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The expulsion of the AmaNdebele

Our last episode left off in 1836-37 with the beginning of the Boer invasion of the South African Highveld or “Great Trek”.

On the walls of the Voortrekker Monument at Gauteng are portrayed many of the Treks supposed heroes. Only one black is included among them: Kgosi Moroka of the Barolong booSeleka. 

The Morolong’s appearance in Afrikanerdom’s hallowed hall is a tribute to what the early Setswana historian Sol Plaatje characterised as “the tragic friendship of Moroka and the Boers.” This relationship began with 1836 Batswana-Boer alliance against the Amandebele.

While a handful of communities on his western and southern borders continued to holdout under the leadership of dikgosi like Sebego, Segotshane, Sechele and Moroka, by 1835 the Amandebele hegemony over the Batswana heartland appeared secure. Each year more Batswana boys were being inducted into the Mzilakazi’s regiments, as young women were taken as wives and concubines.  Recognizing that disunity was their greatest weakness, most of the unconquered southern dikgosi had already put aside their differences to form a pan-Batswana alliance, which also included the Griqua. Dikgosi Pilane, Segotshane and Sechele were at least in contact with the southern front, with Sebego remaining in relative isolation at Lehututu.

Closer contact between the Batswana and Boers can be dated from 1834 when the pioneer trekkers began to pass by Moroka’s stronghold at Thaba Nchu, in route to hunt for ivory. The Boers initially ignored warnings by the Batswana and Griqua about the danger of trespassing into the Tautona’s domain. In September 1836 two hunting parties of Boers were nearly wiped out by the Amandebele, while a month later a third, much larger, group under Hendrick Potgieter barely managed to survive an attack by one of the Tautona’s generals, Kaliphi, on their laager at Vegkop. The survivors were left stranded with little ammunition or food, having lost all of their livestock. Hearing of their predicament Moroka decided to rescue the Boers, who were escorted back to Thaba Nchu.

In December 1836 the fateful alliance was formed. Initially Dikgosi Gontse, Matlaba, and Tawana joined Moroka, the Griqua Kaptien Petrus Davids, and the Boer Commandants Potgieter and Gert Maritz in planning an attack on the principal Amandebele settlements at and around Mosega. The joint Batswana-Boer-Griqua force, many armed with guns, struck at dawn on the 17th of January 1837. The Rev. Daniel Lindly, an American Baptist missionary, reported:

“Sometime before sunrise we were aroused by a starting cry, a commando! A commando! In half a minute after this alarming cry a brisk fire commenced on a kraal of people a few hundred yards from our house. The fire of one followed that of another in quick succession, and at

the thrilling report of every gun the thought would rush on our minds, there falls one, and another, and another of the poor heathen of whose salvation we had once had some hope. In a few minutes we were in the midst of the slaughter....

“The Boers attacked and destroyed thirteen, some say fifteen, kraals. Few of the men belonging to them escaped, and many of the women were either shot down or killed with assegais.”

Mzilakazi, along with most of his warriors, had been further north when the attack occurred. The massacre at Mosega was, nonetheless, a heavy blow. Some 1,000 Amandebele had fallen. The attackers suffered only two casualties, both Batswana. One of these had been a victim of “friendly fire” by a Boer, who mistook him for the enemy. The Amandebele position in the greater Madikwe region now became desperate. On all sides a “perfect storm” was gathering around the Tautona. To the north Batswana refugees, including Kgosi Pilane’s BagaKgafela, coalesced around the Balaka ruler, Mapela.

Meanwhile, in June of 1837 Nkosi Dingaane’s Amazulu launched a massive invasion across the Drakensberg, defeating a large Amandebele force along the Elands River in August 1837. In the aftermath of this engagement Amazulu raiders swept as far as the Madikwe, destroying communities while making off with large herds of livestock before returning to their homeland. In the south-west the Bafokeng also went on the offensive, having earlier killed Mzilakazi’s tribute collectors. Meanwhile, Segotshane and Sechele raided the Tautona’s cattle posts in the west.

Back at Thaba Nchu, Moroka and Boer commandants planned a second big attack. In November of 1837, some 330 Boers under Potgieter and Pieter Uys, accompanied by a greater number of Barolong led by ditona Mmui, Mongala, Seatlholo and Motuba, burned Mzilakazi’s capital eGabeni before attacking the other Amandebele military settlements along the Madikwe and Tholwane rivers.

The Tautona had again eluded the attackers. As eGabeni burned he, along with much of his army, was mobilized against the northern threat posed by Mapela and Pilane. Other Amandebele had already been sent under the command of Kaliphi, to scout out the possibility of migrating into the lands of the already embattled Bakalanga-Banyayi Mambo.

Upon hearing of the new Barolong-Boer offensive, Mzilakazi decided to retreat with the rest of his people and link up with Kaliphi. Thus, on the 12th of November 1837, the Boers and Barolong, now joined by other Batswana, rested atop the Dwarsburg hills, while watching tens of thousands of Matebele cross into modern Botswana at Sikwane.

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