Harriette E. Colenso March 1897

Famine-Making in Matabeleland


Source: Social Democrat, March, 1897, pp. 67-70;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.


Some remarks appearing in Justice on a lecture of mine have led the African Critic to ask the following question: – “What authority or evidence has Miss Colenso for stating that the British are preparing the way for famine in South Africa as in India?” The question requires an answer, and as I imagine that the public of THE SOCIAL-DEMOCRAT and that of the Critic are different, I venture to send the answer to both, as follows: –

Permit me first to correct two points on which the question does not represent my views – viz.: –

1st. I have not made any statement as to the causes of famine in India, because I consider my knowledge on that subject insufficient to justify my doing so.

2nd. For “famine in South Africa” please to read, “famine among the Matabele.”

It is perfectly true that South Africa generally is in a state of dearth – in some parts, of actual famine; but that is through a threefold visitation of drought, locusts, and cattle plague. On the coast, and where there is a railway, it is possible to supply imported food; and on several occasions lately I have gladly borne witness that in Natal, and in British Zululand, efforts, apparently successful, were being made to cope with this distress; and that in the Transvaal President Kruger has been sending up what grain he could by mule-train to the northern districts, where, as he is reported to have stated, after a tour of inspection, “the distress and starvation amongst the natives is indescribable. Many thousands are living on roots and berries.” (Daily Telegraph, Correspondent, October 30, 1896).

I now append some examples of the “authority or evidence” which exists for the statement for which I accept responsibility – viz., that the British have prepared the way for famine among the Matabele.

Mr. Selous, dating “Buluwayo, August 26, 1896,” thus describes the condition of the natives “to the west, north-west, north, north-east, and east”: –

“From all the information one can gather, the vast majority of these people are already suffering from want of food, as their cattle are all, or nearly, dead from rinderpest, and a large proportion of their year’s supply of grain has been taken possession of or destroyed by the white men “ (“Sunshine and Storm in Rhodesia,” p.251).

The Times of July 20, 1896, has the following: –

“Native Commissioner Thomas returned yesterday (July 17) from Inyama Endhlovu, thirty miles north-west of Buluwayo, having been on a grain-collecting expedition....His escort ... consisted of ninety of Colenbrander’s ‘boys’, but they had with them only five horses and four waggons. Mr. Thomas collected about 1,300 bags of grain.... He sent 280 bags of grain into Buluwayo in the waggons, but, in obedience to. strict orders destroyed the remainder, the value of which, at current prices, would have been 12,500 ... Owing to the destruction of the grain, famine is imminent, and if the rebels come in it will be utterly impossible to feed them for one day.” – Reuter’s Special Service, Buluwayo, July 18.

A glimpse of what has followed may be gained from the “interview with Mr. Colenbrander,” published in the Globe of November 23, 1896. Mr. Colenbrander appears to hold a high official position: – “Now that Mr. Rhodes has taken his departure, I remain in sole charge of the Matoppos.... I have appointed my brother and two brothers-in-law .... acting Native Commissioners.” And this is his account, according to the interviewer, dating Buluwayo, October 19: – “Many will have a hard struggle for life to survive the rainy season ... This morning, near the Brewery here, you could have witnessed a horrid spectacle. There were about 200 women and children digging up the dead cattle which the Municipality had buried near there, for food; they were going to boil down the rinderpest hides and bones. Many will die from eating such stuff. Very few have any idea how great the starvation is in the wintry already, and it will be worse for a good number next year – those who are now wandering about and not cultivating their gardens. Many are living on dried roots now, and in the rains will have to exist on a sort of spinach.”

This “horrid spectacle” took place at Buluwayo itself, the seat of government and of the food supply. And Mr. Colenbrander, who is also “general manager to the company which bears his name in Rhodesia,” was found at “Colenbrander and Company’s office ... paying off most of my boys; I have plenty of work to do, but I cannot afford to keep them on with meal at 13 a bag, so I am obliged to dismiss them.” To what fate were they dismissed? It may, however, be urged that, granting the country to be now famine-stricken, the destruction of grain was unavoidable, one of the “ordinary operations of warfare” for which the natives share the responsibility and also that here, too, efforts to cope with the distress are now being made successfully. I will deal first with the second point.

Three days before the date of the “horrid spectacle,” Earl Grey reports as follows, in his letter of October 16, published in The Times, November 28" 1896: – “Now ... [in Matabeleland] the only enemy we have to fight is hunger... The reports that are coming in to Buluwayo show that the destitution among the natives is already very great and likely to become very severe before the end of the year. I am advised that after January 1 the natives will be able to pick up a living by feeding on the early fruits [spinach?] which grow after the first rains.” [It will be worse for a good number next year, says Mr. Colenbrander, as reported]. Earl Grey then describes the state of the official food supply, and concludes on this point, “we have enough food [’on the road’] to feed nearly 40,000 natives for three months ... at 1 lb. a day.” In the company’s report for 1894-5, p.77, the “native population of Matabeleland is estimated at 160,000.” “In a fortnight’s time,” or “about three weeks,” Earl Grey “expected to receive the advance portion of this food.” But how many people must die while it crept slowly over “the immense tract of barren wilderness which,” says Mr. Selous, “yet lies between. Matabeleland and the nearest railway station"? And the calculation includes the “million pounds of mealies” sanctioned by Mr. Rhodes, which, after all, is only a sixth part of what Mr. Chamberlain thought it necessary to order between June and December to relieve the distress caused by rinderpest and locusts without war in the neighbouring territory of Bechuanaland. (See reply to question, daily papers, June 9.) To have been of any use, the provisioning of the country should have been begun a twelvemonth before.

