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Basotho Wars (1858-68)

The conflict between the Basotho people and White settlers consisted of three wars from 1858 to 1868. These three wars were fought over the territorial rights in the area between the Caledon and Orange Rivers; from present day Wepener to Zastron, and the area north of the Caledon River, which includes present day Harrismith and the area further westwards.

Mfecane - the Zulu name, also known as the Difaqane or Lifaqane in Sesotho), is an African expression which means "the crushing" or "scattering". It describes a period of widespread chaos and disturbance in southern Africa during the period between 1815 and about 1840. The Basotho wars were preceded by the mass migration of several Nguni groups. This migration occurred during the reign of the Zulu King Shaka, who conquered several Nguni groups, which were absorbed into the Zulu kingdom. Other Nguni tribes fled and settled in other areas during this time- which is known as the Mfecane period.

The arrival of White settlers in the area, due to the Great Trek, was initially useful to King Moshoeshoe, as the settlers created a buffer between the Basotho and the Kora. These White settlers (known as Boers) crossed the Orange River from the Cape Colony in the mid-1820s. Although these settlers allegedly asked for this permission to settle there, they later claimed it - despite Moshoeshoe's view that he had lent it to them.

In 1845 a treaty was signed, which recognised White settlement in the area; however no boundaries were drawn between the area of White settlement and Moshoeshoe's kingdom. This dispute led to inevitable border clashes and a discernible boundary became necessary.

The British, who then controlled the area between the Orange and Vaal Rivers (the Orange River Sovereignty) eventually proclaimed the Warden line (after Major Warden). This line divided territory between British territory and the Basotho under Moshoeshoe, and stretched from Cornetspruit and the Orange River through Vechtkop to Jammerbergdrift on the Caledon.

The Warden line caused much resentment, as the fertile Caledon River Valley served as a vital area in terms of agriculture for both the British and the Basotho. This border line was therefore not acceptable to Moshoeshoe, and hostility followed, which led to conflict between the Basotho and the British, who were defeated by Moshoeshoe at the battle of Viervoet in 1851. In 1851, Moshoeshoe also offered Andries Pretorius an alliance against the British in the sovereignty.

As punishment to the Basotho, Sir George Cathcart then brought troops to the Mohokane River, and Moshoeshoe was ordered to pay a fine. When he did not pay the fine in full, a battle broke out on the Berea Plateau in 1852, where the British suffered heavy losses due to the armed Basotho cavalry. This sealed the fate of the sovereignty, even though Cathcart was initially in favor of withdrawal.

In 1854, the cost of maintaining the sovereignty became too much for the British and they therefore handed over the territory to the Boers through the signing of the Sand River Convention. The Boers therefore claimed the land beyond the Caledon River, naming it the Republic of the Orange Free State. This began further conflict over land and undefined boundaries with the Basotho, who regarded themselves as the rightful owners, and who continued to use the land for grazing.

1858 - First Basotho War [War of Senekal]

In February 1858, when the volksraad assembled, the condition of the Free State was such as to cause grave anxiety. The proceedings connected with the recent trial and execution of an Englishman named Charles Leo Cox for the murder of his wife and two children were held by most of his countrymen in the republic to have been irregular, and the English party had become bitter opponents of President Boshof. The burghers who were in favour of union with the South African Republic formed a respectable minority, and they were likewise in opposition. There were thus three political parties in the country.

Moshesh was endeavoring to provoke the burghers to commence hostilities. In answer to the continued demands of President Boshof for the horses which he had bound himself to deliver, and of which he had sent in only forty-five, letters of the most frivolous nature were written, indicating that he was treating the matter with contempt. Hunting parties of from three to five hundred armed and mounted men entered the Free State when and where they pleased, and trespassed upon farms in defiance of the owners.

