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The Gun Runners

As previously noted, the announcement of the Oswell-Livingstone expedition to Ngamiland, organised at the initiative of Dikgosi Letsholathebe and Sechele, resulted in an immediate upsurge in the traffic of guns into northern as well as eastern Botswana as scores of fortune seekers from the Cape Colony set out for the “elephant’s graveyard”.

Most were initially unaware of either the physical hardships of the trek or the ability of rulers like Letsholathebe, Sechele, and Sekgoma, joined from 1850 by the venerable Sebetwane, to regulate their movements. While a few of the more talented ones, generally experienced high volume traders such as David “Taute” Hume, prospered many others ended up little rewarded for their efforts.

Some perished of disease or thirst. Others badly miscalculated the bargaining prowess of the Dikgosi. By 1854 the Batawana at Toteng and Makololo at Linyati were charging a barrel containing 25 pounds of gunpowder, a gun, and quantities of cloth for one tusk. Those wishing to shorten their trip generally paid out more among the Bakwena at Kolobeng-Dimawe and Bangwato at Shoshong.

In monetary terms, probably the greatest beneficiaries of the commerce were the maritime merchants who transported the ivory from Grahamstown to London where it was sold at a 100% mark-up.

Another serious risk facing the interior arms for ivory traders was the continued opposition of the Transvaal Boers. In July 1850 the Commandant-General of the western Transvaal, Adriaan Standers, was reported to have “sent an order to Sechele to stop all English travellers and traders proceeding North”. The Mokwena refused but there were further incidents of traders having their wagons and goods confiscated by Boer patrols.

In the same month the Cape Colony’s Executive Council rejected the Resident Commissioner of Bloemfontein’s suggestion that the British either extent their authority over the Transvaal or “employ an armed force for the keeping open the communication between the colony and the portion of the interior of the African continent north of the territory occupied by the Boers.”

The Council was, however, disturbed at reports emanating from Sechele’s that a 500 man commando was preparing to seize Ngamiland. It was such communications, alongside the intelligence being received from on-the-ground agents such as Oswell, which convinced the Cape Governor Sir Harry Smith to recommend accrediting “a British Agent to reside with the chiefs in the neighbourhood of the Lake”.

In his reply to the Governor, the Colonial Secretary, The Earl Grey, confirmed London’s opposition to any further extension of British rule north of the Vaal River, while signing on to a quiet policy of “encouraging and assisting the native tribes whom they are oppressing to assert their right and to defend themselves.”

To avoid the Boers, a number of merchants, with

Smith’s blessing, also began to travel from Walvis Bay to Letsholathebe’s capital Toteng. Besides having to pass though the desolate landscape of central Namibia these parties often found themselves having to negotiate safe passage with  Jonker Afrikaner whose well armed Nama and “Orlams” commando dominated the region around Windhoek.

Eventually the British and Batawana helped secure the route by backing the Oveherero in their struggle to free the area from Afrikaner’s son.

Meanwhile the Boer efforts to stem the arms traffic in south-eastern Botswana failed largely due to the united effort by the Batlhaping, Barolong, Bangwaketse, and Bakwena. Another factor that kept the gunrunners in business was corruption within the Boer ranks.

Many Boers were themselves becoming involved in arms smuggling, as Livingstone anonymously taunted in the pages of the British Banner newspaper: ‘Members of his [Potgieter’s] own Council sell arms whenever they can profit. We saw one sell two hundred pounds of gunpowder and a bundle of muskets and laugh at the folly of his superior’

Prominent among the Boer traffickers was Jan Viljoen who, as veldkornet of the Marico District, bore primary responsibility for policing the western Transvaal border to stop the flow of guns. When he did exercise such authority, however, it was selective. As the English hunter-trader James Chapman, who was a sometime partner of Viljoen as well as favoured guest of Dikgosi Sechele and Sekgoma, noted in his diary in June of 1852:

“One of the richest most influential of the part, a Griqua by the name of Aapie Januarie, who [approached] Viljoen, in his official capacity as field cornet, to inform him that an Englishman named Harris was coming on with 80 guns which he is conveying to Moselekatse [the Amandebele Nkosi Mzilakazi] for sale; and to requesting Viljoen to use his influence and authority to dispossess him of them, for he considered it very wrong for the ‘veldomde Engelsman’ to arm such a savage native.”

Viljoen is further reported to have acted on the information by warning Kgosi Sekgoma of Harris’s plans, while also giving written authorisation for Adam ‘Aapie’ Januarie, to search wagons and confiscate those carrying guns and ammunition to the Amandebele without permit.

In other words, rather than stemming the flow of guns across the western frontier, Viljoen used his authority in support of collective Batswana, Griqua and Makololo efforts to deny firearms to the Amandebele.

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