The British Empire, and the battle over the head of Mbuya Nehanda the Witch
By Femi Olugbile
Zimbabwe and its struggles for liberation from European domination and oppression have long occupied a place of prominence in the consciousness of pan-Africanists, eager to see that all of Africa is free to take its destiny in its hands.
For those who are conversant with history, Zimbabwe also once occupied a place of prominence in the minds of those people whose dream was the exact opposite of that – to see white men – soldiers and civilians of the British Empire, spilling out and spreading out all over the land north and south to carry forward ‘the white man’s burden’ of civilising the dark continent and dispossessing the natives of their land and mineral wealth. The name on the fighting banner of colonialism could be the Royal Niger Company as in Nigeria, or the British South African Company (BSAC) as in the case of Cecil Rhodes, but the mission was the same.
One of the most poignant experiences of this author to date was standing on an undulating rock on the Matopos Hills, in Matabeleland, Zimbabwe. The spot where you stood had been ‘Christianed’ by Cecil John Rhodes as ‘A View Of The World’. It was a site redolent with history, and with blood. So important was the site to him that Cecil Rhodes gave instructions that he should be buried there. The swashbuckling English adventurer had stood on this rock, and looked into the distant mist, seeing what your eyes too could see as you stood alone on the spot. The rolling plains and green vegetation of Africa lay in front of you, as far as the eye could see.
‘Your hinterland is there’ Cecil Rhodes had proclaimed, on the Matopos Hills, pointing into the distance. He was addressing his countrymen, the frontiersmen of the British Empire, urging them to move all over Africa and seize the land and minerals for their own, killing Africans where necessary, as he had done in a famous career that would lead to the new country being named Rhodesia, after him, and a statue of him being erected at Oxford University, a reward from a grateful British Empire.
‘Rhodesia’ would later throw off its alien name angrily after a bitter scorched earth liberation war, which was named ‘The Second Chimurenga’. The country would proudly claim back the name of its old civilization – located in the ruins of the stone city of Dzimbabwe.
The Zimbabwe that liberated itself and gained independence through the Second Chimurenga has been somewhat of a disappointment to date for many of those Africanists who rooted so fervently for it, seeing as the gateway to the liberation of Southern Africa, and the re-development of an African Civilization. But that is another story.
The story of this piece is about Cecil Rhodes and a cohort of others who fervently advanced the cause of the British Empire on the continent of Africa. It is about ‘The First Chimurenga’, and how the Empire conducted itself. It is about how the sordid realities of Empire turn out to be at odds with the celebrated values of the British Empire, and how the past has come back to haunt the present and embarrass its inheritors.
On display in the Natural History Museum in England are ten human heads, some of which were taken as trophies by Cecil Rhodes and others. Among them is the head of Mbuya Nehanda, a major inspirational leader of ‘The First Chimurenga’ in Zimbabwe. For several years now, there have been protests in Zimbabwe, and in England, that the head of Nehanda should be returned to her homeland for a proper burial.
It has been a culture shock for many young British persons whose view of their Empire was of a Christian nation led until recently by a sweet universally popular matriarch. That the Empire was also in the business of cutting off the heads of victims of colonial expropriation and carrying them to the homeland to be displayed as trophies is regarded as activity that would normally be attributed to savages, not to an Empire that was purportedly impelled by a mission to civilise the world.
For the heirs of the Empire, the discombobulation is on an even larger scale than that occasioned by the discovery that Lieutenant-General Baden-Powell who created the universally popular Boy Scouts movement was also a vicious racist aggressor who proudly took photographs with the bodies of local men, hanged for insubordination, swinging by their necks from trees in Matabeleland.
What is known of The First Chimurenga is that around 1896 a growing rebellion against Europeans who had taken the best lands and put the people to labour in Mashonaland, worsened by a threat of famine caused by locusts, led the leaders of a nascent Shona rebellion to enter an alliance with the other major group in the land, the Matabele, to fight against the white man. Among the most prominent of the leaders on the Matabele side was a ‘witch’ or ‘spirit medium’ known as Mbuya Nehanda. After some brutal fighting between the settlers and the rebels, Nehanda was killed. The locals lost their fighting spirit, literally and metaphorically. Cecil Rhodes and his forces overpowered the last of the resistance on the Matopos Hills. The rebellious impis laid down their arms.
What is not written in the history books of ‘benign’ colonialism is what followed after. The heads of Nehanda and several other leaders of the rebellion were were hacked off from their bodies. They werea transported to London as trophies of a glorious imperial conquest.
Those heads are now the subject of an embarrassing diplomatic rumpus and public relations fiasco for the British government and its people.
The latest news is that the government has finally decided that the head of Mbuya Nehanda, after more than a century on display in the conqueror’s museum, is to be released and returned to its rightful home – Zimbabwe, for burial.
History has come full circle. The British Empire will not emerge from this saga smelling of roses.