One can look upon at the late 19th century as a time when the Biblical Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse visited Southern Africa.
In the Book of Revelation, a white horse appears standing for conquest alongside a red horse of war. Together they serve as a symbolic metaphor of the colonial conquest that ended the political sovereignty of indigenous communities throughout the region.
In the same context, the black horse of famine and the pale green horse of deathly plague that followed can be seen in the devastation caused by the 1896-99 ecological crisis brought on by the coinciding outbreak of drought, infestation and human and animal diseases.
In the Bechuanaland Protectorate, the last phase of the crisis coincided with the 1899 introduction Hut Tax, which served to further immiserate Batswana while ensuring that local communities remained dependent on the income of migrant labourers finding employment in the South African mines. Notwithstanding the negative impact that this development 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 fate of other communities in the region that had been pushed into open resistance to colonial authority. In Zimbabwe, the Vashona and Amandebele joined hands in an 1896 uprising that is today referred to as the country’s first Chimurenga.
While the British South Africa Company’s hold of the territory was severely shaken by the uprising, in the end the early freedom fighters were crushed.
To the west, in the 1890s the Ovaherero and Nama communities of Namibia also rose up to collectively challenge German aggrandisement; initiating a pattern of resistance that would culminate in the 1904-07 colonial campaign of genocide.
But, perhaps the most disturbing example for Batswana in the Protectorate was the outcome of the 1897 Langeberg Rebellion amongst the Batlhaping south of the Molopo. In this rebellion’s brutal crushing, all Batswana witnessed the direct consequence of open resistance to Hut Tax.
Like their northern cousins, the Batlhaping, Batlharo and Barolong then living in the former British Bechuanaland region of the Cape Colony had also been severely affected by rinderpest and drought, while also living in overcrowded locations. From 1896, when rinderpest was coming through the Bechuanaland Protectorate, the British authorities in the Northern Cape began shooting local cattle, claiming that they were responsible for the disease’s spread. This continued even after rinderpest had arrived inside the Cape.
In 1897, just when rinderpest and famine were at their worst, the Cape authorities also imposed their own Hut Tax on the southern Batswana. Many Batlhaping, led by Dikgosi Luka Jantjie and Galeshewe, then
After the death of over 1,500 defenders, the Batlhaping were defeated. Their surviving leaders were either imprisoned or executed. About 4,000 additional Batlhaping, including women and children, were sent to the Western Cape, where they were forced to work as virtual slaves for white farmers.
Batswana in the Protectorate were well informed about what the British were doing to their brethren living south of the Molopo River. In his kgotla Kgosi Bathoen I openly called Luka a hero, saying “they have killed him, but they did so after he had fought.” Then turning to a Mosotho policeman named Masilo he asked: “How do the white men fight?”
The Sergeant replied “When the government fights no one gets the best against it; the Government always wins.”
Writing of the “white atrocities” the LMS missionary Rev. Williams concluded that amongst his Bakwena flock: “The name of the whiteman must stink as from the bottom of the pit.”
In 1899 ecological crisis was immediately followed by the return of the red horse with the outbreak of the South African or second Anglo-Boer War, a conflict that although technically started by the Boers was ultimately the product of London’s ruthless determination to impose British hegemony throughout the region.
At first both the British and Boers claimed they would keep Africans out of the fighting, literally saying that they were fighting a “White Man’s War”. In this respect, they shared a mutual fear of armed blacks. But, blacks, including Batswana, soon became involved.
When the war broke out, the Protectorate’s merafe all remained loyal to the British. Thereafter, the Boers decided to try and take Palapye and Gaborone in an effort to cut rail communication between the Cape Colony and Southern Rhodesia. In the north Khama’s men were mobilised rapidly, guarding the Limpopo frontier before Rhodesian-based British troops could arrive to reinforce their position. Due to this quick response, the Boers backed off and no further fighting took place in the Gammangwato.
In the south, the Boer Commandant Peter “Ramolora” Swartz reached an agreement with Kgosi Sebele I in February 1900 to keep his men east of the railway. When the Boers threatened to renege on this agreement, the Bakwena and Bangwaketse mobilised their mephato, but fighting was avoided. Along with the Barolong, individual Bakwena and Bangwaketse were, however, active in running supplies across the Boer lines to the besieged town of Mahikeng.