We left off with the March 1896 arrival of rinderpest or bolwane having begun to devastate Botswana’s cattle population.
At the time no one’s herds were safe, with large owners such as Dikgosi Khama III and Sebele I each losing tens of thousands of beasts.
Throughout the Protectorate, both official and unofficial estimates consistently calculated livestock destruction as ranging upwards from 90%. Bechuanaland Annual Report for 1896-97: “The rinderpest travelled through the country from north to south, at one time at the rate of 25 miles a day, and destroyed not less than 90 per cent —at a low estimate—of the enormous herds of cattle within the Protectorate.” As the report further noted Batswana had suddenly lost their “staple product, the chief means of livelihood, an important item of the food supply, and the capital and the currency of the country.”
Because all ruminating animals were infected, rinderpest also wiped out much of the small-stock while afflicting wild ungulates. Disappearing wildlife frustrated the resort to communal hunting to stave off famine. In October 1896 many Batswana were reportedly dying of hunger aggravated by dysentery and typhoid, with dying animals having tainted local water supplies.
For some members of the London Missionary Society (LMS), which then exercised a virtual ecclesiastical monopoly over much of Botswana, this “time of great spiritual testing” gave rise to high hopes. From Kanye the Rev. Edwin Lloyd observed:
“I have long seen that their cattle stood between our people and their progress. While they possessed so many cattle, the young men and boys were obliged to herd them, and were prevented from coming to our schools to learn. In addition, the cattle-posts were the principal schools of heathenism, were untold evil was both taught and practiced.”
Lloyd added that men were now leaving in mass to work on the construction of the Mahikeng-Bulawayo railroad or in South African mines. Molepolole’s resident missionaries, Mary Partridge and Rev. Howard Williams, were likewise tempted to look upon their parishioners’ perdition as a catalyst for progress. Partridge: “The Bakwena need to learn that next to ‘love of God’ comes the ‘dignity of labour’. Bakwena men are frightfully lazy and selfish. They would infinitely rather kopa food from the whites than do a little work to earn it. Some of them have been persuaded to go to work at the mines at Kimberly and some have gone through sheer necessity. No doubt many more will be driven to go. It will do them good.
Williams: “The loss of their cattle has driven large numbers to seek work. Certainly, the best thing that could happen as far as teaching them the value of labour...Work was the last thing thought of except amongst the poorer classes and with these the period rarely exceeds six months. All that is altered. A generation will pass before this country will recover its lost wealth in cattle.”
Elements of the colonial regime also believed that the black horse of famine could be ridden as an inducement to wage labour by importing grain for distribution in food for work schemes. According to Williams, the Bakwena were at first reluctant: “The Government brought immense supplies of food close to them and the Railway afforded the opportunity to work, but scarcely any of the would turn out to work and many more would not go out to get food offered to them at a very small rate.”
As providers, Dikgosi had expected that they would be able to cater for the most needy from their communal grain stores. As a result, they initially rejected aid offered through a charitable London Relief Committee. Sebele observing:
“The offer has come through the wrong channels. The very fact that the government officials have written to the missionaries for information has caused my people to look upon the offer with suspicion. The government in some of their dealings with my people have not been true to their word.” Overwhelmed by desperate circumstance, he however soon relented, sending wagons regularly to pick up relief supplies. By December 1898 over 1,400 women and children in Molepolole were receiving rations from the Committee.
Throughout 1897-98 reports spoke of horrific mortality rates in south-east Botswana due to famine and unspecified fever. When the Rev. Williams visited Kolobeng in June 1898, where several thousand members of the BagaMashadi faction had relocated three years earlier, he was shocked to find the place nearly deserted.
The local kgosi told him that his followers were either “in graves or scattered in all directions seeking food or work.” Williams supported this observation by providing statistics for four of the community’s kinship wards showing recent death to former population ratios of 57/150, 21/70, 11/14 and 14/40. He further noted that 15 out of 34 church members had died at Kumakwane, along with most members of its once predominant Griqua community and one fifth of the residents at Tlokweng. In Kanye an estimated 1,500 perished in 1898, while over a third of all students at the mission school in Molepolole reportedly died in the same year. The health of children had been rendered especially vulnerable by the absence of milk cows.