The South African
Military History Society

Die Suid-Afrikaanse Krygshistoriese Vereniging

Military History Journal
Vol 1 No 3 - December 1968

A comparative study of strategy in bantu tribal warfare during the 19th century


In the early decades of the nineteenth century, during the tyrannical rule of Shaka, King of the Zulu, the South African territories today known as Zululand and Natal were studded with great military kraals garrisoned by powerful, war-lusty regiments. Called amakhanda, these settlements were strategically situated on hilltops, mountain slopes and along the banks of rivers. They defended Shaka's expanding empire against invasion by hostile tribes but more important they were the centres from which swift and destructive forays were constantly launched into neighbouring territories.

Shaka's military kraals were built to a set pattern. Hundreds of hemispherical grass-huts, standing side by side to form a circle fully a mile in circumference, were encompassed by a stout hedge built of dry thornbush branches; an inner hedge isolated the huts from the central section of the settlement which formed an arena for the assembly of the regiments on important occasions and for the palisaded cattlefolds which contained the King's herds.

The regiments, each about a thousand strong under the command of a senior officer known as an induna, occupied the great circle of huts. The warriors dressed in full regalia were an impressive sight. Their head-dresses, made of a variety of pelts, were decorated with gay tail plumes and breast feathers; war kilts of rolled civet, genet and monkey skins were draped almost to their knees; their arms and legs were decorated with oxtail tufts and ruffles of oxhide protected their ankles from thorns, branches and stones. Special bead ornaments, as well as necklaces of horns interspersed with small blocks of wood, were worn by all who had excelled in battle. However, no two regiments dressed exactly alike but could be identified at a glance both by their distinctive head-dresses and by the colours of their ox-hide shields. Every warrior carried a long-bladed stabbing-spear and a couple of throwing assegais.

The royal seraglio housing the King's hand-picked concubines was an important section of a Zulu military kraal. Situated at the top end of the settlement, and forming part of the great hut-circle, this cluster of huts was superintended by an elderly woman, invariably an influential dowager of the tribe, appointed by the King. It was in the confines of a seraglio such as this that one of the most daring plots in Zulu history was conceived - the assassination of Shaka, King of the Zulu.

In 1828 the most northerly of Shaka's military kraals was emBelebeleni - the Place of Endless Worry. Spread over the wooded slopes of an eminence not ten miles from where the Umkumbane stream joins the White Umfolozi river, it guarded the approaches to emaKhosini - the Place of Kings - burial ground of illustrious ancestors of the tribe, and the most sacred spot in all Zululand.

Five or six regiments, forming the umBelebele division of the Zulu army and made up mainly of veteran warriors, were stationed at the Place of Endless Worry. It was also the headquarters of several dignitaries, including Mdlaka, commander-in-chief of the army, the indunas Maphitha and Mvundlane and of Mkabayi, a royal woman appointed by Shaka as head of the entire settlement and keeper of the royal seraglio.

Military kraals of the Shaka pattern came into existence during the tyranny that swept the east-coast territories in the early years of the nineteenth century. For centuries before Shaka's rise to power, Zululand and Natal were havens of peace and freedom, inhabited by a mosaic of independent Nguni clans all speaking a related language, all pursuing an identical way of life and all ruled by hereditary chiefs. Nguni chiefs enjoyed unquestionable authority, and each was at once the father, chief priest, supreme judge and military commander of his clan.

In 1816 the Zulu throne was usurped by Shaka and the way of life of the Nguni clans was thrown into confusion. Dominated by an urge for power Shaka first turned his attention to establishing an invincible army. He immediately decreed that the age-old custom of initiation be discontinued; initiation lodges were to be replaced by military kraals and adolescent youths conscripted for military training. Then, rounding up all bachelors between the ages of twenty and thirty, he announced that henceforth only those who excelled in battle and who served the Zulu army loyally would be permitted to marry. The bachelors he drafted together into a regiment which he named inTontela.

Shaka viewed married men with scorn, proclaiming them soft and effeminate. However, this did not deter him from conscripting all married men between the ages of thirty and forty into the iWombe regiment. Kraal patriarchs who were too old for active service were for the time being left undisturbed, but they were subjected to the indignity of wearing a long skin-apron similar to those worn by married women.

Shaka soon turned his newly-raised regiments into a formidable fighting force. He taught them the art of hand-to-hand combat by substituting a long-bladed stabbing-spear for the traditional throwing assegai. He threatened that if warriors should return unarmed from battle or be reported for cowardice they would be executed. Henceforth there would be no skirmishing with an enemy - the erstwhile traditional method of Nguni warfare - for Shaka's Zulu army would viciously attack according to a rigid plan. It would advance in close column and on locating the enemy would split up into three divisions; two encircling columns - izimpondo or horns - would move out to the left and right leaving the central body - isifuba or chest - to advance rapidly in direct attack. In the course of the ensuing battle the tips of the horns would meet and then the entire force would converge on the encircled enemy and annihilate it.

