Sep 26, 2011

Lost Trials of the Transvaal: Chapter 4, by Thomas Bulpin

The following was sourced from chapter 4 of Thomas Bulpin’s book - “Lost Trials of the Transvaal”. The chapter heading is called “MZILIKAZI”. The story of this ancient Mugabe-style madman is masterfully told with a sense of impartiality, mixed with a little underlying sarcasm (or humour) - depending who the reader is.

The copy of Bulpin’s book I have in my possession, published in 1965, has an authors note, stating: “This book represents the combined material of several earlier works, Lost Trials of the Low Veld, The Golden Republic, Storm over the Transvaal and Lost Trials of the Transvaal (1956 edition). Much new material has also been added in the process of correction and modification.”

Please take note that the original text was scanned in digitally, and proofread with extra care. In some instances, especially with place names, the original spelling was left unchanged.

Click here if you've missed the previous posting - Winding Paths, sourced from Chapter 3 - Lost Trials of the Transvaal, by Thomas Bulpin.

Lost Trials of the Transvaal – Chapter 4

By Thomas Bulpin

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In Zululand, the great chief Shaka employed numerous adventurous and ambitious individuals in his military service. Among the henchmen of this black Caesar was a certain Mzilikazi (the great abstainer). At the time this story begins he was a man of about thirty years of age, the son of Mashobana, the uncle of the chief of the small Khumalo tribe who lived around the headwaters of the Black Mfolozi River.

This Khumalo tribe had been much cut up in the recent fighting. Both Mashobana and most of the tribe’s royal family had had their heads cut off to grace the mantlepiece of Zwide of the Ndwandwe tribe, who was a renowned collector of such interesting trophies. Mzilikazi had prudently attached himself to the rising star of Shaka about the year 1820 and had soon been elevated to the rank of commander of one of the minor Zulu raiding bands.

This Mzilikazi was a young man of considerable ambition. Tradition tells us that, about 1822, Shaka entrusted him with one of those tasks in which several Zulu units were joyfully engaged: the looting of neighbouring Sotho tribes.

Mzilikazi crossed the Transvaal border for the first time and thoroughly routed a number of the weak Sotho clans resident there. Then, according to his master’s orders, he rounded up their cattle and returned home. So far, so good. But Mzilikazi erred in keeping a quantity of the loot for himself.

This was an elementary mistake. Shaka had eyes in the back of his head, especially to observe such infringements. Up through the bush came a small police force to effect punishment. Mzilikazi cut the ostrich feathers from their heads and sent them home. This was the end as far as Shaka was concerned. One of his army units was hurriedly detached from its normal duty and sent up to liquidate Mzilikazi.

The Zulus found Mzilikazi and his followers entrenched upon a hill known as enTubeni. After examining this stronghold for a while the Zulu commander sought out a renegade Khumalo man, suitably bribed him to act as guide, and stole upon Mzilikazi in the night. There was a sad massacre upon the hill beneath the stars.

With the dawn, Mzilikazi and about 300 of his more athletic followers were in full retreat to the north, leaving their slower parents and womenfolk to such mercy as they could expect from a Zulu army.

In such fashion did Mzilikazi commence a career which was destined to write his name in blood over the Transvaal high veld and end with the creation of the Ndebele (Matebele) kingdom in Rhodesia.

For the present he was intent only on putting the safety of distance between himself and Shaka. However, once he reached the Transvaal plains he felt increased security; and the necessity of recouping losses in wealth and women be came imperative.

Towards the end of 1823, therefore, Mzilikazi started to despoil the Sotho clans, At first he worked with guile, lies and treachery. Then, as his power grew, he became increasingly aggressive. He erected for himself a kraal named ekuPhumuleni, (the place of rest), somewhere near the source of the Olifants river, in the modem Bethal area. From this centre his robber band operated in all directions.

The Sotho tribes named the newcomers maTebele, for the same reason that they had applied this name to the earlier migrants of old chief Musi. As Mzilikazi’s following soon became more Sotho than Zulu, the Sotho form of the name came into general use among them, whilst the Zulu version—Ndebele—remained to distinguish the earlier people. The same process affected Mzilikazi’s own name, for the Sotho corrupted this to Moselekatze; and by that name he is best known in the TransvaaL

It would be useless to try to follow the complex details of Mzilikazi’s rise to power. Suffice to say that by means of his adventures he increased both his wealth and his following, for the women of conquered clans were impressed as wives and the young men enrolled as warriors.

