Project Canterbury

Memories of Mashonaland

By G. W. H. Knight-Bruce
Sometime Bishop of Mashonaland

London and New York: Edward Arnold, 1895.

Chapter IV. The Day of Small Things.

What first induced the missionaries to go to Mashonaland? I have said it was a very different place to me now to what it was in years gone by; but in another and more important way it has changed. When, some nine years ago, I was looking about for some untouched country, Mashonaland, as I wandered in imagination over the country to the north, presented itself. Here was a country absolutely without a missionary of any sort or description--a country, so we thought in those days, without a chance of having one. It had always seemed unfortunate that different views of Christianity should have to be put before the people, as in Basutoland; and I had refused to found a mission in northern Bechuanaland, when asked to do so by one of the chiefs, as [54/55] I considered the people to be under the care of the London Missionary Society. But here in Mashonaland was a field on which no one could object to our entering. And, besides this, it was the piece of unoccupied ground between the South African and Central African Missions, and the occupation of it would join these groups of missions together.

But there were others who had a prior claim to try their hands on it. The London Missionary Society, which had originally sent Dr. Livingstone to Bechuanaland, sent his father-in-law, Robert Moffat, some fifty years ago to Matabeleland; or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that he sent himself, with their consent; or, most accurate of all, to say that God sent him. And then began one of those too little-known bits of history which will be very prominent factors in eternal history--when those who have eyes to see recognise that 'patient endurance is godlike.' I have no intention of writing a history of the London Missionary Society in Matabeleland; but for fifty years they have gone on trying to put some idea of Christianity into the Matabele. I believe they made but few converts, though I found two at Kimberley who had come from [55/56] Matabeleland, for the whole spirit of the nation was against Christianity; which shows how much need they had of being taught, and how right the missionaries were in going on. It must have been as depressing working among them as among our own Saxon ancestors; for to a Matabele gentleness would represent little else than weakness, forgiveness little else than cowardice. Now, these missionaries had often thought of extending their work into Mashonaland; but, as Mr. Helm, their leader, said at a meeting in Cape Town, the country seemed closed to the Gospel till our Church came, as though God had intended that we should go there. So with the full concurrence of these good men I arrived in Matabeleland. The Matabele were then in the heyday of their power; magnificently, one might say almost painfully, arrogant; believing, I think, honestly that there were no people like them in the world. As everyone knows, they were Zulus, who had left Zululand under Umziligazi, Lobengula's father, on a raiding expedition, and had then made themselves into a separate people; but they had kept most of their Zulu traits. They have been so often described both as Zulus and [56/57] Matabele that there can be no reason to say much about them. I was chiefly interested in them in those days as the people through whom I had to pass to get to the Mashona, and as the people who sent their raiding 'impis' nearly every year to take the Mashona women, children, and cattle, and kill the Mashona men.

Lobengula received me very civilly; but there, I am sorry to say, it ended. He gave me a name. It is a custom to give every white man a nickname. He called me at first 'young man,' apparently because when I first came into the country the messenger who was sent to see if I were coming on was told to look out for the chief teacher, and he came back and said that no chief teacher was coming--'there was only a little boy.' But having got to his 'kraal' at Enkanwini, I could get no further. I don't think he quite believed that I wanted to teach the Mashona. He could have understood a man going into the country to hunt, or, if he had let him, to look for gold, but 'why did I want to teach his dogs?' I think that the main difficulty lay in my not acknowledging that these 'dogs'--the Mashona--were his people. It may have been contrary to the usage of nations, but it did not [57/58] seem that his treating the Mashona as slaves gave him a right to call them his people. 'Who do you wish to see?' was his perpetual question, and he never thought I answered it satisfactorily. 'Whose people are they?' 'Will you teach them?' 'What will you teach them?' 'Who told you of the country?' Then one day someone suggested that I was a spy; and after a while I became ill with dysentery. I tried every medical recipe for dysentery that I knew of, but unsuccessfully, and then, with a good deal of trouble, reached Mr. Helm's house some distance away, where I found a remedy, and every possible kindness was shown me till I was able to get back to the king. I had almost given up hope of getting into the country, and was coming to tell him I was going away. It was early one morning, and he was walking by himself in his fields, and I and my black boy followed him. Away from the influence of his 'indunas' he was far more amenable, and we walked together back to his kraal. 'Where do you want to go to?' he said. I said, 'To the Zambesi.' Said he, 'You can go.' I didn't waste a minute--I was very much afraid of having the permission recalled--and eventually got to the Zambesi.

