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The Gun Runners (II)

We had previously noted that one of the key men tasked with stemming the flow of firearms into Botswana, Jan Viljoen, instead used his office as Veldkornet of the Marico District to engage in the lucrative trade for himself.

While a few Boers such as Viljoen, covertly supplied Batswana with munitions, for the most part, the independent western Batswana merafe ended up relying on Griqua and other indigenous suppliers, as well as British traders and adventurers up from the Cape Colony.

Among the latter, David “Taute” Hume and his Kolobeng agent Evans, Cumming, Wilson, Alfred Dolman and his suspected murderer Henry Moyle, as well as Joseph McCabe, are known to have been volume traders, while few, if any, of the scores of Europeans who passed through the region are likely to have not supplied at least some guns to Batswana. But, with the notable exception of Cumming, most were publicly discreet about such dealings.

Few names became more celebrated in Dimawe-Kolobeng, or despised in the then Boer capital Potchefstroom, then that of the Irishman McCabe. On his first 1844 hunting expedition he was barely able to cover the costs of one year’s labour by auctioning 2,334 lbs. of ivory at Grahamstown for £ 467. But thereafter he realised considerable profits by increasing his scale of operations. In January 1849 he sold some 9,000 lbs. of ivory at Grahamstown for £ 2,000, having incurred approximately £ 1,000 in expenses.

McCabe’s success established him as a worthy commercial rival of Hume. The most successful of all the ivory for arms merchants, in 1832 and 1834 Hume had carried out pioneering expeditions to the Bakwena and Bangwato. Thereafter he established a trading company based at Kudumane in 1838, which in 1847 opened a branch at Kolobeng. By the 1850s Taute’s stores were purchasing 15-30,000 lbs. of ivory annually. Among the indigenous suppliers, Moshoeshoe was reported to have approached Sechele in 1848 with offers of guns and gunpowder.

Of Batswana and Griqua, in June 1852, while at Shoshong, James Chapman wrote in his diary that ‘We were met here by 100 Griqua and Bechuana wagons’. In the entry he further notes:

“We learnt that this imposing force was brought in order to deter Sekomi from opposing them in their intended journey to Moselekatse, who they were very anxious to visit and trade with and to gain admittance to his elephant forests, and also guard against treachery by Moselekatse himself. Sekomi formerly hindered them and in fact nearly cut them off by stratagem. He feared that the powerful tribe, if supplied with guns like himself, would be more than a match for him again.”

The early embrace by Kgosi Sechele in particular of cutting-edge munitions for

elephant hunting appears to have also been influenced by gentlemen officers and public servants in the India and Ceylon services, who took pride in taking down large targets with a single shot. Following in the footsteps of Major William Cornwallis Harris and William Richardson, a significant number of Sechele’s gentlemen guests during the 1840s were either officers or senior civil servants on furlough from British garrisons in India. As a hunter named Nicholson would later reminisce:

The Cape was the great sanatorium where military and civil officers of the Honourable East India Company came to recover from wounds or to freshen up exhausted constitutions. Some 2,000 of these visitors, with wives and families in proportion, enlivened the place, and circulated a very appreciable amount of welcome coin while recovering their health.

Prominent members of the India service who made it to up Sechele’s included Lt. Arkwright, Oswell and Murray, along with the aid-de-camp to the Governor of Madras, Capt. (later Major-General) Thomas Montague Steele, accompanied by Captain Vardon of the 25th Madras light infantry and Mr J.R. Pringle, chief Madras tax collector.

Other men of significant wealth social standing and/or celebrity known to have interacted with Sechele included Cumming, Bushe, the poet Henry Methuen, Captain Ernest Shelly, the fabulously wealthy William Webb and his partner Captain William Codrington, along with the artist-traders Dolman, Thomas Baines and Alfred Rider.

Oswell, Steele and Vardon, in particular, combined a gentleman’s lust for blood sport with mapping and research activities. It was through Vardon’s careful geographic and environmental observations along the Limpopo that both the word and practical threat of the tsetse fly entered the English language (with support from Cumming’s writings). A resulting legacy was the shift of the principal trader’s ‘road to north’ westward from the Limpopo.

Oswell is notably credited with introducing Sechele to mathematics. As previously noted, he also stands out as the primary financer of the 1849 to 1851 expeditions to Chobe and the Zambezi, as well as Ngamiland, which first established Livingstone’s fame as an explorer.

Oswell’s mapping of Ngamiland and middle Zambezi included his correct location Mosi-oa-Thunya four years before its supposed discovery by Livingstone.

That Oswell on occasion worked in military intelligence may go some way, beyond claims of ‘modesty’ and ‘chivalry’ in explaining his stubborn desire to shift the spotlight to Livingstone, which included his reported cutting out and burning of ‘every page of importance’ from his notebooks, which related to his activities with the missionary.

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