Between the years 1816 and 1828, Shaka's army swept across what is today Zululand, Natal and Pondoland as far as the Umzimvubu river. The clans were decimated and subjugated and incorporated in the Zulu empire. And on each occasion when his regiments returned to barracks they assembled before their King at Bulawayo - the Place of Killing - or Gibixhegu, as Shaka's most famous military kraal was to become known where they would bellow "Ngathi! Ngathi! By us! We are the victors!" Shaka would then scrutinize his warriors stabbing spears for by the number held point upwards he was able to judge how many of his warriors had killed at least one of the enemy in battle. Returning to his throne Shaka called upon each of the indunas in turn to describe the battles recently fought and to bring both heroes and cowards before him. He took pains to praise and reward all who had won distinction in battle, but he had cowards removed to the outskirts of Bulawayo, to the isiHlahla Samagwala, or Coward's Bush, to be impaled or clubbed to death.

The year 1822 marked the beginning of the spread of this dreadful military turmoil in central South Africa. This was the result of the flight from Shaka's tyranny of three Zulu-speaking chieftains, Mpangazitha of the Hlubi clan, Matiwane of the emaNgwana and Mzilikazi of the Khumalo. This all started when a section of Shaka's army, sent to invade Natal approached Matiwane's domain on the Nyati or Buffalo river and put this clan to flight.

When early in the winter of 1823 Mzilikazi crossed the Drakensberg into Sotho country, he chanced to move northwards into the Ermelo district of the Transvaal. What fate would have awaited him had he chosen to lead the Khumalo southwards into the Orange Free State?

The previous year, 1822, a section of the Zulu army sent by Shaka to invade Natal, approached the Nyati and put Matiwane and his people to flight.

In direct line of Matiwane's flight was the Hlubi clan, occupying a strip of territory between the Nyati and the Tugela rivers. Matiwane took the Hlubi by surprise, drove them from their kraals, butchered them, took possession of their cattle and stores of grain and then murdered their chief and his heir. Some of the Hlubi fled to the south, but Mpangazita, second eldest son of the deceased ruler of the clan, raced off with his followers to the west and took refuge in the heights of the Drakensberg.

He then led his people through the folds of the mountains, struggled with them among the peaks, and on effecting a crossing, descended into the foothills along the western slopes. The Hlubi pressed on and entered the Harrismith district of the Orange Free State, a vast, flat, highveld country, inhabited by a Sotho tribe known as the Batlokoa - the Wild Cat People.

Mpangazita encountered the Wild Cat People in a valley through which the Wilge river flows, and on the banks of streams flowing into the Upper Vaal. The ruler of this Sotho tribe was Mantatisi, a woman endowed with fabulous qualities of leadership, and whose notoriety as an exterminator of Sotho tribes was to be surpassed only by Mzilikazi in the years to come.

Mantatisi was a woman of outstanding intelligence. Tall, straight and lean, she was lighter in complexion than most of her subjects, and her expression of countenance was sweet and agreeable. Mantatisi was described by the early missionaries as astute and vigilant, and as being of dignified deportment. In 1823, when Mzilikazi was approaching the Drakensberg from Zululand, she was already known far and wide in the central plateau of South Africa as a ruthless conqueror, utterly callous to human suffering.

Ever since her husband's death in 1813 Mantatisi's reign had been turbulent. She was the daughter of the chief of the neighbouring Basia clan and, as a foreigner, members of the royal house of the Wild Cat People sought to kill her and also to prevent her minor son, Sikonyela, from becoming the new chief of the clan. During all the years before the arrival of the invaders from Zululand Mantatisi's reign had been punctuated with incessant quarrels, strife and even civil war, but so steadfast had she been to see her son on the throne of the Wild Cat People that she overcame all opposition and ruled as regent with supreme authority. In the course of time not only did Mantatisi gain tremendous prestige, but she came to be venerated by the very people who had plotted to kill her.

But then Mpangazita and his Hlubi flocked into the Harrismith district and fell upon the villages of the Wild Cat People. Mantatisi was taken unawares, and abandoning her royal kraal, she fled with her subjects to the country of her kinsmen, the neighbouring Basia. Mantatisi did not remain long with the Basia, for not only did she realize there would be insufficient food for the two clans, but she also predicted that it would not be long before the invaders from Zululand arrived. She returned to the west with her hordes and attacked the Bafokeng - the Mist People. Nor was her departure premature, for Mpangazita invaded the Basia, having been driven from the Harrismith district by a newcomer to Sotho country - Matiwane, his old enemy, who also had decided to flee from Shaka's tyranny.

The movements of these three chiefs created a fashion in inter-tribal warfare that was to become unique in Sotho history; a ghastly series of massacres which produced few tangible results and reduced the peace-loving peoples of the Central Plateau to a state of abject misery.

Known as lifaqane, these wars began when Mantatisi drove the Mist People from their country and then moved on to the west, either to destroy other clans or to disperse them. In this way a congestion involving hundreds of thousands of people developed. Sotho groups both large and small turned westwards, each trespassing on the domains of another. Powerful armies annihilated their weaker neighbours, confiscated their possessions and moved on, knowing full well that if they loitered they too would be attacked by wave upon wave of people advancing from the east. Lifaqane hurled the Sotho peoples into a maelstrom of destruction, until eventually an estimated twenty-eight distinct clans disappeared, leaving not a trace of their former existence.