At first the Sotho tribes tried to fight back. Tradition tells, for example, how the local Phuting tribe sent their army hidden behind a herd of cattle to attack Mzilikazi. If they hoped Mzilikazi would be dazzled by the dust and cattle they were sadly wrong. He was too guileful for that. He sent his youngest regiment down, yelling loudly enough to wake the dead. The cattle turned and stampeded upon their own masters, and there was a sudden end to the matter. It was a lesson in tactics which duly impressed the Sotho, but, strangely enough, was not long remembered by Mzilikazi for, years later, his people fell victim to an almost similar fate.

So, south and east of Phurnuleni, the Sotho were attacked and looted. In the north, in the Belfast area, dwelt the Koni people, whose origin was so mixed between Karanga and Sotho that the tangle still has to be straightened out. Mzilikazi added to the confusion of their family tree by throwing them out of their town of Motomatsi, where Dalmanutha stands today. Leaving the ruins of their stone huts behind, they removed to a ridge called Mohlatopela (Blouboskraal) east of modern Machadodorp.

At this place they built a strange sort of fortress, whose ruins may still be seen to the right of the present road between Helvetia and Waterval Boven. The huts, surrounded by stone walls, looked down from the summit of the hill. Piles of boulders were kept in store to be rolled down on the heads of invaders while agriculture was carried out on protected terraces, and astonishing semi-enclosed passages of stone led to the water supplies.

All this industry was commendable, but of no avail. The Koni were prised out of their stronghold, and today their remnants are scattered all over the Transvaal.

The Pedi, still further north, at the time of Mzilikazi’s arrival, had grown to a sizable and prosperous tribe under the leadership of a renowned chief named Thulare, who counted among his regular activities a trade with the Portuguese at Lourenço Marques. Thulare, fortunately for himself, died just before the storm broke. His sons were not so lucky. A succession of Mzilikazi’s bands came to attack them. At first the Pedi held firm. They even defeated the first few attacks and flattered themselves with a popular song. “The wild beast is tired,” they sang. “It sleeps. Its roars trouble us no more.”

The words were as fatuous as those in most popular songs. A few months later the whole tribe collapsed. Only one of Thulare’s sons—Sekwati—was able to escape with a few followers to the protection of Coenraad de Buys (known as Kadishe) in the Soutpansberg, who gave him a good training in banditry.

By the end of 1824, Mzilikazi was certainly ruling the roost in the Eastern Transvaal. Then came a season of drought, and rumours that news of his success had reached Shaka and was likely to attract a Zulu raid. Mzilikazi decided to remove himself still further away from Zululand, into some salubrious clime where rainfall was on a more generous scale and security more certain.

Spies had already investigated the lands of the Hurutshe and Kwena people, further west. Although they had been looted by Manthatisi and her horde they were still desirable properties. Accordingly, early in 1825, Mzilikazi burned down his Phumuleni kraal, incinerating in the ruins a number of captive Sotho, whose spirits could act as a rearguard against the anticipated Zulu raid.

With a host amounting now to over 2,000 warriors, accompanied by their women and families, Mzilikazi trudged off. Scattering the Sotho people before him like a herd of antelope stampeding before a hunter, he made his way into the warm and sheltered river valley of the Aapies which the first Ndebele had named Tshwane but the new Ndebele now renamed enZwabuhlungu (painful to the touch).

In this valley, where Pretoria stands today, watched by those serene hills which have seen so much of the doings of man, Mzilikazi and his followers settled down to build new kraals. All down the length of the stream the kraals and out posts were scattered, while Mzilikazi’s new capital, emHlahlandlela, (where the pathway is cut), was erected near the junction of the Aapies with the Limpopo.

The Transvaal had certainly changed from the peaceful land John Campbell had visited a short five years before. Two adventurous traders, Robert Schoon and William McLuckie, who roamed into the Transvaal from the Cape during 1829, have left us some impressions of the place as they found it; and the contrast during those five years is remarkable.

