The First Chimurenga war broke out in the Zimbabwean plateau from 1896 to 1897. It was fought between the white colonisers under the British South Africa Company (BSAC) and the indigenous Shona and Ndebele communities. The war was as a result of the locals' resistance to colonisation at the hands of the British.

Prelude to the Chimurenga

Prior to the coming of the First Chimurenga in Mashonaland and Matabeleland, Europeans had made contact with the locals through missionaries and trade. The likes of David Livingstone, Charles Helm, Fredrick Courtney Selous had already established contacts with the locals. Such a situation paved way for Cecil Rhodes and his British South African Company (BSAC) to enter into the country and sign treaties with the local leaders. Treaties were signed between the Company and King Lobengula who was king of the Ndebele Kingdom`` which was arguably the most sophisticated and highly organised polity in the pre-colonial period. The Pioneer Column, which was a mercenary army hired by Rhodes had earlier on established white settlemtns in areas such as Fort Victoria (now Masvingo) and Fort Salisbury (now Harare).

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Outbreak of the War

The coming of the Pioneer Column in the early 1890s rang the bell for a military confrontation with the locals and the invaders. The resistance offered in 1896-7 was known as the Second Matabele War by the British, but the First Chimurenga by the Africans. The name Chimurenga comes from that of Sororenzou Murenga, who had led his people during First Matabele War in 1893. Hence Chimurenga is a Shona word that implies "revolutionary struggle".[1] The name also carries strong overtones of violence, relbelellion and revolt. In Ndebele language,Chimurenga can be understood as Umvukela.

War in Matabeleland

British encroachment into the Ndebele territory, also known as Matabeleland was the main reasons for the revolt. In March 1896, the Ndebele (Matabele) people revolted against the authority of the BSAC in what is now celebrated in Zimbabwe as the First War of Independence. Mlimo, the Ndebele spiritual leader, is credited for fomenting much of the anger that led to this confrontation. He convinced the Ndebele and the Shona that the white settlers whose population has grown to about 4,000 were responsible for the drought, locust plagues and the cattle disease rinderpest ravaging the country at the time.[1]

Religious Influence

Mlimo planned to wait until the night of March 29 in 1896, the first full moon, to take Bulawayo by surprise immediately after a ceremony called the Big Dance. He promised, through his priests, that if the Ndebele went to war against the white settlers their bullets would change to water and their cannon shells would become eggs.[1] His plan was to kill all of the settlers in Bulawayo first, but not to destroy the town itself as it would serve again as the royal kraal for the newly reincarnated King Lobengula. Mlimo decreed that the white settlers should be attacked and driven from the country through the Mangwe Pass on the Western edge of the Matobo Hills, which was to be left open and unguarded, for this reason.

Once the settlers were purged from Bulawayo, the Ndebele and Shona warriors would head out into the countryside and continue the slaughter until all the settlers were either killed or fled. On March 20, Ndebele troops shot and stabbed a native policeman who was working for the British South Africa Company. Over the next few days, other outlying settlers and prospectors were killed. Frederick Selous, the famous big-game hunter, had heard rumours of settlers in the countryside being killed, but he thought it was a localised problem. When news of the policeman’s murder reached Selous on March 23, he knew the Ndebele had started a massive uprising.[2]

Nearly 2,000 Ndebele warriors began the rebellion in earnest on March 24. Many, although not all, of the young native police, quickly deserted and joined the rebels. Armed with Martini-Henry rifles, Winchester repeaters, and Lee-Metfords, as well old and obsolete guns, assegais, knobkerries, and battle-axes, the Ndebele headed into the countryside. As the news of the massive rebellion spread and the Shona joined in the fighting, the settlers headed towards Bulawayo. Within a week, 141 white settlers were slain in Matabeleland, an additional 103 were killed in Mashonaland, and hundreds of settler homes, ranches and mines were burnt.