[59] Nearly all my servants were excellent, and they were nearly all Christians--two half-castes, two Basuto, three Bechuana, a native of mixed race, and two others. I said then, and I have seen no reason to change my mind since, that if I had a difficult journey to do again alone I would take only Christian servants with me, if I could possibly get them. I was too inexperienced in those days to appreciate them properly; but their trustworthiness and cheerfulness and devotion I appreciated even then. It was like always being in the midst of faithful friends. I wish I had remembered half our conversations, and a quarter of the kind things they did for me. We were talking one day of how long we should be away from our waggons when we started to walk. I said I thought we should be away about three months. 'Then,' said one, 'we shall all die'; but the idea of his not going never entered his head. 'Not for a hundred pounds a month,' said another of my Christian men, 'would he do the journey over again;' but he did it very faithfully and well while he was at it. We had one rather rough walk together of about four hundred and fifty miles, when I left my waggon on the Hanyani [59/60] river at about the same latitude as the Victoria Falls, and went northwards. The donkeys that carried some of our goods gave us a good deal of trouble, the thorns tore our hands, and under a tropical sun tempers were somewhat tried; but my men were always the same bright cheerful lot. 'It is quite true,' said my half-caste cheerfully, during a day in the Zambesi valley, 'we are all muck and blood and sweat.'

I remember especially when one day gave an excellent instance both of their quickness of action in a difficulty and their cheerful endurance in hard work. We had been encamped for the night on the hills that look down on to the Zambesi valley. Our carriers had been engaged and paid to go on for a day farther. We knew we had to start very early to reach the water we wished to reach in the evening; so, very early we were up, and had our prayers, and rolled up our blankets and packed the donkeys, and told the carriers to start. Not one inch would they move. They wished to be paid over again. Then began a long discussion when every moment was precious. The carriers and guides and their friends had heaped their assegais and guns against three [60/61] trees; and when I saw that they had no intention of going on, I told the two servants whom I could most trust that, when I gave the order, they were to run at the two heaps of assegais nearest to them and take them up in their arms, and I would take the other heap. I then explained for the last time to the carriers that they had taken our calico, and asked whether they would go on. They refused, and I told my men to seize the guns and assegais. I don't know that I was right; I'm inclined to think I was wrong; and I never did such a thing again; but my men flew at their heaps, and it had the desired effect; the natives saw all the arms in our hands, and we reached our water that night. But it was the smartness of my two men that I shall always remember. Then, again, in the evening. We reached the river late. We had to get up the bank on the other side (it was a kind of cliff) before we slept. There were ten donkeys to be got up, and each went up in the same way. They walked as far up as they could, then they fell or were stopped, and leather straps tied together were fastened round them, and they were pulled to the top on their sides. This was by moonlight, and my men had been walking all day [61/62] in the sultry valley, a good deal troubled towards the evening by want of water, but not a grumble came from one of them.

It makes the whole difference what your men's dispositions are when you are walking on a long journey with them. Once I was sleeping in the open on the dreary slope of a hill without any bush or shelter, and when I woke in the morning, it was raining. One of the catechists was standing near the fire trying to dry his clothes. 'I'm afraid,' I said to him, 'it's raining.' 'Oh no,' he said; 'it's only a little damp;' and so on through the journey, making the best of everything. I shall never forget a long time after I was in Matabeleland, when the Portuguese were fighting with the Chartered Company, and no carriers could be got on the east coast as quickly as I wished, how my catechists volunteered to walk with me and carry my things; and they carried them so well that we arrived at the Chartered Company's territory before the officials, who had had every available convenience put at their disposal. I remember one of the Englishmen, who had for years hunted in Africa, saying about my servants, 'You have a thundering good lot of men.'

