“The foundation of all states, new as well as old or composite, are good laws and good arms.” – Niccolo Machiavelli (1513) As was reflected in the Batswana-Boer War of 1852-53 series, the pre-colonial emergence of an indigenous gun culture amongst communities within modern Botswana was a determining factor in the territory’s separate colonial, and thus postcolonial destiny.
Possession of firearms, accompanied by a rapid adoption of new military as well as hunting tactics for their use, played a key role in the reformation of local polities during the mid-19th century.
By 1870, most of modern Botswana had as a result come under the authority of four kingdoms; led by the Dikgosi of Bakwena, Bangwaketse, Bangwato and Batawana. The political authority of each of these kingdoms, along with the then also emerging states of the Barolong booRatshidi, Bakgatla bagaKgafela and Balete, was supported by the protective as well as coercive capacity of their arsenals.
This in turn enabled each of the above merafe to individually as well as collectively resist repeated threats to their independent well-being by the Amandebele as well as the Boers. Defensive state formation in south-east Botswana further resulted in a considerable population influx from the Transvaal, permanently altering the region’s demography. In 1857 William Baldwin, a British visitor to the Bakwena capital, Dithubaruba, thus observed that:
“The Kaffirs bring all sorts of things to the wagon to trade, but charge very high, and principally want powder, lead and caps. They reckon the Kaffirs here amount to 20,000; and Sechele himself lives on the top of a huge berg, with kraals all around in every direction. They are an independent lot of Kaffirs, and have no end of guns.”
Having never been disarmed, during the first half of the 20th century Batswana in the Bechuanaland Protectorate, like their Basotho cousins, had the distinction of being known as ‘tribes with guns’.
The significance of firearms as symbolic markers as well as material instruments of power is reflected in Setswana praise poetry, such as the following verse celebrating an alleged incident during the Batswana-Boer War of 1852–1853 – the shooting of Andries Pretorius by Mococe Marumo aMakgetla:
“Mogale wa pitse e tshweu ga bonwe, Moetapele wa masaropo o jele mmu, O phamotswe ke phamole ya ga Marumo, A mo isa bogwera bo iwang ke Masweu le Bantsho. Nnoi o a lele, ere a lela mathlo a gagwe a kwano, Ebile o futsa nkwe ya losika loo Makgetla, O futsa phamole e tsetsweng ke Marumo, A re setlhodi sele se re jetsa banna, sa tlhoga sa re baya ka boswagadi.”
(“The hero of the white horse is nowhere to be seen, the leader of the white troops has licked the dust; He has been snatched by the eagle of Marumo and is initiated into colour-blind mysteries. His
Praise poetry from the period further serves to underscore the fact that the local story of guns has been as much about their quality as quantity. The Bangwato Kgosi Khama III is remembered as
“Keene mogale yoo sa nneng isong, yo erileng tshaba di phuthegile, di phuthegile diya kgonnye, asale a sekaseka ditlhobolo; a tlhopha tse di mafulo a thata, a tlhopha bobjane le bobautu.”
“The hero who does not sit by the fire, who when the tribes gathered, came together and went to fetch wood, remained behind and examined the rifles; he picked out those for shooting far, he picked out carbines [short ones] and breechloaders [i.e. with bolts]. ”The mid-19th century was, in fact, marked by a technological revolution in firearms based on the coming together of five significant breakthroughs:
1) Replacement of ball shot and black powder with modern conical bullets; 2) Introduction of better firing mechanisms, beginning with the percussion cap, in place of flintlocks; 3) Practical refinement of the rifled gun barrel; 4) Invention of multiple firing mechanisms; and finally 5) Perfection of breechloaders, which quickly rendered most muzzle-loading guns obsolete.
Conical bullets, percussion caps and improved rifles came to Botswana in the 1840s with the appearance of state-of-the-art hunting rifles designed to accurately and swiftly take down big game, more especially elephants, from a safe distance. “Elephant guns” were the necessary tools for the regional ivory trade, which during the mid-19th century came to be dominated by Dikgosi Letsholathebe of Batawana, Sechele of Bakwena and Sekgoma of Bangwato.
In his 1852 publication “Projectile Weapons of War”, Professor John Scoffern observed that although conical bullets had only recently been adopted by a few European rifle brigades, “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.”