Friday, January 22, 2021

Builders of Botswana by Dr. Jeff Ramsay ÔÇô “The arms dealer”

We last left off with the Amandebele Nkosi Mzilakazi vowing to extract revenge against the Bangwato of Kgosikgolo Sekgoma I in the aftermath of the latter’s successful counterattack against his 1842 punitive expedition. That expedition had been intended to humble the Bakwena as well as Bangwato for their continued resistance in the face of Mzilakazi’s demands for submission and tribute.

Bangwato defiance had on an earlier occasion also manifested itself in the slaughter of some 40 Amandebele who had been sent to collect tribute from the Bakaa and Batalaote as well. This incident seems to have coincided with their seizure of Mzilakazi’s mafisa cattle from the Bakaa. Thereafter, more than any other Kgosi in Botswana, Sekgoma had been a constant thorn in the Tautona’s side.

It was in the context of such accumulated conflict that Mzilakazi, having by now consolidated his hegemony over the former Banayayi dominated lands of western Zimbabwe and north-eastern Botswana, dispatched a large force against the Bangwato in 1844 with the apparent mission of either forcing their submission or annihilating them altogether. The resulting showdown was a turning point not only for the Bangwato, but the communities of Botswana in general.

While the blow by blow details of the 1844 Battle of Shoshong are limited, the underlying factor behind its outcome is clear. The Bangwato were able to militarily turn the tables on the Amandebele through their possession of firearms. In this respect, Sekgoma’s arsenal was expanded on the eve of the battle by his purchase of a large shipment of guns from the controversial Scottish trader Roualeyn Gordon Cumming.

Cumming is unusual for his era in his having published a fairly detailed account the transaction in his 1850 bestseller “A Hunters Life in South Africa.”

While the growth of the firearms trade in Botswana during the first half of the 19th century was a transformative development that has left a lasting legacy, few of the Europeans who were involved chose to publicise their role in it.

In the then increasingly racist mindset of established European society selling guns to black Africans was not widely accepted and indeed ultimately declared illegal by the imperialist powers throughout most of the continent. By the 1850s those who made profits in the trade were thus commonly seen as social outcasts, not unlike modern day drug traffickers or the arms dealers to contemporary pariahs.

[Ironically, in Cumming’s time international drug traffickers in the form of British East India Company sponsored opium merchants actually had the proactive support of Her Majesty’s Government. Britain went to war against China in 1839-42 and again in 1856-60 to overturn Beijing’s efforts to suppress the trade, opium being then as now a banned substance.]

It is therefore not surprising that evidence of the largely covert role played by such individuals as Robert Moffat and David Livingstone in the 19th century firearms trade is to be discovered in their private correspondence, while to this day many further details, such as who supplied Sechele with his cannon, remain a mystery.

Cumming was not the first, much less only trader to provide the Bangwato with guns in exchange for ivory and other game products. Another Scotsman, the Kudumane based trader David Hume, had reached the Bangwato as early as 1831.

The desire of merafe to keep the trade for themselves, as well as the shadow of Amandebele hostility had, however, restricted the flow of arms to Gammangwato. It is in this context that a determined Cumming made his way to Sekgoma’s in July 1844 with the openly stated intent to make as much profit as he could in what was at the time a seller’s market. He thus arrived with a wagon full of muskets, 20 to a case, as well as a collection of more sophisticated rifles and other ordinance which, in his own words at the start of the expedition, had included:

“Several lead ladles of various sizes, a whole host of bullet-moulds, loading rods, shot-belts, powder flasks and shooting belts; 3 cwt of lead [i.e. 336 lbs: 1 cwt or centrum weight = 112 lbs or 50.91 kilograms]; 50 lbs for hardening the balls to destroy larger game; 10,000 prepared leaden bullets, bags of shot of all sizes, 100lbs of fine sporting gunpowder, 300 lbs of coarse gunpowder, about 50,000 best percussion caps, 2000 gun flints, greased patch and cloth to be converted into the same.”

Getting through had not been easy. The Bakwena in particular had endeavoured to divert Cumming to trade with them instead. Passage through Kweneng had ultimately been secured through the gift of some of the ordinance, including a powerful six-bore Dutch rifle to Sechele.

Having left Kweneng, on the 28th of June 1844, Cumming noted:

“We are now within two days’ march of the kraal of Sicomy, king of the extensive territory of Bamangwato; this great chief was reported to be in possession of large quantities of ivory, and as I had brought a number of muskets and other articles to barter, I was anxious to push on and conclude my trading before resuming elephant hunting; more especially since it is not improbable that, having once led the way other adventurers might follow my track, and perhaps spoil my market.”


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