The whole of the western Transvaal looked as though it had been hit by a cyclone. Everywhere was the wreckage of former homes, with a few stunned surviving inhabitants hiding in the bush trying to recover their wits. Instead of the great, bustling towns like Kurrechane, the travellers now discovered some of the oddest human habitations ever built. Fearful of surprise attack and haunted by lions, who had grown bold from feeding on human corpses, the people had taken to the trees. Near one spring the traders discovered a large tree containing in its branches seventeen tiny conical huts. To A. Steedman, compiler of an old book of travels, the traders described these treetop homes:

“These are used as dormitories, being beyond the reach of the lions, which, since the incursion of the Mantatees, when so many thousands of persons were massacred, have become very numerous in the neighbourhood, and destructive to human life. The branches of these trees are supported by forked sticks or poles, and there are three tiers or platforms on which the huts are constructed. The lowest is nine feet from the ground, and holds ten huts, the second, about eight feet high, has three huts, and the upper story, if it may be so called, contains four. The ascent to these is made by notches cut in the supporting poles, and the huts are built with twigs thatched with straw, and will contain two persons conveniently.”

Other huts were built in clusters on stakes fixed into the ground. Over the whole Transvaal there hung an atmosphere of dread. The two traders visited Mzilikazi’s kraal on the Aapies River and were treated well enough by the tribe; but the land was ruined. Only Mzilikazi sat, like a ghoul, happily enjoying a hideous feast. For the rest, misery and death, or slavery under his rule, was the only lot in life.

Mzilikazi, dread despot of the old Transvaal, did not dislike the visits of Europeans—provided there were not too many of them. The horseback visit of Schoon and McLuckie excited him and opened his eyes to the fact that there was a new world beyond the horizon, in whose novel existence he had hitherto only half believed. Accordingly, he resolved to despatch two trusted henchmen on a visit to the land of the white men, to investigate for him their social nature and the manner of their kind.

Towards the end of the year 1829 these two ambassadors presented themselves at what was then considered to be the gateway between civilization and the wilderness: the bleak and lonely little mission station of Kururnan in the Cape. Mucumbati, the leader of the embassy, introduced himself to the missionary Robert Moffat and was affably received by him.

Considerable discussion resulted between Moffat and his visitors. In the end the missionary was as interested in Mzilikazi’s people as they were in Europeans. On the 9th November, when the ambassadors set out on the long return journey, Moffat accompanied them with a wagon party in order to visit Mzilikazi, and also to give the ambassadors some protection on their journey home.

It was an interesting, if depressing 270-mile ride into the unknown. Desolation, wreckage, overgrown fields and skeletons littered the countryside. Like the earlier traders, Moffat visited the treetop homes and marvelled that human beings could live in such curious fashion. The terror of the people saddened him, but for himself he felt no fear. The maTebele showered him with gifts as he travelled. Milk, corn, meat and wheat in lavish quantities were supplied by each outpost; and he approached the strongholds in the Aapies River Valley with intense interest. Towards the end of the journey Moffat was surprised to meet another missionary, the Reverend James Archbell, who was visiting the Transvaal in search of a field of work. The two men went on together to meet Mzilikazi.

At the time of the missionaries’ arrival Mzilikazi was staying in his enKungwini military kraal on the right bank of the Aapies River, about where the modern Pretoria suburb of Roseville stands today. To this place came Moffat and Archbell with their wagons and received a boisterous welcome. About 1,000 warriors, the entire garrison of the place, danced and shouted a welcome, while their despot peeped out from behind  them in some alarm at the sight of the first wagons ever to reach that savage spot.

Presently Mzilikazi plucked up his courage and marched out to welcome his visitors. Then, holding on tightly to Moffat’s arm, he examined the marvellous wagons in the closest detail.

For eight days Moffat remained with Mzilikazi. Hospitality was lavish. Meat, milk, beer and strange delicacies were showered on the missionaries. A constant round of dancing and singing was staged to beguile them. Against that uproarious background Moffat tried to talk seriously to Mzilikazi, struggling to explain the resurrection and the idea of the soul’s redemption by the death of Christ, while Mzilikazi listened to him in astonishment and tried to puzzle it out.

