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Journals of the Mashonaland Mission 1888 to 1892

By G. W. H. Knight-Bruce
Bishop for Mashonaland

No place: Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, 1892

Chapter I. Introduction.

The thrilling scenes of Church history set with martyrdom have been in Central Africa; in Southern Africa there has been the steady movement forward that annexes, almost silently, one race and country after another. We at home hardly even realise how the red colour-wash of English rule is painted further and further over the world's map; but perhaps we do not realise at all how a greater King is spreading His kingdom, for truly it 'cometh not with observation.'

In 1889 the northern border of the Transvaal was the end of the white man's rule, and practically of his settlements. But between that border and the Zambesi was a large country, lying, roughly speaking, between latitudes 22° and 16°, that was very vaguely known; where its borders to the east touched the Indian Ocean there were a few Portuguese stations, far inland to the west there was a great nation known as the Matabele, while between [1/2] the two lay a land that was waiting to be rediscovered. Yes, rediscovered; for Mashonaland is the only district in Central or Southern Africa that seems to have had a past history of busier days and more civilised culture. Which of the centuries saw it we cannot say, nor who the settlers were, nor when they passed away, leaving their mark behind in numberless old shafts, not deep, but so numerous in places as to alter the whole surface of the ground; in strongly built fortress towers, and, possibly, in the Mashona knowledge of smelting iron. The country is in many parts very beautiful, and in many thickly populated. But till two years ago poor Mashonaland was kept by the Matabele chief as a Scotch laird, might keep a deer-forest; every spring his regiments of fighting men ('impis' they are called) were marched in to kill and sack, bringing back with them girls, boys, and cattle. The Matabele had all to gain and nothing to lose by the process--it provided their food without the drawback of labour; it 'blooded' the young regiments; it gave future recruits to the army. The poor Mashona were incapable by nature of offering any resistance, and their disintegration into separate tribes, with no one paramount chief, left them helpless before the disciplined power of the Matabele, with their thousands of fighting men in organised regiments.

Besides these inroads a few hunters were allowed to go into the country for part of every year; and one among them, Mr. Selous, bears an honoured [2/3] name for his sympathy and interest in the people. He wrote of them: 'They seem to have but little of the ferocity that often forms so marked a feature in uncivilised races. Some eighty years ago this country must have been thickly populated, as almost every valley has at some time been under cultivation. Personally, I like the Mashona better than any other African tribe I have come in contact with.'

So there Mashonaland lay, filled with the cruelty and fear that reign in most absolutely heathen countries. For the life of these untouched masses is not that state of natural innocence and peace that people affect to think who 'do not believe in Missions.'

Generously supported by the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, the Bishop of Bloemfontein, Dr. Knight-Bruce, went up in 1888 to get permission from the Matabele chief to go into Mashonaland. He reached Lobengula's kraal in May, and met with great kindness there from the London Society's missionaries, who have been carrying on for fifty years the work Dr. Moffat began among the Matabele. Lobengula delayed as long as possible before giving the Bishop the 'way into Mashonaland,' i.e. permission to enter. To go into any native country, in its wild state, without this permission from the ruling chief, almost always leads to grave trouble. A few years before Captain Patterson and his party, attempting to reach the Zambesi on the strength of a very reluctant permission wrung from the chief, were [3/4] followed by one of his Indunas (head men) and1 killed--at least this is the account of their death in Matabeleland. The Bishop writes: 'One hears stories here of darkness and cruelty that make one feel the need of the light of the Gospel. The present chief has recently killed his own favourite sister and brother; the latter was gaining too much power, and an Induna was sent out to kill him. These royal orders caused no astonishment. "I know what you have come for; do it quickly," he said at once.'

