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Sechele's Cannon: Ramsay versus Grant

Sechele's Cannon in Mafikeng Museum PIC. THALEFANG CHARLES
Tomorrow (August 30) is the commemoration of the 1852 Battle of Dimawe between Batswana and the Boers. Below we republish two articles from historians Sandy Grant and Jeff Ramsay debating about Kgosi Sechele's cannon that was used during the battle.


Understanding that Sechele’s cannon must have been totally useless is of far greater importance than knowing for certain from whom he had obtained it. The Mafikeng Museum informs its visitors that the cannon was made in England in 1770 and named ‘the Nelson’. It has a 94 mm caliber and was able to fire 2.7kg cannon ball 2769 metres.  Both the Museum and Dr Ramsay are agreed that Sechele had the cannon at Dimawe but thereafter-go different ways.

The Museum says that it was used there (i.e. fired) whilst Ramsay maintains that there is no record as to the way it was deployed. My presumption is that there was no way that the cannon could have been fired because Sechele was unlikely to have possessed either the required cannon balls, the gun powder or the ramrod. Its role could only have been as a stage piece intended by Sechele to bolster the confidence of his own men.

 The Boers on the other hand were probably well aware that the cannon was virtually worthless.  If the Mafikeng Museum is correct it would appear that prior to its being mounted on wheels by Baden Powell in Mafikeng in 1900, it was either without wheels or, given its name, ‘the Nelson’, was mounted on the small recoil wheels of guns deployed in ships.

 In either event, it must have been extraordinarily difficult to transport, let alone use. I suggest that as the German traders (or Livingstone if you prefer!) had conned Sechele into purchasing this armament knowing very well that it was an unusable but nevertheless impressive artefact, Sechele in turn was able to dump it on to an equally gullible Linchwe and then onwards from him to Montshioa.

He, discovering that it was unusable, left it to be picked up by Baden Powell who, as the Museum claims, not only mounted it on its wheels but somehow deployed it against the Boers – as Sechele may have earlier hoped to do. But how was this possible? Nelson’s ships at Trafalgar would have used a cannon of this type where, against a massed, close range target, it was devastatingly effective. 

But it stretches credibility too far to maintain that one of those many guns could have been somehow redeployed a hundred years later during the siege of Mafikeng.  Neither Sechele, Montshioa, Linchwe nor Baden Powell would have possessed the material needed in order to fire the cannon – which must explain why all of them in turn abandoned something which they quickly realized was redundant, antiquated and useless – having been very much earlier replaced by the breech loading gun firing a shell.

Had any of its varied owners been able to fire this cannon, the iron balls that they had fired would have turned up long ago at Dimawe, or in both Manyana and Mafikeng.  None appear to have done so.    



“Rramokonopi wabo Kgosidintsi, otlhotse akonopano le Poulwe; erile motshegare Poulwe alapa, gasala gokonopa Rramokopi.” (“Marksman brother of Kgosidintsi [i.e. Sechele], he and Paul [Kruger] shot at each other all day; at midday Paul became tired, the Marksman alone remained shooting.”)

The above opening stanza of a praise poem about Sechele’s stand against the Boers at Dimawe captures the essence of the battle. On the 30th of August 1852 Paul Kruger, as a frontline officer leading the Boer advance, and Sechele quite literally shot at each other all day, with muzzle loading cannon and advanced rifle as well as musket fire.

Of the various artillery pieces known to have been deployed at Dimawe, by far the most formidable was Sechele’s long range 6 Pounder, so classified because it fired 6 pound (2.7 kilogram) solid round shot, although it was also capable of firing smaller “grape shot” and “course shot”, the latter of which could consist of bits of iron, lead or even rocks.

That Sechele possessed a stock of round shot is confirmed by James Chapman, who on 28th October 1852 recorded Sechele’s own account of the battle, including: “He did not know how many Boers they had killed, he only saw 3 or 4, but the Griquas tell them 30. He brought out some leaden cannon balls and smiled rather contemptuously.”

The balls could have been either locally cast or imported (probably both). The gun powder used for the cannon would have been the same as that of the muskets, the key in each case being the need to safely apply the correct amount.

In her diary the missionary wife Elizabeth Price recorded the effect of the gun’s test firing at Molepolole after the war: “We all thought it was an earthquake till, I think, in the morning we heard Sechele’s sons had been firing off a cannon which they have up above...”

