Our last episode traced the development of the conical bullet to the efforts of a number of British and French innovators. These efforts culminated in the 1849 patent of the “Minie”, the first mass produced conical bullet to be adopted for military use. Fired from a new generation of rifles the Minie had up to 10 times the range of round shot fired from the then still standard issue smoothbore muskets. Even when fired from smoothbores it had 3 to 4 times the range of ball shot.
Conical bullets also inflicted far more severe wounds, a direct hit in almost all cases then resulting in either amputation or death. Used by both sides, the Minie bullet thus accounted for about 90% of all battlefield fatalities recorded in the American Civil War (1861-65).
The lethal efficacy of the bullets first came into global prominence a decade earlier during the Crimean War (1853-56), where they were deployed by a limited number of British and French rifle units to devastating effect against their outgunned Russian opponents. As one British correspondent noted following the 1854 Battle of Inkerman:
“They [the Russians] advanced, halted, advanced again, received and returned a close and deadly fire, but the Minie is the king of weapons- Inkerman proved it. The regiments of the 4th division and Marines, armed with the old and much lauded Brown Bess [musket] could do nothing with their line of fire against the massive multitude of Muscovite infantry; but the volleys of the Minie rifle cleft them like the hand of the destroying angle, and they fell like leaves in autumn before them.”
Notwithstanding the fact that only a fraction of the British units at Inkerman had been armed with conical bullets they had indeed tipped the battle. Overall Russian casualties had been at least five times greater.
While the Crimea campaign proved the value of conical bullets throughout Europe and the Americas, they were actually first tested in battle by the British in Southern Africa, beginning with their war against the Xhosa in 1852. As one officer at the time reported, it was quickly discovered that “at a range from twelve to thirteen hundred yards small bodies of Kaffirs could be dispersed.’”
The year 1852 was, otherwise, a turning point for the region, including Botswana. The easy British victory over the Xhosa stood in contrast to their humiliating defeat only a few months earlier by Moshoeshoe’s Basotho at Viervoet, where both sides had fought with ball shot muskets. It also coincided with the Transvaal Boers’ unsuccessful 1852-53 expeditions against the Bapedi under Sekwati as well as the western Batswana alliance of Sechele.
These struggles further coincided with the Sand River Convention, whereby the British made peace with Andries Pretorius, recognizing the independence of the Transvaal Boers and further agreeing to cooperate with them in enforcing a regional ban on the sale of all arms and munitions to black Africans. Among the first to have his gunpowder and lead purchases restricted at the Cape as a result was David Livingstone.
Altogether events in the region marked the end of the so-called Great Trek, and the beginning of concerted British state efforts to consolidate their imperial hegemony through a racial alliance with the Boers.
Under Lt. Gen. Sir Harry Smith, who served as the Cape Governor-General from 1847 to 1853, there was thus official encouragement of overtly racist, anti-liberal, anti-missionary thinking within the administrative and military establishments. An example of this can be found in the 1853 edition of the United Service Magazine, whose primary readership was British officers throughout the empire, in which there appeared an article entitled “Observations on the Mental and Moral Status of the Kaffir and Hottentot Races” by a certain William Black of Her Majesty’s Forces in South Africa.
What is now also clear from Livingstone’s August 1850 correspondence with Moffat and additional evidence is that by 1852 General Smith’s army was not alone in the region in having some stock of conical bullets. In this respect the 8 bore bullet moulds ordered by the missionary produced a supersize version of the Minie bullet, just one of the advanced weapons to be found in Sechele’s arsenal.
From a letter by Sechele to the acting Boer Commandant-General Pieter Scholtz, delivered at Dimawe on Saturday the 28th of August 1852:
“I am, like yourself, provided with arms and ammunition, and have more fighting people than you. I should not have allowed you to come in, and would have assuredly fired upon you; but I have looked into the book [Bible], upon which I reserved my fire. I am myself provided with cannon. Keep yourself quiet tomorrow, and do not quarrel for water till Monday; then we shall see who is the strongest man. You are already in my pot; I shall only have to put the lid on it on Monday.”
The fact that both the Batswana and the Boers fought an all day battle at Dimawe on the 31st August 1852 is long established. What is emerging as something of a revelation, however, is evidence of the sophistication of the weapons and tactics that were employed by both sides during the engagement.