Guns In Botswana

The pre-colonial emergence of an indigenous gun culture among communities within modern Botswana was a determining factor in the territory's separate colonial and thus post-colonial destiny.

Possession of guns, accompanied by the rapid adoption of new military and hunting tactics for their use, played a significant role in the reformation of local polities during the mid-19th century. By 1870, much of modern Botswana had as a result come under the authority of four kingdoms; led by the Dikgosi of Bakwena (Kweneng), Bangwaketse (Gangwaketse), Bangwato (Gammangwato), and Batawana (Gatawana). The political authority of each of these kingdoms, along with the border states of the Barolong boo-Ratshidi (Borolong), Bakgatla-ba-ga-Kgafela (Kgatleng), and Balete (Gammalete), was supported by the protective and coercive capacity of their arsenals.

This defensive capacity enabled them to resist repeated threats to their independent well-being by the Amandebele and Boers. Defensive state formation in southeast Botswana further resulted in a considerable population influx from the Transvaal, permanently altering the region's demography. An 1857 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’.


Setswana praise poetry reflects the significance of firearms as symbolic markers as well as material instruments of power. The following verse celebrates an alleged incident during the 1852-53 Batswana-Boer War - the January 7, 1853 shooting of the Transvaal Boer leader Andries Pretorius by the Barolong boo-Ratshidi sniper Mococe Marumo-a-Makgetla at Mosita: “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.” [Translation]: “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 lady is in tears, but her eyes look away, as she curses the leopard of the Makgetla breed, curses the eagle that is born of Marumo, says that monster has eaten up our husbands, and condemned us to dismal widowhood.” Praise poetry from the period underscores the fact that the story of guns in Botswana has been as much about their quality as quantity. The Bangwato Kgosi Khama III is thus remembered as the hero who “did not sit by the fire, who when the tribes came together, came together and went to fetch wood, remained behind and examined the rifles; he picked out those for shooting far, he picked out carbines and breech-loaders”: “Ke ene mogale yoo sa nneng isong, yo erileng tshaba diphuthegile, diphuthegile di ya kgonnye, a sale a sekaseka ditlhobolo; a tlhopha tse di mafulo a thata, a tlhopha bobjane le bobautu.” ['Carbines' more literally translates as ‘short ones’, i.e., ‘bojane’; while ‘breech-loaders’ are with ‘bolts’, i.e. ‘bautu’]. In July 1876, just a decade after their battlefield superiority over muzzleloaders was demonstrated by the Prussian victory at the Battle of Koniggratz, the acquisition of breech-loaders by Khama’s mentor, Sechele, is credited with enabling the Bakwena to gain the upper hand in a firefight on the outskirts of Molepolole against Linchwe's Bakgatla-ba-ga-Kgafela.

Possession of breech-loaders was a common and critical factor in subsequent Batswana martial success. Among Linchwe’s praise poems one thus finds reference to his subsequent use of Martini rifles against the Boers: ‘Mekgakwana borranko-e -moriti ntona tsaga Makopye a Lekgoa; o bafudile ka Martini, Mokgatla ka Martini, Mokgatla wa ga Kgafela” “Red-faced people with jutting noses, lieutenants of the white man “Makopye” [literally one with protruding head, identified as Harklass Malan]; the Bakgatla fired on them with Martinis, with Martinis, the Mokgatla of Kgafela”. Batswana were quick to incorporate gun-wielding cavalry into their military formations and tactics. Mounted men armed with breech-loaders played a decisive role in what may have been the most sanguinary of Botswana's many 19th century fire-fights, the 1884 engagement at Khutiyabasadi, where Batawana and Wayeyi slaughtered over 1,500 Amandebele invaders. Batswana cavalry commonly operated alongside foot soldiers as part of the traditional age regiments or mephato, being organised following clear social hierarchies. While their field tactics on horse were similar to those of the Boers, Griqua, or Nama. It would therefore be a misnomer to say they had also adopted the “commando system." The military and consequent political significance of firearms to the evolution of 19th century Botswana dovetails with the social and environmental impact of their use in hunting (to be continued).

Editor's Comment
A step in the right direction

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