Botswana’s national identity is firmly rooted in the Batswana-Boer War of 1852-53. The conflict began as a Boer invasion of Gangwaketse and Kweneng. It ended with the burning of farms in the Transvaal. In between Senthufe aSebego stopped the Boers at Kgwakgwe.
We left off in our last episode with the October 1851 imposition of Boer rule over the Batswana communities living between the Madikwe and Ngotwane rivers. Among other impositions, the dikgosi were now expected to supply forced labour on demand to the settlers.
Some of the rulers had surrendered in the face of the Boer’s military might. Others were captured to coerce compliance. Two allies of the Bangwaketse – Mosielele of the Bakgatla bagaMmanaana and Montshiwa of the Barolong booRatshidi ÔÇô gave lip service to submission, while weighing their options.
Having resisted calls for an immediate attack on the Bakwena and Bangwaketse, while he negotiated with the British, in January 1852 Andries Pretorius’ was rewarded with the signing of the Sand River Convention. By this agreement the British accepted the independence of the Voortrekkers north of the Vaal River. Mmamosadinyana’s agents further agreed to cooperate with the Boers in suppressing the sale of arms and ammunition to black Africans, while also renouncing any treaties or understandings they had had with local black rulers. In return Pretorius promised to guarantee free passage for British commerce and to suppress slavery in his territory.
With Pretorius’ support, in February 1852 Piet Scholtz was elected as the new Commandant-General of the Marico (Madikwe) Boers with a mandate to subdue the Bakwena and Bangwaketse by means peaceful or belligerent. Anxious to attempt the former, Scholtz persuaded the LMS missionary Edwards to deliver the following written message to Sechele, Senthufe and Segotshane:
“Seeing there is much dissatisfaction by rumours, it is my friendly wish to meet you and other individuals , on the 25th of February, at the place of Mr. Inglis [Mathebe] where I and J. Viljoen, and J. Buis, Veld-Kornets will be, and with peace and understanding, endeavour to remove all dissatisfaction.”
All three refused to attend, causing Pretorius to obtain the Boer Volksraad’s [“People’s Assembly”] approval of funding for an expedition to disarm the “rebellious Kafir tribes”. A flu epidemic delayed the hostilities for a few months. But, in July 1852, Scholtz was finally able to assemble his commando.
Scholtz then called upon the other dikgosi in the region to once more meet with him on 31st of July 1852. He intended to ensure their loyalty, while raising labourers and auxiliaries for his expedition. Only one ruler, Moilwa of the Bahurutshe at Dinokana, volunteered men. A number of others, including Mangope of the Bahurutshe booManyana and Bogatsu of the Batlokwa, were seized for failing to cooperate. Mosielele and Montshiwa were notable among those who stayed away, sending messages of defiance.
The fighting began in August 1852, when Scholtz’s commando destroyed the BagaMmanaana settlement at Maanwane, along with Edwards’s mission at Mabotsa. Mosielele had intended to defend his village, but when the strength of Scholtz commando became apparent he instead chose to remove to Dimawe. By now Scholtz’s force numbered nearly 500 Boer and 100 coloured horseman along with some 600 Bahurutshe auxiliaries. The Commando was initially equipped with five cannon.
The Boers arrived at the outskirts of Dimawe on Saturday the 28th of August. There, in addition to the BagaMmanaana and resident Bakwena and Bakaa, the invaders found the combined mephato of the Bangwaketse led by Senthufe and Segotshane, mobilized against them. Sechele exercised overall field command.
Respect for the approaching Sunday Sabbath and a mutual willingness to negotiate, led the Batswana and Boers to agree to a two-day truce. On Monday morning the two sides met but failed to resolve anything. Scholtz called on the Bakwena and Bangwaketse to disarm, supply the Boers with free labour and cooperate in the apprehension of escaped farm labourers. Speaking for his peers, Sechele replied that they would remain rulers through the grace of God and their own people, not the Boers.
The battle reportedly began at 9:00 AM with an exchange of cannon fire. While the role of Sechele’s cannon in the battle remains uncertain, records confirm that the Boers fired at least 70 artillery rounds during the course of the battle. The Bangwaketse and BagaMmanaana lines were decimated by the initial barrage, causing them to fall back in panic. But, Senthufe is credited with reversing the route; regrouping the Bangwaketse to guard the approaches to Kanye.
