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Origins of the Batswana -BOER WAR OF 1852-53

We concluded last week by observing that for indigenous African communities in the region, the “Great Trek”, or mass Boer migration into the Highveld region of South Africa, was a time of subjugation.

For local communities their arrival resulted in instances of chattel slavery as well as forced labour and the loss of land and independence.

While it is true that some had initially welcomed the Maburu as allies against the Amandebele, others fought from the beginning. It was observed “that Mosilikatse was cruel to his enemies but kind to those he conquered; but that the Boers destroyed their enemies and made slaves of their friends.”

An early example of Batswana resistance to the Voortrekker invasion is Baphiring Kgosi Mabalane’s participation in the 1836 attack on the Boer laager at Vegkop. When Mzilakazi withdrew to the north, Mabalane continued to hold out from his sanctuary in the Lepalong caves. These caves could only be reached by ladders, which were removed whenever the enemy approached.

Lepalong was finally abandoned when larger numbers of Boers began settling in and around nearby Potchefstroom (“Chief Potgeiter’s stream”). The Baphiring then went to Lomawe, only to move again when Andries Cronje’s Boers began coercing labour in the area. After much wandering, Mabalane, in 1870, finally settled his people on a small “location” where they have since remained.

The remnants of the Bakwena bagaMogopa were beginning to come together when their Kgosi, Mmamogale, was sjambocked by Boers for refusing to supply labourers. Being without guns, Mmamogale moved south to join Moshoeshoe’s well armed Basotho in their wars against both the Boers and British. After the 1868 British annexation of Lesotho, Mmamogale returned to Transvaal, where his descendants continued to struggle.

Another Basotho ally was the Bapo Kgosi Mogale. After Potgeiter began to force his people to dig irrigation ditches for “Magaliesburg” farmers, Mogale assisted Moshoeshoe in the smuggling of guns to the still independent Balaka Dikgosi Mapela and Mankopane. Mogale was forced to flee to Lesotho when his gunrunning activities were betrayed by an individual named Mwerane.

Communities in Botswana also suffered because of the Great Trek, though they did not suffer the same fate as their relatives in modern South Africa. This is because they united successfully to defend their independence in the Batswana-Boer War of 1852-53. At the time the Transvaal Boers hoped to make Botswana part of their newly-proclaimed South African Republic (SAR). Although the Boers began the hostilities by invading south-eastern Botswana, it was they who soon found themselves on the defensive. After being besieged in their laagers for five months, they sued Sechele for peace, resulting in what survives

as Botswana’s eastern border with South Africa.

The Batswana-Boer War of 1852-53 was the seminal event in Botswana’s birth as a nation state. Under the leadership of Sechele, during the war Batswana communities settled west of the Madikwe and Limpopo Rivers formed an enduring alliance against the Transvaal Boers. Although the Boers began the hostilities, by invading south-eastern Botswana, it was they who soon found themselves on the defensive. After being besieged in their laagers for five months, they sued Sechele for peace, resulting in what survives as Botswana’s eastern border with South Africa.

The Bakwena Kgosi Sechele I was the principal hero of the Batswana-Boer War. In the aftermath of the Difaqane he had emerged as the most powerful Batswana monarch by selling ivory and other game products for guns. As he obtained more guns he was able to arm ever larger hunting parties. These parties in turn killed even more animals allowing him to buy still more guns. Because he learned arithmetic, as well as how to read and write, Sechele became skilful in his negotiations with the European traders.

Very early on Sechele’s activities, though, made the Boers nervous. In 1844 the Boers demanded that Sechele give up his guns and submit to their authority. Instead Sechele fortified his principal village, Tshonwane. In 1845 the hunter-trader Roualeyn Gordan Cumming thus observed, while visiting Sechele’s then centre, 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 was 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 had 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.”

Throughout the 1840s relations between Bakwena and Boers remained tense but peaceful. When in 1846 the Boers confiscated the wagons of one trader for carrying arms to Sechele, the missionary David Livingstone calmed Boer fears about Bakwena military strength. But, tensions increased shortly thereafter as the Boers began to suspect that Livingstone, himself, was involved in the arms trade.

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