[63] But I was speaking about our first effort to establish a mission in Mashonaland. I did not intend on my first visit to leave any mission behind; I only proposed at the best to lay the foundation of one; but, except that I learnt a very great deal about the country that stood me in good stead in after years, I did absolutely nothing. I spoke about God to a great many people, and at one place especially I remember that the people promised that if I sent them a teacher they would build him a house. I had very small hopes of ever seeing the promise redeemed; but at this very place the last time I was in Mashonaland I had the satisfaction of sleeping in the teacher's hut, and finding the framework prepared for a wattle and daub church. And more: as I was in this very hut one day alone (for I had brought no one but Mashona with me, and the catechist was away), I heard the children of the village coming by singing their Christian hymns; and though singing Christian hymns does not imply a Christian life, yet it's a step towards it; and it's better to hear them singing about a living Christ than about the nonsense that composes most of their own songs.

When I came back to Matabeleland from [63/64] the north, though I had not been away for so very long, I found among political changes in strange contrast to one another, not only that two Emperors of Germany had died, but that Matabeleland was inclined to be in an uproar. They had got the idea that the white men wanted to take their country, and they did not altogether wish to be civil to the white man. The last few miles into Emthlangene I was riding on a Basuto pony that had been hundreds of miles with me, though I had left him with my waggons when I went to the Zambesi; my faithful black servant, John, was riding my other horse; and we had to pass the huts of the Imbezu regiment. We knew there might be difficulties, and prepared for them by off-saddling under a bank about a quarter of a mile on the other side of the huts, so as to have our horses fresh in case of emergencies. And we needed it, for they poured out, yelling, 'Here are the men who have come to take our country!' and, spreading out in a fan-shaped movement, ran to cut us off. I think it quite probable that if we had stopped, and if they had given me time to explain that I had no wish to take their country, and as little that any other white man should take it, they would [64/65] have done no harm; but there was no good to be gained by making the experiment; and we got round them on to the track, the last one giving up the chase when we took a short cut through the wood, which I suppose he did not think we knew. I never saw the Imbezu regiment again till we met some years afterwards at the fight at the Imbembezi river in the Matabele war.

I have just mentioned John, my native servant: he had an eighth sense--the power of finding his way. All natives, of course, have the power very strongly developed, and I dare say there are many as good as he; but, after all my life in Africa, he is still to me the ideal guide. I used to go with him into a district unknown to both of us, as confident of coming back to our camp as I should have been of not coming back had I been alone. I remember one occasion especially. In a great stretch of woodland cut up with streams and valleys I saw a large sable antelope. I shot very few animals altogether, and, indeed, my men would have been glad if I had shot many more, for they loved meat; but that day I was especially looking for an antelope, and when he galloped off through the trees [65/66] I galloped after him. Up and down through wood and glade we went, at one time straight, then in a half circle, almost at my horse's best pace, for about two and a half miles--as nearly as I could reckon--the antelope always keeping too far ahead of me among the trees to give me an opportunity of shooting him, till it seemed like travelling through the Cretan labyrinth; and when at last he hesitated at a brook and let me gain the hundred yards I wanted, and I shot him, I said to John, 'Where are the waggons?' He pointed straight to them, and perfectly straight we went. It seems just as much an instinct as the power a dog has of finding its way home.

One day, when he was finding his way to a place over some country he had never been through before, I asked him to tell me how he did it--whether it was by the sun or anything else. 'No,' he said; 'it's by nothing. I feel it here,' and he put his hand on his heart.

Then, his power of seeing things was most extraordinary. I don't think this is at all common to all natives; indeed, I found I usually saw things quicker than the Mashona; but I was a baby compared to John. He has pointed to an indistinct kind of speck in the [66/67] distance; to me it might have been anything. 'Look,' he says, 'there is an eland bull;' and, as a matter of fact, we found it was.

