Matobo National Park and Cecil John Rhodes

About 22 miles south of Bulawayo is Matobo National Park, and that is where Blessing and Shepherd and I headed the next day.

The park was founded in 1926 as a bequest of Cecil John Rhodes, and it’s name was originally the Rhodes Matopo National Park. (The spelling seems to be flexible.) It was a much larger park at its founding, but areas of settlement were negotiated by the indigenous people, making the park smaller. It is still a very large area, now called simply “Matobo National Park,” and it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2003.

The area was occupied by San bushmen about two thousand years ago, and they left many, many rock paintings in the area – there are over three thousand registered rock art sites. These were created mainly between 320 and 500 C.E., but archaeological evidence of human occupation goes back thousands of years, even to the Stone Age.

The hills were formed over two billion years ago when granite was forced to the surface during the turbulent movement of the Earth’s crust. Over the eons, the granite was eroded into smooth “whaleback dwalas,” large, rounded surfaces where boulders were stranded in unusual formations and occasional areas of vegetation became established. Mzilikazi, founder of the Ndebele nation, gave the area the name “Matobo,” which means “bald heads.”

Cecil John Rhodes fell in love with the area, which he called “the World View.” He was not the first: the area was revered by the local people, especially the Ndebele and Shona people, who called it “Malindidzimu,” or “Hill of Benevolent Spirits.”

We climbed up to the place where Rhodes is buried, and it is easy to see why the area was believed to have such a spiritual quality. The views are beautiful, and the area looks so peaceful, it inspires meditative contemplation. If I had been alone, I probably would have spent more time there, just looking out over the surrounding terrain.

Rhodes was buried there by his request, along with two of his closest friends – Leander Starr Jameson and Charles Patrick John Coughlin. Coughlin is buried a little distance from Rhodes and Jameson because, as a Catholic, in order to be buried there, his grave had to lie in ground consecrated by the Catholic Church.

At the order of Cecil John Rhodes, Allan Wilson and the members of his thirty-four soldier unit, the Shangani Patrol, were also buried here, and a memorial created. They were killed in 1893 during the “First Matabele War,” one of a series of conflicts between the British South Africa Company (BSAC) and the Ndebele nation, led by King Lobengula. Rhodes had aggressively pursued an exclusive treaty with the Ndebele, and obtained it in 1888 under the Rudd Concession. As too often happened in the transactions between Europeans who wished to exploit Africa and the native peoples, the document that Lobengula signed had provisions that were not made clear, and Rhodes used the agreement to justify the colonization of the Ndebele and the Shona. As the Ndebele discovered the deception, violence erupted. The superior firepower of the BSAC won the day eventually, but in 1893, the Shangani Patrol led by Wilson was ambushed and all were killed by the Ndebele warriors. The incident was immortalized by the British, and the monument erected to preserve the memory.

Even as a mere observer, I could understand why this burial site is the subject of some controversy in Zimbabwe and its neighboring countries, where the descendants of the Ndebele and Shona live. First, Rhodes and his friends are buried there at all, and secondly, creating their burial sites meant tearing into the solid rock, permanently scarring the Hill of Benevolent Spirits. So far, they continue to rest there, despite those who resent their presence.

It was another example of the mixed image of Cecil John Rhodes.

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