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The white ants

Heretofore, this series has focused on the so-called “Difaqane” era when Botswana was invaded by the “black ants” of Motswasele II’s prophecy, that is the Makololo and the Amandebele.

Let us now turn our attention to “white ants”, that is Europeans or white settlers, who the slain Bakwena kgosi predicted would follow in the wake of the earlier invaders.

Before the 1885 imposition of colonial rule, three broad types of Europeans had already had a major impact on communities throughout modern Botswana: Boers, traders and missionaries. Not all the Europeans who arrived, though, fell into just one of these three groupings. A lot of missionaries and Boers engaged in trade. There were also a few Boer missionaries.

In many ways, the white ants proved to be more troublesome to the Batswana than the earlier invaders. They brought new ideas and technologies, which made them both useful and dangerous. From the beginning, the response of Batswana to the coming of the Europeans was, however, shaped by their determination to remain free of foreign rule. In this respect, it was the military power of the whites that from the beginning struck awe.

Fascination with European consumer goods, knowledge, and religious ideas were generally of secondary importance. This was because by the 1830s leading Batswana had already learned two important lessons: firstly that the Europeans posed a far greater threat to them than had either the Makololo or Amandebele; and secondly that to defend themselves against future invaders they needed to acquire guns.

The arrival of the white ants further coincided with a boom in Botswana’s external trade. Game products, mainly ivory at first, but also ostrich feathers and karosses or skins, were sold in return for guns and other goods imported from Asia, the Americas, and Europe.

As reflected in Sekgoma’s 1844 defeat of the Amandebele, it was by acquiring guns, that local merafe were ultimately able to defend their independence from both the Amandebele and Boers in particular.

By the eighteenth century trade already existed with the Boers at the Cape and the Portuguese stations of coastal Angola and Mozambique. But, prior to the beginning of the 19th century local products generally reached these European markets through middlemen. Thus, for many years trade with the Cape Colony was conducted through Khoe and Batlhaping intermediaries.

Trade with Mozambique was likewise dependent on Vashona middlemen, while much of the Angolan trade passed through the hands of the Ovimbundu.

This early, indirect trade with the Europeans was part of an extensive regional trading system in which African communities exchanged goods with one another. Through this system, iron implements manufactured by local Bakalanga, Bakgatla, and Barolong craftsmen reached the shores

of Namibia and the Cape. Copper, livestock, and game products were also traded across long distances.

During the time of the black ants, much of the Botswana region’s external trade passed into the hands of the Griqua, a Khoe group of mixed descent whose culture had been influenced by European ways.

Like the European traders who followed them, the Griqua used ox-wagons, horses and guns. These three things allowed them to defend themselves while carrying goods across long distances. By 1800, the Griqua thus had a trading advantage over other Africans in the region, who had few or no firearms and then mostly transported goods by foot.

As we have also seen, from about 1800 a few Europeans had also begun to appear in what is now Botswana, often accompanied by Griqua. In 1838, a Scot named David Hume established the first European trading company known to have operated in Botswana.

Hume’s base was at a Robert Moffat’s mission station at Kudumane, but in 1847 he posted an agent named Evans to live among Sechele’s Bakwena at Kolobeng. Evans thus closely followed Botswana’s first resident missionary, Dr. David Livingstone, who had just established himself there.

The connection between Hume’s stores and the LMS mission stations further underscores the truth behind Kgosi Sebego’s assumption that early European more often preferred to work in places where missionaries were present.

Livingstone, himself, acknowledged that: “Wherever a missionary lives, traders are sure to come; they are mutually dependent and each aids the other.”

This mutual dependence of missionaries and traders is partially reflected in accounts of local changes in dress. A German, who toured eastern Botswana in the 1860s, noted that in the larger villages “the blacks viewed dressing up [in European clothes] on Sunday as an essential part of their religion.” Another early visitor observed that for prominent Molepolole woman, Sunday dress required imported hats like those worn by the missionaries’ wives.

Missionaries encouraged Batswana to adopt European dress. The cloth to make the clothes was purchased from traders. Missionary wives and female missionaries further played a critical early role by teaching Batswana women European methods of tailoring.

But the adoption of European clothing was not entirely motivated by religion. Many non-Christians quickly came to prefer the new style of dress for comfort and as a mark of social status.

In addition to tailoring, the missionaries taught Batswana other skills and practices that encouraged them to buy imported goods. With Sechele’s support, Livingstone, for example locally introduced the plough. 

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