The Boers then torched Dimawe settlement (whose women and children had been evacuated). Smoke from the fire drifted over much of the battlefield complicating the task of the defenders. Sechele’s redoubt at Botswelakgosi hill was engulfed in the choking mist, but he tenaciously held his position in the face of over six hours of assaults, cannon fire and sniping. From a 16th September 1852 report by the Rev. Robert Moffat, based on eyewitness accounts:
“The Boers found means of setting fire to the town, when the hill in the centre became enveloped in heat & smoke, when a scene of confusion ensued easier conceived then described. This decided the fate of the Bakwena, who found their efforts to defend themselves against such a force crippled by the smoke that enveloped them. Though the Boers kept a respectable distance, they were able by means of small swivels to do much execution among the natives. The Bakwena, however, continued to defend themselves until the curtains of night were drawn over the melancholy scene.”
As the sun set, Scholtz called off the attack. In what was almost certainly a predetermined fallback strategy, under the cover of darkness Sechele rapidly withdrew his own forces to Dithubaruba, while Senthufe led the Bangwaketse back through Kanye, establishing his defence at Kgwakgwe hill.
Finding Dimawe abandoned the next morning, the Boers advanced towards Senthufe. Unfortunately, we have only limited details about the resulting engagement. The official campaign report (as re-drafted by Pretorius) neglects to make mention of it, though it is acknowledged by Scholtz in other correspondence. It is also cited in additional contemporary accounts as well as Sengwaketse traditions. From an article published in the Cape-Town Mail newspaper:
“They [the Boers] then proceeded to the residence of Sentulie [Senthufe], a neighbouring chief; and on the way, fell in with detached parties of Moselili’s tribe, who were endeavouring to make their escape with their wives, children and cattle. These wretched people they shot down in the most cold-blooded manner, – they offering no resistance whatever, but, on the contrary wishing to surrender.
“Here the Boers enriched themselves with numbers of cattle, woman and children. Sentulie, having sent as many of his woman and children as he could to the mountains for safety, awaited the arrival of the Boers, who immediately opened a heavy fire. His men then also fled to the mountains [i.e. Kgwakgwe]; on gaining which they returned fire on the Boers, who then retreated. Here alone, it appears, they did not succeed in obtaining any cattle or captives.”
In the aftermath of the Bangwaketse stand at Kgwakgwe the Boers also advanced on, but refused Scholtz’s order to attack, Sechele’s forces at Dithubaruba, suggesting that the prospect of charging up hills in the face of Batswana gunfire had lost all appeal.
Having failed to dislodge either the Bangwaketse or the Bakwena from their strongholds, Commando instead voted to withdrawal from Botswana on the 3rd of September 1852. As they made their way back to Klein Marico they were harassed by hit and run attacks. A number of their wounded are said to have died on the way, resulting in a total Boer death count for the campaign of 36 men. On the 12th of September Scholtz reported to Pretorius:
“I must regretfully inform you that I have been obliged to disband the commando, owing partly to the weakness of horse and oxen and partly to opposition among the men, who would not stay on any longer. If God spares me and grants peace, I hope to give Your Honour my full report in person. Here I cannot mention half the matters that will appear in it…
“I also had an attack upon Senthufe, but there was no time to do it properly. Moreover I greatly fear, since I cannot keep the commando to accomplish anything, that the Marico district will be unsafe.”
Scholtz’s words proved to be prophetic for in the months that followed Batswana launched retaliatory raids, which by January 1853 had resulted in the Boers abandoning the entire countryside west of Rustenburg and Potchefstroom. From an article published in the South African Commercial Advertiser:
“That the natives had united in a strong body, followed up the retreating force of Boers, and fallen upon the farmers in the Mirique district, and everyone of these has been obliged to fall back with the commando upon the Mooi River. Great destruction, of course marked the progress of the conquering natives. Every homestead has been burned, and standing corn ripe for sickle, together with vineyards and gardens, which were then in full bloom, have been entirely destroyed.”