There was a constant bustle of comings and goings in the kraal. Messengers, soldiers, courtiers, prisoners and supplicants crowded round Mzilikazi day and night. It was a barbaric world, with Mzilikazi as its centre; and Moffat was half befuddled by all he saw.

“I felt glad when the day came that I could return home,” he wrote in his journal. “Short as my stay was, the varied instances of despotism and horrid cruelty made me feel as if I sojourned in the tents of Kedar. Everything I saw or heard filled me with melancholy. I had never before seen such savage and degraded minds, such an iron sceptre and such relentless cruelty. Truly the dark places of the earth are full of the habitations of cruelty.”

Mzilikazi accompanied Moffat on the first few miles of his journey home, through that pleasant vale between the hills. As he was anxious to see men hunt from horseback, an eland hunt was held to please him, while he stood on the wagon seat and danced with joy.

When it was all over Mzilikazi, like a child, felt tired. He climbed into the wagon and had a nap on Moffat’s bed. When he woke he invited the missionary to join him in comfort; but Moffat declined, although there was certainly room for two.

By that evening they had reached one of Mzilikazi’s outlying kraals, and there the King remained. Moffat left next morning on the long ride home, with pressing invitations to return and bring his wife. Loaded with presents, he said goodbye to Mzilikazi and turned his face towards home. It had been a half-terrifying but fascinating visit. Cruelties he had seen without count; and yet, he mused in his journal, reminded as an afterthought of the words of St Luke, “The barbarians showed us no little kindness”. So he went his way, and returned safely to Kuruman.

Not all of Mzilikazi’s visitors were as peaceful as the missionaries. The Zulus had for long been hearing rumours of Mzilikazi’s prosperity, and in April 1830 a tentative raid was launched in his direction. It was more exploratory than anything else. The Zulus groped across the veld and prised out a few head of cattle from the maTebele outposts; but they were more interested in testing Mzilikazi’s wealth and strength than having a major battle with him.

One minor fight did result and should have served as a warning to Mzilikazi. His army rallied to drive the Zulus off and met them somewhere on the high veld, where the black armies manoeuvred across the brown winter grass like the ominous shadows of two thunderclouds. While the warriors took snuff and listened to the rival praise-singers trying to bawl one another down, two champions strode from the opposing ranks, each the pride of his respective side. Between the armies the two men met, and fell to battering each other until the Zulu clubbed his rival to the dust and dragged the corpse triumphantly away. The rest of the fight was short and sweet. Compared to the Zulus, the mixed crowd of Sotho and tribal riff-raff in Mzilikazi’s army were amateurs. They soon fled.

While Mzilikazi pondered on the growing Zulu threat, a new disaster over took him. The Vaal River, known to the Bushmen as the ‘Gij ‘Gariep’ (tawny coloured river), flowed through a renowned hunting ground. It was an area particularly favoured by the Griqua people from the Cape; and their leader, Barend Barends, soon observed the prosperity of Mzilikazi in the north.

Early in 1831 Barends organised a strong raiding band. They slipped across the Vaal and headed for Mzilikazi’s herds like a flock of vultures settling on their prey. The time was certainly propitious for a raid. Mzilikazi’s army was away in Basutoland, trying to recoup the losses from the recent Zulu raid. The Griqua force found their prize practically undefended; and vast booty did they gather before they turned for home.

At Hlahlandlela, Mzilikazi danced with rage. He ransacked his tribe of every male—old men and young boys included—and sent them sneaking along the Griquas’ trail. Three days’ travelling away they found the Griquas celebrating their victory with a colossal feast near the hillock ever afterwards known as Moordkop (murder peak), twenty miles north of Rustenburg. That night while the gluttons snored, the maTebele remnants slipped down upon them and slit their throats, one by one in the darkness, until dawn came and found 300 corpses huddled as though seeking warmth around their cold camp fires. Only three escaped to tell the widows.