The horrifying effects of lifaqane on the way of life of the Southern Sotho peoples of the early 1820's will be better understood if we follow the career of the most fascinating female African conqueror of all time - Mantatisi, queen of the Wild Cat People.

With her eighteen-year-old son at her side Mantatisi led her hordes into the Caledon valley, a great fertile country interspersed with sandstone hills, which, by virtue of their precipitous slopes, were to become the fortresses of many a fugitive Sotho clan. Mantatisi crossed the torrid sands through which the Caledon river flows, and advanced on Butha-Bethe - the Place of Lying-down - a mountain on which lived Moshesh, a young, unknown sub-chief and his handful of followers.

From the heights of Butha-Buthe, Moshesh and his subjects gazed down on the surge of Mantatisi's warriors. Had they not retreated earlier to this well-watered tableland forming the summit of the mountain, they would have been wiped out. But now they were safe, for their stronghold was encompassed by lofty, overhanging cliffs, carved by nature out of solid sandstone.

Skirmishes took place, but Mantatisi was more concerned in destroying the huts at the base of the mountain and collecting booty than in struggling up the tortuous passes leading to Moshesh's small group. The Wild Cat People camped on the banks of the stream flanking Butha-Buthe and, on consuming Moshesh's stores, departed for the west to embark on an orgy of devastation.

Clan after clan perished beneath Mantatisi's advance. Thousands of people, on learning of her approach, fled into the highlands, to regions few other than the dwarf-like Bushmen had ever considered fit for habitation. Waves of refugees rolled forward like animals before a band of hunters. Sotho groups that for many generations had lived side by side in comparative harmony became bitter enemies. A general scramble for cattle took place. Battles broke out. Bands of brigands zigzagged across the Caledon valley in search of unharvested fields to strip and granaries to raid. And over on the eastern horizon, stalking the refugees, were Mantatisi's Wild Cat hordes, and the two Zulu conquerors from across the Drakensberg.

The course Mantatisi followed ran parallel with the Caledon river. Unknown to her, Mpangazita's Hlubi were proceeding in the same direction, but to the immediate north, and it was only when she reached Peka, not many miles from where Maseru, the capital of Basutoland, is situated today, that she came upon this, her most dreaded enemy. A struggle for the supremacy of the Caledon valley followed between Mantatisi and Mpangazita. The Wild Cat people fared badly. In fact, had it not been for Mantatisi's ingenuity their marauding adventures might have ceased then and there.

Undaunted by their setback at the hands of the Hlubi, the Wild Cat People struck out northwards through the Orange Free State, attacking and subjugating clans, rounding up cattle, pillaging and leaving only desolation in their wake. They seem to have adhered to no planned route, for soon they were retracing their steps and were entering the plains between the Caledon and Orange rivers. They decimated all the clans they came upon, but left the many Bushmen bands in the area unharmed.

On finding the Orange in flood, the Wild Cat People turned back to the Caledon, crossed it and returned to the Orange Free State, where some months earlier they had butchered the Sotho inhabitants. They then moved off to the north-west towards Bechuanaland.

Meanwhile, frightening rumours had been sweeping across the interior of South Africa and had even reached the remotest villages of the Bechuanaland tribes. Stationed at the Kuruman mission, on the fringe of the Kalahari desert, was a young evangelist, the Rev. Robert Moffat, who wrote as follows of the disturbing news he had received of Mantatisi's exploits:

For more than a year, numerous and strange reports had at intervals reached us, some indeed, of such a character as induced us to treat them as the reveries of a madman. It was said that a mighty woman, of the name of Mantatee (Mantatisi), was at the head of an invincible army, numerous as locusts, marching onward among the interior nations, carrying devastation and ruin wherever she went; that she nourished the army with her own milk, sent out hornets before it, and, in one word, was laying the world desolate.

Moffat scoffed at these rumours, being convinced they had arisen as a result of the wars that were raging beyond the Drakensberg in Shaka's country.

Meanwhile Mantatisi was approaching Bechuanaland with forty thousand men, women and children. It was January 1823, the time of the year when crops were ripening and food was usually plentiful. But the Wild Cat People were compelled to live frugally, for so great had been the chaos brought about by lifaqane in general and the plunderings of Mantatisi, Mpangazita and Matiwane in particular that entire tribes had vanished from their settlements even before they had tilled their fields in preparation for planting. Indeed, the Central Plateau swarmed with hunger-stricken stragglers and small, detached parties of bandits. Apart from roots, bulbs, and berries, there was little food to be found in the veld, certainly not enough to feed so large a horde as that of Mantatisi.

What little food was available Mantatisi rationed among her fighting-men, but she insisted that the rank and file of her followers should forage in the surrounding veld. Many of the Wild Cat People started dropping out along the route. Women and children, and especially the aged and ailing, became stragglers who invariably died of exhaustion, exposure or hunger, or were devoured by beasts of prey that always followed at a distance.

