Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Fort Gaborone and the Anglo-Boer War

“With the outbreak of the hostilities in October 1899, Boer forces on the north-western front moved to block the advance of imperial troops along the Bechuanaland-Rhodesia border. Commandant General P. J Cronje was able to encircle Major General R. S. S Baden Powel at Mafikeng while Colonel H. O. C Plumber remained ensconced at Fort Tuli (Burrett 1999; Hickman 1970).

It is not apparent to most of us in this country that as a country we participated immensely in the Anglo-Boer War of 1899 to 1902. In fact to be precise, that war started in the administrative jurisdiction of the then Botswana as our capital was in Vryburg before it was moved to Mafikeng.The events were well choreographed by Khama in 1894 and then later we had the Jameson Raid that was planned and executed from Fort Gaborone. Until independence in 1966, Gaborone was mainly characterised by two major and outstanding locations. It was railway station which served as a train stopover for water refuelling and wood stocking for the steam train.

The other place was Fort Gaborone which is now known as the Village suburb. Fort Gaborone was known to the local natives as Kampeng simply translated as the CampThe last relic of this name is still borne by the only primary school there under the name Camp Primary School. This is where British Police and the Bechuanaland Native Police were stationed. They stayed here until independence.When the Anglo-Boer War started, Cecil John Rhodes through his business empire the British South Africa Company had just completed the railway line from the Cape to Salisbury in Rhodesia. This was a very vital line in the event of the outbreak of war.This railway line was going to serve as the lifeblood in the war effort in as far as logistics are concerned. And therefore it was a strategic necessity that this line be captured by the Boers of the Transvaal Republic. As the reader may be aware, this rail line runs along eastern Botswana and at some places very close to the South African border.

More than a hundred years later, this remains as the only vital rail link between Botswana and South Africa. By this time this country should have created an alternative corridor for security reasons. During the war, it was obvious that the rail line was going to be used to transport goods and troops for reinforcements.Rhodesia was an agricultural hub or it was the bread basket for southern Africa from those early years. So the line’s strategic importance to the war effort was huge and all parties understood this fact. Again the British turned to Khama to provide security for the line. Khama and his troops had just returned from a successful campaign in Bulawayo against King Lobengula of the Ndebele.The Anglo-Boer War became a turning point in the history of our region. The Boer commandos attempted to breach the line near a place known as Crocodile Pools or Ngotwane. This war in Botswana was fought mainly between present day Mochudi and Mafikeng.

According to sources of history, Rhodesians were running two armoured trains running along this railway line. Fort Gaborone became very vital in that it provided the needed manpower to protect the line at its most vulnerable point which was at Crocodile Pools. This portion of the border continued to be a security liability even during the years when apartheid South African commandos were raiding Gaborone in the 1980s.According to the records salvaged from the South African Military Society, the first casualty of this war in Botswana was Trooper (Private) Chere. He was captured and shot on site near Kgale Hill. Chere was a member of the Protectorate Native Police (PNP). I personally want to believe he was from Gabane or Molepolole because that name still exists as a first name in those two places. In any case, all brave soldiers come from Gabane.When listening to oral stories from Mme Julia Matumo about her father who served in the PNP, I came to realise that these men served more in the role of soldiers than policemen. Sergeant Matumo often mounted horseback patrols to inspect the border from Ramokgwebana to Mamuno. This is something that most BDF soldiers will hate to do on the back of a Land Rover.

Piet Kruger had infiltrated the country through a point where now lies Gaborone Dam and matched through to present day St Joseph’s College. Because the Jameson Raid that preceded this war was planned and executed from Gaborone, the Boer commandos considered this place as of paramount importance.

As an old soldier I have always wondered why Botswana has its settlements along the border throughout the country. And furthermore the crucial rail line was just a few hundred meters away from the Transvaal border. It remains the same to this day and interesting enough, the A1 road runs parallel with this rail line and missing the boarder by just over a kilometre at Metsimaswaane Bridge. Overlooking Metsimaswaane Bridge is Sepitse hill on a prominent ridge on the Transvaal side. This hill will give the South Africans the same tactical advantage over our railway if we can go to war with them next week. The Boers built stonewall fortifications on the hills where they placed their field artillery guns and to this day the sites are still preserved. Going around South Africa, one will notice that they have erected monuments around these sites or at least marked them for preservation. In Botswana it is as if nothing ever happened even though it happened right on the fringes of our capital.

The old Gaborone Cemetery still serves as crucial evidence that indeed the Anglo-Boer took place in our backyard. Several of the soldiers that lost their lives were interred near the Central Transport Organization workshop at the Village. The graves are well preserved in their old state and could serve as a crucial historic site for the tourism industry.

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