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Rinderpest was a deadly bovine virus that plagued cattle herds accross Europe and Asia for centuries. In the late 1880s to early 1890s, the virus found its way to Africa, where it wiped out thousands of non-immune cattle herds belonging to African pastoralists and agriculturalists. By February 1896, the virus had crossed the Rhodesian border along the Zambezi River and began killing off cattle owned by ethnic groups that included the Matabele and the Shona, as well as cattle owned by white settlers. In an effort to contain the virus, the British South African Company consulted with colonial officials in the Cape Colony, who in turn advised the local police in Rhodesia to practice quarantines of cattle herds and authorized the shooting of sick and healthy cattle in order to create a buffer zone against the virus. The harsh practices of the legalized killing of cattle, coupled with a pre-existing tense political situation, convinced the Matabele people to take an armed stand against the colonial state.

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