I have known him ride with me up to the face of a thick tangled wood, and he has pointed out a male koodoo standing in it. 'Where?' I asked. 'There,' he answered, pointing into the thick of the wood; and these two words continued to be repeated between us as we rode on, till what had been to me a part of the wood moved away. I think that he noticed the horns; that in the mass of boughs the spiral curve, as against the more angular formation of the branches, struck his eye, though the colour is much the same. I found this became developed to a slight extent in one's self, for when I have returned to civilization I noticed that a wild animal lying at a distance struck my eye immediately, though my companion did not see it.

But as to finding my way about, I was perfectly hopeless to the last; and when I had to go journeys alone, I clung to a beaten track, or, if I did not, I was soon lost, or in immediate danger of it. I had been lost twice, and I know of no sensation in life to compare to it. Before I went to Africa, as far as I can [67/68] remember, a man described to me how he was lost on the Rocky Mountains; and when, at the end of twenty-four hours, he found himself back at the same place he had started from, his head began to wander, and he imagined a fire was always burning a hundred yards to the right of him. This was because he could not light a fire himself on account of the Red Indians, who would have seen it. I thought the account very interesting, but the especial sensation of being lost I had to find out for myself before I understood it. Of course, where there is a clear landmark it is comparatively easy to find the way; but when, as in some parts of the country, there is none sufficiently marked to indicate from which point of view you are looking, it is but little help. Again, to steer by the sun is so much easier in theory than in practice; but to take a line by the sun for five miles or so that will bring you back to a camp that cannot be seen at a quarter of a mile's distance is what I know some white men can do. I was not one of them.

I am speaking now especially of a country where no waggons can go, or before roads are cut in it by waggons; for if a road runs east [68/69] and west, or north and south, and you remember on which side of it you are, there is comparatively little difficulty. But still, even in modern Mashonaland I was once walking in an out-of-the-way part with my black men, and found a white man sitting among a quantity of natives, who asked me if he were going right for Beira. He was walking then directly away from it, Beira being about two hundred miles behind him. He had been walking to the east, but had gone off the waggon road and not been able to find it again; and he wandered, I think he said, for two days and two nights before he found the blacks with whom he was.

The conditions under which a man is lost vary to such an extent that it is impossible to say how long he can hold out. There were two stories current in Mashonaland, neither of which I have any reason to doubt: one of a man being lost, and dying of thirst and exhaustion at the end of about twenty-four hours; another of a man being lost for forty days, but becoming unconscious of his actions after the first few days, and apparently subsisting on roots and no one knows what for the rest of the time till he was found.

But I have gone away from Lobengula and [69/70] his Matabele. There was something about a pure Matabele which was outwardly very attractive. Their placid brute courage was very perfect. The king's brother was to be killed while I was not far away--he had become too powerful--and the scene was described to me afterwards. He was standing talking to a friend when he saw the man he knew was deputed to get rid of people coming towards him. 'I know what you have come for,' he said; 'do it quickly.' And he stood still while the man broke his head in with his bludgeon.

And it was not confined to the men. One of Lobengula's wives was convicted of having tried to poison him. I didn't see the scene, but I was told that all which happened afterwards was that he pointed to a heap of strips of hide lying near, and said: 'Take a strong one; you know what 1 mean.' She knew perfectly, and went off and hanged herself.

But their cruelty was very great. They used to say themselves that at home they were 'men'; when they were out raiding they were 'not men.' They seemed to have behaved much as our heathen Viking ancestors from Norway behaved when they went on a foray; [70/71] and it was the poor Mashona that chiefly suffered. The women and children were taken as slaves, and general destruction carried out among what they couldn't or wouldn't carry away.

All this is a story that has been told too often to need any repetition here; but there is an interesting and instructive point connected with it, which gives an instance of evil-doing bringing its own reward. The king had those people killed who were becoming too powerful; this naturally meant the ablest leaders of men died. This was supposed to strengthen his position on the throne. It did temporarily; but in the time of his greatest need he had no one to lead his men. Again, the lordly superiority of the Matabele--that which made them a terror to their neighbours--was shown in their enslaving the women and children of the lower races; but thereby they brought in inferior blood, and raised a race that were called 'Mahoolies.' The fighting power deteriorated with the purity of the blood, and in their greatest need they had no army of pure Zulus to send against an enemy.

