25 October – 1 November 1893

In 1884, Hiram Stevens Maxim, an American inventor who made his home in London, developed the first recoil-operated machine gun. Unlike existing machine-guns, which had to be cranked by hand, the water-cooled Maxim gun used the energy from the recoil to eject a bullet and insert the next. This prevented overheating of the barrel and allowed rates of fire of up to 600 rounds per minute. Orders were placed by the British army in 1888, and a prototype was ready a year later. The first true test of the new gun came in the First Matabele War in present-day Zimbabwe, when a British expeditionary force was sent to impose conditions on the powerful king of the Matabele (Ndebele), Lobengula Khumalo. The five Maxim guns carried by the British column were all that was necessary to destroy a Matabele army more than ten times larger.

This photograph of an early model of the Maxim Automatic Machine Gun was published in 1900. With its water-cooling system, the gun could fire up to 600 rounds a minute, transforming the nature of modern battle.

There is still much argument about who started the First Matabele War. British settlers and traders had been moving inexorably out from their base in the South African Cape colony in pursuit of farmland, minerals and gold. By the early 1890s, they had established an unstable frontier with the Matabele kingdom, but the urge to exploit its economic potential made further encroachment hard to resist. The pioneer colonists Cecil Rhodes and Dr Leander Starr Jameson brokered an agreement with the Matabele king to allow some mineral exploration in his lands, but Lobengula rightly concluded that the long-term intention was to colonize his kingdom. Rhodes’s British South Africa Company occupied Mashonaland to the south of the Matabele, enforcing control with a company police force and paid paramilitary troops. The Mashona were traditionally a source of women and cattle for Matabele raiding parties and it was an argument over just such a raid in July 1893 that finally provoked conflict. A Matabele impi (a Zulu term for an armed body of men), intending to punish a Mashona chief, entered the colonists’ base at Fort Victoria, killed Mashona servants and ransacked a number of European houses. British insistence that Lobengula suspend raiding into the Company’s area of Mashonaland was more than the king’s honour would permit. More impis were raised and deployed on the roads leading from the king’s capital at Bulawayo.

Jameson and Rhodes, without explicit approval from the British authorities in Cape Town, bought horses and recruited troopers for a Company expeditionary force into Matabeleland. The volunteers were promised a 2,400-hectare (6,000-acre) farm, 20 gold claims and half the expected booty. In early October, two columns left Fort Victoria and Charter and crossed the River Umniati into Matabeleland; they met up at Iron Mine Hill on 14 October, a force of 700 white troopers, 155 auxiliaries from the Cape and 400 Mashona porters and labourers. Between them they had five Maxim guns, a number of other machine guns and two 7-pound (3.1-kilogram) artillery pieces. On 12 October, Lobengula called a council of his chiefs (izinduna) and ordered the impis to prepare to meet the invading force. He sent a letter to the British High Commissioner in Cape Town claiming that his people were blameless: ‘your people must want something from me – when you have made up your mind to do a thing it is not right to blame it on my people.’

The letter was not delivered until 22 October, by which time conflict had become unavoidable. The Company columns had to pass through the Somabula forest that day and a force of Matabele waited in ambush for them, only to find that the enemy column had passed well to the left of where they were waiting. On 24 October, the Company force crossed the River Shangani onto a grassy plateau where they set up their fortified camp. At 3.55 a.m. on the following day, an estimated 5–6,000 Matabele warriors led by the izinduna Mjan attacked the camp. They followed a simple tacticof a crescent-shaped frontal assault, some with rifles, most with the short assegai stabbing spear. The Maxim guns barked out a hail of fire that stopped the warriors in their tracks. The elite Insukamini regiment charged repeatedly and bravely at the guns and was decimated. Its wounded commander, Manonda, hanged himself on a tree. The battle was over by 8.30 a.m. ‘I doubt if any European troops,’ wrote one observer, ‘could have withstood for such a long time as they did the terrific and well-directed fire brought to bear on them.’ And indeed, the Maxim machine gun was to go on to reap an even grimmer harvest of European soldiers only twenty years later.

As the Company column moved towards Bulawayo, on 1 November, a force of 7–8,000 Matabele, including two royal regiments, the Imbezu and Ingubu, attacked the camp set up at Imbembesi. The battle began at mid-day and was over two hours later, with the same result. In the first battle at Shangani only one trooper was killed; in the Imbembesi battle four were killed and seven wounded. The numbers of dead Matabele were evidently very large but have not been recorded. The survivors later admitted that they had not been worried by rifle fire, but could not withstand machine-gun fire that mowed them down like hay. On 4 November, the victorious column entered Bulawayo to find it a smoking ruin. Lobengula had left and a small force was sent off to bring him back. The Shangani patrol, as it has become known, failed to find him, and on 4 December, a small detachment was ambushed and slaughtered by Matabele warriors still willing to resist the loss of their kingdom. Lobengula died the following January, possibly of smallpox, and one after the other local izinduna submitted to South Africa Company representatives. Five Maxim guns had been enough to destroy a powerful African kingdom that tried to block the imperialists’ lust for riches.