Lobengula was the second king of the Matabele people in what is now Zimbabwe. He was also the last. Cecil John Rhodes smashed his authority, and broke his tribe.
The Matabele (a breakaway people from the Zulu kingdom to the south) had been making their way north, and by the time Rhodes arrived on the scene were in effective control of a vast area of southern Africa, stretching from the Limpopo river to the Zambezi. Matabeleland was rich in -minerals and the tribe were being pestered by white prospectors. Rhodes saw his opportunity. He made an ally of Lobengula, who had been king since 1869, and in 1888 persuaded him to grant Rhodes’s emissaries an exclusive deal known as the Rudd Concession.
Lobengula could not read or write and key parts of the understanding were verbal, but I’ve never heard it seriously disputed — even in the unwaveringly pro-Rhodes version of history I absorbed during my Rhodesian boyhood — that Rhodes tricked Lobengula. As a king, he admired and trusted the dynamic white man in whom he recognised the qualities of leadership. For £100 per month, a steam boat, and one thousand rifles plus ammunition, Lobengula believed he was selling the mineral rights to his territory. He didn’t realised Rhodes intended to occupy it. Rhodes himself described the concession as ‘so gigantic it is like giving a man the whole of Australia’.
Within a year Rhodes had attained a charter for his company so that legally he was unassailable the eyes of a (suspicious) British government. Soon prospectors — and settlers, and a police force — moved in, on Rhodes’s orders. The maxim gun followed. The Matabele rebelled in 1893. They were utterly defeated. Lobengula, deceived into selling his people for a mess of potage, had fled. He died a few months later of an imported disease, smallpox.
I recall, even among the hardened white supremacists among whom I grew up, an embarrassment about Lobengula’s fate. I should like to have known him. Witty, sharp and ‘every inch a king’, according to those who did, he comes across as having a generosity of spirit that was his undoing. ‘Did you ever see a chameleon catch a fly?’ he asked, towards the end of his life. ‘The chameleon gets behind the fly and remains motionless for some time, then he advances very slowly and gently, first putting forward one leg and then another. At last, when well within reach, he darts out his tongue and the fly disappears. England is the chameleon and I am that fly.’
I admire Rhodes tremendously, I admire his achievements, and I’d argue that what is now Zimbabwe is the better for his life and work. His racism was routine for his era and he was not unusually cruel, so I would not blame him for his racial attitudes, but the fact is that he was — as London very well knew — an unscrupulous chancer. Rhodes was a dreamer, an achiever and a rascal.
I’ve been observing with a certain doubtfulness the high horses on which both sides in the dispute over the future of Rhodes’s statue at Oriel College seem to be riding. I wouldn’t dream of removing it, but that’s partly because I admire the man. The argument used against Oxford students campaigning against the statue appears to be that ‘you can’t rewrite history’. This argument is way too strong. I don’t remember hearing it from Tory friends when a Baghdad mob was toppling the statue of Saddam Hussein in 2003. I cannot call to mind protests from Times and Telegraph readers as statues of V.I. Lenin came down all across the former Soviet bloc.
I’m afraid that we do regularly decry, debase or destroy monuments to individuals who history has subsequently decided were bad eggs. Personally I’d leave in place the many statues erected to General Franco in Spain, and retain the names of the many town squares named after him — but I do understand the feelings of those millions who think otherwise.
So here’s a modest proposed compromise. How about a statue of the great Matabele king, Lobengula, somewhere at Oriel where he and Rhodes can see each other? There is, you see, no danger of important figures from our western European history being forgotten, but Lobengula, whose name was once familiar to British newspaper readers, is now almost completely forgotten — even by a younger African generation in Zimbabwe.
The deposed Matabele king was, when the white man crossed the Limpopo from the south, in the process of subjugating and dispossessing by force the other tribe inhabiting those lands: the Mashona, an unwarlike and pastoral people who were not united by an imperial hierarchy as the Matabele were, and were no match for Lobengula’s fearsome warriors. Robert Mugabe and his Zanu-PF party are essentially a Mashona political movement, regaining after a century their regional hegemony — and there’s more than a hint of that in modern Zimbabwean politics. The Matabele have not (to put it delicately) been favoured by the government in Harare.
So here’s my quid pro quo for Lobengula’s rejoining Rhodes at an Oxford college. Rhodes’s body lies beneath a simple plaque in a rock grave in the beautiful granite Matobo hills south of Bulawayo (‘Bulawayo’ means ‘place of slaughter’ in Ndebele, the language of the Matabele). I think that, when he dies, Mugabe should take his place beside Rhodes in that serene and moving spot.
They were both great leaders, as was Lobengula. All three did terrible things. All three did great things. All three changed history. All three are among the architects of modern Africa north of the Limpopo. All three were prisoners of their era and circumstances, as we all are. Yet all three transcended their time to some degree. Their spirits will always walk the African bush.
Do we have to judge all the time? Could we not just acknowledge?
There, now I’ll have annoyed both sides.