The War in Mashonaland

War broke out in June 1896 at Mazowe with an attack on Alice Mine. This was followed by the medium Mbuya Nehanda Nyakasikana capturing and executing Mazowe Native Commissioner Pollard. Other religious figures who led the rebellion include Kaguvi Gumboreshumba also known as Sekuru Kaguvi, who was active in the Goromonzi area and Mukwati, a priest of the Mwari shrine who was active throughout Mashonaland. In addition to the mediums, traditional leaders played a major role in the rebellion, notably Chief Mashayamombe, who led the resistance, in his chieftaincy in Mhondoro, south of Harare. He was amongst the first chiefs to rebel and the last to be defeated. He was supplied with many of the surrounding districts, such as Chikomba. Other chiefs who played an important role included Gwabayana, Makoni, Mapondera, Mangwende and Seke. With the war in Matabeleland ending, General Carrington of the BSAC was able to concentrate his forces on Mashonaland and the rebels retreated into granite kopjes. With no central command to oppose him, Carrington was able to bring maxim guns against each stronghold in turn until resistance ended.Mbuya Nehanda and Sekuru Kaguvi Gumboreshumba were captured and executed in 1898, but Mukwati was never captured and eventually died a natural death in Mutoko.[3]

Debates over the war

Several scholars have put forward many views to account for the 1896-97 uprisings. D. N. Beach argued that, the 1896-7 uprisings cannot be classified as the country's first Chimurenga rather it was a series of zvindunduma (ripple effect of violence from one area to another) dismissing the views propagated by Terence Ranger that the war was simultaneous.[4] He also dismissed Ranger's argument that religion played a pivotal role in how the war was organised and strategized arguing that spirit mediums convened at Mkwati to collect medicine to combat locusts which had been wrecking havoc in Mashonaland.[5] J. R. D Cobbing also shared the same sentiments piling a barrage of criticism against Ranger's conclusions.


The rebellion failed completely and did not result in any major changes in BSAC policy, for example the hut tax was implemented. The territories of Matabeleland and Mashonaland became Rhodesia and both the Ndebele and Shona became subjects of the Cecil Rhodes administration. However, the legacy of leaders such as Kaguvi, Mapondera and Nehanda was to inspire future generations.[6] The revolt planted a long lasting impact on the political ideology of the country. The name Chimurenga itself never faded from the political ideology of the country. In fact, it became the basis of the decolonisation process which began to take a radical stance in the 1950s.[7] Mbuya Nehanda's words "My Bones would Rise" became the motivation for the nationalist movements to fight against the colonisers during the Second Chimurenga. Even in the post-colonial era, the land reform programme was also dubbed the Third Chimurenga symbolising a continuing linkage with the First Chimurenga war. In Zimbabwe, Chimurenga has come to be associated with equality, wealth distribution, human rights and freedom. Nationalist parties such as the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) and the Zimbabwe African People's Union have built their ideologies from the First Chimurenga and this shows how much it has been a strong point of reference for most Zimbabweans.[3]


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 , The First Chimurenga (1896.1897), "SIEP", retrieved:03 Oct 2014"
  2. History of Zimbabwe, retrieved:03 Oct 2014"
  3. 3.0 3.1 J. Welford, The first Chimurenga in Zimbabwe, retrieved:03 Oct 2014"
  4. D. N. Beach, Revolt in Southern Rhodesia, 1896-7: A Study in African Resistance by T. O. Ranger, "The International Journal of African Historical Studies, Vol. 13, No. 1", Published:1980,Retrieved:11 February 2015"
  5. D. N. Beach, 'Chimurenga': The Shona Rising of 1896-97, "The Journal of African History, Vol. 20, No. 3", Published:1979,Retrieved:11 February 2015"
  6. T. O. Ranger,Connexions between 'Primary Resistance' Movements and Modern Mass Nationalism in East and Central Africa: II, "The Journal of African History, Vol. 9, No. 4", Published:1968,Retrieved:11 February 2015"
  7. C. Chakamwe, The First Chimurenga was no joke, "The Patriot", published:04 Oct 2013,retrieved:03 Oct 2014"