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Towards A Military History Of Botswana

Over the years this series has often covered instances of martial conflict from Botswana’s past.

In any comprehensive treatment of our nation’s history, such a focus is inevitable. Notwithstanding our post-independence status as one of the world’s most peaceful jurisdictions, armed struggles have played a significant role in our country’s historical evolution. This can be said to have been especially true during the 19th century, an era characterised by external invasions and violent local conflicts that, notwithstanding the severity of their resulting dislocations, arguably laid the foundations of our modern nation-state.

Although the subsequent Protectorate era of British-imposed overrule coincided with a general reduction in domestic strife, it also led to the territory’s engagement in a number of colonial conflicts, namely: the overthrow of Lobegula’s AmaNdebele Kingdom (1893), the Anglo-Boer (South African) War (1899-1902), the First (1914-18) and Second (1939-45) World Wars and the British Palestine insurgency (1945-48).

During the first quarter-century of independence, our internal peace was periodically broken by the spill over of armed conflicts arising from regional liberation struggles. The formation of the modern Botswana Defence Force can in large part be seen as a response to this challenge.

Given that the diverse communities within the territory that today constitute Botswana evolved over the centuries in the shadow of wars large and small, it is in the logic of circumstance that they developed their own indigenous military traditions and culture. This simple fact has, however, been largely ignored if not denied.  When people discuss indigenous military culture in Southern Africa, they instead tend to speak about groups such as the AmaZulu and AmaNdebele, not Batswana.

Yet, throughout the 19th century, Batswana merafe repeatedly defeated the AmaNdebele. Some notable examples:

l In c. 1834, Sebego’s Bangwaketse wiped out an entire AmaNdebele army in the sands of Dutlwe;

l In 1844, Bangwato Kgosi Sekgoma I used guns to defeat the AmaNdebele at Shoshong; l In 1863, Sekgoma’s son, Khama III, also defeated AmaNdebele invaders in the plains near Shoshong, Khama’s counterpart Lobengula being wounded in the engagement;

l In 1884, up to 2,000 AmaNdebele perished fighting the Batawana under Kgosi Moremi II in the then wetlands of Khutiyabasadi; and l In 1893, Bangwato calvary under Khama III’s son, Sekgoma II, scattered the AmaNdebele southern army under Gambo at Singwezi River.

Contrary to the mythology of some, there is no record of the AmaZulu having fought with merafe inside Botswana during the 19th century.

However, while the Transvaal Boers of Andries Pretorius achieved a great victory over Dingane’s impi at Blood (Ncome) River in 1838, massacring some 3,000 with their guns while suffering no fatalities;

the very same Pretorius’ commandos were driven by Batswana mephato back to Rustenburg and Potchefstroom in 1852-53, after a failed Transvaal Boer invasion of Botswana. In other words, Batswana have a military history which (to borrow from Seretse Khama’s 1970 UBLS speech) “was just as worth writing and learning about as any other.”

Unfortunately, in our schools, students tend to study the military history of others- such as the armies of Bismarck and Shaka- while all but neglecting the role played by war, both in the pre-colonial and colonial eras in shaping this nation. For its part, the colonial state maintained that Batswana had no military history to speak of because they had no past worth remembering. Thus, the official 1965 “Bechuanaland” handbook could caricature this nation’s annals as follows: “Happy is the nation that has no history. By this standard there can be few nations in Africa happier than Bechuanaland, for apart from the inter- and intra-tribal conflicts normal to the African continent before its emergence into modern life and thought, its record is remarkably free of incident of any kind. The Batswana offered an equally friendly reception to missionaries, traders, and soldiers alike when they came to offer their various receipts for happiness, and since the British drew a line on the map and said ‘This is Bechuanaland’ they have lived quietly and undemandingly for 70 uneventful years.”

What rubbish! By the time the British imposed their so-called protection on Botswana in 1885, our eastern boundary with what is today South Africa had already existed for over three decades being a lasting legacy of the Batswana-Boer War of 1852-53. 

Any effort to reach a deeper understanding of Botswana’s unique military heritage may further consider the following: Like other Late Iron Age peoples of southern Africa, pre-colonial Setswana and Ikalanga societies had developed strong warrior traditions. This is reflected in oral traditions, songs, and praise poems that celebrate military prowess.

Before 1800, Setswana military culture was probably strengthened by wars of conquest and subjugation against Bakgalagari and Khoesan speakers as well as inter-merafe conflicts, while Bakalanga had played a part in the 17th century expulsion of the Portuguese from the Zimbabwe plateaux

During the 19th century, local communities made a remarkably rapid transition from classic late iron age weapons and tactics to the demands of gun warfare.

In the 20th century, Batswana were significant participants in the British Empire’s global conflicts, perhaps most notably in the Italian campaign during World War II.

(to be continued)

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