Within the context of the period 1869-1914, to what extent was the British take-over of what would become Rhodesia typical of European Imperialism, in Africa?

The term “the scramble for Africa” effectively illustrates the mass imperialism occurring at the end of the 19th century. European nations were increasing their empires, conquering new territories around the globe, with one area highly contested. Africa, one of the last untouched areas in the world, was to be divided up by the nations. In 1888, a treaty was signed between Lobengula and Cecil Rhodes, effectively signing over the area which would later become known as Rhodesia (and now Zimbabwe). However, with all of the other imperialism occurring at time, was this just another typical conquest for the British or was it a highly unique take-over?

Some forty years before British interest, the area was occupied by the Mashona. These were peaceful, pastoral people, reliant on self-sufficiency. The land was taken over, quite easily, by the Matabele who would eventually turn out to be ruled by Chief Lobengula. The area became known as both Mashonaland and Matabeleland.

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40 years later and international interest in the area increased, especially that of Cecil Rhodes: the infamous British imperialist. Arguably there are many reasons why Rhodes became interested in the area, however this was undoubtedly one of them: the area was just north of the Transvaal, which was already a British colony. By securing this piece of land, the British monopoly of South Africa would continue and, of course, undermine the efforts of fellow European countries. By also gaining this area, Rhodes could continue his dream of an “all red route” from the Cape to Cairo and, possibly, initiate his north to south railway. In the words of the historian Niall Ferguson, “this was empire building only the way a megalomaniac could imagine it”. However, most pivotally, the land was believed to be rich in gold.

However, Rhodes had competition both from other Europeans and, rather strangely, from fellow Britons. Lobengula had been approached by Portugal, Germany, the Boers and others for his land and minerals; however, obviously, the chief did not wish to sign all his land away. Bizarrely, though, he wrongly assumed that the British were only interested in the land’s minerals, rather than the territory itself. This is even stranger when considering the British conquests of South Africa and the Transvaal will have been well known to the chief. For one reason or another, he came to the conclusion that Rhodes only wanted the gold. Prior to this, Rhodes had made a whirlwind trip to London in 1888 where he discovered that neither Whitehall (nor the Cape in Africa) would coordinate action on the area. He also found out that two other companies were considering the area, in competition with his British South Africa Company: according to historian Robert Blake, these were the “Exploring Company” and the “Bechuanaland Exploration Company”, both helmed by British imperialists. Rhodes knew he had to move fast and put forward a convincing argument to Westminster. The government gave Rhodes permission to attempt to gain the land, however he had to finance and coordinate the attack himself. In effect, the British government had “privatised imperialism” (Ferguson)! Great news for Rhodes, however, as any profit which came from the land (including the infamous gold reserves) would all go straight to him.

Spurred on by this new found optimism, the imperialist convinced Lobengula to sign a treaty which, unbeknown to the chief, effectively gave over all control of his land to Rhodes. The document declared that Lobengula…

“agreed not to enter into correspondence or treaties with foreign powers or sell / alienate / cede any part of the his country without previous agreement of the British High Commissioner in South Africa”

It didn’t take long for Lobengula to realize what had happened. War was declared and, in November 1893, it began. Cecil Rhodes had rounded up a team of mercenaries both from South Africa and the mainland United Kingdom, whilst Lobengula rallied the Matabele. By African standards, the Matabele were fairly powerful with relatively modern equipment and somewhat sophisticated planning. However Rhodes had, quite literally, a secret weapon: the maxim gun. The latest and greatest in artillery, the weapon was more powerful than anything which had come before it. In 1894, the war was quickly won and the land was now British. The area had been gained, but with no cost to the taxpayer.

However, this was only a very small part of African imperialism in the late 19th and early 20th century, so how typical is this one example? The role of Cecil John Rhodes in the takeover can certainly not be called unique: he was, after all, a master imperialist of his day and a fairly common occurrence on the Empire scene. He was crucial in the expansion of South Africa and the occupation of the Transvaal; he eventually became Prime Minister of the Cape. His long harboured ambition of having an “all red route” from the North to the South of the country arguably inspired the British to continue their colonial exploits. However, the difference here is that Rhodes almost single-handily conquered and founded the state of Rhodesia. Unlike in South Africa where he had only played a complimentary role, he masterminded the takeover operation of the Matabele land and thus created the new country from scratch. Quite a unique occurrence from his perspective and indeed the country’s considering no other single person has singly co-ordinated a country’s takeover before.

The maxim gun was, of course, instrumental to Rhodes’ victory in the Matabele land, with it being one of the most powerful weapons ever created. The gun could fire 50x faster than any other machine gun and, obviously, Lobengula’s primitive warriors stood no chance. This was the first time this particular weapon had been used in battle; arguably making this is a unique occurrence (or, at least, a first). The weapon would later be used in the Omdurman war and the second Boer war. However, more crucially, is the significance of the violence and the extreme of which Rhodes went to to takeover a single area of land. Rhodes’ mercenaries annulated the primitive warriors with 1500 Matabele been wiped out. By comparison, only 4 of Rhodes’ men were killed. This example of brutality was seen later, at the turn of the century, in the Second Boer War. After an indecisive start, the British managed to take over several areas of land, creating what would now be known as “concentration camps” in the process. Here, any of the Boer people who had originally lived on the lands were put: not just the warriors, but the women and children as well. The living conditions were terrible and while not in the same style as the brutality seen in the Matabele war, the sickening effects of this piece of colonial history cannot be ignored.