Weeks of marching brought the Wild Cat People to the land of the Bechuana tribes, an immense belt of Kalahari desert. They entered the domains of the most prosperous of Bechuana chiefs, Makaba of the Bangwaketsi. Lured by fields of ripening corn and the herds that roamed the countryside, the Wild Cat People besieged the nearest outstations, dispersed the terrified inhabitants, collected booty and advanced towards a cluster of hillocks among which Makaba's village was situated.

Meanwhile, the old Chief had decided not to surrender to Mantatisi without a fight. He called up every available warrior, garrisoned every pass leading to his capital, and with the guile for which he was famous, prepared traps into which he planned to lead his aggressors.

Since her flight from the Harrismith district Mantatisi had managed to brush aside all opposition in the territories she traversed, but now in the stifling bushveld of Bechuanaland she was to come face to face with a foe whose fighting forces were as numerous and also better fed than those of Wild Cat People. The vanguard of Mantatisi's army strode into ambuscades; large groups of men toppled headlong into concealed pitfalls and met their death beneath volleys of barbed javelins. A battle broke out, in the course of which hundreds of the invaders were massacred. Before the situation could develop into a rout Mantatisi suddenly disengaged her armies and retreated with her hordes to the east. Thus Makaba became the first Sotho chief to repulse the formidable Wild Cat army, and to this day he is spoken of as the "Man of Conquest".

The Wild Cat People flowed into the adjoining territory of the Bahurutsi, a tribe almost as vast in numbers as the Bangwaketsi, but not nearly as powerful. Mantatisi grew cautious. Her subjects were ravenous, and the Bahurutsi crops, now heavy in ear, were too valuable a prize to miss. Furthermore, she saw what must have seemed a multitude of warriors, their bodies daubed with war paints, traversing the veld in the vicinity of Tshwenyane, the capital village. Mantatisi took Tshwenyane by storm, reduced it to ashes and butchered its inhabitants. And while she supervised looting operations, the Bahurutsi refugees streamed westwards to become wanderers in the waterless wastelands of the Kalahari.

The invaders hastened away to the south, fell upon the Barolong tribe, carried chaos and death into the villages, and sent thousands of fugitives on a witless journey to the desert. Then they moved on to the Batlhaping, the Fish People, among whom Robert Moffat and his colleagues of the London Missionary Society laboured.

Moffat visited Griquatown where he persuaded Nicholas Waterboer, chief of the Griqua to come to the aid of the Barolong. Eleven days after Moffat's departure from Griquatown a commando of a hundred or more Griqua horsemen trotted into the mission station at Kuruman. After a brief sojourn it set out with Moffat and Melville for Lithako, whence it was hoped negotiations with the armies of the Wild Cat People might be opened. At Lithako, Moffat was astounded to find that the village had already been occupied by the invaders and that a second division had bivouacked close by.

The missionary and old Nicholas Waterboer advanced to within two musket shots of the enemy and, with a view to discussing with them the futility of waging war against the defenceless Fish People, they attempted to attract the attention of the commanders. At great personal risk Moffat dismounted and approached the Wild Cat hordes unarmed. Barely had he left his saddle than the warriors rose and bore down on him. Moffat remounted, dug his heels into his horse's flanks and galloped away through a shower of assegais.

At sunrise the next morning the Griqua set out across the plains of Lithako and advanced on Mantatisi's army. The enemy, at the unfamiliar sight of mounted men, remained strangely calm. Indeed, Moffat could not but wonder at their apparent unconcern. The Griqua contingent ventured to within a hundred and fifty yards of the Wild Cat People hoping it would so intimidate them that they would surrender or flee without raising an assegai.

For several long minutes the atmosphere was charged with evil foreboding. Suddenly the hordes rose, lifted their voices in a terrifying war-whoop, spread out fan-wise and converged on the horsemen. Waterboer's commando galloped out of range, turned and fired into the foremost lines of their frenzied pursuers. Never having encountered so mysterious a weapon as a musket, the Wild Cat People were momentarily taken aback. But then they continued the charge, loping over the corpses of their comrades and wrenching javelins and clubs from the hands of their wounded. As row upon row of the warriors careered into the Griqua bullets and tumbled to its death, a host of Fish People, armed with bows and arrows and poisonous barbed assegais, swarmed down the slopes of a coppice nearby, but so terrified did they become on seeing a handful of Mantatisi's men turn to face them that they turned tail. For almost three hours the Griqua pounded their enemny, pausing only to reload or retire beyond range of the assegais.

The Wild Cat People halted. They had flung every available man into the inferno, but had not succeeded in dislodging a single Griqua from his saddle. They bolted, and although their rearguard turned on occasions to harass the riders who pursued them there was no doubt whatsoever that Mantatisi's people had had enough of war. Forsaking their cattle and the grain they had looted, they struggled eastwards.

For about four months the Wild Cat People hung about Mafeking, licking their wounds, foraging in the neighbourhood and conducting half-hearted raids into the villages of the Barolong tribe. Then they moved on, crossed the Vaal and wandered into the denuded plains of the Orange Free State. Starvation threatened them; desperate bandits, the victims of the lifaqane wars, plucked off their stragglers.

