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The Great Plague

Previously, we noted that the 1918 Influenza Pandemic was officially estimated to have had a fatality rate of 5% within the Bechuanaland Protectorate, while further claiming some 50 million lives globally including 500,000 in South Africa.

Yet, as horrific as these figures were, the local impact of the 1918 Pandemic was overshadowed by a series of natural disasters that plagued Bechuanaland between 1896 and 1899; when a lethal combination of human and animal diseases coupled with drought and locust infestation resulted in up to 20% of the Protectorates’ population perishing, along with most of the territory’s livestock and much of its wildlife.

The catastrophic extent of the late 1890s ecological crisis was not immediately apparent. Botswana has always been a semi-arid country prone to drought. Poor rainfall was thus recorded in every decade during the nineteenth century, with the worst droughts occurring in 1845-51, 1856-62, and 1876-9, as well as 1896-99.

While locust swarms were less common in the 19th century, having not been seen in the region for many decades before, they began to re-appear around 1890. At first, however, they were merely a nuisance, and indeed provided people with variety to their diet. But, as the 1890s wore on the swarms kept getting bigger, spreading across the country.

When the rains failed in 1895 there was no great problem as grain had been stored. But nothing in the experiences of the most white-haired Batswana could have prepared them for the 1896 arrival of rinderpest, or bolwane as the scourge was locally known. Within months, it was officially estimated that 90% of the territory’s cattle had perished.

The Bakwena Kgosi Sebele I’s herd of some 10,000 was reportedly reduced to just 77 beasts. Other Dikgosi as well as commoners similarly suffered. In May 1896 a traveller wrote:

“Hundreds of dead oxen laying in every stage of decomposition, behind the bushes- in places a dozen a batch! The whole air was vitiated by the stench of them, and amidst them we had to camp! I observed that the natives were busily skinning all the dead beasts, and apparently making biltong of the flesh...

“I don’t see how this country can escape a famine now- their crops have all failed from drought, and the remnants are eaten by locusts; their cattle are nearly all dead! I suppose a score of live cattle where there should have been a thousand or two! Khama alone is said to have lost 70,000 or 90,000 head.”

By 1897 the Bechuanaland Annual Report noted that: “All of the tribes, except perhaps Linchwe’s, are at present very short of food, and many have not the means of purchasing sufficient food for their families. They are,

however, making an effort to obtain money for the purpose of buying food by going out to work in Kimberley, Jagersfontein, Johannesburg, and other places.”

As the effects of the crisis spread many missionaries, as well as colonial officials initially saw the destruction of cattle as a positive development. For example, Rev. Howard Williams in his 1896 annual report:

“The loss of their cattle has driven large numbers to seek work. Certainly, the best thing that could happen as far as teaching them the value of labour...Work was the last thing thought of except amongst the poorer classes and with these the period rarely exceeds six months. All that is altered. A generation will pass before this country will recover its lost wealth in cattle.”

Such indifference was, however, overwhelmed as the crisis deepened. Throughout 1897 and 1898 missionary reports consistently spoke of horrific mortality rates brought on by famine and fever. When the same Williams visited Kolobeng in June 1898, where several thousand Bakwena of the Kgari faction had been staying, he was shocked to find the place nearly deserted. The local kgosi, Baanami told him that his followers were either “in graves or scattered in all directions seeking food or work.”

Williams supports this observation by supplying statistics for four of the community’s makgotla showing recent death to former membership ratios of 57/150, 21/70, 11/14 and 14/40. He further noted that 15 out of 34 church members had died at Kumakwane, along with nearly all members of its once predominant Griqua community and one fifth of the Batlokwa. In Kanye an estimated 1,500 perished in 1898, while over a third of all students at the L.M.S. school in Molepolole died in 1898.

During the crisis, dikgosi tried to cater for the needy from their communal grain stores. As a result, Bathoen, Khama and Sebele initially rejected aid offered through a Bechuanaland Relief Committee, which was sponsored by official and missionary elements. Sebele:

“The offer has come through the wrong channels. The very fact that the Government officials have written to the Missionaries for information has caused my people to look upon the offer with suspicion. The government in some of their dealings with my people have not been true to their word.”

This posture was, however, overwhelmed by desperate circumstance. Dikgosi thus relented sending wagons regularly to pick up relief supplies. By December 1898 over 1,400 women and children in Molepolole were receiving rations from the Committee.

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