A History of Diverse Cultures
The area in and around Bulawayo is known to have been occupied by various cultures over the centuries - Stone Age people, the San (or Bushmen), Bantu tribes, a few Portuguese and later the British.
Bulawayo is traditionally the home of the Ndebele people who were called maTebele by the Sotho tribes of South Africa. The name maTebele meant ‘refugees’ or ‘runaways’. This was because these people were being led northwards by a man named Mzilikazi who was running away from Zululand in South Africa in search of a new home in the African interior. After a long period of wandering, Mzilikazi and his people settled on a watershed of high ground in the south-western part of what is now Zimbabwe. The year was 1837. Here they accumulated great herds of cattle and engaged in frequent raids and conflicts with their eastern neighbours, the maShona.
Mzilikazi built his capital, Hlahlandlela, (which meant ‘where the pathway is cut’), not far from the site of modern Bulawayo. On his death in 1868 his son Lobengula succeeded his father as leader of the Ndebele. In 1872 Lobengula built a new capital for himself which he named kwaBulawayo (‘place of the man who was killed’). This was because he considered himself as having been ‘killed’ or persecuted by those in the tribe who opposed his succession to power.
By the middle of the 19th century European hunters were making their way into the region, in 1859 the first missionaries arrived, and in 1893 the British South Africa Company defeated King Lobengula in a short military campaign . The original Bulawayo of African huts was destroyed by the Ndebele in 1893 when they were conquered and the new town was officially founded in 1894 very close to Lobengula’s original capital.
Although there were many setbacks the future of Bulawayo was secured. The first of these setbacks was the Ndebele uprising of 1896. Although Bulawayo itself was not attacked the ensuing conflict was brutal and ended in the European settlers, with reinforcements from South Africa, subjugating the Ndebele.
The most intense fighting took place in the granite wilderness of the Matobo Hills outside Bulawayo where the Ndebele took refuge. It was there that Cecil Rhodes finally held his four indabas (conferences) with the leaders of the Ndebele where peace was secured between the rivals.
Bulawayo is also known as ‘The City of Kings’. Lobengula was the last Matabele king and, today, State House to the north of the present city occupies the original site of Lobengula’s country residence.
The Growth of the Modern City
Starting in 1894, the new Bulawayo was laid out in a grid pattern by Rhodes’ Administrator, Dr Leander Starr Jameson. Bulawayo grew rapidly and soon became a boom town of prospectors and land speculators rushing to explore the riches of what they called Matabeleland. Gold was discovered in the area and rich pastoral and agricultural activities flourished.
Modern Bulawayo was built on the aspirations of the British South Africa Company and the personal ambition of Cecil Rhodes to extend British influence and trade dominance from the Cape to the Mediterranean shores of North Africa by way of the Cape-to-Cairo railway and telegraph. This did not materialise, but Bulawayo has always commanded a strategic position at the southern end of the elevated Zimbabwe plateau.
Matabeleland has had a long history of turbulence and, as a result, its capital, Bulawayo, has many historical associations and places of interest.