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The Surgeon

We concluded last week by observing that when in 1846 the Boers confiscated the wagons of one trader for carrying arms to Sechele, the missionary David Livingstone had calmed their fears about Bakwena military strength. But, tensions increased shortly thereafter as the Boers suspected that Livingstone, himself, was involved in the arms trade.

Their suspicions were correct. Livingstone’s surviving private correspondence with family members and close associates confirms that he, along with his father-in-law the Rev. Robert Moffat, assisted Kgosi Sechele in the direct ordering of guns and bullet moulds from the Birmingham Gun quarter, then the world’s leading centre for the manufacture of made to individual order armaments. In a May 1849 letter to Moffat, Livingstone thus notes:

“Sechele sends three really splendid tiger (leopard/nkwe) karosses to Birmingham, two to the ladies who sent the chairs, not as payment, but as tebogelo for their friendship to one they knew whom not.

The third is for eo mogolu of the smiths who made the gun, either Parker or Tipping or Lawden, as a thanks offering for doing his gun so well and to ask for friendship, so he can obtain  the price he may buy three double barrel rifles, 10 to the lb [i.e. 10 bore], but when he gets the price.”

Sechele had acquired his prized first double barrel Tipping-Lawden rifle with a Parker barrel in 1848, bringing down a charging Cape buffalo with his first shot. 

Tipping and Lawden were up market gun and pistol makers, while the specialist gun barrel maker, Joseph Parker was Moffat’s friend, with whom he routinely forwarded Livingstone’s correspondence on behalf of Sechele.

Another notable example of the two missionaries’ role in introducing advanced weapons technology into the region can be found in an August 1850 letter from Livingstone to Moffat, which contains the following passage:

“Can you get the bullet mould (perhaps 2, & ramrods to fit) of 8 to lb. or rather fit 8 to the pound bore but conical, from Birmingham? Those which have an indentation behind fire much further, the dotted line marking the indentation. Sechele is very anxious to get the seven-barrelled gun. You seem to have forgotten it.’”

The above letter further contained a rough sketch by Livingstone of what would have been a supersize, potentially armour piercing, version of a Delvigne pattern conical bullet. This at the time state-of-the-art projectile would have had an accurate range of up to a thousand metres.

By way of contrast the smooth bore “Brown Bess” musket, which until 1854 served as the standard issue firearm of the British Army, has a maximum range of only a 100 metres with its accuracy limited to 60-80 metres. This was also inferior to the best long rifles used by Boers of the

Great Trek era, which could hit targets at 200 metres.

The seven barrel Nock volley gun referred to in the passage, would have been an evolved version of a weapon previously deployed by the British navy. Custom ordered models of Sechele’s time were rifled and capable of sequential firing. This allowed for a wide dispersal of fire, while mitigating recoil.   

What was Livingstone’s motive for risking his life as well as reputation by facilitating the provision of such advanced weapons technology to Sechele’s Bakwena?  Writing to his brother Charles Livingstone in May of 1849, the missionary candidly stated:

“The Boers or Dutch emigrants oppress these tribes and treat them almost as slaves. They would have contrived to do so to Sechele too, but I succeeded in freeing the Bakwains. A considerable number of guns were purchased, and as this is the source of power of the Boers over the other tribes they began to be afraid that the other tribes would follow his example.”

In another, November 1950 letter to his parents he further affirmed that:

“Resistance to such tyrants and murderers is I think obedience to God, and Charles will no doubt enlighten you on the point. The only means which with divine blessing have preserved our independence as a people are those very guns which you think the people would have been better off without. The tribe would have never enjoyed the gospel but for firearms.”

In a July 1849 article by Livingstone entitled ‘The Peacemakers of the Interior of South Africa’, which was published in the British Banner newspaper under the pseudonym “a surgeon””, the missionary further spoke of “the seeds of war” being sown among the Batswana:

“The work, which in former years was endurable, is now grinding the natives to the earth. Every succeeding year will only add to the burdens. From one end of the country to the other, the cry is that oppression is ten times more severe than when they were under Moselekatse....

“The natives know well their source of power. Guns and ammunition are purchased with great avidity, but concealed with such care, only a small number of Boers have any idea of the mine which may yet be sprung.

In solemn council Potgeiter issued orders that no trader should be allowed to introduce these weapons, and he thinks his orders are effectual. He might as well have bolted the castle gate with a boiled carrot.”

Tumy on Monday



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