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Sechele And The White Ants

“It was also about this time that the Transvaal Boers began to bring themselves into hostile contact with the native tribes on their borders.

Sechele was attacked by them, but not conquered. Indeed he retaliated upon the Boers so successfully the fainthearted native chiefs living on the Boer border came with their tribes and placed themselves under Sechele.

He now encouraged English traders to come into the country, and he, and the tribes under him, possessed themselves of guns and ammunition and horses, and became formidable opponents of Boer aggression”- From 1892 Sechele obituary by Rev. Rodger Price.

In our earlier discussion of the coming of the “white ants” we had noted that a mutual dependence had existed between 19th century missionaries and traders in Botswana.

This symbiosis is evidenced by the fact that, following the pattern of Kuruman or Kudumane, during 1840s the villages of the Bakgatla baga Mmanaana Kgosi Mosielele, at Manwane adjacent to the LMS station at Mabotsa, and the Bakwena Kgosi Sechele at Tshonwane and subsequently Kolobeng-Dimawe, quickly emerged as significant local trading centres.

When traders conducted their business as far as the middle Zambezi and beyond, they often used the mission station at Kolobeng, in particular, as a place where goods could be safely stored in their absence.

In this respect, Kolobeng’s well documented status as a regional hub was even reflected in popular literature of the era, e.g. Jules Verne’s adventure novel ‘Meridiana’, which is largely set in Botswana [unfortunately not one of the great French writer’s more timeless works].

For two groups to trade, each must have something that the other wants. In the mid-19th century the Batswana supplied ivory and of lesser demand other game products to external traders. In return, they most commonly demanded guns. By possessing guns, Batswana could both defend themselves and hunt more efficiently.

Thus, by the 1840s, a system of exchange had come into being in which a small elephant tusk was valued at one new musket. Built on the same pattern as the “Brown Bess” which was then still the common issue of British infantrymen, tens of thousands of trade muskets were mass produced for the African market, mostly in workshops located in Belgium as well as Britain.

Although an individual tusk could often be resold for three times the value of an ordinary musket at the coast, the Batswana were not necessarily cheated.

At the time the traders had high overhead costs and undertook large risks by travelling for months over long distances in ox wagons to purchase ivory. Much like frontier prospectors of the era, some made

small fortunes, but many more failed than succeeded.

For his part Sechele, among others, was able to monitor the price of ivory in the Cape Colony through his access to publications such as the Grahamstown Journal. Besides his literacy, the Mokwena had the additional advantage of being the earliest known Kgosi to have studied European mathematics. As a result he was often accepted as a middleman by other Batswana.

It was in this context that European traders found the Mokwena to have been a reliable supplier but demanding negotiator; e.g. Henry Methuen (1844) described Sechele as “displaying the utmost craft in greediness in his bargains”, while Alfred Dolman (1846) found him to be “very crafty in dealing and by no means easy done”, and Robert Artwright (1846) noted that he was “a crafty and wily savage fond of bartering”.

Lieutenant Artwright was one of a number of British military officers on furlough whose game hunting safari along the Limpopo was hosted by Sechele.

In the past, ivory and karosses from Botswana had also been sent eastwards to the Portuguese stations along the Mozambique coast, as well as southwards into the Cape Colony. For centuries the former trade passed through the realm of the Banyayi-Bakalanga Mambos.

Among the Bakwena direct contact with the Mapotokisi is said to have occurred during 18th century reign of Motswasele I, who was Sechele’s great-great grandfather. According to Sekwena accounts, the first Motswasele acquired his praise name “Tsamai aKwena” after he travelled to the Indian Ocean coast himself.

By the mid-1840s, however, most of the trade had shifted southward to Grahamstown and other markets in the Eastern Cape. Basotho, Batlhaping and Griqua, as well as white fortune seekers thus came in increasing numbers to the Madikwe-Notwane region.

Throughout the 19th century, a major motive behind the Batswana demand for guns was the fear of Boer as well as residual Amandebele aggression.

Between 1835 and 1850 some 12,000 Boers left the coastal regions of the British-ruled Cape Colony to settle in the South African Highveld region, which became known as the Orange Free State and the Transvaal.

For many Africans in the region, this mass Boer migration or “Great Trek” was a time of subjugation.

 Their arrival resulted in instances of slavery as well as the loss of land and independence for local communities. Many were forced to work for the Boers without pay, while some were openly bought and sold as chattel property.

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