Guns in Botswana (2)

Previously we observed that 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. 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. The acquisition of guns was both a cause and consequence of a surge in the region's hunting trade from the 1840s; involving the export of ivory, karosses, and ostrich feathers from hunting grounds that then largely fell under the effective control of the Dikgosi of Kweneng, Gammangwato, Gangewaketse, and Gatawana. Besides leading to a rapid decline in wildlife, and consequent expansion of arable and pastoral lands, hunting with guns reinforced social stratification in many areas.

This was manifested in patterns of subordination and servitude in the Kgalagadi between Batswana notables and Bakgalagari and Basarwa or Khoe/San communities. By the late 19th century, expectations of regimental gun ownership, coupled with a relative decline in commercial hunting, was a material factor that drove men to seek employment at the Kimberley and Gauteng mines. By the mid-19th century Batswana, along with other communities in the region, produced their own gunpowder and shot.

As Francis Galton thus noted with reference to his 1850-52 experiences in Botswana and Namibia: “It is difficult to make good gunpowder, but no skill is required in making powder that will shoot to kill. The negroes of Africa make it for themselves, burning charcoal, gathering saltpetre from salt-pans, and buying the sulphur from trading caravans; they grind the material on stone.” Smoothbore muskets were often serviced by local blacksmiths, an indigenous capacity that in some areas survived until relatively recent times.


Locally repaired vintage guns were thus a common sight in parts of rural Botswana into the late 20th century. In recent decades the number of such vintage guns has been reduced due to the surrender of old firearms as a gun control measure. From 2001-2006 Botswana Police thus destroyed 5,221 such firearms, an exercise that culminated in an August 12, 2006, public bonfire, lit by then President Festus Mogae as part of ‘Police Day’ activities, which torched 1,406 guns, included a noticeable number of muskets and early model breech-loaders. Besides evidence in the form of surviving munitions, there are other indications of transformation connected to the spread of guns and associated technology. In 1845 the hunter-trader Roualeyn Gordan Cumming observed while visiting Sechele's then centre at Tshonwane (Chonuane), that: “A short time previous to my arrival, a rumour having reached Sichely that he was likely to be attacked by emigrant Boers, he suddenly resolved to secure his city with a wall of stones, which he at once commenced erecting. It is now completed, entirely surrounding the town, with loopholes at intervals all along through which to play upon the advancing enemy with the muskets which he resolved to purchase from hunters and traders like myself." The settlement's then resident missionary, the Rev Dr David Livingstone, similarly described Tshonwane’s fortification: ‘Sechele is building a wall around his town, it contains loopholes for shooting.

The shape of the whole is a sort of triangle.” Today, the ruins of Tshonwane/Chonuane are found within South Africa, just over 10km east of the Ramotswa border gate. Additional remains of defensive walling and entrenchments, dating from the late 18th century, can also be found throughout eastern Botswana. Among these are the Kanye hill defences of Kgosi Makaba II, which enabled the Bangwaketse to resist a c.1798 attack by armed Griqua and Korrana led by the German fugitive Jan Bloem (Johannes Blum), in what is the earliest known appearance of guns as weapons of war in Botswana. As reflected by such later events as the participation of the Bakgatla ba-ga-Kgafela and others in the 1899-1902 South African War and the capture of Jack Pienaar’s Boer renegades by Seepapitso’s Bangwaketse on New Year’s Day 1915, innovation in both gun technology and military tactics allowed Batswana to maintain a relative parity, if not advantage, with other groups in the region well into the 20th century.

The recognised exception was the British imperial forces. In February 1865 a threatening letter by Kgosi Sechele to President Marthinus Pretorius, endorsed by allied Dikgosi, was sufficient to induce the Transvaal Boers to abandon a threat to seize lands in Lehurutshe. Yet when asked in 1868 if would fight the British, Sechele is reported to have replied: “How could I the great English would eat me up in one day.” The fact that the Batswana of the Protectorate were armed and had a tradition of collective action against external threats was, nonetheless, something that even London would have been mindful of in 1908-1909 when deciding to defer any transfer of political control to the nascent Union of South Africa.

Editor's Comment
Welcome to the new look The Monitor

This is a culmination of nine months of work by a dedicated team which comprised journalists, designers and marketers. The repositioning and redesign of The Monitor could not have come at a more appropriate time.The newspaper became of age last year when it turned 21 years old! It was first launched in February 2000 earning it the nick name “The Millennium Newspaper”. Twenty-two years later the media landscape, especially print, has changed...

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