Then Matiwane appeared, the renegade chief from Zululand, whose bands of brigands had been picking the bones of almost every Sotho tribe that had been involved in the turmoil of lifaqane. He intercepted Mantatisi's war-scarred hordes and sent them fleeing, terror-stricken, in the direction of the Caledon valley.

Famine swept the country, hunger pangs afflicted thousands of refugees. No longer did Sotho warriors regard the corpses of their enemies as visible signs of success in battle, but as the only source of meat supply. Cannibalism spread.

At first the Sotho of the south fed only on the bodies of enemy dead, but it was not long before starvation drove them to devouring their fallen comrades and even the wives, husbands and children who succumbed to the vicissitudes of endless trekking. Having once acquired the taste for human flesh, the cannibals formed themselves into hunting bands and set out daily to capture refugees.

Many a cannibalistic band fled from the Basutoland lowlands into the mountains. Almost every overhanging ledge, cave and cranny, the former haunts of Bushmen, became the hide-out of hunger tormented man-eaters. Remnants of the Bafokeng, the original peace-loving Mist People, settled with their chief in the Leribe district, and so vicious a group did they become that even today their descendants are often referred to as Mariwa -- the Cannibals.

Meanwhile in 1823, the most formidable of all the renegade Zulu conquerors, Mzilikazi had crossed the Drakensberg into the interior. The wars of annihilation in the Transvaal were about to begin.

Before proceeding to the turbulent career of the great Mzilikazi, let us pause to consider the regalia worn by the main Sotho-speaking clans who inhabited central South Africa.

It will be recalled that the various Sotho tribes followed a similar way of life, dressed in like fashion, and spoke dialects that revealed only minor differences in vocabulary. Therefore, in times of strife, the warriors of the different groups decorated themselves in distinctive war regalia, and smeared their bodies with designs in coloured clays, lest, in the course of the battle they became confused and slew their own comrades.

The Bahurutsi, for example, who inhabited the plains around what is today the town of Zeerust daubed their faces with white clay, but each face was marked differently, and their legs were painted with the same clay resembling stockings. They were great "showmen", and often in the face of an approaching enemy they would go through all the different manoeuvres used in the course of battle. They would leap high into the air as if to escape an arrow or assegai; they would zigzag across the veld as if to prevent the enemy from taking aim at them. Apart from their warpaints the Bahurutsi wore white turbans made from the skin of the wild hog, leopard-skins and fur tippets hung from the shoulders of most warriors.

The Batlhaping, or Fish People, who inhabited the Northern Cape, prepared their warpaints from red clay. The Batlokoa, or Wild Cat People, who lived along the Wilge river in the Orange Free State, could be recognized at a glance by their black shields, black ostrich-feather headdresses and black mantles and capes. Even their bodies were daubed with a black substance prepared from a mixture of soot and animal fat.

Sotho armies were well armed. The tribes of the western limits of South Africa, among whom the most noteworthy were the Batlhaping, Bakgalagadi, Buhurutsi and Barolong, were armed with bows and arrows, battle-axes, clubs and assegais. In contrast with the massive Zulu shields, those of the Sotho tribes were small, light and rectangular. The Bamangwato of Northern Bechuanaland manufactured a large range of weapons: long, heavy, broad-bladed javelins, a variety of assegais both plain and barbed, double-barbed arrows and formidable battle-axes. Many of the tribes smelted iron and copper ore in simple clay furnaces, but in the art of working metals into weapons, the Bamangwato were unrivalled. The Batlokoa army carried large shields, similar to those of the Zulu, clubs, javelins, and also a curious weapon that resembled a scimitar. This sickle-shaped weapon was razor-sharp; it was used as a missile and also for hacking the enemy in close combat.

Although in the early 1820's the armies of the smaller Sotho groups could not have exceeded a thousand warriors, those of the large tribes were known to number many thousands. The population of the Bataung - the Lion People - was in the region of twenty-five thousand, and that of the Batlokoa forty thousand.

When Mzilikazi crossed the Drakensberg into the interior he sent scouts to reconnoitre the surroundings in order to establish the exact positions of the most prominent Sotho villages. This done, Khumalo fighting-men stole out at night, surrounded the sleeping inhabitants, set fire to the thatch of the hut-roofs and butchered the men, women and children as they careered panic-stricken into the darkness. Village after village was besieged, razed to the ground and looted, and in due course Mzilikazi succeeded in clearing the Sotho from a substantial area where he established himself as a temporary yet undisputed chieftain.

In due course Mzilikazi embarked on the first of organized daylight raids on Sotho villages. At the head of his regiments he advanced cautiously, and on receiving reports from his scouts on the movements of the inhabitants and the size of their herds he charged with his warriors and attacked swiftly. Huts went up in flames, and the villagers who were brave enough to attempt to defend their families were disembowelled. The Khumalo were careful to spare the lives of young maidens and youths, for Mzilikazi had decreed that in future he would increase the size of his clan by collecting concubines for his warriors, and recruits for his fighting forces. Often it happened that the old women and men of the villages, escaping death at the hands of the Khumalo, were left among the smouldering ruins, eventually to die of thirst, hunger or exposure, or to be dragged away by beasts of prey that roamed the highveld plains. Infants whose parents lay dead about the huts were ignored by Mzilikazi. Like the aged, they too suffered slow deaths or were devoured.

