Empire. Many of the Shona people were incorporated and the rest were made satellite territories who paid tribute to the Ndebele Kingdom. He called his new nation Mthwakazi, a Zulu word which means something which became big at conception, in Zulu "into ethe ithwasa yabankulu". The territory came to be known as Matabeleland after conquest by the BSAC. Mzilikazi organised this ethnically diverse nation into a militaristic system of regimental towns and established his capital at Bulawayo. He was a statesman of considerable stature, able to weld the many conquered tribes into a strong, centralized kingdom. In 1852, the Boer government in Transvaal made a treaty with Mzilikazi. However, gold was discovered in Mashonaland in 1867 and the European powers became increasingly interested in the region. Mzilikazi died on 9 September 1868, near Bulawayo. His son, Lobengula, succeeded him as king. In exchange for wealth and arms, Lobengula granted several concessions to the British, the most prominent of which is the 1888 Rudd concession giving Cecil Rhodes exclusive mineral rights in much of the lands east of his main territory. Gold was already known to exist, so with the Rudd concession, Rhodes was able to obtain a royal charter to form the British South Africa Company in 1889.

British South Africa Company

In 1890, Rhodes sent a group of settlers, known as the Pioneer Column, into Mashonaland where they founded Fort Salisbury (now Harare). In 1891 an Order-in-Council declared Matabeleland and Mashonaland British protectorates. Rhodes had a vested interest in the continued expansion of white settlements in the region, so now with the cover of a legal mandate, he used a brutal attack by Ndebele against the Shona near Fort Victoria (now Masvingo) in 1893 as a pretext for attacking the kingdom of Lobengula. Also in 1893, a concession awarded to Sir John Swinburne was detached from Matabeleland to be administered by the British Resident Commissioner of the Bechuanaland Protectorate, to which the territory was formally annexed in 1911 and it remains part of modern Botswana, known as the Tati Concessions Land.

First Matabele War

Battle beetween British soldiers and Matabele (Richard Caton Woodville)

The first decisive battle was fought when on November 1, 1893 when a laager was attacked on open ground near the Bembesi River by Imbezu and Ingubu regiments. The laager consisted of 670 British soldiers, 400 of whom were mounted along with a small force of native allies, and fought off the Imbezu and Ingubu forces, which were considered by Sir John Willoughby to number 1 700 warriors in all. The laager had with it a small artillery of 5 Maxim guns, 2 seven-pounders, 1 Gardner gun, and 1 Hotchkiss. The Maxim guns took centre stage and decimated the native force.

Lobengula had 80 000 spearmen and 20 000 riflemen, against fewer than 700 soldiers of the British South Africa Police, but the Ndebele warriors were no match against the British Maxim guns. Leander Starr Jameson immediately sent his troops to Bulawayo to try to capture Lobengula, but the king escaped and left Bulawayo in ruins behind him. An attempt to bring the king and his forces to submit led to the disaster of the Shangani Patrol when a Ndebele Impi defeated a British South Africa Company patrol led by Major Allan Wilson at the Shangani river in December 1893. Except for Frederick Russell Burnham and two other scouts sent for reinforcements, the detachment was surrounded and wiped out. This incident had a lasting influence on Matabeleland and the colonists who died in this battle are buried at Matobo Hills along with Jameson and Cecil Rhodes. In white Rhodesian history, Wilson's battle takes on the status of General Custer's stand at Little Big Horn in the USA. The Matabele fighters honoured the dead men with a salute to their bravery in battle and reportedly told the king, "They were men of men and their fathers were men before them." Under mysterious circumstances, Lobengula died in January 1894, and within a few short months the British South Africa Company controlled Matabeleland and white settlers continued to arrive.

Second Matabele War

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 Chimurenga, i.e., First War of Independence. Mlimo, the Matabele spiritual/religious leader, is credited with fomenting much of the anger that led to this confrontation. He convinced the Ndebele 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’s security in disarray. In June 1896, the Shona too joined the war, but they stayed mostly on the defensive. The British would immediately send troops to suppress the Ndebele and the Shona, only it would take months and cost many hundreds of lives before the territory would be once again be at peace. Shortly after learning of the assassination of Mlimo at the hands of the American scout Frederick Russell Burnham, Cecil Rhodes showed great courage when he boldly walked unarmed into the Ndebele stronghold in Matobo Hills and persuaded the impi to lay down their arms, thus bringing the war to a close in October 1896.[1] Matabeleland and Mashonaland would continue on only as provinces of the larger state of Rhodesia.

Birthplace of Scouting

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 practising the art and applying it as a soldier. Woodcraft was not generally practised 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. The vision of 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 valour and good cheer, and as social workers afterwards. Baden-Powell went on to refine the concept of scouting and eventually become the founder of the international scouting movement.

British Rule

The flag of Southern Rhodesia
The flag of the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland

British settlement of Rhodesia continued, and by October 1923, the territory of Southern Rhodesia was annexed to the crown. The Ndebele thereby became British subjects and the colony received its first basic constitution and first parliamentary election. Ten years later, the British South Africa Company ceded its mineral rights to the territory's government for £2 million, and a deep recession of the 1930s gave way to a post-war boom of British immigration.