Although originally a naval gun, being a 6 Pounder, Sechele’s cannon was not designed for sinking ships (the job of larger 24-42 Pounders) but rather for killing enemy sailors and marines by firing on their decks. Mounted on wagon wheels it was thus easily converted into an effective field gun.

In 1883 the cannon was sent to Mahikeng to assist the Barolong Kgosi Montshiwa in his war against the Goshen Boers. The Rev. John Mackenzie thus observed in 1884: "the old cannon of Montsioa, mounted between the wheels of an ox-wagon, was also brought into requisition to proclaim the

general joy and satisfaction.”

Originally cast 1770 by the Bailey, Pegg & Co. of London, by 1852 the gun was already old, but hardly out of date. This is due to the simple fact that muzzle loading cannon had evolved very little from the 1600s until the late 19th century when they began to be phased out by new breech-loading artillery. In this respect many British Empire units were laggards having retained muzzle loaders up until the 1899-1902 Anglo-Boer War, when they were thus initially out gunned by, the by then President, Kruger’s elite Staatartillerie.

At Dimawe, the Transvaal Boer Commando did not enjoy the same advantage. Their best gun was a 4 Pounder cannonade identified as “Ou Grietjie” a weapon that otherwise enjoys iconic status due to its role in the 1838 Battle of Blood River. Resting today at the Voortrekker Monument Museum, it was also cast c. 1800 for naval service by Fawcett Preston & Co. of London.

With a maximum range of 600 yards, but little accuracy beyond 300 yards, Kruger’s gun was inferior to Sechele’s, which could fire up to 3000 yards with precision; a quality that explains its subsequent well documented effectiveness during the Siege of Mafikeng (1899-1900). As Winston Churchill’s aunt, Lady Sarah Wilson, noted at the time:

“An old cannon had been discovered, half buried in the native stadt, which was polished up and named "The Lord Nelson" from the fact of its antiquity. For this gun solid cannon-balls were manufactured, and finally fired off at the nearest Boer trenches; and the first of these to go bounding along the ground certainly surprised and startled our foes, which was proved by their quickly moving a part of their laager.”

In addition to presumably greater experience with artillery, at Dimawe the Boers commando had an advantage in more concentrated battlefield deposition of the Batswana, as well as in number. In addition to the 4 Pounder, they brought with them smaller swivel cannon, which are reported to have been responsible for many of the Batswana casualties, e.g. Robert Moffat, on 6th September 1852:

“Though the Boers kept a respectable distance they were able by means of small swivels to do much execution among the natives”

And Livingstone, 20th September 1852:

“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 4 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.”

Relatively light navy surplus swivel cannon were in fact quite popular among the Boers at the time, who often mounted them on their ox-wagon.

The overall importance of artillery at Dimawe is further confirmed by Boer sources including Kruger’s own memoirs: “On Monday morning the battle began. I was well in front, and brought down a number of Kaffirs with my four-pounder, which I had loaded with coarse shot. When the mountain on which Secheli's town lay was already partly taken, Louw du Plessis, who was serving the guns, accidently hit a large rock, and the ball, rebounding, struck my head with such force that I fell to the ground unconscious.”

The Boer commander, Scholtz, in a 12th September 1852 dispatch to Andries Pretorius, further notes:

“I gave order to storm the defences when the cannons had fired. This was done with great courage, by the help of the Lord. But, you cannot conceive how hard the fight was. It must have lasted six hours altogether. Afterward I captured everything and set fire to the village. But the enemy retained the hill with caves, and I could not take it because my troops were exhausted. I had 70 cannon shots alone fired, with the loss of three men six wounded. In the evening the battle stopped.”

Also, from Scholtz’s official report: “I advanced with three hundred men close to his battery [i.e. Sechele’s artillery position] and sent messengers to prevail upon him to accept peace as I would otherwise be compelled to fight with cannon, and this might endanger the women and children. All this did not dispose him to peace...Upon which, under a shower of balls, I advanced upon the battery, confiding my fate in the hands of the Lord...

“During the battle, gunner officer M. Viljoen’s cannon caught fire when being loaded with powder, and he was severely injured, as he loaded the piece himself in order to encourage those under him. Because of this and other circumstances we were overtaken by nightfall; and with the enemy still holding a rocky hill of caves I was obliged to withdraw my men and return to laager.”





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