It is important to remember that before the Matabele war began the local inhabitants and, in particular, Chief Lobengula had to be convinced to sign the aforementioned treaty. This was done with trickery and deception, with Rhodes deliberately employing tactics to confuse the simple Chief. Despite Lobengula having a “helper” present (Dr. Leander Jameson), he was still duped into signing over the treaty, which later turned out to be a sign that the British were to colonise the area. This can be seen as unique when looked at from a British perspective: previously, treaties had been signed with local chiefs but deception never played a major role. War was also quite common, such as the 1882 occupation of Egypt. However, the German Karl Peters agreed several treaties with local chiefs in East Africa: many were dubiously worded and it was doubted even at the time whether the locals fully understood what they were getting into. Also, the idea of Cecil Rhodes using such untoward tactics is hardly surprising considering his character and attitude to colonialism. Rhodes famously believed that “what was good for the British Empire was good for the world”; thereby undermining all other countries and thereby adopting what today would be known as a nationalistic attitude. In his own mind it is highly likely that he considered trickery simply the “lesser of two evils”, and example of where the “ends better the means”.

Why did this trickery and this determination to take over this piece of land even exist in the first place? It is highly likely, especially when looking at his past record that Rhodes hoped for financial gain from the area. Even some 40 years before British interest in the land, it was widely thought to contain several large gold and mineral reserves. Lobengula had already been approached by the Portuguese, the Germans and the Boers, with significant interest in his land’s mineral reserves. Rhodes was determined to get to the area first, largely because of the area’s gold. When Rhodes discovered the British government had “privatised” his exploration of the area, he was no doubt pleased due to the fact anything that came out of the area would go direct to him… including gold. This was not unique for Rhodes, who had always had this underlying urge for financial increase. Indeed, his British South Africa Company made imperialism a business with monetary gain at its heart. It is hard to deny that most countries had, to some extent or another, an idea that colonialism could improve the economy and increase the monetary gains for individuals. Indeed, the Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin explicitly stated in 1916 that colonial expansion was to maintain and expand capitalism; he felt it was driven by the European capitalists and the actual states were simply puppets in this brutal game. This idea was first suggested by the historian Hobson in 1902.

One of the most unique aspects of the takeover of the Matabeleland was the Salisbury government effectively privatising imperialism and granting Rhodes full power to do whatever he wished to take over the land, independent of the British government. This had never happened before in British-African imperialism with the government always working with the key imperialists, including Mr Rhodes. Indeed the British South Africa Company was founded with the government in mind. However, whilst this was unique in respect of the British, when taking a wider look at Europe it becomes more common. Whilst not strictly the same, the German Karl Peters attempted to opt independently of his country when attempting to gain lands in East Africa. Supposedly, Peters travelled around the East of the continent signing treaties for lands with various chiefs, yet the German government knew nothing of him. However, when the mainland Parliament later discovered what had been happening, they were happy to accept the lands. As said, this is not strictly the same, but it does show that Rhodes was not the first imperialist to act independently in the continent.

Finally, despite Lobengula signing a shaky treaty (with an incomprehensible “x” sign), the Matabele were not willing to accept takeover lying down. When it was discovered what had happened, Lobengula mobilised his mercenaries, with the vast majority of the Matabele men taking part. Of course, they had already conquered these lands themselves over the Mashona some years before, so they didn’t want to give them up easily. By African standards, the Matabele warriors were fairly well equipped, having gained relatively sophisticated (albeit old) Western weapons for such a conflict. Understandably, the idea of the natives wishing to remain in their homeland is not unique to just the Matabeleland. Everywhere you look in African imperialism, there is an undercurrent of violence, largely initiated by native peoples wishing to remain independent. Indeed, the Italian invasion of Abyssinia in the early part of the 20th century showed both how the natives are willing to fight back and how they are surprisingly good at it! Possibly because of poor planning on the side of the Italians, in this case the Abyssinia locals fought back against the poorly prepared Italian army, eventually wiping them out of the country. This was a sense of much resentment with Italy, which would fester for years to come.

Following the Rhodes capture of the land, the country has gone through several stages of turmoil, ranging from British rule to attempted independence movements by Ian Smith. The occupation and takeover of what would become Rhodesia is relatively strange due to the contrasting elements. On one hand, the British government actually giving Rhodes full control of the operation was highly unique; indeed, a first for Britain. However, the local Matabele wishing to remain in their lands and fighting back Rhodes is hardly surprising and fairly ubiquitous. However, even when keeping this in mind, the occupation can hardly be called “typical” or “unique”, but then can any piece of colonialism?