Day after day the Bishop went to Lobengula's kraal. Sometimes he was alone, sometimes surrounded by his head men; then he was more difficult to convince. Some of his arguments were quaint: 'I am the proper person to say if the teachers are wanted,' was one. The reason of the delay was obvious: 'He knows, if your Mission settles there, it is good-bye to his raids,' said a trader. However, at last leave was given, and the Bishop started immediately--the first missionary who had got into the country. An impi, on its return from raiding, passed him by a silent detour, their 'spoor' (foot-prints) being seen turning out of the road to avoid a meeting.

The Bishop wrote: 'These impis do not know till they have gone some distance whom they are to attack. A man who had returned from a late raid described how they had surrounded the helpless-people, dragged them one by one out of the crowd, and given them one fatal stab with the assegai, till [4/5] the dead bodies lay in heaps. Sometimes the poof victims were tied up in dry grass and then set on fire. The wives of the late Matabele chief say of him with pride: "He was a king; he knew how to kill." What I know now about the Matabele throws a light for me, such as no previous argument has done, on God's commands to the Israelites to destroy whole nations.'

After passing the border into Mashonaland, the Bishop for more than a week met 'with no man, woman or child'--not a Mashona was to be seen; the former population had been killed off or driven away. It was very strange, trekking on through the silent, empty country, the road in places, being very beautiful, though generally flat. A good many rivers were crossed, which the Bishop described: 'All seem to have the same characteristics--sandy or rocky bottoms, steep broken banks, reeds and bushes; some are full of crocodiles. We passed very large ant-heaps as we went along, made by the small red ant; one I measured was about 16 feet high, and another over 80 feet in circumference at the base.'

The track of the impi was constantly crossed, and presently the town was passed that had just been destroyed. The chief and all the men had been killed, as well as the older women who could not walk; the boys, the younger women, and the cattle had been taken back to Matabeleland. One poor survivor, either of this or a similar raid, who joined the Bishop had a doleful little song he used to sing [5/6] over the camp fires at night: 'I am a great man, and I come from a river; it is a pity I have not a mate.' Nearly all his family had been killed.

Further on a place was reached where the waggon had to be left on account of the tsetse fly. Two years later, close to this same spot, the Pioneers ended their march, and it was made the head station of the Chartered Company's government, when it was named Fort Salisbury.

The Bishop walked on, following the curious native footpaths that lead from one native village to another in an endless chain that, with time and good fortune, would bring one to the Egyptian deserts. Food and guides had to be paid with barter goods, chiefly calico and beads, and this weighty money necessitated carriers--the nightmare and dread of African travel.

A great many chiefs were visited through all the district up to the Zambesi. They were all fairly gracious, but very childish, dirty, and savage. Clothing there was none, till those under Portuguese influence in semi-Arab dress near the river were reached. In one village all the people ran up to the top of a high hill and hid among the rocks, horrified with their glimpse of a white man.

Their ideas on religion were few and vague. One tribe lived in some awe of an old man on a mountain another said their chief knew about heaven and what happened after death, resting satisfied with this delegated faith; another village had a subterranean [6/7] cavern, apparently treated as sacred, for they would not allow the Bishop, as a white man, to go down to it. His native servant described it as very beautiful, sloping downwards for more than 200 feet to a pool of water extending out of sight, extraordinarily blue in colour and very clear, with stones at the bottom shining with phosphorescent light. Here, too the men spoke more fully about their religion, saying that God lived in the sky, though once he had lived with, them, before the Matabele drove him away; that God had made them and taught, them to sow; and that they learnt all this from their chief.

At last the edge of the mountainous upland country was reached, and the broad steamy plain of the Zambesi valley stretched beyond. It. took four days' walking to cross, and the Bishop says: There was at first little of interest in the plain below, but the trees increased in size as we went on. Two human skulls and some bones were lying near the path, the remains probably of natives who had not strength to face the mountains. In the rainy season the ground must be swampy from the length and size of the now dry grass, which is peculiarly strong and unyielding as one walks through it; one stalk of native corn measured 21 feet high, and the bamboos grow to an extraordinary height.'

