“Just as ancient Greece consisted, not of one nation well knit together by one national aim, but a number of states of varying importance, oft warring against one another, as Sparta and Athens, yet sometimes combining forces against a common foe, as when the Persians attacked, so it is with the people called Bechuana”
The above quote, by the LMS missionary Rev. J. Tom Brown, who is otherwise known for his Setswana-English dictionary, is an apt description not only of the classical Greeks and pre-colonial Batswana, but many other peoples at a certain stage in their history, including such longstanding identities as the Germans, Italians and Japanese.
It was in the context of their long struggle against the Persians the ancient Greeks ultimately did politically unite for the first time, as the kingdom of Philip and empire of his son Alexander. The seeds of our own unitary republic may, in this respect, be likewise traced to the 19th century struggles of western Batswana merafe against Motswasele’s proverbial ants. With the migration of Tautona Mzilakazi’s “black ants” into Bukalanga, Batswana were confronted by the threat of the white ants, beginning with the Voortrekker invasion of the South African Highveld.
To extend the parallel, whereas Greek unity was forged by the melding of Sparta and Athens, Thebes and Macedon, into a common patriotism (old Greek – patriotes) in opposition to the Persians, the Voortrekkers found their path blocked by a Pan-Batswana alliance Borolong, Gangwaketse, Kweneng and Gammangwato.
The decade and a half between the withdrawal of the Matebele and the Batswana-Boer War of 1852-52 was critical to this convergence of interests and identity, also being an era of relative peace and reconstruction, accompanied by commercial and spiritual transformation.
As we previously noted, by the end of the 1840s the Bangwaketse found themselves once more living peacefully together in eastern Gangwaketse, albeit under two Dikgosi. At Kanye Senthufe the son of Sebego ruled, refused to recognise his cousin Gaseitsiwe as paramount. The latter’s headquarters was then located at Diphawana just a few kilometres to the south. In the early years of his reign Gaseitsiwe also still remained in the shadow of his uncle and former regent, Segotshane.
The peace enjoyed by the Bangwaketse extended to the adjacent merafe. To the south Gaseitshiwe’s maternal in-laws, the Barolong boo-Ratshidi were rebuilding at new Dithakong (also known as Lotlhakane) under Kgosi Montshiwa, who had assumed the throne in 1849, following the death of his father Tawana.
To the east the Bakgatla bagaMmanaana were prospering at Maanwane under Senthufe’s cousin Kgosi Mosielele. Adjacent to Maanwane was the LMS Mission station at Mabotsa, under the stewardship of the LMS missionary Rev. Robert Edwards.
Also living peacefully along the eastern borders of Gangwaketse were the Bahurutshe, then principally divided between the followers of Dikgosi Mangope and Moilwa, and the Balete, under Kgosi Mokgosi, who were in each case working to restore the unity of merafe that had been scattered or absorbed by the Matebele. These communities too were served by an LMS missionary, the Rev. William Inglis at Mathebe.
The most important neighbour of the Bangwaketse were the Bakwena, then living nearby at Dimawe, next to modern Manyana. There Kgosi Sechele, who had reunited the Bakwena, was rapidly emerging as local powerbroker. In 1849 the population of the area swelled further with the arrival of the Bakaa of Kgosi Mosinyi, who had been expelled from the Shoshong hill region by Kgosi Sekgoma’s Bangwato, an exception to the then prevailing inter-merafe harmony of the era.
At Kolobeng, adjacent to Dimawe, was the most prominent of the northern LMS mission stations, under the Rev. Dr. David Livingstone. The prominence of Kolobeng was not, however, measured in its modest number of converts, but rather the growing number of European traders and adventurers who made it a base for their forward operations. Through the remarkable partnership of Livingstone and Sechele, with whom Senthufe and Segotshane partnered, between 1847 and 1852 Dimawe-Kolobeng was the nexus of a thriving trade in ivory and other game products in exchange for European goods, most especially guns. As such it served as a commercial centre for the Bangwaketse as well as Bakwena. It was also a place where munitions ÔÇô in the form of gunpowder and bullets – were locally manufactured as well as traded.