The tactics adopted for each attack on a Sotho village always followed the same pattern; first, Khumalo scouts skulked in the neighbourhood of settlements, soon to be followed by Mzilikazi and his regiments; then huts were fired, the inhabitants massacred, young men and women taken prisoner, babies and old people left uncared for, cattle driven off, huts cleared of karosses utensils and weapons and finally every morsel of food stolen from the granaries.

The bewildered Sotho clans, whose main experience in warfare had been confined to the skirmishes that usually followed on cattle-raids, were no match for Mzilikazi's superbly trained Khumalo regiments. So great was their consternation on finding their villages besieged that they often became paralysed with terror, for they had never before seen discipline so perfect as that of the naked braves, or a weapon so deadly as the Zulu stabbing spear.

Not only did Mzilikazi's possessions increase rapidly, but also his power. Such was his strength of personality, his extraordinary gift for leading men, his experience as a warrior and his cunning, that he was able to triumph over the minds of his men, and make his trembling captives soon adore him as an invincible sovereign. Those who resisted and would not stoop to be his dogs, he butchered. He trained the Sotho youths whom he had recruited in his own tactics, and in the course of time the foreigners in his growing army out-numbered the original nucleus of Khumalo warriors.

Towards the end of 1823 Mzilikazi moved northwards with his growing following, into the Middelburg district, where he built his first military kraal - ekuPumuleni - the Place of Rest, on the upper reaches of the Olifants river. From this time onwards Mzilikazi set about subjugating all neighbouring clans, and then after two years of incessant warfare he moved westwards into the Rustenburg district, and occupied a vast stretch of territory between the Magaliesberg range and the Limpopo. Here, finding the country inhabited by the Bakwena or Crocodile People, he attacked and subjugated them. He established several large military kraals in the area the most important of which were enKungwini - the Place of Mist situated on the right bank of the Aapies river in the vicinity of present-day Pretoria North; enDinaneni lay further down the course of the same river while emHlahlandela was built on the Crocodile river and guarded the most northerly borders of Mzilikazi's territory.

Mzilikazi's followers were to multiply rapidly and they became known as Matabele - they that duck down (behind shields). In 1831 the Matabele were faced with the most serious challenge since Mzilikazi's departure from Zululand - they were invaded by a strong force of Griqua under Barend Barends. Mounted and armed with firearms, the Griqua were a formidable foe and it was only as a result of Mzilikazi's astuteness, and his flair for uncommon strategy that he saved his young tribe from annihilation.

Barends set out for the Magaliesberg in June. Travelling mainly at night and taking shelter in the bush during the day, the army reached the southern confines of Mzilikazi's country within five days. Spies crept through the Magaliesberg, observed the exact positions of the outposts and hastened back to report to the main force that the Matabele were unaware of the impending invasion. The Griqua advanced swiftly. Their horsemen swooped down on the kraals, killing herdsmen, capturing women, firing huts and rounding up cattle for the footmen to drive to the south. For hour after hour thousands of Mzilikazi's cattle were stampeded through the ranges and it struck the leaders of the commando as strange that not a single Matabele warrior had appeared to challenge them. They did not guess that Mzilikazi had no intention of exposing his men to their musket fire, and that he had already organized the withdrawal of his people to the depths of the bushveld. For the Griqua and Koranna, whose avarice for cattle was unrivalled in South Africa, this visit to Mzilikazi's kingdom was a delightful adventure. They soon forgot the original purpose of launching the expedition to the north, and they decided to postpone their extermination of the Matabele. They also agreed unanimously that the idea of handing over the Matabele cattle to the Bechuana tribes was ridiculous, merely a product of Barend Barends' addled old mind.

During the following days the cattle-thieves hustled their herds towards the Vaal. Their scouts hung back to watch for the approach of Mzilikazi's regiments, but when at the end of the third day there was no sign of the enemy the captains believed that their commandos were beyond reach of an attack. Therefore, when by twilight they reached a cone shaped hill that dominated the immediate surroundings, they halted at its base and pitched camp. Fires were kindled and beasts slaughtered in preparation for a feast.

The women prisoners, who by this time had confessed to their captors that they were happy to be free of Mzilikazi's tyranny, were alarmed at the carefree attitude pervading the camp. They approached Gert Hooyman, one of the captains, and advised him to picket the encampment lest the Matabele arrive during the course of the night. The young regiments or day-fighters were in Bamangwato country, they said, and the veterans who operated only after dark had remained behind to defend the kingdom. The women suggested that if Mzilikazi had decided to retaliate his veteran regiments would travel by night. For a while Gert Hooyman was moved by the logic of the women's warnings, but he was scoffed at when he conferred with his colleagues. A Griqua named Jan Pienaar was particularly amused at the absurdity of Hooyman's fears. By midnight the revelry ceased and sleep descended upon the thousand men.

