The Guns Of Khutiyabasadi

“Major Edwards and his party were in Matebele country and saw the remnants of the army returning. He says although Lobengula tried hard to hide it, it was easy to see that he was startled by what had happened.

He is acute enough to see that the prestige of the Matebele army is gone. Its supposed invincibleness, upon which success so largely depended, has been disproved. The fascination of their terrible shield and spear has been destroyed by the precision of the rifle. Twice in succession they have returned with fallen colours from Batauana.” – From report by the Rev. J.D. Hepburn in the aftermath of the Matebele defeat at Khutiyabasadi.

We had previously observed that the arrival in the late 19th century of lightweight, easy-to-load breechloaders encouraged Batswana to incorporate gun wielding cavalry into their military formations and tactics.

Horsemen armed with breechloaders thus played a decisive role in what is believed to have been the most sanguinary of Botswana’s many 19th century fire-fights, the 1884 battle at Khutiyabasadi. In this single engagement some 2,000 Matebele were slaughtered by a combined force of Batawana and Wayeyi under the leadership of Kgosi Moremi II.

Notwithstanding its relative obscurity in contemporary consciousness, the battle is of historical significance to the region, as well as Botswana. The battlefield itself was a location of extreme carnage, which still haunts local memories. For decades, it was known as a place of skulls. For some at least it has since remained a haunted place best avoided.

Khutiyabasadi was a crushing defeat for the last independent Matebele ruler, Nkosi Lobengula, on the very eve of his kingdom’s final demise to Rhode’s colonialists. His military capacity and reputation was undermined by the loss of the invasion force, which had altogether numbered over 2,500. The severity of the setback helps to explain the Matebele King’s subsequent desperation to acquire firearms from Rhodes’ front men.

The decisive nature of Moremi’s victory, moreover, may have convinced Cecil Rhodes, himself, that Lobengula’s lands were his for the taking.  Instead of lobbying for imperial military support, Rhodes was thus inspired to form his own private army of mercenaries to conquer what we now know as Zimbabwe in the name of his British South Africa Company. 

The then Bangwato ruler, Kgosi Khama III, was similarly encouraged to more aggressively push his own territorial claims along his disputed north-east borderlands with Lobengula. It was following the engagement that Bangwato mephato began to consolidate Khama’s claims over Bobirwa and Bukalanga. For the people of Ngamiland, Khutiyabasadi was a collective victory. In this respect it cemented the already existing pre-colonial political relationship between the Batawana and Wayeyi, though in more recent times this legacy has

become the subject of some controversy.

It was also more broadly a victory for Batswana generally, being the last and greatest in a long series of triumphs over Matebele invaders. As we have previously, seen the first of these victories had taken place a half century earlier, with the Bangwaketse Kgosi Sebego’s c. 1834 defeat of Mzilakazi’s “lost regiment” at Dutlwe.

Other notable Batswana triumphs over the Matebele include the great Bangwato victories in the 1844-46 and 1863 Battles of Shoshong. The earlier victories confirmed Kgosi Sekgoma I’s regional predominance over most of the modern Central District, while the latter helped establish his eldest son, Khama III’s, early reputation as a cunning strategist.

After the 1863 battle, in which Lobengula himself suffered a serious, nearly fatal, gunshot wound, the Matebele avoided raids into the Batswana kingdoms for two decades. They had by then learned the bitter lesson that their assegai wielding amabutho, who struck so much fear elsewhere, were simply no match for disciplined mephato equipped with firearms.

In his last years, Nkosi Mzilakazi had attempted to pursue a policy of detente with his southern neighbours. To this effect, he openly sought an alliance with the Bakwena ruler Sechele, who in 1857 accepted an invitation to travel to Bulawayo, albeit with an armed escort.

Sechele’s visit followed the release, initially into Bakwena custody, of his brother-in-law, the Bangwato Prince Matsheng aKgari (by seantlo through the Regent Sedimo). Twice thereafter, Matsheng assumed the Bangwato throne, in 1857-59 and again in 1866-72. On both occasions, however, he was ultimately deposed by rival Bangwato with Bakwena support.

Sechele’s visit to Bulawayo also led to the establishment of the first modern mission station in Zimbabwe at Inyati. The Mokwena’s efforts to convert the Matebele royals to the new religion, however, fell on deaf ears. Relations between the Matebele and Batswana returned to a state of animosity during the reign of Mzilakazi’s son Lobengula. Every year, his regiments raided territories to the north and east for tribute in the form of women, children and cattle. The Batswana were left in peace until 1882 when one regiment turned west to raid the periphery of the Batawana Kingdom.

Those Batawana in the invaders path were taken by complete surprise, suffering large losses of cattle. The relative lack of resistance on this occasion must have emboldened Lobengula, who two years later purposely sent a much larger force into Ngamiland, under the command of his brother Lotshe.

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