First Chimurenga: Southern Africa’s first revolutionary war against White rule in the 1800s

Chimurenga war
An illustration of The First Chimurenga war.

Documented under many names, including the second Anglo-Matabele war or the War of the Red Axe, the First Chimurenga war, which broke out in the Zimbabwean plateau in 1896, remains an important chapter in Southern Africa’s response to colonialism.

Fought between the white colonisers under the British South Africa Company (BSAC) and the indigenous Shona and Ndebele communities, the war erupted due to several reasons, as European interest in Zimbabwe, right from the 18th century, rose.

In fact, before the First Chimurenga in Mashonaland and Matabeleland, Europeans had made contact with the locals through missionaries and trade. Personalities like David Livingstone, Charles Helm, and Fredrick Courtney Selous had already established contacts with the locals.

This paved way for British businessman and politician Cecil Rhodes and his BSAC to enter into the country and sign treaties with the local leaders, an account by Pindula said.

Rhodes would trick King Lobengula of the Ndebele kingdom into signing several treaties that would eventually give away lands between areas like the Limpopo and Zambezi Rivers to the British.

Thus, the indigenous Shona and Ndebele (Matebele) people, between 1896-97, would mount a resistance to British imperialism largely caused by the need to recover “land and cattle lost through conquest and Concessions, the introduction of the Colonial Economy and accompanying wage labour system which all disrupted the structure of Shona and Matebele Societies by negatively impacting on the status and welfare of the Shona and Matebele people,” an account by afrikaiswoke.com said.

The arrival of the Pioneer Column in the early 1890s, a mercenary army hired by Rhodes which had established white settlements in areas such as Fort Victoria (now Masvingo) and Fort Salisbury (now Harare), showed that a clash with locals was imminent.

What was worse was the scourge of drought, rinderpest (a cattle disease) and locusts which the ancestors said was a sign to get the British invaders out in a rebellion that became known as the Second Matabele War by the British. The locals, however, referred to it as the First Chimurenga.

The Shona word Chimurenga, which means “revolutionary struggle”, was derived from Sororenzou Murenga, who had led his people during the First Matabele War in 1893.

From March 1896, the First Chimurenga war had begun. In Matabeleland, the Ndebele people fought the authority of the BSAC in what is now celebrated in Zimbabwe as the First War of Independence.

Nehanda and Kaguvi
The leaders of the rebellion

At the time, the Spiritual leader or Mlimo, had encouraged the Ndebele to revolt against the British as they were responsible for the drought, locusts and rinderpest that had ravaged Matebeleland.

Mlimo said that the power of the Ndebele warriors was peak during the full moon. With this knowledge, the Ndebele warriors were to make the first attack on the night of March 29, 1896, beneath a full moon. The attack happened at the Big Dance ceremony, where the Ndebele warriors, and their allies, the Shona, would kill any white person they encountered.

Once most of the settlers were evicted from Bulawayo, the Ndebele warriors proceeded to the countryside and continued the killing until all the settlers were either killed or fled.

“Nearly 2,000 Ndebele warriors began the rebellion in earnest on March 24. Many, although not all, of the young native police, quickly deserted and joined the rebels. Armed with Martini-Henry rifles, Winchester repeaters, and Lee-Metfords, as well old and obsolete guns, assegais, knobkerries, and battle-axes, the Ndebele headed into the countryside. As the news of the massive rebellion spread and the Shona joined in the fighting, the settlers headed towards Bulawayo. Within a week, 141 white settlers were slain in Matabeleland, an additional 103 were killed in Mashonaland, and hundreds of settler homes, ranches and mines were burnt,” the account by Pindula said.

In fact, in Mashonaland, the fight broke out in June 1896 under the leadership of two powerful Spirit Mediums, Mbuya Nehanda Nyakasikana and Sekuru Kaguvi.

Both the Shona and Ndebele were able to make successful attacks on mines, farms, and some colonial buildings and infrastructure, but, eventually, the British were able to suppress both rebellions with superior firepower – the Matebele rebellion first, and then the Mashonaland revolt.

Nehanda and Kaguvi
Nehanda and Kaguvi

Nehanda and Kaguvi, who had both inspired the uprising, were caught and executed. The First Chimurenga resulted in the consolidation of British control in what later became Rhodesia and did not lead to any major changes in BSAC policy.

However, the leaders of the revolt, such as Nehanda and Kaguvi inspired future generations, and Zimbabwe would eventually obtain independence in 1980 after fighting a ‘2nd Chimurenga’ against the Rhodesian State.

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