Previously we had noted,, having been emboldened by a successful 1882 raid, in 1884 Lobengula decided to dispatch a force of not less than 2,500 of his best warriors, under the command of his brother Lotshe, to invade Ngamiland.
If the Nkosi believed that the rest of the Batawana cattle would prove to be an easy target, he had grieviously underestimated his foe.
In the decades prior to the 1884 invasion, the Batawana Kingdom had steadily expanded under the able, if at times ruthless, leadership of Letsholathebe I (who ruled 1847-74) and his son Moremi II (ruled 1876-91).
At the onset of his reign, Letsholathebe had consolidated his control over the ivory trade in northern-western Botswana. From 1851, he further succeeded in establishing direct contact with European inland traders from Windhoek and the Cape Colony (via Kweneng) in order to ensure his local monopoly of firearms. Tusks, which were declared a royal monopoly, were often traded for guns.
By the time of Moremi II, the Batawana had thus developed a formidable military force. An 1884 estimate by the German trader-explorer Schultz noted that the mephato under the King’s direct authority numbered some 5,000, most of whom could be both mounted and armed with modern breech loading rifles.
In his “History of Ngamiland” the late Professor Thomas Tlou further describes the makeup of the different forces available to the King. The mounted men or cavalry were ranked as the elite units. Below them were the foot soldiers, who were further sub-divided by the class of their weapons. Amongst the riflemen those with breech-loaders were followed by those with older, less accurate and slower to load, muzzle-loaders.
In addition there were still a considerable number of men, usually from various vassal communities, who were equipped with traditional weapons. Although no match for the main army of gun wielding troops, the latter category of warriors would prove useful in helping to lure the Amandebele to their doom.
Notwithstanding such martial capacity, the earlier 1882 Amandebele raid had been a near disaster for the Batawana. Believing themselves to be without serious threat from the east as well as south, they had completely failed to anticipate the sudden arrival of the Amandebele on the outskirts of Toteng, where Moremi had his royal residence.
The arrival of a lone, dust-covered, messenger is said to have sounded the alert just in time for Moremi to order a hurried evacuation. Available cavalry from the Maalola and Maganakakgomo regiments were then sent out to delay the invaders advance, while women and children were escorted into the wetlands for safety. This later operation relied on Wayeyi mekoro.
While most of the population managed to escape, it had been too late
An unknown, but apparently small number of people were also taken captive. Some of these were only able to return to their families a decade later when the Amandebele finally fell to Cecil Rhodes’ mercenaries. Notwithstanding some exaggerated reports at the time, few lives, however, are said to have been lost in the 1882 raid.
Following the raid, Moremi established a second headquarters north-west to Nokaneng. He also posted spies on his border with Lobengula to ensure that the Batawana would be better warned the next time.
Besides giving ample warning of the mobilisation of Lotshe’s 1884 expedition, these pickets were able to capture and kill advanced parties of Amandebele scouts. The element of surprise this time would belong to the Batawana and their Wayeyi allies.
As part of his preparations, Moremi ordered that the main Batawana centre, Toteng be once more evacuated. Its population, along with that of the surrounding countryside, retreated in an orderly manner northwards into the Okavango swamp area.
Upon reaching the region around Khutiyabasadi, some 35 kilometres south of Nokaneng, the Batawana women and children were ferried across the swamps to a place of refuge by Wayeyi using mekoro and papyrus bridges. Moremi’s mother, Mphepeng, is said to have overseen this exercise along with the senior Wayeyi ruler in the area, Qhunkunyane.
The retreat had been carefully shielded by the Malwelamotse, Maganakakgomo and Makanono regiments, who nonetheless did not encounter any large number of Amandebele. They thereafter took up their defensive positions at Khutiyabasadi in anticipation of the invader’s arrival.
Meanwhile the livestock were mostly herded well out of danger to the south and west. Thus, when the Amandebele finally arrived at Toteng they found the village virtually deserted. As the missionary Hepburn reported:
“They [Batawana] abandoned the town, and retired three days up river. The Amandebele came on to the town, and sat down to enjoy the food they found before going on to annihilate the enemy. They had come to make an end of them, and they fully believed themselves to make a complete end; and therefore went very leisurely.”
But, no sooner had the invaders settled down to enjoy their ill-gotten gains than an elite force of Batawana appeared under Moremi’s personal command.