Possibly it can be argued that it was a necessary part of the policy of an African chief [71/72] to raid on the neighbouring tribes--the young soldiers must have blood to keep them quiet; again, that an African chief must get rid of the most powerful and dangerous men in his kingdom; which arguments have something to be said for them from a heathen point of view; but the sad thing is that it should be so. To look at the whole question from a deeper point of view, the sad side of heathenism is that they do wrong believing it to be right. As a Mashona once said to one of our missionaries, 'God told them to do all they did--steal, or kill a man.' And so long as African heathenism is untouched, it has no conscience on these points to awaken. They murder, and think they are right in murdering. Gentleness to them means little else but weakness; forgiveness little else but cowardice.

To take the one vice of cruelty--which we believe to be an intensely heathen vice, being the opposite of 'going about doing good '--the children are taught it from their earliest years. One of the first things I remember seeing in Lobengula's kraal was his little son of about seven years old sticking his assegai into a goat. It did not prove much, but it was my first introduction to the darker side of [72/73] African life, and made an impression on me at the time.

But Lobengula was always very courteous to me; and after I came back from my first journey, he understood what I wanted, and apparently believed what I said. There is a code of honour between one chief and anyone they consider another, when it is once established, that makes transactions comparatively easy. 'There is a wall built round the word of a chief,' is a native proverb that I remember quoting to him when I wished to explain that there was no chance of my breaking my word. Of course it would be invidious to make a comparison between him and Khama, the Christian chief of the Bechuana, the people to the south of him, for Khama has had so many more advantages than Lobengula had. They both began life as heathens, but Khama became a Christian comparatively early. And it is when Lobengula is brought into contrast with Khama that the ugly life of a heathen savage chief stands out in very painful prominence.

And so I was just beginning to learn something about savage Africa when we first heard the rumour of Europeans coming in any [73/74] numbers into the country. I had some communication with Lobengula to try and arrange for our permanently founding a mission in Mashonaland; he had not given permission, but that, perhaps, after our experience in getting into Mashonaland to begin with, when he first refused permission, and then gave it, would hardly have been considered a final decision. Then the British South Africa Company was organized, and everything was considered to be on a different footing, and I never saw him again.

Lobengula was a shrewd creature, too. There was a story being told about him in the country which showed his quickness of repartee, if nothing else. The representatives of a religious denomination were said to have come up, asking for permission to settle in Matabeleland.

He had his own missionaries for Matabeleland, and probably did not want others, so he asked:

'Where are your wives?'

'We don't have any wives,' they are said to have answered.

'Then where are your mothers?' the king asked again.

[75] 'We don't believe in having anything to do with mothers or wives,' was the answer.

'Then you can go,' said the king; 'I don't want anyone to teach my people who does not believe in mothers and wives.'

I dare say, after all, he knew as much on the subject as many who have settled the question whether married or unmarried missionaries are best. The answer seems to be that each have their place. The pioneering work in the more southern part of Africa has been done chiefly, perhaps, by the married missionaries. Bishop Grey was mainly instrumental in forming the framework of what is now the province of South Africa when such work was much harder than it would be now. Robert Moffat may be said to have taken it up where he left it off, and have gone on from Bechuanaland into Matabeleland. Dr. Livingstone took the next plunge northwards. However, this proves nothing. If they hadn't done the work it is quite possible there were unmarried missionaries quite ready to do it; but as they were ready, it was well that they were used.

Among some tribes there is a certain prejudice against unmarried missionaries; and I remember the missionaries in one of the far [75/76] outposts of the mission-field regretting that one of their number was unmarried. Perhaps my experience has not been enough to enable me to form a correct opinion; but, to take one instance, there was an appearance of stability given to the French missions in Basutoland by their missionaries, when in charge of a place, being nearly always married. One felt instinctively, as their children grew up, and themselves married and settled, that Basutoland was their country. At their great centre the influence of a large settlement of missionaries, with wives and children, has an effect on the native life which nothing else could well have. There are certain branches of work which can obviously be done best by married missionaries. I notice that the Bishop of Corea was lately asking for a married missionary for one such branch.

