KoBulawayo, or Old Bulawayo (1870 – 1881) and the Indaba Tree

KoBulawayo, or Old Bulawayo (1870 – 1881) and the Indaba Tree

How to get here: 

From Bulawayo centre take Hillside road which becomes Burnside road which becomes Douglasdale road, 4.5km turn into Criterion road, a gravelled road, 11km National Monuments Site Museum with KoBulawayo on the east and the Indaba Tree on the west sides of the road.

The story of the Ndebele from when they are forced out from present-day South Africa by a coalition of Afrikaners, Griquas (a member of a people of mixed European and Khoikhoi origin) and Zulu to the establishment of modern-day Bulawayo can appear confusing.

During Mzilikazi’s reign as King there are four different capitals (Gibixhegu, Mahlokohloko, Inyathi and Mhlahlandhlela). He was succeeded by Lobengula who established a new Gibixhegu and then renames it KoBulawayo (this is where the Site Museum is situated) and finally Umhlabathini, or the second koBulawayo, the site of modern day State House. This was in keeping with tribal custom; the royal towns of Matabele kings were never intended to be permanent and whenever a King died, the capital moved and the old royal town was burned.

The AmaNdebele capital was about a mile in circumference, and was surrounded with a high and well-built palisade of wood. Inside this palisade were situated the huts of the inhabitants, and near these was another strongly-built barricade similar to the outer one, but not so high, where the cattle were kept at night. A large inside space was reserved for a parade-ground, where great public ceremonies took place when the tribe was present in large numbers. Here was the royal hut, and another small kraal where the sacred goats were kept, and into which it was death for anyone to enter but the King without special permission. There were also here separate huts for each of Lobengula’s wives.  At the entrance to the kraal were two large heaps of horns and other refuse, the remains of bullocks which had been killed at different times and which in the hot weather sent up an odour that was long remembered by European visitors. Here would wait the soldiers, messengers, and others waiting to see the King.

In 1998 a number of structures such as a wagon shed, the outer palisade, King Lobengula’s palace, eight beehive huts and cattle kraal surrounded by a palisade as well as a nearby interpretive centre were constructed. They were led by a team of experts from Zululand who visited the Zimbabwe to teach locals how to build beehive huts, characteristic of King Lobengula’s era.

Unfortunately, in August 2010, a serious bush fire swept through the site, destroying everything on the site except for the Interpretive Centre which survived unscathed. Even a hut built by the Khumalo’s to perform traditional rituals was not spared by the fire, as well as a stone laid by President Mugabe in 1993 to commission the reconstruction of the site. The Environmental Management Agency (EMA) fined National Museums and Monuments of Zimbabwe (NMMZ) US$500 fine for failing to put fireguards in place which resulted in the reconstructed Old Bulawayo being burnt to ashes.

The original site established by King Lobengula was deliberately burnt down in 1881. One of the king’s indunas, Magwegwe, led the process of burning down the capital after which Lobengula and his people moved northwards to the site of the present-day State House in Sauerstown, Bulawayo. 

The indaba tree where Lobengula held court at koBulawayo between 1870 and 1880 was a Pappea Capensis,called uzagogwane in Ndebele.  It was killed in the 1960’s by a strangler fig (Ficus burkei) which stands in its place today.  


A Brief History

The first settlement which served as King Lobengula’s capital was KoBulawayo (now being referred to as Old Bulawayo) located near a long snaking hill called eNyokeni. It was not far from Hope Fountain. The establishment of a new capital was in line with Ndebele traditions. A new king did not occupy the same settlement where his father lived. It was believed the protective charms used to fortify the settlement would weigh heavily on the new monarch, with disastrous consequences on his person.

The initial stages in the establishment of a new site were fortification of both the new king and his capital town. Accordingly, King Lobengula underwent a period of seclusion during which he was being fortified and counselled in the intricacies and etiquette of ruling and leading his father’s people. That initial stage saw the king living with a limited number of people. Only when the counselling, fortification and construction of the new settlement were done with did other people join the royal household within the Royal Enclosure and the Peripheral Enclosure.

The royal settlement had to be protected, both physically and metaphysically. The Royal Enclosure had a double-walled stockade made from mopane logs fetched a long distance from the site. The Peripheral Enclosure extended right around the Royal Enclosure where the King and his household lived. Within the Royal Enclosure there were royal queens, sons and daughters of the king. There was also the senior induna, Magwegwe Fuyana and some helpers within the Royal Palace, notably Sihuluhulu Mabhena and Sivalo Mahlangu, the son of Mveleleni. There were other personal attendants of the king such as the doctors, praise singers and several others.

The Peripheral Enclosure completely surrounded the Royal Enclosure. The entire area was within two stockades. This was the first frontline in the physical protection of the king.

Further out there was a circle of villages that constituted isiphika, the hood. In dress terms the hood is worn over the shoulders or around the neck. More importantly, it surrounds the head, here symbolising the capital town. There were a number of such villages that almost fringed upon the capital town: eNyathini, iNhlambane (iNhlambabaloyi), uMhlahlandlela, iNyanda, uMzinyathi, iNtshamathe and many others.

We need to point out that at this stage whites with various interests had started visiting KoBulawayo. Some came as traders while some of the traders built homes close to the seat of power. There were several hunters who passed through in their hunting expeditions further to the north. The London Missionary Society had since established, in 1870, a new station close by at Hope Fountain. The Jesuits were to follow suit in 1879 and they established a mission even closer to the capital than Hope Fountain.

