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The Making Of An “Explorer”

We had previously observed that by the end of 1840s, with the elephant population in his own domains dwindling, Sechele moved to secure access to the hunting grounds of northern Botswana in collaboration with Dikgosi Letsholathebe of Batawana and Sekgoma of Bangwato.

In about 1847 Sechele, probably not for the first time, travelled to Ngamiland to consolidate his partnership with Letsholathebe. One of the Mokwena’s daughter was betrothed as the Motawana’s Mohumagadi (she died shortly after the marriage). It was also in the aftermath of this visit that Letsholathebe, in April 1849, sent seven envoys to Sechele requesting that he send some makgoa to Gatawana to establish direct trade.

Among other things, Sechele’s agreement to honour the request resulted in his heretofore obscure missionary, David Livingstone, gaining initial fame for his association with the so-called “discovery” of Lake Ngami.

Knowledge of the existence of Lake Ngami, and indeed Mosi-oa-Thunya, had in fact become widespread among Europeans in the region by the early 1840s, with local newspapers, as well as the private papers of individuals from the time, confirming that between 1843 and 1849 a steady stream of gentlemen traders had unsuccessfully approached Sechele and his peers for safe passage to the northern waters.

From June through September 1849 the radical missionary turned novice explorer travelled with a Bakwena party led by a certain Ramothobi who had made the journey many times before. Sechele had intended to lead the expedition himself, but stayed behind in the face of rumours of an impending Boer attack.

Besides Livingstone, three other makgoa, the well-to-do William Oswell and Mungo Murray, and local trader J.H. Wilson, as well as an African-American, George Fleming, accompanied Ramothobi. Possibly, the first outsider to see the Mosi-wa-Thunya, Fleming would subsequently join Livingstone in his later explorations of central Africa.

Ramothobi’s party set off on June 1, 1849, arriving at Letsholathebe’s headquarters at Toteng the following August. There, the traders were able to favourably procure up to 10 tusks per gun. In the months that followed, this rate of exchange dropped to a more balanced one cow elephant tusk per gun.

As Letsholathebe and Sechele must have intended, news of the trader’s success was followed by a significant upsurge in the traffic of guns into northern Botswana from Eastern Cape Colony via Gammangwato as well as Kweneng. On the May 4, 1850 the Grahamstown Journal reported that 45 wagons were to set off for ‘Lake Oswell’.

The rising commercial traffic within Botswana alarmed the Transvaal Boers who tried in vain to stem it. In the same month two travellers, Joseph McCabe and Thomas Baines were detained in the Transvaal, while at least three other

‘sportsmen’ bound for the Lake via Sechele’s, Capt. Ernest Shelly, Henry Bushe and a Mr Ewart, were diverted.

McCabe, who in 1846 had also had his wagons confiscated by the Boers for carrying weapons to Sechele, was ultimately fined for publishing the route to the Lake. To avoid the Boers, he thereafter with Bakwena assistance became the first European to reach Ngamiland via central Kgalagadi.

The fallout of Boer acts of interference, coupled with further alarm that they might seek to occupy parts of Botswana up to the Lake, raised considerable concern within the Cape Colony about continued commercial access to the interior. This resulted in the first, ultimately rejected, proposals by Oswell and others for Britain to extend some sort of protection over the Batswana west of the Transvaal.

While the Governor of the Cape, Harry Smith, recognised London’s reluctance to extend its formal authority, he nonetheless found it ‘advisable to accredit a British Agent to reside with the chiefs in the neighbourhood of the Lake’.

In a letter to the British Secretary of State for the Colonies, the Earl Grey, dated July 12, 1850, Smith further advised London of the well-known ‘dangers that would arise to the natives from a settlement of the Dutch emigrant Boers’ who would ‘seriously obstruct the progress of travellers to the interior’, while also noting that such concerns had previously led to British occupation of Natal and the lands between the Orange and Vaal rivers as ‘a means of introducing civilisation and a legitimate trade with the tribes in the interior’.

Of the belief that ‘the discovery of the lake has greatly increased the facilities for this noble undertaking’, Smith further informed his superiors that: ‘I trust that if I succeed in putting the natives upon their guard, they will be able to resist the incursion of the Boers, at any rate until I receive further instruction from your Lordship.

As Letsholathebe’s mephato became armed, others also began to see advantages of European “exploration.” In 1850 Sebetwane sent out three parties of emissaries. One brought 13 black cows to Sechele, another 13 brown cows to Letsholathebe, and a third 13 white cows to Sekgoma.

Accompanying each of these gifts was a request that the road to the Makololo also be opened to the makgoa. It was through such indigenous agencies that Livingstone’s career as Victorian Britain’s most celebrated explorer was launched.

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