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The Blackman’s War

JEFF RAMSAY
Last week we observed that by October of 1899 the Dikgosi of the Bechuanaland Protectorate had been directly instructed by the then British High Commissioner Sir (later Lord) Alfred Milner of their duty to mobilise their warriors in order to assist in the repelling of anticipated Boer advances into their territories.

This directive had been communicated in the context of the British having successfully goaded President Paul Kruger of the South African Republic (SAR/Transvaal) into issuing a 48-hour ultimatum on October 9th 1899 demanding the withdrawal of the British colonial troop concentrations then menacing his borders.

With the lapse of the ultimatum, on October 12, 1899 Boer Commandos of the Orange Free State as well as SAR went on the offensive at various points across the region. These initial actions included the launching of incursions into Gammangwato and Gammalete, in order to cut the telegraph line in the vicinity of Mahalapye and Otse.  In direct response the Dikgosi of eastern Botswana wasted no time in calling their mephato up for duty. Batswana, along with the mostly Basotho members of the paramilitary Protectorate Native Police (PNP), were thus engaged in armed operations from the first week of the conflict, underscoring the fact that it was never a “White Man’s War”.

The initial Boer incursions were followed by the moves to besiege the imperial headquarters at Mahikeng, which was fully surrounded by October 17, 1899. Notwithstanding its relative fame, much of the traditional literature of the war fails to place the siege of Mahikeng in wider context of warfare along the frontier between Bechuanaland and the SAR, while neglecting the key role played by blacks in the theatre. As Neil Parsons and others have previously emphasized the British commander at Mahikeng, Colonel Robert Baden-Powell, was in fact the commander of British ‘North West Frontier Forces’, being thus responsible for the defence of British territory from Mafikeng to then Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe).

At the beginning of the conflict Baden-Powell, joined by the Protectorate’s Resident Commission Colonel Hamilton Goold-Adams, chose to dig in at Mahikeng. Thereafter, they were largely cut off for the next seven months, while on occasion receiving limited supplies from Kanya via Barolong and Bangwaketse smugglers. In this context, the town suffered while its defenders succeeded in tying down larger numbers of Boer forces.

The forces defending the town, which then as now included the headquarters of the Barolong booraTshidi, totalled about 2,000, consisting of some 700 Bechuanaland Protectorate and Cape police and about 300 white volunteers from the town’s residents. The rest of the defenders were drawn from among the Barolong and other black and mixed-race people in the area. Among these about 300, who were dubbed by Baden-Powell himself as the “Black Watch,” were

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armed and equipped by the British, with most of the rest consisting of Barolong mephato. There was also a group of teenage black auxiliaries who had been organised as the “Mafeking Cadet Corps”. This later body is popularly credited with having been an at least partial inspiration for Baden-Powell’s subsequent creation of the Boy Scouts.

Faced with having to fight armed blacks, the Boer Commander, General Piet Cronje, sent a letter to Baden-Powell in which he protested in vain: ‘It is understood that you have armed Bastards, Fingoes and Barolong against us, in this you have committed an enormous act of wickedness … reconsider the matter, even if it costs you the loss of Mafeking … disarm your blacks and thereby act the part of a white man in a white man’s war.”

At Fort Gaberones about half of the first division of the British South Africa, formerly Bechuanaland Border, Police along with a company of Protectorate Native Police were tasked with securing the line of rail through South-East Botswana, while Rhodesian Forces under Lieutenant Colonel Herbert Plumer advanced from Fort Tuli towards Old Palapye to rendezvous with Khama’s Bangwato.

Meanwhile at Palapye Kgosi Khama III had, on October 17, 1899, already ordered a regiment under his brother Kebailele to secure Mahalapye including its strategic railway bridge. The Phuti further sent out scouts to look for Boer movements along his eastern border. By October 21st he received intelligence that members of the Waterberg Commando under Deputy Commandant-General Frederick Grobler, were camped on the eastern side of the Limpopo near Ngwapa, it being believed that they were preparing to attack Palapye via Letswapong.

To counter this scenario Khama dispatched a force of 400 men to fortify Ngwapa Hill. On the same day he received an ultimatum from Grobler, informing him of his forces intention to invade, while asking him to remain neutral. Khama replied: ‘If you enter with armed men into my country, and amongst my cattle-posts, I shall fight you.’

On the following day, an advance column of Plumer’s men consisting of 100 white Rhodesian militia men with a 7-pounder cannon arrived at Palapye Road station. With Bangwato assistanc,e the men proceeded to convert the Old Palapye Church into a fortress, surrounding it with a double ring of stone walls while stocking it with a month’s supply of provisions. These preparations appear to have deterred Grobler from making any immediate advance

(To be continued)



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