In the districts of Harrismith, Winburg, and Smithfield, farms held under English titles were taken possession of by petty Basuto captains, and when attempts were made to remove the intruders, Moshesh and Letsie claimed the right of interfering. Events had reached that condition which can only be remedied by war. By the 10th of March a tolerably strong commando was encamped on the border of the disturbed district. The president was there with several members of the volksraad, the landdrost of Smithfield, and other influential men.

Further conflict occurred after JN Boshof; President of the Orange Free State [OFS], and Moshoeshoe discussed issues of armed conflict and cattle rustling. However, these discussions only led to Boshof declaring war on the Basotho on 19 March 1858 (also reported as 22 March 1858).

Land was the chief factor in the quarrel. Each party claimed a considerable strip of territory, and each had grounds for asserting a right to it. It had been given to Moshesh by Governor Sir George Napier in a formal treaty, and the chief sometimes maintained that his subsequent cession of it to Major Warden had been cancelled by Sir George Clerk, at other times significantly observed that when Sir George Cathcart left the Berea he took all boundary beacons away with him. It was partly occupied by Basuto, and had been so for twelve or fifteen years.

The Europeans claimed it by right of possession taken when it was vacant, and of holding their farms under English titles issued by the Sovereignty government. In their view it was part of a great district utterly waste before the simultaneous migration into it of themselves and the Basuto, between whom the Warden line was a boundary which gave a fair proportion to each. That line had been consented to by Moshesh in writing, had never to their knowledge been cancelled, and was the boundary recognised by the government from which they had taken over the country.

Constant thefts of cattle by the Basuto, and the impossibility of obtaining redress, must next be considered. And here one is struck by the apparent anomaly of the Free State government requiring Moshesh to keep order over people on ground claimed by itself.

Active hostilities commenced at Beersheba mission station on the 23rd of March. There were among the burghers rash and thoughtless men who entered eagerly into this war, but the great majority of them felt that nothing but the direst necessity could justify their embarking in it. They had no soldiers, not even a body of police. They would be obliged to take the field entirely at their own expense, while during their absence from home not only must their ordinary employments be suspended, but their families must be left without protection. Their enemy occupied a country which was one vast fortress, from any point of which he could send out parties of light horse to pillage the plains while they were engaged at a distance.

In Moshesh the Free State had to deal with one whose early manhood had been passed in war, and who had risen to power by means of military ability displayed chiefly as a strategist. He had forgotten nothing since the days of Matiwane, but had learned much. He sent his cattle into distant and almost inaccessible mountain ravines, and then gave orders to his captains to fight at every point of advantage, but when pressed close to fall back and draw the Free State commandos after them.

The Basotho were formidable opponents, and the Boers suffered substantial losses, as they were unable to penetrate the Basotho mountain stronghold of Thaba Bosiu (also called Thaba Bosigo). This war is also known as the First Basotho War or the War of Senekal (sometimes spelled Senegal).

During this war, the Boers destroyed many mission stations in the Basotho kingdom, as they blamed them for educating and instilling a sense of pride among the Basotho. These mission stations had been set up by missionaries from the Paris Evangelical Society, who arrived at Thaba Bosiu in 1833. They had helped to unite the Basotho under Moshoeshoe, and were the first to write the Sesotho language.

The Free State forces had dissolved, and Boshof was compelled to make overtures to Moshesh for a suspension of hostilities. Moshesh agreed unconditionally to mediation, for though he was apparently master of the situation, he was wise enough to see that if he pushed his advantages too far he would bring a new enemy into the field. On the 1st of June an armistice was agreed upon and signed, under which all military operations on both sides were to be suspended.

After this war an uneasy peace followed. J.H Brand, who replaced Boshoff, took initiative and negotiated with Moshoeshoe, who objected that the frontier was not clear. However, hostilities re-surfaced, and President Brand believed that the OFS should use its military superiority against the Basotho.

