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‘THUTHUNYANE’–THE GUNS OF DIMAWE (I)

JEFF RAMSAY
‘Rramokonopi wabo Kgosidintsi, otlhotse akonopano le Poulwe; erile motshegare Poulwe alapa, gasala gokonopa Rramokopi. Kwena, utla hutshe ya ngwana wa Leburu, obontshe ba bina Kgabo botshelo, battle batshele kawina boo rramogotswena; bagothele madi akgofa bafete, ebe ere Dimo asala aaja wena wesi fela.’

“Marksman brother of Kgosidintsi [Sechele], he and Paul [Kruger] shot at each other all day; at midday Paul became tired, the Marksman alone remained shooting. Crocodile, shoot off the Boer child’s hat; show life to those who dance to the monkey totem [Bakgatla bagaMmanaana], let them live through you, the wanderers, though they bring trouble to you and pass by, while the Dimo remains eating only you.”

The above opening stanzas of a praise poem about Sechele’s stand against the Boers at Dimawe captures something of the essence of the battle. On 30 August 1852 Paul Kruger, as the officer coordinating the Boers frontline attack and Kgosi Sechele, who was at the centre of the fighting, quite literally shot at each other all day, deploying artillery as well as rifle and musket fire.

As evidence of the weapons that were deployed at Dimawe is rediscovered what has emerges as something of a revelation at the relative sophistication of their tactical interface. Sechele’s bravado in his exchanges with the Boer Commandant-General Scholtze during the 29 August 1852 Sabbath Day truce was underpinned by his and his allies’ formidable array of munitions. As we have seen, by 1849 the Boers themselves already credited the Bakwena alone with an arsenal in excess of 500 guns and a cannon, an assertion that is consistent with the evidence of other independent observers in the region at the time.

Included among these sources is David Livingstone, notwithstanding his subsequent denials. In the context of his emerging fame in the years following the war the missionary was clearly determined to publicly obscure his own contribution to enhancing Sechele’s armaments. Over the years a number of people have, nonetheless, continued to take Livingston’s famous rejoinder that his flock only had 5 guns by 1849 and that the cannon was really a cooking pot at face value.

Of the artillery pieces deployed at Dimawe, by far the most formidable would have been Sechele’s, long range ‘6 pounder’, so classified because it fired 6-pound solid round shot, up to 3,000 yards. Besides Sechele’s communication of the guns presence to Scholtz evidence of its appearance on the battlefield is contained in both of the Boer General’s subsequent accounts of the engagement, which in each case speak of the Mokwena’s battery, i.e. artillery position, as being the primary focal point of his commando’s attack.

In addition we have the trader James Chapman’s November 1852 diary passage referring to his discussions with Sechele about the battle. While talking

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about the Boer casualties the Mokwena is said to have “brought out some leaden cannon balls and smiled rather contemptuously.”

Although originally a naval gun, Sechele’s cannon was not designed for sinking ships (at the time the job of larger 24 to 42-pounders) but rather for killing enemy sailors and marines by firing on their decks. Mounted on wagon wheels it was thus easily converted into an effective field gun.

Originally cast in 1770 by the Bailey, Pegg & Co. of London, by 1852 the gun was old, but hardly out of date. This is due to the simple fact that muzzle loading cannon evolved very little from the seventeenth until the late nineteenth century when they were phased out by modern breech-loading artillery, with explosive shells.

Besides 6 pound spherical ball shot Sechele’s gun could have also been used to fire either ‘grape’ or ‘coarse’ shot. The former would have consisted of loading the gun with a quantity of smaller round shot or bullets, while the latter would have involved topping the gunpowder charge with a combination of rock and metal fragments of appropriate weight.

Based on the limited evidence of Chapman’s passage and the existing descriptions of Boer casualties, it seems reasonable to assume that the Bakwena confined themselves to single solid shot rather than coarse shot. Battlefield analysis, however, suggests that latter would have been a more optimal deployment in countering the Boer assault.

In his memoirs Paul Kruger states: “On Monday morning the battle began. I was well in front, and brought down a number of Kaffirs with my four pounder, which I had loaded with coarse shot.”

The gun Kruger refers to has been identified as ‘Ou Grietje’ a four-pounder cannonade or short barrel gun that has enjoyed iconic status among Afrikaners due to its role in Andries Pretorius 1838 defeat of Digaane’s AmaZulu at Blood River.

Resting today at the Voortrekker Monument Museum, it was cast, c. 1800, for naval service by Fawcett Preston & Company of London. With a maximum range of 600 yards, but limited accuracy beyond 300 yards, Kruger’s cannon was inferior to Sechele’s assuming optimal use of gunpowder and elevation.

But, in addition to their greater battlefield experience with artillery, at Dimawe the attackers would have had the advantage in the defenders concentrated deposition.

In addition to the 4-pounder the Boers further brought with them at least four smaller swivel cannon, which in the end were responsible for many of the Batswana casualties. (To be continued)



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