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Mission To Cape Town

In our extended account of the 1852-53 Batswana-Boer War, we last left off at Motito on the 19th of December 1852, where Kgosi Sechele encountered Dr. David Livingstone, along with his then close confidant the African-American trader, George Fleming.

Having already passed by the village on his way to Kudumane to join his wife and children for Christmas at the Moffat’s, Sechele had turned back upon learning of Livingstone’s presence.

The Mokwena was exhausted, having ridden all night, but nonetheless wasted no time in imploring the missionary to join him on his Cape Town mission.

Livingstone did agree to accompany Sechele back to Kudumane. He would later write that: “I had a good deal to say to him about his soul and other things.” But, in the end he refused to go any further.

Besides his determination to explore the lands beyond the Zambezi with Fleming in the name of “Christianity and Commerce”, Livingstone was already deeply sceptical of Sechele’s chances of success in appealing to the goodwill of Her Majesty’s Government.

At the time, the pro-Boer Cape Colony Governor, Sir John Cathcart was involved in military actions of (in Livingstone’s own words) “unutterable meanness” against both the Basotho and Amaxhosa.

Against the latter, the British army had deployed modern conical bullets for the first time to devastating effect.

The Transvaal President, Andries Pretorius’ bungled efforts against the western Batswana were modest by comparison.

Livingstone, however, did not entirely turn his back on his former flock. With the help of Mohumagadi Selemeng and her attendants, who had arrived at Kudumane weeks before her husband, Sechele, the missionary had already drawn up a list of Bakwena children who had been enslaved by the Boers.

To this he had attached a cover letter for Sechele to give to Cathcart, in which he pledged to make himself available to personally identify the children, many of who were his ex-pupils, if the Governor ordered an investigation of slavery north of the Vaal.

Livingstone’s list would prove useful when Sechele reached Cape Town.

Besides the missionaries, Sechele found other supporters. Two prominent ivory traders, Sam Edwards (son of the missionary Robert Edwards) and Frederick Green, elected to travel with him to Bloemfontein.

There, in the capital of the then British occupied Orange River Sovereignty, Sechele was well received by Frederick’s brother, Henry Green, who was the local Resident Commissioner.

With an eye on the lucrative ivory for arms trade, many of Bloemfontein’s other leading citizens also rallied behind Sechele in their opposition to the pro-Boer policies of Governor Cathcart.

Even before his arrival, the Bloemfontein Gazette newspaper had begun to

portray the Mokwena as a protector of British commerce as well as noble opponent of Boer slavery.

After Sechele received an initial discouraging response from Cathcart to his proposed visit, sympathetic British military officers stationed at Bloemfontein went further to sponsor a private fundraising dinner “to enable him to pursue his journey to England.”

The Graaf-Reinet Herald newspaper reported that a then quite considerable sum of 119 pounds sterling was thus contributed, while an additional 10 pounds was raised at a smaller function in Colesburg.

Sechele then proceeded to Port Elizabeth, where he received additional backing from the Port Elizabeth Mercury newspaper before boarding the steamship S.S. Siren bound for Cape Town.

By the time Sechele had reached Cape Town, on the 11th of April 1853, the slavery issue was becoming a major stumbling block to Cathcart’s policy of Anglo-Boer partnership. In the Sand River Convention, the Transvaal Boers of Pretorius’ South African Republic had pledged not to engage in any form of slavery or slave trading.

Thus, on the 21st of April 1853, Sechele issued his own detailed statement, published in the Cape Town Mail, and later the official British Parliamentary Papers, in which he cast his struggle as being primarily against slavery.

In the process, he put forward a seemingly exaggerated claim that some 1,000 children and 200 women had been seized and sold. Livingstone’s final list, which would have excluded many from merafe other than the Bakwena, contained just 124 names.

Additional published reports from other interior missionaries and traders reinforced Livingstone and Sechele’s message. In response, the Boers tried to vigorously deny the allegations.

A century-and-a-half later it is, nonetheless, clear that slavery not only existed north of the Vaal River, but also was at the centre of the continuous conflicts that occurred there between the Voortrekkers and indigenous blacks.

The Boer cause was dealt a further blow among more enlightened British when, at Commandant General Piet Scholtz’s behest, the South African Republic’s Grand Council tried and convicted the L.M.S. missionaries, Robert Edwards and Walter Inglis of libel and high treason for protesting against the enslavement of Bakgatla and Bahurutshe women and children. During this kangaroo court, the missionaries were specifically condemned for “believing the words of Kaffirs.”

Sechele and his party remained at Cape Town from the 11th of April till the 16th of June 1853.

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