A large chief on the way promised to treat 'teachers' kindly when they should come, and volunteered to build them a house. The carriers became more and more troublesome, as natives generally do [7/8] nearer civilisation, and at last the wearying plain, with its long walk through high sharp grass, was passed, and Zumbo reached.

Here the little party should have been met by a young Englishman, Richard Foster, one of the bravest of solitary African travellers. Faithful to his tryst he had been, for the boat in which he had pushed up alone from the mouth of the Zambesi lay on its banks near Zumbo; from there he had apparently walked on to meet the Bishop, but little further could be learnt of him. The Bishop carefully traced him to a village near, but found, on questioning the men who had been Foster's guide, that they were ignorant of the places they claimed to have taken him to. The Bishop could only suspect foul play; and this seemed more likely as he passed a skeleton on the road, which his carriers told him was that of a man who had been killed for his beads. But if on that dreary plain a brave soul passed away in the effort to keep a promise, there may be easier deaths we might care less to die.

After a few days the Bishop went on down the river in a boat. He says:

'The boat was heavy, the paddles small, the men lazy, but the stream strong. The boats generally used are hollowed-out trees, and are sometimes more than 30 feet in length. To make these canoes with the tools at their disposal argues both patience, ingenuity, and perseverance on the part of the natives. As they paddle they frequently [8/9] sing; the director starts them, and repeats the words while the others sing a chorus. The tunes are simple and monotonous, but one wishes they would sing less and row more. Though there is little of beauty in this part of the Zambesi, it is strange and very interesting from the immense reaches, where the river widens out with sandbanks and shallows, the large volume of water that pours down, and the strength of the current. As it was getting dark to-day, the boat ran on a sandbank, while a huge hippopotamus watched us. The crocodiles and mosquitoes are very numerous, and the latter have an unusually painful bite. The water is peculiarly soft and very warm, its temperature at sunrise being 60°. At one spot there were some very hot springs near the bank, tasting strongly of iron. Two of the men gave one a good idea to-day of the "slow length" of native conversation. They had been talking for a long time already when I noticed the narrator paused slightly at the end of every sentence, when his friend said, "Eh." I then counted these sentences, and reached number 217 before the history of some corn and an ox came to an end.

' No one who has not had dealings with the really heathen native can credit what a degradation of humanity they are. To live somewhat intimately among them is the best refutation of the belief that heathen natives are better than Christian, and is the strongest argument for the necessity of raising them.'

After seventy miles down the river the Bishop [9/10] landed to walk through fresh country back to his waggon. Some great chiefs were visited on the way, who generally showed a certain amount of interest in hearing of a 'larger Faith,' and wished for teachers. The other incidents of the walk were donkeys dying from the tsetse-fly bites, men down with fever, and some forced marches to reach water. All were glad when the forty days' walk of 636 miles was over, and the waggon reached. Another large detour was then made to the east and south of Mashonaland; and here it was sad to see the effects of the terror in which these poor peaceable people lived. Their little huts were crowded in among the rocks on the tops of the hills, perched there more [10/11] like birds' nests than houses, with difficult little paths,, blocked with rocks and walls, leading up to them. All comfort and cleanliness were sacrificed in hope of safety from the Matabele.

The most southerly point was reached at Sipiro's Mountain, where the chief behaved very well; and as tribute was being collected from him by the Gaza people at the time, he sent to strongly advise the Bishop to remain behind a mountain till the proceeding was over, for fear the Gaza collectors might include him among their vassals.

After four months in the country the pioneer journey came to an end, and, very hopeful as to the future of mission work among the people, the Bishop returned to the Free State. The distance travelled was about 2,500 miles, and the map of the journey was published by the Geographical Society. Nearly all his own men for the journey had been carefully chosen Christian natives. Not a moment's trouble had been caused by any of them; when others were tipsy, they were sober; when others grumbled at hardships and privations, they were patient and willing. It was after no summer day's excursion that the Bishop was able to say:

'Upon the question of native servants who are not Christian being better than those that are, I can only' speak from my own experience. If I had another difficult journey to do I should try to take with me only Christians.'

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