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The Great Plague (Ii)

Previously we observed that during the last half decade of the 19th century Botswana was plagued by a series of natural disasters.

Years of drought and locust infestation coupled with the outbreak of rinderpest along with a surge in human disease resulted in up to 20% of the Protectorate’s population perishing, along with most of the territory’s livestock and much of the wildlife.

A long-term outcome of these tribulations was an expansion in the flow of migrant labour out of the Protectorate. As bad became worse the Protectorate’s Annual report for 1897/98 noted that the territory was “flooded by both white and coloured persons calling themselves Labour Agents.”

While no complete set of numbers exists for calculating, the total size of the exodus of migrant labour, official statements as well as missionary impressions, support the contention that it was of considerable magnitude.

The 1897/98 report thus further observed that: “So many men have gone that most villages present a quite deserted appearance.”

During 1897, many Bangwato and other Batswana were able to get local jobs constructing the BSACo railway line from Mafikeng to Bulawayo. But, by the end of the year the project was largely finished. This also had an adverse effect on those Batswana who worked as transport riders along the route. For many years transport riding had been a lucrative source of income for those able to invest in an ox-wagon.

 A new way was, however, found in which to raise some money. After the construction of the railway, it became possible to send wood to Kimberley by train.

Batswana living close to the railway began cutting down trees and selling off the timber, usually with the permission of their kgosi who was given some of the profit. By 1910, practically all of the area along the railway had become deforested.

 In Ngamiland where there was neither the railway nor free food distribution and migrant labour jobs were even further away, the Batawana Kgosi Sekgoma Letsholathebe was forced to take drastic measures. He stemmed the spread of rinderpest in certain areas by restricting travel.

He exercised control over the distribution of existing food to alleviate famine. Orphaned children were sent out to places where cattle still existed.

If food for work was the carrot designed to lure Batswana into dependence on wage labour, the colonial state’s imposition of Hut Tax was the stick. As one official observed at the time of its introduction: “it has a twofold advantage, it drives young men to work and it raises revenue.”

Bathoen, Khama and Sebele had, as a concession designed to preserve direct imperial control, agreed in principal to taxation during

their 1895 negotiations with the Colonial Office. By the time of its actual imposition, in April 1899, most Batswana were still being pushed into labour migration by drought and the collapse of the herds and game.


When the tax was announced Bathoen protested that:

 “Owing to famine, not many people were left in this country; most have gone to work or look for food, this is the fourth year in succession that crops have failed; I am almost alone in the village; young men have gone out to the mines and are now living there.”

As the ecology of the Protectorate began to slowly recover after 1899, the increasingly rigorous enforcement of Hut Tax payments became an important factor in assuring a steady flow of migrant workers. Of the 335 criminal cases prosecuted by the Molepolole magistrate between 1921 and 1925, 262 concerned failure to pay Hut Tax.

Usually the colonial State was able to rely on the dikgosi to assure collection. By the 1920s, many rulers were ordering all able-bodied men who failed to pay their tax to sign contracts with local labour recruiters.

Thus, in 1924 out of the £3, 725 (pounds sterling) in Hut Tax receipts paid in Molepolole, £1,768 was directly remitted by labour recruiters as cash advances on 861 new contracts.

Dikgosi who were officially gazetted as “chiefs” had a financial stake in seeing that taxes were paid as they were allowed to annually pocket up to 10% of all the Hut Tax money that was collected in their reserves.

Many also imposed special levies and expected gifts from returning migrants. Some of this revenue was used for public projects, but probably most of it before the 1938 introduction of Tribal Treasuries was used by dikgosi for their personnel upkeep.

Where rulers were relatively lenient in their enforcement tax collection, as was the case of Kweneng under Kgosi Sebele II (1918-31), the colonial State directly intervened. Of the 335 criminal cases prosecuted by Molepolole’s Resident Magistrate between 1921 and 1925, 262 concerned failure to pay Hut Tax.

Notwithstanding the significant impact it had on local livelihoods there is little evidence of Batswana having protested, much less engaged in active, as opposed to passive, resistance, against its introduction.

Undoubtedly, one factor for this acquiescence was the effect of the 1897 Langeberg Rebellion amongst the Batlhaping south of the Molopo on local thinking. In the brutal crushing of the rebellion, all Batswana had seen the consequence of open resistance to Hut Tax.

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