While Mzilikazi was still pondering the meaning of the recent events, a fresh party of Europeans entered the Transvaal, with every intention of remaining there. Two French missionaires, Prosper Lemue and Samuel Rollard, journeyed up to Mosega from Kuruman in May 1831; and, acting upon Moffat’s advice, they arranged with the Hurutshe chief, Mokhatla, to establish a station for the Paris Evangelical Mission.

The relics of the Hurutshe tribe were delighted at this development. The presence of missionaries promised some protection from Mzilikazi and a fine site for the station was readily granted at a place now known as Sendelingspos (missionaries’ post) ten miles south of modern Zeerust.

In February of the following year Rollard, Lemue and Jean-Paul Pellissier actually settled at Mosega. They erected a five-roomed house, laid out an irrigated garden, and generally made themselves comfortable. Pellissier travelled off to visit Mzilikazi and secured that monarch’s blessing on the enterprise. The future of the place seemed secure.

Then came disaster. In July 1832 the boisterous Zulu army came trudging across the veld and headed straight for Mzilikazi. The result of the collision was a shambles. The maTebele army was cut to pieces, their kraals destroyed, their herds looted, and Mzilikazi forced to flee with the survivors of his people.

The pleasant valley of the Aapies had proved to be sheltered against everything save the activities of man. Mzilikazi had to look for some fresh field in which to settle; some place from which he could rob others without being robbed himself. Six warriors were sent off westwards to spy out the land and summon the French missionaries to appear before Mzilikazi, for he meant to prepare them for approaching changes. The Hurutshe fell into complete panic at the arrival of the emissaries. They killed them as spies, and the missionaries, appreciating the writing on the wall, shut up their little station and removed to safety at Kuruman.

The Hurutshe had no chance at all. In August 1832 Mzilikazi’s army rooted them out of their hiding places and sent the survivors scattering to the far corners of the veld. Then, all down the length of the Marico and at Mosega itself, Mzilikazi’s followers erected kraals for themselves, with their new capital forty miles north of Mosega at the hillock known as Silkaatskop. This new capital was named eGabeni (the place of confidence), for Mzilikazi had every hope that he had at last found a snug robbers’ retreat.

From Gabeni (sometimes misspelt Kapain) Mzilikazi busied himself in recouping his losses. His raiding bands rummaged the whole Transvaal, Bechuanaland and Rhodesia in an insatiable search for other people’s wives and cattle. The centre from which this disturbance radiated was really not much of a place. Mzilikazi was too much of a bird of passage to have the time or the means to erect anything resembling the elaborate hut cities of the Zulus. The total number of his followers at that time was certainly not more than 20,000 souls, of whom the great majority were captured women. Gabeni, in fact, was a rather slovenly village; and Mzilikazi’s palace consisted of one plum-pudding-shaped, Zulu-style hut, built of grass and thatch. Its sole furnishings were consumable—in the shape of large calabashes of beer stored around the interior walls.

If his capital was inconsiderable, then at least Mzilikazi could boast of a domain fit for a king. The country around his new home was exceedingly rich and fruitful. In spring it was especially lovely, with magnificent forests of giant flowering acacia trees, lush grass, and busy streams tumbling down every hillside.

The whole land was smothered with game. The dense reeds of the Marico sheltered countless thousands of buffalo. Wildebeest (brindled gnu), impala, hartebeeste, tsesebe, zebra, quagga, warthog, giraffe, ostrich, eland, lion, and white and black rhinoceri were all present, while every river was crowded with crocodiles and hippopotami.

The slopes of the Khashane Mountains we more like a wild zoo than anything else. Enormous troops of elephants (300 and more animals in each herd) browsed along the slopes, pushing trees over to reach the tender shoots at the branch tips, and wallowing in the rivers while their calves gambolled at their feet.

In this land Mzilikazi’s people were in paradise. When not out on raids they indulged in great hunts. Mzilikazi would, extend his regiments in a huge circle and drive the game into a small area. There, hemmed in by spears, they would be slaughtered wholesale. Every vulture and human being for miles around would gather for the feast, gorging around vast fires, while the nights were hideous with the yammerings and roarings of the hyenas and jackals who came to clean up the mess.

Several Europeans visited Mzilikazi in his grand new home. Traders such as David Hume and Hugh Millen joined Schoon and McLuckie in the Transvaal trade, and the whole area was thoroughly explored as far as the Tropic of Capricorn.