During the short period of its existence Kolobeng also gained international fame well out of proportion to its size as a northern outpost from where Livingstone and other European explorers launched their expeditions of supposed discovery. The settlement thus appeared in popular accounts of African adventure, including a then bestselling (though not best remembered) novel by the great French author Jules Vern.
For the Voortrekkers the growth of Kolobeng and associated acquisition of firearms by the surrounding merafe, including the Bangwaketse, was a source of understandable fear. In 1849 they accused Livingstone of having assisted the Bakwena in acquiring 500 guns and a cannon. Over the years many have taken Livingston’s public denial that his flock only had 5 guns and a cooking pot at face value. Motivated by what he considered to be higher truths, the reverend was in fact lying. Sechele’s cannon is today on permanent display at the Mafikeng Museum.
For Livingstone arming Batswana was God’s work in the struggle against slavery. Writing under his pseudonym in the British Banner he observed:
“The principal reason why the Boer or Dutch emigrants left the [Cape] colony was discontent with the ordinance which proclaimed freedom to the slave. Here, then, they found they could indulge in their propensity to slaveholding, without the stigma attached to the name….The natives know well their source of power. Guns and ammunition are purchased with great avity, but concealed with such care, only a small number of Boers have any idea of the mine, which may yet be sprung. In solemn council Potgeiter issued orders that no trader should be allowed to introduce these weapons, and he thinks his orders are effectual. He might as well have bolted the castle gate with a boiled carrot.”
In a letter to his brother Charles, the missionary further noted:
“The Boers or Dutch emigrants oppress these tribes and treat them almost as slaves. They would have contrived to do so to Sechele too, but succeeded in freeing the Bakwena. A considerable number of guns were purchased, and as this is the source of power of the Boers over the other tribes they began to be afraid that the other tribes would follow his example.”
Livingstone was, in fact, not the only missionary covertly involved arming Batswana. From a letter to his father-in-law, Rev. Robert Moffat:
“Can you get the bullet mould (perhaps 2, & ramrods to fit) of 8 to lb. or rather fit 8 to the pound bore but conical, from Birmingham? Those which have an indentation behind fire much further. Sechele is very anxious to get the seven-barrelled gun. You seem to have forgotten it.”
In their growing fear of the Bakwena and their neighbours, the Boers united under the leadership of Andries Pretorius, who in 1850 was proclaimed in Potchefstroom as the first President of the South Africa Republic. Having already defeated the Zulu many believed that Pretorius would lead them to further victory over the unconquered western Batswana.
Pretorius, however, was not one to let either past accomplishment or the master race myths of his people cloud his own judgment. In 1850 he tried to entice the merafe on his western border to accept an offer of peace and friendship in which they would become the protected allies of the Boer Republic. The Bangwaketse joined the Bakwena in refusing to sign.
Under pressure from hardliners, who saw continuing Bakwena and Bangwaketse independence as a threat on their hold over already subordinate Batswana east of the Madikwe, in April 1851 Pretorius agreed that the two merafe would have to be forcibly disarmed. But, noting that the success of such an operation was uncertain, he convinced his War Council to delay any action pending the outcome of negotiations with the British.
In the final months of 1851 the Boers moved to tighten their hold over the other merafe in the region: the Bahurutshe, Bakgatla bagaMmanaana and Balete. Having been reinforced with an arms shipment from Sechele, Kgosi Mosielele initially called for a united defence of the Madikwe valley. But, when he chaired a meeting of neighbouring Dikgosi at his centre Maanwane in October 1851, the discussion instead focused on the possibility of an exodus into Kweneng and Gangwaketse.
During the same week Boer Commandant Adriaan Standers led a modest commando up the valley to impose the Republic’s authority. All of the Dikgosi in the region were then forced to submit to the “Labour Tax”, which required them to supply free labour to the Boers. Mosielele was further forced to hand over a number of refugees from Boer oppression. After this initial success, the ever impulsive Stander’s wanted to immediately organize a larger force to attack the Bangwaketse and Bakwena, but Pretorius held him back.