During the 1810s, the Zulu Kingdom was established in southern Africa by the warrior king Shaka, who united a number of rival clans into a centralised monarchy. Among the Zulu Kingdom’s main leaders and military commanders was Mzilikazi, who enjoyed high royal favour for a time, but ultimately provoked the king’s wrath by repeatedly offending him. When Shaka forced Mzilikazi and his followers to leave the country in 1823, they moved north-west to the Transvaal, where they became known as the Ndebele or “Matabele”—both names mean “men of the long shields”. Amid the period of war and chaos locally called mfecane (“the crushing”), the Matabele quickly became the region’s dominant tribe. In 1836, they negotiated a peace treaty with Sir Benjamin d’Urban, Governor of the British Cape Colony, but the same year Boer Voortrekkers moved to the area, during their Great Trek away from British rule in the Cape. These new arrivals soon toppled Mzilikazi’s domination of the Transvaal, compelling him to lead another migration north in 1838. Crossing the Limpopo River, the Matabele settled in the Zambezi–Limpopo watershed’s south-west; this area has since been called Matabeleland.
Matabele culture mirrored that of the Zulus in many aspects. The Matabele language, Sindebele, was largely based on Zulu—and just like Zululand, Matabeleland had a strong martial tradition. Matabele men went through a Spartan upbringing, designed to produce disciplined warriors, and military organisation largely dictated the distribution of administrative responsibilities. The inkosi (king) appointed a number of izinDuna (or indunas), who acted as tribal leaders in both military and civilian matters. Like the Zulus, the Matabele referred to a regiment of warriors as an impi. The Mashona people, who had inhabited the north-east of the region for centuries, greatly outnumbered the Matabele, but were weaker militarily, and so to a large degree entered a state of tributary submission to them. Mzilikazi agreed to two treaties with the Transvaal Boers in 1853, first with Hendrik Potgieter (who died shortly before negotiations ended), then with Andries Pretorius; the first of these, which did not bear Mzilikazi’s own mark, purported to make Matabeleland a virtual Transvaal protectorate, while the second, which was more properly enacted, comprised a more equal peace agreement.
After Mzilikazi died in 1868, his son Lobengula replaced him in 1870, following a brief succession struggle. Tall and well built, Lobengula was generally considered thoughtful and sensible, even by contemporary Western accounts; according to the South African big-game hunter Frederick Hugh Barber, who met him in 1875, he was witty, mentally sharp and authoritative—”every inch a king”. Based at his royal kraal at Bulawayo, Lobengula was at first open to Western enterprises in his country, adopting Western-style clothing and granting mining concessions and hunting licences to white visitors in return for pounds sterling, weapons and ammunition. Because of the king’s illiteracy, these documents were prepared in English or Dutch by whites who took up residence at his kraal; to ascertain that what was written genuinely reflected what he had said, Lobengula would have his words translated and transcribed by one of the whites, then later translated back by another. Once the king was satisfied of the written translation’s veracity, he would sign his mark, affix the royal seal (which depicted an elephant), and then have the document signed and witnessed by a number of white men, at least one of whom would also write an endorsement of the proclamation.
For unclear reasons, Lobengula’s attitude towards foreigners reversed sharply during the late 1870s. He discarded his Western clothes in favour of more traditional animal-skin garments, stopped supporting trading enterprises, and began to restrict the movement of whites into and around his country. However, the whites kept coming, particularly after the discovery in 1886 of gold deposits in the South African Republic (or Transvaal), which prompted the Witwatersrand Gold Rush and the founding of Johannesburg. After rumours spread among the Witwatersrand (or Rand) prospectors of even richer tracts, “a second Rand”, north of the Limpopo, the miners began to trek north to seek concessions from Lobengula that would allow them to search for gold in Matabeleland and Mashonaland. These efforts were mostly in vain. Apart from the Tati Concession, which covered a small strip of land on the border with the Bechuanaland Protectorate where miners had operated since 1868, mining operations in the watershed remained few and far between.
The foremost business and political figure in southern Africa at this time was Cecil Rhodes, a vicar’s son who had arrived from England in 1870, aged 17. Since entering the diamond trade at Kimberley in 1871, Rhodes had gained near-complete domination of the world diamond market with the help of Charles Rudd, Alfred Beit and other business associates, as well as the generous financial backing of Nathan Mayer Rothschild. Rhodes was also a member of the Cape Parliament, having been elected in 1881. Amid the European Scramble for Africa, he envisioned the annexation to the British Empire of territories that would connect the Cape, at Africa’s southern tip, with Cairo, the Egyptian city at the northern end of the continent, and allow for the construction of a railway linking the two. This ambition was directly challenged in the south by the presence of the Boer republics and, just to the north of them, Lobengula’s domains. The fact that the Zambezi–Limpopo region did not fall into any of the “spheres of influence” defined at the 1884–85 Berlin Conference further complicated matters; the Transvaalers, Germans and Portuguese were all also showing interest in the area, much to the annoyance of both Lobengula and Rhodes.