68. Place of Slaughter

By Peter Fraenkel

Bulawayo? A dull place, really. It certainly did not live up to its name: “Place of Slaughter”.  That referred to a gruesome battle in the early 19thcentury between rival claimants to the kingship of the Ndebele (the people whom we whites misnamed “Matabele”). Lobengula emerged victorious and slaughtered supporters of his rival.

But when Lobengula, in turn, was defeated by white invaders, and they built a new city a mile or two from Lobengula’s burnt-out town they retained the gruesome name. It was the second city of the country that was named Southern Rhodesia: a few streets of shops, two cinemas, some pubs and a milk bar – all of this  surrounded by some dreary streets of bungalows occupied by whites and, further out, long rows of identical one-room sheds with corrugated iron roofs.  These housed the large African population. Bulawayo roads were very wide because the “founder” – Rhodes himself – had insisted that wagons with a full span of sixteen oxen should be able to do a U-turn in these streets.

In the centre- a large modern town hall.  We schoolboys were marched there once a year for a parade for Rhodes and Founders Day

My school, Milton Senior, was on the outskirts. Many a dawn, lying in the dormitory of Pioneer House I listened to a strange repetitive pounding. “What’s that?” I asked the boy in the next bed.

“Gold mine,” replied Kevin Curran.

I did not believe him. I had once, years earlier, been taken down a gold mine in South Africa on the Witwatersrand. A steel cage had lowered us into the deep. Down there a small train – normally used to transport ore – took us along tunnels carved through the rock.

Curran had promised he would prove to me that the pounding we had heard from our dormitory was a gold mine. And he did.  Beyond the schools’ rugby fields we crossed some scrubland until we came to a lone white man who sat on a bucket, smoking, while supervising a few black labourers.  They were digging into the side of a little hill. It wasn’t remotely like the Witwatersrand. But it was a gold mine.  Curran said this was locally called a “small holding”.

But our “founders” had dreamt of mines far bigger. They had cheated their way into these lands expecting to find seams of gold like those of the Witwatersrand. They didn’t.  In the first five years of white occupation Rhodesia yielded less gold than the Witwatersrand did on a single day.

Lobengula, the last king of the Ndebele, had had his “kraal” a mile or two from what became the white men’s town but he had burnt down old Bulawayo after his military defeat. The Whites kept the name for the new town they built a mile or two from the old. A friend and I cycled to Old Bulawayo once but were disappointed. There nothing worth seeing. To get an idea what there had been there a century earlier I had to go to the Bulawayo’s public library. There were books there with etchings of a tall corpulent black man – Lobengula – the last king of the Ndebele and of his warriors.

If you read the books attentively it became clear that Lobengula had been defrauded. None of his entourage could read. He had been led to believe he had authorized nothing more than the digging of a few holes. Only five white miners would be sent. But, as interpreted by the shareholders in London – with the blessing of Queen Victoria’s government – it gave white settlers the right to settle on all this land.

There was another matter the Ndebele had not experienced before. Lobengula had given a right to mine to a syndicate of concession hunters led by one Rudd. But Rudd was in the pay of Rhodes so the “Rudd concession” ended up in the hands of Cecil John Rhodes, the diamond magnate. He had dreams, not only of gold but of a great British empire in Africa – “from Cape to Cairo”.

The British government supported Rhodes – so long as he did not cost them anything. He set up the British South Africa Company to administer the newly “acquired” land.  They named it Rhodesia.

The occupation was bloodless at this stage. Bloodshed came later. Fort Salisbury was established away from the land of the warlike Ndebele, in that of the more peaceful Shona. But when no rich gold seams were found Rhodes’ men provoked war to invade the land of the Ndebele as well. It was only after the Ndebele realised they had been defrauded that murder and mayhem followed.

Rhodes and his men had hoped that the new lands would yield gold “beyond the dreams of avarice.” … like the Witwatersrand.  Rhodesia never did. In the end Rhodes’ company found themselves forced to flog off plots of agricultural land to white settlers at knock-down prices. It was good farming land so Blacks were promptly confined to reserves in less productive areas.

No, we Whites don’t come out of it with honour – whatever they told us every year on Rhodes-and-Founders day.