From August 1848, the growing threat posed by the Transvaal Boers to the still independent Batswana merafe was increased with the arrival of arguably the most gifted of all the Voortrekker leaders, Andries Pretorius.
Already a legend among his own people, Pretorius would appear in Setswana praise poems from the era as a mighty adversary who rode on a white horse (“mogale wa pitse e tshweu”).
A decade earlier, Pretorius had so appeared in Natal as the one who rescued the Boers from annihilation at the hands of Nkosi Dingane’s Amazulu.
This was in the wake of the February 1838 massacre of Piet Retief’s 100 men at eMungundlovu, along with the subsequent killing of another 500 or so Boers and their coloured servants by Dingane’s regiments in dawn raids along the Tugela River.
The destruction of the latter camps is memorialised in the old town and country name “Weenen” (Afrikaans: “weeping”).
An April 1838 Boer counter-attack led by Hendrick Potgeiter was then defeated by the Amazulu at Ethaleni. With the subsequent withdraw of this “vlug kommando” across the Drakensburg, Dingane’s victory appeared complete.
But, on December 16, 1838, despair gave way to euphoria among the settlers in the aftermath of their lopsided victory under Pretorius’ command at Ncome.
There, some 3,000 Amazulu, but not a single Boer, died during an unsuccessful assault on Pretorius laager.
The Amazulu corpses were reported to have been “heaped like pumpkins”, while their blood stained the Ncome River red.
Like the ancient Israelites in the only book most Boers at that time possessed, the victors of the “Battle of Blood River” came to view the event as a sign of their having made a covenant with God as his chosen people in Africa. A more secular interpretation would hold that the Amazulu were victims of their own inability to quickly adapt their tactics and technology to the demands of gun warfare.
Charging in close formation, armed with only their long ox-hide shields and assegais, they were no match for the Boers ability to maintain a continuous field of fire by rotating between four or more muskets. The guns were reloaded by their servants, woman, and children.
By the beginning of 1850, the Transvaal Boers had begun to coalesce under Pretorius’ leadership as the South Africa Republic (SAR). Many believed that their hero would also easily lead them to further victory over the troublesome western Batswana.
In 1837, Potgeiter had proclaimed Boer hegemony over southern Botswana as well as the Transvaal, based on the assumption that all the lands which had once lived in the shadow of Tautona Mzilakazi were now forfeited to them.
In 1850, he tried to entice Dikgosi Sechele of Bakwena, Senthufe of Bangwaketse, and Montshiwa of the Barolong boo Ratshidi into accepting the status of junior allies of his emerging Transvaal state. Montshiwa agreed, but the other two refused. While in his letters the Boer President stressed the need for “peace and friendship”, the two Dikgosi recognised that acceptance of the proposals could make their subjects liable to work for the Boers as forced labourers.
Under pressure from hardliners in his Volksraad (“People’s Assembly”) who saw continuing Bakwena and Bangwaketse independence as a threat on their hold over already subordinate Batswana communities east of the Madikwe, in April 1851 Pretorius concluded that the two merafe would have to be conquered and forcibly disarmed.
But, noting that the success of such an operation was not certain, in July of 1851 his Krijgsraad or War Council resolved to defer any such attack and otherwise limit itself to spying operations pending the outcome of negotiations with the British.
Shortly thereafter, all of the Dikgosi living west of the Madikwe received new demands that they accept Boer rule.
While Sechele and the rival Bangwaketse rulers, Senthufe and Segotshane still refused to give in, the merafe living to their immediate east, eventually succumbed. These included the Bahurutshe of Moilwa and Mangope, the Bakgatla baga Mmanaana of Mosielele, the Balete of Mokgosi, and the Batlokwa of Matlapeng.
Having received some arms from Sechele, to supplement his own collection, Kgosi Mosielele initially called for a united defence of the Madikwe valley. But, when he chaired a meeting of neighbouring Dikgosi at his centre Maanwane, in early October 1851, the discussion focused instead on the possibility of a large scale exodus into Kweneng.
During the same week, Commandant Adriaan Standers led a modest commando of 82 men up the valley to impose the new South African Republic’s (SAR) authority. All the Dikgosi were then forced to submit to the “Labour Tax”, which required them to supply free labour to the Boers.
Mosielele was further forced to hand over a party of Bahurutshe fugitives, who had fled to him from Boer oppression.
After this initial success, the ever impulsive Stander’s wanted to immediately organise a larger force to attack Dimawe-Kolobeng, but Pretorius held him back.