Then, in the middle of June 1835, the largest party of Europeans yet to have crossed the Vaal River travelled up to see Mzilikazi. From the Cape came a rather bumptious individual named Doctor Andrew Smith, in charge of a well-equipped expedition sent by the Cape of Good Hope Association for Exploring Central Africa. Robert Schoon, David Hume and other hunters and traders accompanied the party, while Moffat was induced to join it at Kuruman and travel up to introduce Smith to Mzilikazi.

Smith was the British Army Medical Director subsequently destined to clash with Florence Nightingale over the hospital scandals during the Crimean War. He spent much of his time being difficult with the members of his party; and by the time they reached Mzilikazi tempers were somewhat raw.

Mzilikazi greeted Moffat like a long-lost brother. With permission to do anything they liked, the Europeans dispersed, the traders going off elephant hunting, while Smith set out on the 16th June 1835 to explore the Transvaal. He wandered along the Khashane (Magaliesberg) Mountains, past all the former prosperous Kwena and Hurutshe towns, now long since gone to ruin, scattered along the course of the river then known as the Mavubu (place of hippopotami), now the Magalies.

Even the ridge summit of the Magaliesberg sheltered elephants. Smith and his party often followed their paths to the highest points in order to spy out the land; and nearly every pathway used by man had a cairn of pebbles (sivivane) at its summit, where African travellers had superstitiously left a stone for luck. After exploring the range as far as Commando Nek, Smith returned to Mosega and from there first explored the Marico to its junction with the Limpopo, and then the course of the latter river as far as the Tropic of Capricorn.

It must have been fascinating for those explorers to roam about the old Transvaal with all its surprising scenic novelties. Every turn yielded some marvel for the geologist, the botanist, or the zoologist. The explorers were treated with marked friendliness by the maTebele, and, indeed, when Smith led his party homewards in October, Mzilikazi sent his Ambassador-at-Large, Mncumbati, down to Cape Town with him in order to negotiate a treaty of amity with the British.

Perhaps the reason for this diplomatic activity lay in the strange wave of uneasiness which swept over the African world just prior to the Great Trek. ln some way, the restlessness of the Cape farmers and their desire to remove from British control and find liberty in the wilderness seemed to cause a disturbance and sense of impending trouble in the whole of Southern Africa, as though a cold wind had sent a shiver through someone sleeping in the summer sun.

For the present, however, this uneasiness had no substance in any event. Everything seemed to be normal; and Mzilikazi’s men were steadily accumulating vast herds of cattle from their raids and grazing them in security along the banks of the Marico, among its green willows and reeds.

During his last visit, Moffat had told Mzilikazi that a party of American missionaries would shortly be arriving, and he had recommended that Mzilikazi allow them to reopen the old Mosega station. To this suggestion the despot was quite agreeable; and on the 9th February 1836, when Daniel Lindley and Henry Venable arrived to see him, they were hospitably received.

The well-watered, fifteen-miles-wide basin of Mosega was considered one of the choicest spots in the whole Transvaal. Since the occupation of the area by Mzilikazi the basin, with its luxuriant grass and innumerable springs, had been developed as a military stronghold of over fifteen separate villages, all under the personal control of Mkhaliphi (the masterful one), Commander-in-Chief of Mzilikazi’s army.

The two missionaries rebuilt the old French mission house and then returned to Kuruman to fetch their families. On their return to Mosega they brought a third missionary, Alexander Wilson; their three wives; two children, and also Mncumbati, who had returned from the Cape with a sort of treaty of friendship signed by Sir Benjamin D’Urban. Everybody settled down very contentedly. It was a good season: the great white thunderclouds swept over the Transvaal with fine rains, the veld was green, the cattle fat and Mzilikazi’s people carefree. No none knew that it was the quiet before the storm. The wealth of the barbaric tents of Kedar might be founded on the blood and misery of others, but those living in them were conscious of nought save well-being and contentment.

Sourced from: Lost trails of the Transvaal by Thomas Victor Bulpin – 1965 Edition.

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The following post on the TIA MYSOA BLOG also contains excerpts from the same book by Thomas Bulpin: