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Amid the Scramble for Africa during the 1880s, the South African-based businessman and politician Cecil Rhodes envisioned the annexation to the British Empire of a bloc of territory connecting the Cape of Good Hope and Cairo—respectively at the southern and northern tips of Africa—and the concurrent construction of a line of rail linking the two.
He thought this might make an ideal sea outlet for his proposed settlement in Mashonaland, the area directly to Matabeleland's north-east where Lobengula held dominion over many Mashona chiefs.
Rhodes believed that the Portuguese claim to Mozambique was tenuous enough that he could win much of it without provoking major ire: "the occupation of the Portuguese even along the coast line is in most places merely a paper one," he wrote to Whitehall in late 1889, "and if this has not been recognised by international agreement I think it might be left open." Portugal issued the so-called "Pink Map" around this time, laying claim to the very corridor of land between Angola and Mozambique that Rhodes desired.
On geopolitical maps, British territories were generally marked in red or pink, so this concept became known as the "Cape to Cairo red line".
In the immediate vicinity of the Cape, this ambition was challenged by the presence of independent states to the north-east of Britain's Cape Colony: there were several Boer Republics, and to the north of these was the Kingdom of Matabeleland, ruled by Lobengula.