But there are some missions where I should say it was a great advantage to have unmarried men, in a few almost a necessity--where there are rapidly-changing camps of Europeans, or where long walks have to be undertaken, and where there is no fixed home.

But to return to Lobengula. He devoted a great deal of time to hearing the news of the
[76/77] nation, and deciding cases brought before him. Everything seemed to be told to him--from the success or failure of an 'impi' to a crow perching on someone's hut. But he believed in other influences besides those that were political. The belief in witchcraft was unbounded. He killed, or allowed to be killed, his own brother and sister on a charge of witchcraft. One of the Matabele missionaries found an old woman under a bush, almost reduced to a skeleton, who had been sent away by her husband, and refused admission by a son and two married daughters, between whose houses she must have wandered with scarcely any clothes, about a hundred and thirty miles, while it was raining almost continuously. The chief killing for witchcraft took place after the great yearly dance, called the Ingwala. This was the dance of the First-fruits, which was held in the huge cattle kraal at Buluwayo about February. The men came in full fighting dress.

A great many suicides seemed to occur in the country, and it was hardly to be wondered at, for where a system of accusing of witchcraft is in force, and there are people to be enriched by the goods of the condemned, there can be no safety from the most treacherous action.

[78] Even Lobengula himself did not feel quite free from the possibility of treachery. It was etiquette never to pass behind him; this probably had a very good reason. He never drank anything among his own people that had not been tasted before, and he kept a woman as 'taster.' I remember that she got extraordinarily fat.

He had the care of a large household; there were about eighty wives. They went about in pairs, and any one of them leaving the kraals alone would have been in danger of being killed for it. They wore a skirt of soft ox-skin round their bodies, and usually, when they could get it, a piece of blue calico round their shoulders, and marone buttons on the back of their heads.

When the king wished to choose a new wife from the nation, the girls whom he could choose were collected and stood in a row. He then gave something to the one he wished to have. She then went home, and her friends used to come and condole with her--which they might well do. This last part of the ceremony was the stranger, because uncomplimentary to Lobengula, while the whole tendency of the people was to foolish flattery. I was told that [78/79] once, when a collection of princesses were sent to Lobengula by the Gaza people for him to choose from, the seven whom he did choose drank too much beer and insulted him. He then only sent back one in exchange.

When I was at his kraal one of his children died. When this happens the custom was for him and his wives to go out into the country around as a sign of mourning, and he himself had to be purified by certain ceremonies before he could attend to business again. Should anyone touch a dead body, he is not allowed to see the chief for a 'moon.'

From an outside point of view, the Matabele did not have their national observances affected by the long and patient work of the missionaries among them; but there were undoubted signs that their work had not been thrown away. And as to the Matabele being hopeless, an authority who ought to have had the greatest weight, from knowing both nations for a very long time, said that he knew the Basuto when they were worse than the Matabele. At one time a part of the Basuto nation took to cannibalism--we believe it was from hunger. The caves that are called the 'Cannibal Caves' certainly exist, and bones said to be human [79/80] are found there. People are still living who speak about those times; and we used to be told how a long string was stretched across the valley near the caves, into which passers-by walked, and the vibration of the string told the hungry watchers that there was someone in the neighbourhood. I remember hearing a story of one woman who had been left to bleed to death, but escaped and lived till comparatively lately; and of a man who caught two sisters, one of whom he married, while he ate the other. It was not so very long ago that the Basuto were supposed to have eaten the heart of the great Dutch commander, Wepener, to help them to be as brave as he was Now, anyone living among the Basuto of to-day would scarcely believe this possible; and if the Basuto have become what they have, there was every reason for the missionaries in Matabeleland not considering the Matabele hopeless. And if the Matabele were not hopeless, no African tribe can be hopeless.

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