In the meantime, beyond the Magaliesberg, Mzilikazi fumed over the losses his herds had suffered at the hands of his enemies, the yellow-skinned horsemen. When he learned that the stock-thieves had left his country, heading southwards with the cattle, he called his warriors to arms and dispatched them in hot pursuit under cover of darkness.

For three days the Matabele stalked the marauders, remaining well out of sight. At nights they were always within striking distance of the Griqua and the Koranna, and Matabele spies skulked about the fringes of their bivouac. Then on the third night, when it was found that the encampment was unguarded, the veterans formed a great circle about the sleeping horde and sat on their haunches in silence.

Just before daybreak, as the waning moon was sinking behind the crest of the hill, the Matabele rose and padded forward. When they were within two hundred yards of the first row of sleepers a Griqua detected them and sounded the alarm. The Matabele charged, whooping, beating their shields with their stabbing spears, and hissing sibilant war chants. Gert Hooyman, the Griqua, a Koranna named Haip and a third man managed to jump on to their horses and break through the converging circle of warriors, but before the rest of the camp had time to fling aside their karosses they were butchered by assegai blades. Many reached for their guns only to have them wrenched from their hands before a shot could be fired; many grasped their muskets but were so overcome with fright that they fired indiscriminately, and killed not only Matabele warriors but also their own people. By sunrise the entire commando lay slain at the foot of the lonely conical hill. Only three men had escaped to gallop away to Makwassie, there to break the tragic news to old Barend Barends.

During the day some of the Matabele rummaged for booty through the carnage, while others collected cattle. Then the warriors returned to the Magaliesberg to take part in the greatest victory celebrations ever to have been held by the tribe.

Mzilikazi himself visited the scene of the slaughter. It is said that as he strode through the agglomeration of decomposing bodies, many of which had already been reduced by the vultures, jackals and hyenas to white polished skeletons, he was jubilant. For years afterwards, traders, travellers and hunters passed this battlefield and inspected the bones of the men and horses, the tattered saddles, the rotting karosses and the rusting guns.

To this day this historic spot is known in South Africa as Moordkop, or Murder Hill.

At about this time Mzilikaze sent a powerful force to invade the Lesotho and to take Thaba Bosiu, stronghold of Chief Moshesh. The strategy employed by Moshesh in the face of a superior army is worthy of consideration. Moshesh and his people watched the Matabele from the crest of Thaba Bosiu. Some of the Matabele were bathing in the shallow waters of the Little Caledon nearby, others were whetting their assegais and towards evening they all took part in a series of war dances.

And while the Matabele rested beside the river Moshesh and his followers added boulders to the mounds of basalt that already lined the passes on Thaba Bosiu. They were busily engaged when the enemy surged up through the gorge, climbed the hill near the present site of the Paris Evangelical Mission and skirted treacherous Raputho Pass. The Matabele massed beneath the gigantic precipices escarping the 250 acres of the mountain-top and moved slowly up the tortuous pass. They were allowed to progress far into the rugged slopes of Thaba Bosiu, into that section of the mountain where the pass enters a series of fissures. Now, for the first time, Moshesh's warriors appeared, as, from the vertical heights, they sent a cascade of javelins plunging into the Matabele lines. The boulders came next, a clanging mass of rolling basalt that crushed the van of the invaders and sent the survivors tumbling panic-stricken down the pass. The great majority of the Matabele warriors managed to extricate themselves and then scamper down the lower slopes into the nearby valley.

The Matabele regimental commanders were frantic with rage. They cursed and gesticulated, snatched the war plumes from the heads of their men and trod them into the dust. Cowardice would not be tolerated, they shouted, and nothing must prevent their taking the mountain and destroying the stone-rollers. They regrouped their regiments and prepared for another advance along the Raputho Pass.

This second attempt to reach the summit of Thaba Bosiu was insanely daring, but doomed to failure. The moment the boulders started roariug down the pass the Matabele commanders called a retreat and led their regiments away from the mountain and back to the banks of the Little Caledon. At last they too were convinced that Moshesh's fortress was impregnable and that it would be foolhardy to send the cream of the army to its death.

Next day, as they were about to commence their journey homewards, the Matabele were visited by an envoy from Moshesh. He brought greetings from his chief; and also a gift of a few head of cattle. The great Moshesh wished the Matabele to become the friends of the Basuto, the envoy asserted, and as a token of goodwill he had sent the cattle so that the regiments might not be hungry during their march back to the Magaliesberg.

In 1832 the Matabele moved into the Zeerust district subjugating the Bahurutsi tribe and occupying their lands. Great military kraals sprang up throughout the country the most important of which was situated at Mosega near present-day Zeerust under the command of the Matabele commander-in-chief Mkalipi. It was from this military kraal that the attacks were launched against the Voortrekkers culminating in the battle of Vegkop.

The battle took place on 15 October, 1836. A Boer laager had been drawn up on a hillock situated between the Renoster and Wilge rivers and was under the command of Hendrik Potgieter. On the afternoon of 15 October a group of Bataung tribesmen, running towards the laager shouted hysterically that, not five hours' march from the wagons, a great Matabele army was approaching. A brief service was conducted by Sarel Cilliers. Then a party of Boers galloped out of the camp to meet the foe.

