Thursday, October 1, 2020

Builders of Botswana ÔÇô “Trade, Tribute and Technology”

We left off on the 28th of June 1844, with the pioneer arms trafficker Gordon Cumming approaching Kgosi Sekgoma’s “mountain retreat” at Shoshong. He arrived four days later, after what he recorded as “an extremely arduous and fatiguing march” from Sechele’s country.

Cumming’s party was joined by a Bangwato escort, who informed him that due to fear of an imminent Amandebele attack they had abandoned their homesteads and were now living in caves and other secluded retreats scattered along the sides and summits of the hills. He further confirmed that no other traders had been in the region for some time, raising the potential demand for his goods. But, he still faced two days of extended negotiations with Sekgoma over how many elephant tusks his boxes of muskets would fetch.

Although other game products such as ostrich feathers and fine karosses were also exchanged, it was the international demand for ivory that drove the 19th arms trade in Botswana. Before then ivory was of limited indigenous value. It was used for certain ornamental purposes, such as for fashioning the handles of the well crafted long knives, which male Batswana wore around their necks on public occasions. As one contemporary observer, James Wood, noted:

“The Bechuana knife is the most common of all the implements made by this ingenious tribe. The general form of the knife is ten inches in length inclusive of the handle and the blade, which is double-edged, nearly flat and is a little thicker along the middle than at the edges. In fact, it is simply a spear-head inserted into a handle. The sheath is made from two pieces of wood, hollowed just sufficiently to receive the blade tightly, and then lashed firmly together with sinews.

“On one side of the sheath a kind of loop is carved out of the solid wood, through which the wearer can pass the string by which he hangs it to his neck. The ordinary forms are simply a handle, sheath, and blade, all without any ornament, but the ingenious smith often adds a considerable amount of decoration. One favourite mode of doing so is to make the handle of ivory, and carve it into the form of some animal. The handle is often cut into the form of the hippopotamus or the giraffe, and in all cases the character of the animal is hit off exactly by the native carver. Along the sheath is generally a pattern of some nature, and in many instances it is really of an artistic character, worthy to be transferred to European weapons”.

At the time, dikgosi claimed royal monopoly rights over the ivory in their territories. In this respect, Sekgoma acquired much of his stock as tribute from certain Kua (Basarwa) communities who specialised in elephant hunting. This pattern was altered by the introduction of firearms. As Cumming later boasted:

“Sicomy was in those days possessed of very large quantities of splendid ivory, and a great deal still passes annually through his hands. Since I first visited Bamangwato, and taught the natives to use firearms, they have learnt to kill elephants themselves; but previous to my arrival they were utterly incapable of subduing a full grown elephant, even by the united exertions of the whole tribe. All the ivory Sicomy then had, and much of what he probably has now, is from elephants slain with assegais by an active and daring race of Bushmen inhabiting very remote regions to the north and north-west of Bamangwato.

“He obtained the ivory for a few beads and then compelled some poor Bakalahari or wild natives of the desert (over whom he conceives a perfect right to tyrannize), to bear on their shoulders across extensive deserts and burning sand to his headquarters…”

A British army lieutenant, Robert Arkwright, who visited the Bangwato in 1845, provides further evidence of their coercive relationship with the Kua:

“They are frequently brutally treated, to say nothing of every article belonging to them being at the indiscriminate use of the [Bangwato]. They are made to kill the most dangerous animals for the chief, provide him with food & make carosses for his benefit. In short every article belonging to them, even the hair on their heads, is at his disposal.”

The exploitation of the Baphaleng, who were commonly referred to as Bakgalagadi, also increased under Sekgoma; as reflected in the following stanza from one of his leboko:

“Sekgoma olegodu, Na ono odirang pudi tsa Phaleng, le kwa kgomang tsa bagwagadi ono oya go tsayang kwagotsone? Dikgomo tsa bagwagadi ga diijewe; re tla dija reile goralala, redija reile go dira modiro, re dija rediapeelwa bomete.”

“Sekgoma, you are a thief, what are you doing with the goats of the Baphaleng and the cattle of your wife’s people, what were you going to take from them? In-laws are not deprived of their cattle; we will eat them when we have gone to visit, eat them when we have gone to make a feast, eat them when they have been cooked for us.”

The above passage reflects the fact that two of Sekgoma’s junior wives were daughters of the Baphaleng Kgosi Kgabung.

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