Singwezi Turning Point

On November 1, 1893, Bangwato mephato under Kgosi Khama III and his brother Raditladi arrived at the Singwezi River near the village of Mangwe, located just across the border in today’s Zimbabwe.

There they rendezvoused with Lt. Colonel Goold-Adams combined force of the British South Africa Company’s [BSACO] “Raaf’s Rangers” and Bechuanaland Border Police [BBP].

Khama had led his men, who consisted of cavalry and infantry armed with Matini-Henry rifles, up from Ramokgwebane upon hearing that an Amandebele force of some 8,000 under Nkosi Lobengula’s senior Induna Gambo Sithole was moving south to challenge the “Southern” (Bechuanaland) column. With the arrival of Khama’s troops, the combined force now consisted of about 450 whites of various nationalities and between 1,700 and 2,000 Bangwato.

The joining together of forces set the stage for one of the more controversial battles of the colonial era to involve Batswana.

Weeks earlier, white settlers in Zimbabwe had used an Amandebele raid on a Vashona community as an excuse to move against Lobengula’s kingdom. In previous months, BSACO forces organised as the so-called “Pioneer Column” had used Botswana as their springboard to invade and occupy eastern Zimbabwe while avoiding the heartland of the Amandebele kingdom.

With only about 700 armed men and short on supplies, the white settler forces under Dr. Leander Jameson, who were concentrated in north-eastern Zimbabwe, looked towards Botswana for armed support and supplies.

For his part, Lobengula believed the Southern column posed the greatest threat to his survival, causing him to dispatch the bulk of his forces under Gambo to thwart its advance.

The Battle of Singwezi broke out at just after 8 am on November 2, 1893. Most of Goold-Adams and Khama’s forces initially deployed in separate but adjacent laagers when Gambo’s forces had fallen upon a supply train under Captain Tancred. By 9 am, when the main camp was attacked, the Bechuanaland forces were ready, opposing the Amandebele with a 7-pound artillery piece and machine gun as well as rifle fire. The Amandebele soon broke off the attack.

The Bangwato, led from the front by Khama’s son Sekgoma (II), followed by Raaf’s Rangers, counterattacked, causing the Amandebele to retreat. By noon most of the fighting was over, although the calvary continued to pursue Gambo’s retreating forces. The Bangwato had suffered 10 dead and 30 wounded, with the rest of the column’s casualties consisting of two deaths and four wounded. Although the total count is unknown, the Amandebele losses had been much higher.

Most military scholars have viewed the battle of Singwezi along with Jameson’s victory at Bembezi on the previous day as twin decisive engagements that broke the back of conventional Amandebele resistance. For his part, the British High Commissioner for Southern Africa, Sir Henry Loch, observed at the time that: “It was Khama who with great gallantry, fought in the only action with the Matabele in the open, and charged the Matabele at the head of his regiment, and successfully pressed them back.”

In subsequent white settler historiography of Rhodesia, the Singwezi battle has often been ignored, in line with news stories put out by Rhodes’ propaganda machine claiming that his Company’s forces alone had secured victory.

Arguably the battle should be remembered as much for its aftermath as an immediate outcome. It marks both the highwater mark of what had up until then been Khama III’s de facto collaboration with Cecil Rhodes and the beginning of the two figures’ bitter estrangement.

The break began on November 5, 1893, when Khama suddenly announced he was withdrawing. He informed Goold-Adams that the outbreak of smallpox in the area meant his men were exposed. He also noted that they needed to plough their fields.

Feeling he would be left vulnerable, a shocked Goold-Adams begged that Khama leave at least half his men behind, offering to pay for their continued service. But the Phuti refused, further informing the Lt. Colonel that according to the intelligence he had received, that war was all but finished as Lobengula had fled after torching Bulawayo while Gambo continued to retreat.

When Goold-Adams, who had not received such intelligence, doubted the news, Khama informed him that: “I cannot help it if your men are slow. I know it is true. I believe my men as you believe yours.”

Perhaps by then Khama had decided he no longer wished to serve Rhodes interests. Not that the Phuti had been without his own motives in mobilising against the Amandebele. The collapse of the Amandebele allowed the Bangwato to consolidate their control over the previously disputed region between the Matloutse and Shashe rivers.

In the following months, Rhodes pilloried Khama, going so far as to denounce the Phuti at his kgotla at Palapye. There were also rumours that Rhodes was enquiring how many men it would take to dispose of Khama. In response, Khama reached out to Bathoen and Sebele, who had previously warned him against his collaboration with Rhodes’ minions. The stage was being set for the trio’s mission to lobby against Rhodes BSACO in Britain.

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