Mashonaland in 1883

This short account is taken from the diary of the renowned hunter, explorer and conservationist Frederick Courteney Selous.  By 1883 Selous had for more than 10 years made numerous journeys throughout Mashonaland and Matabeleland. Here, writing in the winter month of July, Selous describes the condition of the land as he knew it before it became Rhodesia – some years before there were any plans for European settlement which eventually took place from 1890 onwards.

Frederick Courtney Selous c 1890
Frederick Courteney Selous c 1890


“The following morning I crossed the Manyami (Hunyani) with a good deal of trouble, as the ford was deep and the banks of the river very steep. I was upon the high open downs in which the Manyami and Mazoe rivers take their rise.  These open grassy downs extend over a large tract of land, and without doubt form the finest country for European occupation in South Africa.  Owing to their elevation above sea level (which is from 4500 to 6000 feet) the climate is delightful for the greater part of the year, though during the months of June and July it is rather bleak and cold.  The high plateau is intersected in every direction by running streams that never dry, and, as the fountains which supply them well out from the highest portions of the downs, a large area of country might be put under irrigation. The whole year round, a cool wind blows almost continually from the south east – a wind which in the winter months becomes so keen and cold that it seems to come direct from the frozen seas of the Antarctic Circle. This, in fact, is a country where European children would grow up with rosy cheeks, and apples would not be flavourless. Although these downs are very open, so that the luxury of a good log fire at night can always be enjoyed – a luxury which will be appreciated by South African travellers who have journeyed through the wastes of the Cape Colony, Orange Free State, and Transvaal.

There is another point about the Mashuna uplands well worth noting.  In all other portions of South Africa with which I am acquainted, whether in the Transvaal, Bechwanaland, or the Matabili country, when the long summer grass is burnt off, which usually happens about June or July, the country remains a blackened, dreary, grassless waste until the following rainy season commences. Or, say that precautions are taken, and the grass is not burnt off, well then it becomes dry as tinder, all nourishment being scorched out of it, cattle invariably get into a very low condition, and should the season be a late one, very many die of starvation. Now on the Mashuna plateau when the long summer grass is burnt off, a short sweet grass at once  springs up in the moist valleys which, after attaining to about a foot in height, seeds, and on this grass cattle and horses thrive well.

Some fifty years ago this fine country must have been thickly inhabited, as almost every valley has,  at one time or another, been under cultivation.  The sites of villages are also very numerous, though now only marked by a few deep pits from which natives obtained the clay used by them for plastering their huts and making their cooking pots, and also the presence usually of a cluster of huge acacia-trees, which grow to a far greater size on the sites of old villages that anywhere else. On the summit of every hill may be found the walls, in more or less perfect preservation, of what, I think, must have been cattle kraals.  These walls are very neatly built of squared stones, nicely fitted together, but uncemented with any kind of mortar.  The peaceful people inhabiting this part of Africa must then have been in the zenith of their prosperity.  Herds of their small but beautiful cattle lowed in every valley, and their rich and fertile country doubtless afforded them an abundance of vegetable food. About 1840, however, the Matabili Zulus, under their warlike chief Umziligazi, settled in the country which they now inhabit, and very soon bands of these ferocious and bloodthirsty savages overran the peaceful vales of the Mashuna country in every direction. The poor Mashunas, unskilled in war, and living, moreover, in small communities scattered all over the country, without any central government, fell an easy prey before the fierce invaders, and very soon every stream in their country ran red with their blood, whilst vultures and hyænas feasted undisturbed amidst the ruins of their devastated homes. Their cattle, sheep, and goats were driven off by their conquerors, and their children, when old enough to walk and not above ten or twelve years of age, were taken for slaves; the little children too young to walk were, of course, killed together with their mothers. In a very few years there were no more Mashunas left in the open country, the remnant that had escaped massacre having fled into the mountainous districts to the south and east of their former dwellings, where they still live. Thus, in a short time an immense extent of fertile country, that had, perhaps, for ages past supported a large and thriving community, was again given back to nature: and so it remains to the present day – an utterly uninhabited country roamed over at will by herds of elands and other antelopes.”


Selous (pron Seloo) was of French Huguenot descent. Much later, although by then in his sixties, he volunteered and received a commission for service against the Germans during the Great War.  Captain Selous was awarded the DSO in 1916 whilst on active service in then German East Africa for “conspicuous gallantry, resource and endurance. He has set a magnificent example to all ranks, and the value of his services with his battalion cannot be over-estimated.” He was killed in action in January 1917 aged 65. The Selous Game Reserve, a UN world heritage site in Tanzania, is named in his honour.