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The curious case of Peter Lobengula, the Prince of Salford

17 Oct 2019 at 19:50hrs | Views
On a Wednesday morning in the spring on 1899 the Union Ocean liner called Goth sailing from Cape Town South Africa, docked in Southampton United Kingdom carrying the entire cast of a show called ‘ The Savage South Africa ' that was to be produced at Earls Court London in the summer of 1899. The highlight of the show that took the UK by storm depicted the battles between the British invasion force and the Ndebele Kingdom in 1893 and the star of the show was a man called Peter Kushana Lobengula.

Peter, whom reporters described as handsome, fluent in English, well-mannered and a Christian, claimed to be the son of the Ndebele (Matabele)  King Lobengula Khumalo  and claimed to have fought in the actual Ndebele army against the British. Peter Lobengula was one of the 200 African men who came in that ship.

The curator and manager of the show was a man called Frank Fillis  a circus owner who spent a long time in South Africa. A vast mock Ndebele village was constructed in Earls Court where the 200 mostly Zulu men part of the cast, lived and worked. The show was a big hit with up to 16 000 visitors a day. So popular was Peter Lobengula that he even got to drink champagne with the Prince of Wales when he visited the show in 1899.

The show caused ripples in British society for insalubrious reasons.  British women flocked to see the handsome fit black African performers and that caused a public outcry. The Times discussed the performance of "Savage South Africa" and argued that ‘whatever view one may take of the action of the organizers in bringing over a large number of natives to be stared at and to take their chance of being demoralized in such strange and unedifying surroundings, there is nothing to be said against the entertainment itself. It is', the paper continued, 'a capital circus performance with a special interest lent to it by the representation of famous scenes in recent South African history' (The Times, 9 May 1899, 14).

There were questions about the treatment of the troupe, but even stronger concerns about the impact of these well-policed  ‘primitive natives' on British society (Pall Mall Gazette, 4 May 1899). In August 1899, the London Exhibition Company ordered the 'Kaffir kraal' at the exhibition closed to women. The story reached America where it was reported that the 'vilest orgies take place there' as 'fashionable women go into the black men's huts and give them presents'. These fears were fuelled by news of the intended marriage between Prince Lobengula, 'a former inmate of the Kraal', and an English girl.

The paper concluded that 'this little band of savages has brought home to the English people for the first time the seriousness of mixed marriages' (Galveston Daily News, 20 August 1899, 3). London papers lamented that local women had become too friendly with the African showmen. Indeed Peter Lobengula was in love with a white British woman called Florence Jewel nicknamed Kitty and tried to marry her in 1899 but that marriage was blocked by the church because Kitty had lived with Peter Lobengula before marriage.

The more sinister reason was the crusade the British press waged against the mixed couple relationship. 'there is something inexpressibly disgusting about the mating of a white girl with a dusky savage 'wrote the London Evening News. Peter and Kitty broke up and Kitty was never heard of again. Peter Lobengula quit the show briefly as a result of the relationship turmoil.

However following the outbreak of the Anglo Boer war in October 1899 public interest in the show waned and the London show was cancelled in April 1900. It commenced touring the UK with Peter Lobengula re-joining it.

The Savage Africa show set up camp at Broughton Football Club where Peter Lobengula reappeared but now much lower down the cast. The show toured Blackpool, Leeds and Liverpool before closing down and moving back to South Africa. But Peter remained in the UK. Peter started dating a woman called Maud Wilson, broke up with her then married an Irish girl called Lily Magowan with whom he had 5 children. Peter took up several menial jobs in Manchester before becoming a miner at Agecroft Colliery. He was very popular in Salford and the locals affectionately called him 'The Prince of Salford'.

In 1913 Peter Lobengula appeared at Salford Magistrates court arguing that as a son of King Lobengula of the Matabele he was entitled to vote in the UK. He surprisingly won the case and was duly registered to vote possibly becoming the first African to vote in the UK in 1913! But he soon got into trouble.   

In 1911 he had applied to the Colonial Office for a pension on the basis that as a son of King Lobengula he was entitled to the pension given to all royals in the British colonies. They had refused saying that Peter was not the son of King Lobengula. The claim was passed to the British South Africa Company who had conquered and destroyed the Ndebele Kingdom.

The company conducted research and went to great lengths to refute Peter's claims to be a royal descendent in court. Unfortunately, Peter was already ill from consumption, which we now call tuberculosis. His family was left with little financial support and a press campaign was begun to offer help.   

On his deathbed Peter continued to insist that he had told the truth about his royal connections.  Peter died on 24 November 1913 and was buried in Salford at Agecroft Cemetery (not far from Manchester United's Old Trafford Stadium) on 27 November 1913 aged 38. Huge crowds lined the street for his funeral cortege all the way to the cemetery evidence that he was dearly loved by the citizens of Salford.

Sadly his wife and 4 of his children were to quickly follow him to the grave by 1920 all buried next to him in Salford. Following Peter's death there was further speculation about his ancestry but no one has been able to prove or disprove his claim to be King Lobengula's son. The question still remains among British Historians; who was Peter Lobengula and was he really a son of the last Matabele King?

Source - Joseph Qobo Mayisa
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