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“Basarwa Le Bakgalagari”

As previously noted, military history may be defined as the study of armed conflict and its impact on society.

If, as scholars believe, our region including what was once a lusher Kgalagadi, was the home ground for humankind’s emergence, it is also likely to have been where the earliest sins of human violence occurred.

The question of when did Homo Sapiens’ proclivity to kill escalate into actual warfare is contested. Many academics link the rise of organised inter-communal violence to the emergence of sedentary agricultural societies from 15,000 years ago. Others point to physical evidence of prior patterns of violent death to speculate an earlier genesis.

An early Shekgalagari account of warfare in Botswana that survived through the intergenerational memory was dictated by Kgosi Gaoonwe Seloilwe of the Baboloongwe booMorimo at Letlhakeng. Appearing as “Basarwa le Bakgalagari” in the 1938 publication “Ethnographical Texts in the Boloongwe Dialect of Sekgalagadi”, it relates how members of the former group were subordinated by the latter. An English translation:  

“Long ago the Basarwa were a nation [‘sechaba’], they were not owned by Bakgalagari, nor did the latter govern them. The Bakgalagari wished to govern the Basarwa, but the Basarwa did not wish to be governed by the Bakgalagari.

Whenever the Bakgalagari used to send the Basarwa about, the Basarwa did this through compulsion. And when the Basarwa ruler [‘Kgosi ya Basarwa’] heard that the Bakgalagari were compelling the Basarwa, he became very angry, and he spoke to the Basarwa saying, ‘You must no longer do what the Bakgalagari say you should do.’ And when the Bakgalagari came to the Basarwa village [‘modzeng wa Basarwa’], the Basarwa ruler said, ‘Bakgalagari, go and tell Seloilwe this: I am not your servant [‘mothanka’], if you wish to govern my people you must first come and conquer me’.

“The Bakgalagari grew angry upon hearing the message, and said ‘Son of Morimo, send people to go and seize that Mosarwa, so that we may hear what he is saying, and if he is not tied up let him be killed for he is speaking insulting words to you. But Seloilwe merely kept quiet and whenever wild animals were killed, the Bakgalagari would make the Basarwa carry them, and when their ruler heard this he became very angry.”

“A long time passed, and the Basarwa still did not agree with the Bakgalagari. It came about once that the Basarwa Kgosi assembled his men and said to them, ‘Let arrows and quivers be made, the time may come when we will fight the Bakgalagari’. A long time passed but the Bakgalagari still did not agree with the Basarwa.

If a Mokgalagari ordered a Mosarwa about, and the Mosarwa refused,

the Mokgalagari would take up a club [“molamu”] and break in his head with it. And when the Basarwa Kgosi heard of this he became very angry. After a long time, he sent one of his messengers saying, ‘Speak to Kgosi Seloilwe, tell him to get ready, because I want to fight with him.’  “But Seloilwe paid no attention, although the Basarwa kept preparing for war.

Then, at a certain time, the Basarwa Kgosi sent another message to the Bakgalagari, saying, ‘Go and say to the Bakgalagari Kgosi, the Basarwa have assembled, they are waiting for you to come so that they may fight with you.’ Kgosi Seloilwe I now called together the Bakgalagari and said, ‘The Basarwa Kgosi says he wishes to fight with you, so prepare yourselves for war with him.’

 “On the day in which the Basarwa Kgosi had appointed as the day of battle, the Bakgalagari waited, preparing themselves; the sun went down, and when it had set the Bakgalagari Kgosi chose a man to go and see if the Basarwa were in their village, and he did so. It happened that after dark the Basarwa started to dance, and the man came back and told his Kgosi, ‘they are dancing.’

“Early in the morning the Bakgalagari set out; and at daybreak they found the Basarwa still dancing, although some had fallen asleep, and the army fell upon them. When the army attacked the Basarwa Kgosi shouted out ‘Seloilwe this day is the last.’ The armies came together, starting at sunrise. At noon they were still fighting together. The Basarwa shot with their arrows, but did not injure the Bakgalagari. The Bakgalagari killed many Basarwa, slaughtering them.

“Finally there remained only the Basarwa Kgosi. As he fled the Bakgalagari pursued him, during which time his arrows got finished, when the Mosarwa became tired he turned and shot reeds to try to trick the Bakgalagari, who soon noticed that he had no more arrows in his quiver. He was seized and Ramakobane said to him ‘Come on into the shade, that I may cut off your head, a Kgosi cannot die in the sun. He came and stood in the shade and his head was severed.

“Thereupon the Bakgalagari Kgosi ordered that the Basarwa women and children should be rounded up and brought home. Beginning here, in the time of Kgosi Seloilwe I, the Bakgalagari began to own the Basarwa, until the present time. They are owned because of the defeat inflicted upon them by Kgosi Seloilwe, the son of Morimo.”

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