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The Surgeon (II)

We concluded last week by noting that the Batswana struggle against Boer oppression had been first brought to the attention of a wider circle of British public opinion by David Livingstone in an article entitled ‘The Peacemakers of the Interior of South Africa’, which he published in the July 4, 1849 edition of the weekly British Banner newspaper under the pseudonym “The Surgeon”.

The article’s opening paragraph was unconventional. Maintaining that “there is a cause for everything”, The Surgeon speculated on the possibility of a divine link between the fall of the great French Emperor, Napoleon and his treacherous capture and imprisonment of Toussaint Louverture, the great leader of the Haitian slave rebellion. “Toussaint Louverture was sent to France to drag out his days in a dungeon, and the man who sent him thither was sent to rusticate on the rock of St. Helena.”

Leitlo le tswelwe ke leitlo, leino ke leino! To The Surgeon, slavery was the ultimate sin. Louverture’s armed resistance was thus consistent with Christian virtue. On the South African Highveld, the enemy was clear:

“The principal reason why the Boer or Dutch emigrants left the [Cape] colony [i.e. the Great Trek], was discontent with the ordinance which proclaimed freedom to the slave. Here, then, they found they could indulge  in their propensity to slaveholding, without the stigma attached to the name....So the natives were compelled to erect houses, dig water courses, make dams, prepare gardens,- indeed, everything their Boerish masters required; and the only pretence to compensation was, allowance to live in the land of their forefathers.”

By the time of the article’s publication, Livingstone was himself already wanted by the then senior Transvaal Boer Commandant-General Hendrik Potgieter for his role in assisting Sechele to acquire arms.

In a January 23, 1849 letter to the Secretary of the London Missionary Society (LMS) District Committee for Southern Africa, the Rev. William Ross, General Potgieter had demanded Livingstone’s immediate and permanent recall from Kweneng, failing which he threatened to take unilateral action to remove him.

In the correspondence, Potgieter further warned that his people would ‘never suffer missionaries or traders to sell or barter guns, powder and lead with the Kaffirs’.

Of Sechele, the Boer Commandant affirmed that he ‘possesses so many guns that he can arm nearly all his men with them, and in addition barters them with other tribes. Why, he already even has a cannon!’

Notwithstanding Livingstone’s later in life claim that Potgieter’s cannon was nothing more than a large iron cooking pot its existence was real; the six pounder being now on permanent display at the Mahikeng Museum.

Well aware that it was the basis of their own hegemony; from the beginning of their settlement in the Transvaal it had in fact been the

Boers’ policy to prevent indigenous communities from acquiring either firearms or horses. As Potgieter’s correspondence to Ross underscores, they further expected other whites in the region to cooperate fully in enforcing the ban. As we have previously seen, The Surgeons response was dismissive:

“In solemn council, Potgieter 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.”

Yet from his surviving correspondence, it appears that when Livingstone set sail from Britain for Southern Africa on December 8, 1840, he had no thought of becoming involved in an armed struggle. Beyond a pacifist abhorrence to warfare in general, like the LMS who sponsored him, he rather believed that his duty to God was separate from the political conflicts then afflicting the region.

The missionary’s July 1848 journey into the central Transvaal seems to have been a turning point in his own involvement in the emerging struggle. Along the way, he “visited very many tribes who had never seen a missionary before”. He further reported:

“The country is more populous than anywhere else in Bechuanaland. The nearer we approach the coast, the population becomes the more dense, more civilised too, for many weave cotton, work in iron, tin, copper and brass.”

Livingstone’s excitement was dampened, however, by other things he saw along the way. He had hoped to install one of his Motswana assistants, “Paul”, as a moruti among the Bafokeng and Bakgatla bagaKgafela.

But, the local Boers rejected the idea. Evidence of the rule of sjambok was everywhere. The Bakwena bagaMogopa Kgosi Mmamogale showed him “the scars on his back of strips which had been inflicted by those who consider themselves to be masters of this country”.

Far worse atrocities were witnessed.

A Boer commando attacked the Bakwena of Kgosi Moletse, known to Livingstone as “Melecho”. Moletse, whose people had broken away from the Bakwena of Botswana about a century earlier, had escaped Amandebele overrule. As a result his morafe possessed many cattle, which was a temptation for the Boers. The pretext for the Boer attack was an incident when some Boers killed an elephant in the BagaMoletse territory. A crowd surrounded the hunting party to demand a tusk and half of the meat as sehuba for their Kgosi. The Boers ran off unharmed.

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