It was late afternoon when the Boers located Mkalipi's throng - six thousand warriors grouped in regiments according to the colours and designs of their oxhide shields. At sunset the Boer patrol returned to the laager. Grave yet undaunted, Potgieter's Trekkers awaited the night and the perils about to befall them.

For some unaccountable reason Mkalipi did not employ the conventional Matabele tactics of attacking under cover of darkness. In fact, when eventually the Matabele army converged on the laager the sun had already climbed high. At the head of twenty horsemen Hendrik Potgieter rode out cautiously. The Matabele halted, sank on to their haunches and covered their bodies with their shields. In silence the warriors glared at Potgieter, who from his saddle was calling the commanders, advising them to avoid bloodshed and to lead their regiments back to their kraals.

Suddenly Mkalipi signalled his army to rise. The Matabele surged forward. Potgieter and his men raised their guns, discharged a volley, withdrew swiftly to a safe distance, reloaded and again opened fire. The Boers fired and retreated repeatedly until they reached their laager.

At this stage the horns of the Matabele spread out and formed a circle round the Boer wagons. Then the regimental commanders gathered to discuss tactics and the warriors sat down and nonchalantly whetted their blades with stones. This lull ended when suddenly the Matabele rose with a muffled roar, drumming their shields and clattering their spear-shafts.

The warriors charged, brandishing their weapons above their plumed heads, and were within thirty paces of the laager before the Boers opened fire, sending the first two score of Mkalipi's men plunging into the dust. The Matabele reached the wagons, tugged at their wheels in an endeavour to separate them, climbed up the sides and struggled to drag the thorn-bush branches from the gaps.

A vicious fusillade tore incessantly into the ranks of the Matabele host. As one after another of Mkalipi's men was bowled over, they started flinching, then hesitated, and finally withdrew rapidly out of range.

Soon after this setback the Matabele army launched its second attack. Throwing caution to the winds, one section of the army sent a deluge of stabbing-spears into the laager while another clung to the wagons, ripped the sails from the frames and strained to break through the thorn-bush defences. But so accurate was the aim of the Boers and so consistent their fire that, although barely an hour had passed since Mkalipi's first onslaught, several hundred Matabele corpses lay heaped about the laager.

The Matabele called off the battle and retreated. They rounded up a hundred horses, five hundred head of cattle, fifty thousand sheep and then moved away through the highveld plains to Mosega.

Precisely a year after Vegkop, the Boers under Potgieter and Uys invaded Matabele territory and drove the Matabele out of the Transvaal. In due course Mzilikazi and his tribe settled in Rhodesia and faced by the Kalanga and Mashona tribes they attacked and subjugated them as they had done other tribes since leaving Zululand.

The Kalanga offered little resistance and were butchered. The Mashona fled northwards in confusion, but the survivors fled into the hilly country taking refuge in caves, rolling boulders on their pursuers and driving them back with volleys of arrows. Mashona women who had avoided capture fought side by side with their men, some hurling stones at the enemy, others hurling rocks over the edges of the precipices. The Matabele deliberately bypassed some of the Mashona settlements, but arrived eventually to subjugate the inhabitants and compel them to become tributaries of the King.

In the course of time, apart from the rebels who clung to their mountain fortresses, all the Mashona tribes became subservient to the Matabele. But because of his fear of the tsetse-fly Mzilikaze never established cattle-posts farther north than half-way between the Matopos and the Zambesi.

Although over the years the Matabele never ceased raiding their Mashona and Makalanga vassals, they failed to capture the people who had fled into the mountains. This section of the Mashona became as elusive as the rock-rabbits, sharing their cliffs and caves, and there were occasions when they boldly made sorties into Matabeleland.

During one of their outings the Mashona captured some Matabele women at an outpost, hacked off their arms and legs and left them to bleed to death. On learning of this atrocity, Mzilikazi retaliated by having the identical punishment meted out to a group of Mashona women, and also by sending a punitive force to wrest the culprits from their lofty hideouts. But the rebels possessed ladders they could hang over the faces of the cliffs and draw up at a moment's notice. They were always out of reach of the Matabele, whom they bombarded with stones and iron-headed assegais.

It will have been seen by what I have said that the wars of the 19th Century were fundamentally wars which had started either as a direct or indirect result of the rise to power of Zulu conquerors. Until the arrival of this era, Bantu tribes were not warlike and war as such was conducted somewhat haphazardly and on a limited scale. The fashion of organized warfare, as started by Dingiswayo in South Zululand and cultivated by Shaka, was to tear tribal South Africa asunder until the beginning of the 20th Century. It gave birth to the ruthless tyrants already mentioned but also conquerors such as Zwangendaba (Malawi); Soshangane (Mocambique); Cetewayo (Zulu); Dinuzulu (Zulu); Lobengula (Matabele) and others. It brought destruction and desolation to a country which previously had flowed with proverbial milk and honey.

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