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Birth of Botswana - Today is the 164th anniversary of the Battle of Dimawe

JEFF RAMSAY
Dimawe Battle spot PIC. THALEFANG CHARLES
“Rramokonopi wabo Kgosidintsi (Kgosi Sechele I), otlhotse akonopano le Poulwe (Paul Kruger); erile motshegare Poulwe alapa, gasala gokonopa Rramokopi”.

The above opening stanza from a praise poem about Sechele’s stand at Dimawe captures the essence of the battle, fought 164 years ago. On the 30th of August 1852 Paul Kruger, as an officer leading the Boer advance, and Sechele quite literally shot at each other all day, with artillery and long range rifles as well as musket fire.

The Battle of Dimawe was the pivotal showdown in the Batswana-Boer War of 1852-53. During the conflict a coalition of merafe [Bakwena, Bangwaketse, Bangwato, Bakaa, Balete, Barolong, Bakgatla bagaMmanaana, Bahurutshe, and Batlokwa] united under Sechele’s leadership in a seven month armed struggle against the Transvaal Boers. Although the Boers began the hostilities, by invading south-eastern Botswana, it was they who ended up on the defensive.

The Boer commando of just over 1,000 arrived at Dimawe on Saturday the 28th of August 1852. There in addition to the Bakwena, they found mobilized against them Bangwaketse, BagaMmanaana, and Bakaa, mephato, altogether numbering some 3000. The Boer Commandant-General, Pieter Scholtz demanded that Sechele turnover the BagaMmanaana Kgosi and agree to submit to Transvaal authority. Sechele replied:

"Wait till Monday. I shall not deliver up Mosielele: he is my child. If I am to deliver him up, I shall have to rip open my belly; but I challenge you on Monday to show which is the strongest man. I am, like yourself, provided with arms and ammunition, and have more fighting people than you. I should not have allowed you thus to come in, and would have assuredly fired on you; but I have looked into the book [the Bible], upon which I reserved my fire. I am myself provided with cannon. Keep yourself quiet tomorrow, and do not quarrel for water till Monday; then we shall see who is the strongest man. You are already in my pot; I shall only have to put the lid on it on Monday."

A two day truce was thus arranged during which a number of Boers joined Batswana for Sunday prayers, led by a preacher named Mebalwe.

Meanwhile, the two leaders exchanged messages. Sechele asked Scholtz for some tea and sugar, in return offering the General gunpowder if he "had not brought enough with him for a long fight." Scholtz replied he would "soon give Sechele chillies instead." The Bakwena also volunteered to show the Boers where to avoid mogau, as their oxen would surely soon belong to Sechele.

Face-to-face negotiations on Monday morning ended in deadlock. Under cover of their artillery the Boers then advanced on the Batswana entrenchments from behind impressed Bahurutshe auxiliaries, using them as human shields. Sechele instructed his men not to fire on their hapless brothers, thus gaining their subsequent allegiance.

Various accounts of the battle, including those of Scholtz and Kruger, are consistent in observing that although the initial assault succeeded in scattering many of

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the defenders, while setting fire to the village, the battle turned into a day long stalemate. Scholtz correspondence further speaks of a six hour assault on Sechele’s battery atop Boswelakgosi hill, concluding: “by nightfall; and with the enemy still holding a rocky hill of caves I was obliged to withdraw my men and return to laager.”

While Sechele’s cannon provided a focal point for the Boer assault, various sources further underscore the impact of the invaders cannonade and light artillery (swivels). From a September 1852 account by Livingstone:

“On Monday they began their attack on the town by firing with swivels. They communicated fire to the houses. This made many of the women flee and the heat became so great the men huddled together on the little hill in the middle of the town - the smoke prevented them from seeing the Boers though the latter saw them huddled in groups. They killed 60 Bakwains and 35 Boers fell - and a great number of horses. Sechele shot 4 Boers with his two double barrelled guns. When they made a dash at the hill, one bullet passing through two men, and a bullet went through the sleeve of his coat...”

The above account dovetails with Kruger’s recollection that his life had been in danger when an enemy bullet fired “from a huge rifle” passed through his jacket, tearing it in two. Subsequent folklore on both sides maintains that Kruger miraculously escaped Sechele’s shot, while affirming Sechele’s own brushes with death.

New evidence of Sechele’s use of high calibre hunting rifles armed with conical shot, moreover, lends greater plausibility to Sekwena traditions extolling his personal, as well as command, role.

Three days after the standoff, following a further failed attempt to dislodge Senthufe’s Bangwaketse from Kgwakgwe, as well as an abandoned move on Sechele’s fallback position at Dithubabruba, Scholtz’s commando retreated back into the Transvaal.

Thereafter, Sechele’s forces raided farms as far as Rustenburg, leading to their abandonment. As a South African newspaper then reported:

“The natives have united in a strong body, followed up the retreating force of Boers, and fallen upon the farmers in the Mirique district, and every one of these has been obliged to fall back with the commando upon the Mooi River. Great destruction, of course marked the progress of the conquering natives. Every homestead has been burned, and standing corn ripe for sickle, together with vineyards and gardens, which were then in full bloom, have been entirely destroyed.”

In February 1853 the Boers asked for peace, resulting in an armistice. Subsequent reconciliation culminated in Sechele’s January 1860 visit to the Potchefstroom home of Transvaal President Marthinus Pretorius, where the two are said to have toasted the New Year together. The boundary that prevailed at the end of the conflict still forms Botswana’s eastern frontier with South Africa.



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