The presence of whites at KoBulawayo and their visiting counterparts led to the changing building architectural traditions within the Royal Enclosure. A Western type palace was built for the king. Fired clay bricks were used and the structure deviated from the traditional circular design in preference to a Western rectangular one. The roof was not the traditional cone either or the hemispherical bee-hive.

The king had, by this time, acquired a number of ox wagons; inherited from his father King Mzilikazi and bought from white traders. A wagon shed was built in stone for him by Halyet. Western culture was beginning to manifest itself on several fronts: material culture including attire, furniture, utensils and cutlery.

Religious, pastoral and economic activities at KoBulawayo led to environmental degradation which prompted the king to relocate in 1881. Magwegwe Fuyana was instructed to burn the old capital. It is important to point out that this burning was spiritually inspired and is not an indicator of pressure on the king. Colonialism still lay a few years into the future. Relocation of settlements was a feature of the Ndebele way of life and was not restricted to royal towns.

The reasons were to be found in environmental degradation.
When the king and his people relocated the Jesuits remained behind for a while. They finally went to establish Empandeni Mission in the mid-1880s. The new site for the new capital was where State House stands today, not far from Northlea High School. The arrangement or layout of the town was the same. Some villages that had been part of isiphika relocated to constitute a new isiphika. As a result, for example, iNhlambabaloyi relocated from the Hope Fountain area to where Woodville is today. Queen Lozikeyi Dlodlo, okaNgogo, was the chief queen, iNdlovukazi in both towns.

The major change taking place this time was the appearance on the scene of a new breed of whites-those with a colonising motive. There was heightened interest in taking control of the interior for purposes of undertaking mining operations. Gold had been discovered at Tati (Dadi) in 1867, diamonds at Kimberley in 1867 and more gold in the Witwatersrand in 1884. European powers were tumbling over each other in their quest to partition Africa.

Many of them sent emissaries to King Lobengula with the intention of bagging a treaty that would empower them to mine the minerals. Ultimately they sought outright colonisation. The first step was to occupy Mashonaland in 1890. Once they had bagged Mashonaland without any modicum of resistance, they looked towards Matabeleland with a view to overrunning it too and consolidating it into their new emerging state of Rhodesia.

Volunteers were recruited to achieve that goal-with a promise of land and gold claims. Cecil Rhodes’ friend and ally Dr Leander Starr Jameson worked out a good pretext to attack Matabeleland. That he did in 1893. Following encounters at Shangani River/Bhonko (October 25) and Gadade/Mbembesi (November 2) the Ndebele forces were defeated, prompting the King to flee north but not before he ordered the town burnt by Sivalo Mahlangu.

When the occupation forces arrived in what had been KoBulawayo they were met with smouldering remains; the ammunition magazines and all having gone up in flames.

That marked, on the 4th of November 1893, the end of King Lobengula’s second KoBulawayo at eMahlabathini or eSagogwaneni. The latter refers to the Indaba Tree at KoBulawayo. It was a sad end which marked the start of a third Buluwayo, since changed its name to Bulawayo.


Below is a time line of the sequence of events, particularly in relation to the sites of the King’s kraal over the years:


The Ndebele are defeated at battles of Mosega and Dwarsberg by the Griquas and the Zulu under General Ndlela. The Ndebele nation leaves present-day South Africa divides into two groups: one led by Induna Gundwane Ndiweni made up of women and children move into Zimbabwe in 1838 and the other, led by Mzilikazi with the fighting men go northwest into Botswana and then North to the Zambezi.


Gundwana Ndiweni sets up the first of the four capitals around modern-day Bulawayo. The first capital Gibixhegu is at Esigodini, near present-day Falcon College. Believing Mzilikazi is dead, they appoint Nkulumane as King.


Mzilikazi returns and purges the leaders at Ntaba YeZinduna, including the killing of Faluta, Lobengula's mother and destroys the kraal at Gibixhegu, but Lobengula survives.   The Rozwi empire is now shattered and Mzilikazi marries Nyamazana which unites the Swazis with the Ndebele. A second capital is established at Mahlokohloko, north of modern Bulawayo and later, a third capital is established at Inyathi.


Mzilikazi establishes a fourth capital at Mhlahlandleia, on the edge of the Matobo Hills, possibly because he wishes to distance himself from the mission Station at Inyathi.


Mzilikazi dies and there being no heir apparent, a Regent Mncumbatha Khumalo is appointed. Some Ndebele, including the Zwangendaba Regiment under Mbiko Masuku hope Nkulumane is still alive in South Africa and oppose Lobengula. A bloody fight ensues, from which Lobengula's forces emerge victorious.


Lobengula is installed as the new ruler and moves his capital to a new site, Gibixhegu, meaning "get rid of the old man" and then renames it koBulawayo. This name comes from "bulawa" to kill or persecute referring to Lobengula’s ordeals during his succession. In the same year, the London Missionary Society establishes Hope Fountain Mission near koBulawayo.


The Jesuits establish a mission station near koBulawayo.


Wary of the missionaries, Lobengula burns down the old capital and relocates to a new capital, sometimes called Umhlabathini (a reference to the type of soil) or just koBulawayo. Physically this is sited where State House at modern Bulawayo now stands.



Credits: Zimfieldguide

Back to blog

Leave a comment