The European presence in the Chobe District and adjacent Zambesi-Linyandi region dates back to the 1851 expedition of David Livingstone and William Oswell, which also included the African American George Fleming.
In July of 1851 the three arrived at Sebetwane’s capital, Linyandi village, where they witnessed the already ailing Makololo kgosi’s death.
The expedition itself had come at the Makololo ruler’s invitation. Eager to make direct contact with missionaries and ivory traders, Sebetwane had earlier sent 13 black cows to the Bakwena kgosi Sechele, 13 brown cows to the Batawana kgosi Letsholathebe and 13 white cows to the Bangwato kgosi Sekgoma as a gesture to get their collective backing for the project.
At the time, Livingstone was Sechele’s missionary. His station at Kolobeng was a commercial as well as evangelical hub, serving as a depot for Cape traders eager to trade guns for ivory with Batswana. Occasionally, amongst them were British gentlemen officers, such as Oswell, who while on furlough from India came to Sechele’s for both the profit and sport of African game hunting. Some like Oswell also carried out map making and intelligence gathering activities.
As we have previously noted, George Fleming background was an ex-slave, he had originally come to the Cape Colony via the West Indies. In 1849 Fleming joined Oswell, Livingstone and two traders named Murray and Wilson, in a journey to “discover” Lake Ngami; serving as the expedition’s cook. By 1851 he had set himself up as an independent trader.
From Linyandi in August 1851 Fleming, Livingstone and Oswell crossed what is now the eastern Caprivi to reach old Sesheke on the Zambezi from where they further explored the middle Zambezi. In so doing the party divided itself with Fleming and Oswell travelling eastward from the Chobe confluence, while Livingstone remained behind.
It is, therefore, not unlikely that Fleming was with Oswell, when the latter figure observed the position of Mosi-oa-Tunya (Victoria Falls), which he pinpointed on a map with the observation “spray seen at 10 miles.” This explains why, prior to Livingstone so-called November 1855 discovery, correct location of the Falls was between 1851-52 reflected in maps drawn by Oswell and Livingstone, guided by local sources, which were further copied by Anderson, Galton and others, notably including in William Cooley’s 1852 publication “Inner Africa Laid Open.”
Encouraged by the commercial prospects he had encountered during the 1851 expedition, Fleming subsequently succeeded in obtaining financial backing from a Cape Town merchant named Howson Rutherford in order to establish himself as an interior trader. In a letter to Oswell, Livingstone thus reported: “Your cook George Fleming proposes to go up country on his own account some months hence. Mr.
Blakie further reports: “It was Mr. Rutherford who, when Livingstone was at the Cape in 1852, entered into his plans for supplanting the slave-trade by lawful traffic, and at his suggestion engaged George Fleming to go north with him as a trader, and try the experiment.”
It was in this independent context that Fleming ultimately joined Livingstone in returning to the Makololo country in June 1853. The two parted in November 1853 with Fleming travelling back to Grahamstown with a profitable load of ivory.
Others followed. By the 1860’s Zambesi-Linyandi was a major area of commercial ivory hunting by both Europeans and Africans, while slave traders linked to the Portuguese Angolan ports were also sometimes present.
An 1860 attempt by the London Missionary Society (LMS) to establish a station amongst the Makololo ended in failure. During the same period the popular artist, Thomas Bains painted his own observations of the region. Amongst his portraits is one of the local Banabia ruler Hwangwe.
From 1871 to 1888 external trade within the region was largely monopolised by George Westbeech, along with his partners George Blockley and Benjamin Bradshaw. The latter figure also produced some of the earliest detailed maps of the Chobe River.
In 1872 Westbeech established his trading post at Mpandamatenga, where he was looked upon by the Malozi as one of their local induna. The “Hunters Road” established by Westbeech from Tati and Francistown to his stations quickly became the main trade route between South and Central Africa. From 1881-83 Westbeech extended the road from his second trading post at Leshoma to the Southern bank of the Zambezi.
Thereafter, he established the ferry service across the Zambezi to Kazungula village on the north bank of the river in what is now Zambia, where he also set up shop. The first proper ferry was a metal boat that he purchased after it had had been brought up in three pieces by an Austrian state sponsored exploration expedition led by Dr. Emil Holub
Others, including two British military officers gathering intelligence from 1875-76, were also active in the region. A decade later two prominent German explorers, A. Hammar and A. Schultz, collaborated in writing a detailed account of their 1884 journey along the Linyandi-Chobe.
A Paris Evangelical Mission Station was established at Kazungula in 1889 as part of a wider presence amongst the Malozi that began in 1885.