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The Making Of A Young Radical

Our previous episode traced the Rev. Dr. David Livingstone’s radical, albeit then anonymous condemnation of Boer oppression of Batswana in the pages of the British Banner newspaper to his 1848 journey into the central Transvaal.

Among the atrocities he witnessed during the expedition was a Boer commando attack on the relatively prosperous Bakwena bagaMoletse, who had broken away from the Bakwena bagaKgabo of Botswana about a century earlier.

The pretext for the attack was an incident when some Boers had killed an elephant in the BagaMoletse territory. A crowd had surrounded the hunting party to demand a tusk and half of the meat as sehuba for their Kgosi, resulting in the Boers running off unharmed.

No doubt motivated by knowledge of the BagaMoletse wealth in cattle and sheep, as well as a desire to remove a potential obstacle to their central Transvaal hegemony, a punitive commando was organised.

The force was made up of 107 Boers and a larger albeit unknown number of black auxiliaries, who had been forced to accompany them. Livingstone reported:

“On arriving on the hill on which Melecho (Kgosi Moletse) was posted, the Boers placed their native auxiliaries in front, and thus protected, sat on their horses and coolly fired, for six hours, over what the natives called a ‘shield’, that shield being themselves.

The people of Melecho made many desperate efforts to break through the ranks of their fellow-countrymen, and reach the Boers, but unsuccessfully.”

Surrounded, the bulk of the BagaMoletse warriors fought to their death, their battle axes being no match for the enemy’s long rifles. Some 3,000 were massacred. Another 400 or so children, of both sexes, along with more than 10,000 sheep were captured so that “each of the 107 Boers received 100 sheep and 4 children besides cattle as his share.”

While the BagaMoletse massacre may have been a turning point in Livingstone’s more active involvement in the then emerging armed struggle between the western Batswana merafe and Boers, his youthful radicalism had deeper roots in his intellectual development that went beyond his passionate denunciation of racism, slavery and British colonial as well as Boer crimes against the indigenous communities of Southern Africa.

From his early childhood in Scotland, Livingstone exhibited a restless personality who had a seemingly insatiable need to improve himself and others, while understanding the secrets of God’s universe.

Born into lower working class poverty with few advantages other than his own endurance and intellect by the time he first arrived in Botswana, in 1841, he had the confidence of a self-made man.

The second of five surviving siblings, Livingstone’s childhood was austere. His family lived in a 14 feet by 10 (4.3m by 3m) single room tenement,

where he was taught to read and write by his pious father, but never attended any day school, before he went to University.

Instead, when he was 10, he went to work from 6 am to 8 pm, six days a week, at a cotton spinning mill. Thereafter, he combined occasional night classes (8-10 pm) with self-study.

Like his self-taught comrade Sechele, Livingstone was a something of a genius, showing a special aptitude for languages and science.

As a boy, he collected natural specimens, which took him beyond his geology and botany lessons. One early mystery was why the limestone he found at an inland quarry contained sea shells. When he asked a quarryman, he was bluntly told - “When God made the rocks; he made the shells in them!”

Unconvinced, Livingstone grappled with notions of species evolution and extinction decades before the 1859 Publication of Charles Darwin’s “On the Origen of Species.” While Livingstone was certainly not alone in his pre-Darwinian contemplation of evolution, he was certainly exceptional in the context of his unschooled working class background.

For years, Livingstone persisted in his self-study at work by positioning an open book on his spinning jenny, beginning with Ruddiman’s “Rudiments of Latin”, which he purchased with his share of his first wage.

Other languages ultimately including Setswana followed, flowering into innovative linguistic theories.

In his “Analysis of the Language of the Bechuana” he argued against relying on European grammatical concepts, observing that Setswana bore more resemblance to ancient Egyptian:

“The Sichuana absolute verb, like that of the ancient Egyptian is often expressed by the same words which express the absolute noun: a peculiarity which, according to Bunsen, may be explained in a philosophical point of view by the inseparable union, and therefore apparent identity, of the two ideas of personality and existence. I have often been struck by the similarity the structure of this language bears to Sichuana.”

Livingstone’s thirst for knowledge disturbed his employers, who saw it as a distraction and for a period also his father, who was concerned about his son’s questioning of what he perceived to be Biblical truths.

Father and son had a change of heart around 1832 when, having switched to the theologically liberal Free Church of Scotland, they were both reconciled by the notion that “religion and science are friendly to one another.”

In 1836, at the age of 23, Livingstone had finally saved enough money to enrol at the then Anderson University, Glasgow, for medical studies.

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