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The guns of Dimawe (iii)

The August 30, 1852 Battle of Dimawe stands out as one of the earliest instances in which a Boer Commando fought an indigenous opposing force that was also substantially provided with firearms.

In this respect it may be noted that the weapons in both camps would have been varied, in each case being mostly the private property of those who carried them. There would thus have been a good deal of qualitative variation in the munitions deployed by each side.

The Boers enjoyed a clear quantitative advantage in terms of artillery, notwithstanding the fact that Sechele single 6-Pounder was probably the largest cannon in the field.

In terms of other guns, the hunting rifles and muskets used by many of the Boers of the era were renowned for their superior range of 100 to 200 yards as well as general accuracy. In previous encounters, they had outclassed the British Army’s Brown Bess musket, which had a maximum range of about 100 yards with limited accuracy beyond 60 yards.

The quality of the trade muskets in the hands of the Batswana would have varied greatly, though by the late 1840’s most local Dikgosi were adept at rejecting those that tested below standard. Manufacturers in Liege Belgium were the biggest source of guns in the region, surviving examples of which have proved accurate from 40 to 100 yards.

As we have previously noted, however, Sechele also had a collection of custom-built state-of-the-art rifles.

Designed for bagging big game by well-to-do hunters, the best of these guns had a range of up to 1,000 yards, firing armour as well as elephant piercing conical shot of 12-8 bore.

An 1852 publication “Projectiles of War” by a certain Professor John Scoffern observed that while conical projectiles had only recently been adopted by the British rifle brigade, “sportsmen, too, admit their great superiority, and indeed their use may be pronounced as universal”, further noting:

Very soon after the application of these conical projectiles, followed two important additions to them, both of which would have been totally inapplicable to spherical ball. M. Delvigne, we believe, first made the conical tip of a piece of hardened steel, thus imparting to the lead an amazing increase in penetrating force, enabling it to crash through the skull of an elephant with ease, or perforate a rhinoceros.

In a private letter to Oswell, dated 20 September 1852, Livingstone drew attention to Sechele’s use of his heavy rifles, as well as the impact of the Boer swivel artillery:

“On Monday, they began their attack on the town by firing with swivels. They communicated fire to the houses.

This made many of the women flee and

the heat became so great the men huddled together on the little hill in the middle of the town - the smoke prevented them from seeing the Boers though the latter saw them huddled in groups. They killed 60 Bakwains and 35 Boers fell - and a great number of horses. Sechele shot four Boers with his two double barrelled guns.

“When they made a dash at the hill, one bullet passing through two men, and a bullet went through the sleeve of his coat.

These 60 are those whom they counted near the town. Sechele thinks others may have fallen among the women who ran away - these are not yet counted. They maintained their position one whole day on the hill, cutting off the Boers every time they came near. The Boers continued their firing with swivels till the evening and then retired.”

Taken at face value, it is hard to imagine ordinary ball literally passing through two men in the heat of battle, while Livingstone’s reference to a bullet going through the sleeve of a Boer’s coat dovetails with Paul Kruger’s recollection that his life had been in danger when:

“One of the enemy’s rifle bullets, fired by the enemy from a huge rifle, struck me on the chest and tore my jacket in two. The artful Secheli afterwards said that he had, up to the last, had it in his power to drive us back, but that I had once laid my hands on his brandy-bottle, I had become invincible.”

In his later reminisces, Kruger seemingly acknowledges subsequent folklore that he had miraculously escaped Sechele’s shot, supporting Sekwena traditions that have long extolled the Kgosi’s personal, as well as command, role in frustrating the Boers.

Inspecting the battlefield with elders over a decade later, Andrew Anderson was informed that ‘Sechele shot a Boer whenever he showed himself, killing five, [before] they withdrew’.

He further notes that the elders ‘called attention to bullet marks on the opposite rocks where portions of the bullets [fired by Sechele] still remained’.

Given that the rocks in question are granite, the casual reference to the remains of Sechele’s bullets many years after the battle is further evidence for his use of high calibre steel-tipped cylindro-conical bullets as it would have been improbable for even ordinary conical shot, much less ball shot, of the era, to have become so embedded, being rather prone to ricochet and/or flatten upon impact.

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