MzilikaziMzilikazi seems to have been popular with his subjects, and he ruled successfully until his death in 1868, in contrast to the fate of his contemporary Shaka. White missionaries, impatient at his refusal to let his people go to work for them, often portrayed him as a savage tyrant who ruled solely by terror, but others - like the Scottish missionary Robert Moffat, got on well with him and regarded him as intelligent and statesmanlike. Matabele tradition suggests that he was genuinely mourned as the "founder of the nation". Of course nineteenth century African ideas of government will not always appeal to modern tastes, and people were executed for witchcraft, impaled, mutilated or fed to crocodiles. And ruthless aggression against neighbouring peoples weak enough to be exploited was par for the course. Even Moffat admitted that Mzilikazi was responsible for "the desolation of many of the towns around us - the sweeping away the cattle and valuables - the butchering of the inhabitants". One of his native informants recalled "the great chief of multitudes... the chief of the blue-coloured cattle", who was so confident of his strength that he had refused to flee when the invaders approached, heralded by “the smoke of burning towns”. "The onset was as the voice of lightning, and their spears as the shaking of a forest in the autumn storm. The Matabele lions raised the shout of death, and flew upon their victims… Their hissing and hollow groans told their progress among the dead… Stooping to the ground on which we stood, he took up a little dust in his hand; blowing it off, and holding out his naked palm, he added, 'That is all that remains of the great chief of the blue-coloured cattle!'" Something of this reputation remains to this day in southern Africa, where the fearsome army ants, famous for their aggressive wars against the local termites, are still known as "Matabele ants".
AggressorsBut the Matabele were not always the aggressors. The Griquas and Koranas from the south had horses and guns, and were said to be the worst cattle thieves in southern Africa (quite an achievement!) In 1831 they descended on the Matabele settlements and drove off a huge herd. They might have been surprised to encounter no resistance, but after three days riding they decided that they had got away with it. After all, the Matabele were entirely on foot and could hardly have followed them undetected across the open veldt. So on the third night the thieves had a feast and went to sleep. During the night a Matabele “impi” - which had indeed kept up with them by marching at night - surrounded them at a place now known as Moordkop, or Murder Hill. Mzilikazi got his cows back, and only three Griquas escaped with their lives.In 1832 a Zulu "impi" or army attacked Mzilikazi's headquarters while his warriors were away on a raid. The subsequent battle was a draw, but the Matabele suffered serious losses. Knowing that the Zulus were the one people he could not intimidate, the king decided to take his people out of their reach once. First he moved them a hundred miles to the west into the Marico Valley, but in 1836 the vanguard of the Boers "Vortrekkers" began to arrive there. Like his contemporary the Zulu king Dingaan, Mzilikazi decided to strike first, but also like Dingaan he failed to finish the job. At first the Boers were taken by surprise and several of their camps were wiped out, but most of the men escaped. A Matabele "impi" of around 3,000 men attacked the now concentrated Boers at the Battle of Vegkop, but were unable to storm their wagon laager and were driven off with heavy losses. Then the Zulus and Griquas returned to the attack, and Mzilikazi realised that he could not hope to survive on the High Veldt against such a combination of enemies. He led his people north once again, this time across