The Times of July 17, 1896, in a leading article describing the outbreak of the cattle-plague early in March, observes that “the blow fell on the natives at a critical time. A bad harvest in the protectorate last year [1895] had been followed by a total failtire this year, and, even before the rinderpest broke out, some of the chiefs had been asking for relief. In Matabeleland and Mashonaland the state of things was, apparently, much the same.”

Under these circumstances, before the rinderpest, and before the rebellion the British authorities in Matabeleland were taking steps which diminished the food supply of the natives. The Times, on June 5, 1896, reports a question asked in the House about “the cattle, said to have been taken by the company from the Matabele near the close of last year”; with the reply of the Secretary for the Colonies, viz: – “I have no official information of any cattle having been taken from the Matabele near the close of last year, but I have a report that in the early part of the [? this] year, they were pleased at having had some Matabele cattle given back to them.” This answer implied no contradiction. It was merely confined to one part – while the question dealt with the other part – of the same transaction. This appears on reference to the subsequently published Blue Book (C.7,290, p.16), where a statement from Earl Grey, dated June 23, 1896, shows that the transaction in question began when the company first took possession of Matabeleland, and claimed that “the king’s cattle [’nearly all the cattle in the country’] by right of conquest had now become the property of the British South Africa Company,” though “the natives ... were allowed to continue in charge” of the cattle. Mr. Selous also states that “after the first confiscation [’immediately after the war’] the remaining cattle in the country – about 90,000 – were branded with the company’s brand, and left with the natives to look [? be looked] after.” – (“Sunshine and Storm,” p.7)

According to the High Commissioner, these “king’s cattle” (or company’s cattle) were at first “variously estimated from 200,000 upwards” (C.7,290, p.36). The “first confiscation would presumably include the half claimed as loot by those who had taken part in the war.” This would bring the remainder to about 10,000 head over Mr. Selous’s estimate. But, on the page quoted above, Mr. Selous mentions also “the periodical taking away of the cattle in small numbers by the Chartered Company subsequent to the first confiscation.”

In the company’s report for 1894-5, page 77, the number of cattle still “held by the natives in trust for the company” is “estimated at 79,500.” Finally, Earl Grey’s already-quoted statement of June 23, 1896, continues: – “Last October [1895] it was decided that a sufficient proportion of the cattle should be distributed among the Matabele people, handed over to them as their own property ... By this distribution 40,930 cattle were given over to the natives ... the balance of 32,000 cattle remained the property of the British South Africa Company. ... The distribution was almost accomplished by the time the rinderpest broke out” (C.8,130, page 16).

The total number of cattle in this statement is 72,930 – i.e., less by 6,570 than even the 79,500 reported by the company a few mouths before. And what is officially claimed to have been a distribution of cattle to the natives appeared, it seems, in a different light to some observers on the spot. The Times of April 2, 1896, reports the Rev. Mr. Helm as saying that “it was arranged at the end of last year that the company should take 45 per cent. of all the cattle remaining in the country.”

Mr. Selous tells us that the “Government determined to take two-fifths,” (“Sunshine and Storm,” p.8).

Now, apart from any question as to the ownership of the remaining cattle, i.e., even if, after the “distribution,” the Matabele were still allowed to “continue in charge” of the “32,000 remaining the property of the company,” the extracts which I have given show (and the “authorities” whom I have quoted on this point are Lord Loch, Mr, Selous, the British South Africa Company’s report, and Earl Grey) that in the two years, 1894-5, British action, by reducing the cattle from “200,000 upwards” to “72,930,” i,,e., by nearly two-thirds, had equally reduced the natives’ food supply, not only of meat, but of milk, which they had hitherto obtained freely, from tribal, i.e., “king’s” cattle, as well as from those which they owned as individuals. And curdled milk is one of the principal foods of the native women and children.

To have thus “periodically” reduced the food supply at “a critical time” for the natives through bad harvests caused by drought in some parts and by locusts in others; before the “rebellion” and before the rinderpest; with full knowledge of the difficulty with the means of transport then existing of bringing food from the terminus on the other side of the “immense tract of barren wilderness” – to have done this alone, without counting the two “wars,” and the consequent destruction of grain, appears to me to justify the accusation that “the British have prepared famine among the Matabele.”