After the onset of self-government, a major issue in Southern Rhodesia was the relationship between the white settlers and the Ndebele and Shona populations. One major consequence was that the white settlers were able to enact discriminatory legislation concerning land tenure. The Land Apportionment and Tenure Acts reserved 45% of the land area for exclusively white ownership. 25% was designated “Tribal Trust Land” which was available to be worked on a collective basis by the already settled farmers and where individual title was not offered. In 1965, the white government of Rhodesia led by prime minister, Ian Smith declared its independence from Britain, only the second state to do so, the other being the USA under George Washington in 1776. Initially, this state maintained its loyalty to Queen Elizabeth II as "Queen of Rhodesia" (a title to which she never consented) but by 1970 even that link was severed, and Rhodesia became a totally independent republic.

Sovereign Rhodesia

The flag of Rhodesia

The white-ruled Rhodesian government struggled to obtain international recognition and faced serious economic difficulties as a result of international sanctions. Some states did support the white minority government of Rhodesia, most notably South Africa and Portugal. In 1972, the Zimbabwe African National Union began a lengthy armed campaign against Rhodesia’s white minority government in what became known as the "Bush War" by White Rhodesians and as the "Second Chimurenga" (or rebellion in Shona) by supporters of the guerrillas. The Matabele, backed by Moscow, set up a separate war front from neighbouring Zambia. The Rhodesian government settled a ceasefire in 1979. For a brief period, Rhodesia reverted to the status of British colony, but in early 1980, elections were held and the ZANU party, led by Mugabe, exercised their rule over the independent nation of Zimbabwe. Matabeleland and Mashonaland would continue on as provinces of this new nation.


The flag of Zimbabwe

Following independence in 1980, Zimbabwe initially made significant economic and social progress, but tensions between the Shona and the Ndebele began to surface once again. Internal security worsened as the Ndebele resorted to terrorism[citation needed] to challenge Mugabe and his majority Shona ruled party. The government responded with a series of military campaigns against the terrorists and Mugabe was accused of numerous atrocities against civilians in Matabeleland. By early 1984, the army disrupted food supplied in Matabeleland and much of the Ndebele population suffered food shortages. Some Shona and the Matabele leaders, notably Robert Mugabe and Joshua Nkomo, finally reconciled their political differences by late 1987.

In the early 1990s, a controversial Land Acquisition Act was passed calling for the Mugabe government to purchase half of the mostly white-owned commercial farming land at below-market prices to redistribute land to black peasants. Matabeleland has rich central plains, watered by tributaries of the two rivers, the Zambezi and the Limpopo, allowing it to sustain cattle and consistently produce large amounts of cotton, and maize. But land grabbing, squatting, and repossessions of large white farms under Mugabe's program resulted in a 90% loss in productivity in large-scale farming, ever higher unemployment, and hyper-inflation. White residents fled the country and strikes further crippled production prompting ever more severe repression by the government. AIDS has also had a significant impact on this nation; more than 25% of the adult population is currently infected.

Matabeleland Freedom Party

More radical elements in Matabeleland describe the 1980s massacres as genocide and insist they plan to have the perpetrators placed on trial at the International Criminal Court at The Hague.

In 2006, a separatist organization, the Matabeleland Freedom Party or MFP was founded by exiles living in Johannesburg in neighbouring South Africa. The MFP seeks a referendum to regain Matabeleland independence that existed until 1894, under a constitutional monarchy.

The party has established chapters in Bulawayo, Lupane and in other districts of Matabeleland. Their website can be found at

See also


External links

Travel guide

Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From Wikitravel

Africa : Southern Africa : Zimbabwe : Matabeleland

Matabeleland is a region in the southwest and west of Zimbabwe. It is inhabited by the Ndebele people, who settled here in the mid 1800s.


Southern Matabeleland is for the greater portion of the year hot and dusty. Tropical rainstorms arrive at 4:20pm, drop their load of huge, warm drops, and are gone by 5pm - you could set your watch by it.

Baobab trees are common, as are mopani. The grasslands glow in the deep afternoon sun.

  • See the rock formation at Balla Balla.
  • Visit Chipingali Wildlife Orphanage.


The largest town in Matabeleland is Bulawayo, renowned for its wide streets built to allow a wagon with a 10-oxen team to do a U-turn. Bulawayo has an airport, which makes it an ideal starting point. From Bulawayo one can travel south to Matobo for a day's slow drive thru the exotic landscapes, or westward to Khami Ruins, to see miniature versions of the stone ruins found at Great Zimbabwe.

  • Go to Matobo!


A local delicacy is the mopani worm - these caterpillars are dried in the sun, and sold as a snack food. The staple food is mealie meal, made into a stiff porridge known as "sadza".

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Up to date as of January 14, 2010

Definition from Wiktionary, a free dictionary


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Named after the Matabele people, also known as the Ndebele.

Proper noun




  1. A region in the west of Zimbabwe.


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