Moshoeshoe had also realized his precarious position, and had applied for British protection from Sir Philip Wodehouse, a new commissioner who had arrived in the Cape in 1861. The Warden Line had then been reaffirmed, and although the Basotho were given time to withdraw, attacks continued later nonetheless.

1865 - Second Basotho War (Seqiti War)

By 1864 the white inhabitants of the district of Zoutpansberg were the most lawless of their colour in all South Africa. There were indeed many respectable well-behaved people residing on farms, but on the frontier there had assembled a large number of fugitives from justice, of almost every European nationality, as well as degraded offshoots of old colonial families. These men, whose manner of living was in many respects even more savage than that of the blacks, were professedly traders and hunters, but did not scruple to follow the calling of robbers when there was any plunder within reach. In early days they had taken parties of blacks to the hunting fields with them, but recently they had contented themselves with sending blacks to procure ivory and ostrich feathers while they remained at home in idleness.

The immediate act that led to hostilities was the escape from custody of a petty captain named Monene. This man, who bore the character of being one of the most turbulent individuals in the district, was a refugee from the powerful coast tribe formerly under the chief Manukusa. For some misconduct, real or alleged, he had fled from his own people and taken refuge with the chieftainess Matshatshi, who resided in Zoutpansberg and was reputed to be the most successful rainmaker in the country. In July 1864 President Pretorius visited the district, and as a temporary measure gave Monene a location close to Schoemansdal, placing him under the supervision of the landdrost Vercueil.

On the 1st of April a party of white men the roughest and most lawless characters in the district assembled under Commandant Stephanus Venter to search for Monene, and on the 7th, having ascertained that Pago had given him shelter, they attacked that captain at Pisangkop, killed about ninety of his people, and drove off one hundred and seventy head of horned cattle and two hundred and fifty sheep and goats, besides taking away a number of women and children.

In 1865, the Orange Free State launched the Second Basotho War known in Sesotho as the Seqiti War. The word seqiti refers to the sound made by the new cannon the Boers used to crush the Basotho strongholds, mainly in the present day Free State province.

The Free State army began to seize cattle and destroy crops, and two attempts were then made to storm Moshoeshoe's stronghold at Thaba Bosiu, where Commandant Wepener was killed.

Moshoeshoe was then compelled to accept the peace of Thaba Bosiu on 11 April 1866, due an exhaustion of Basotho food supplies. Moshoeshoe's son Molapo had also allegedly concluded a separate peace treaty.

In June the government called out a commando of twelve hundred men, but did not succeed in obtaining even half that number. The commandant-general was ill and unable to lead the force, but the president went with it. It accomplished nothing whatever, and was disbanded within a month. Moshoeshoe then renewed entreaties for British protection after a short armistice. This was because due to the fact that the Free State Government was late in allocating land, the Basotho slowly advanced over the border line, and further tensions mounted.

1867 - Third Basotho War

In July 1867, the third war between the Free State and the Basotho in ten years began, and Boer forces overran Moshoeshoe's land and conquered all the land except the impregnable fortress of Thaba Bosiu.

The Free State Government began to raise an armed force, which was aggravated by the murder of two Whites in Ladybrand in June 1867. Brand demanded the hand over of the murderers, but Moshoeshoe stated that he had not agreed to the frontier line of 1866, and therefore the events had not occurred on Free State territory. In the early months of 1867 the clans suspended their internal dissensions, and attacked the Europeans again. The president hereupon called out a commando of two thousand men to assemble at the end of May, and summoned the volksraad to meet in extraordinary session. The members came together on the 15th of May. The president, in his opening address, informed them that he was helpless for want of money.

In January 1868 President Pretorius called out a commando of a thousand men, to assemble on the 20th of February; and announced that if they did not respond to the order the district must be entirely abandoned. About two hundred and sixty mustered on the day appointed. The Free State forces achieved great military success, and Moshoeshoe was compelled to ask for British assistance. Basutoland was then annexed on 12 March 1868, after Governor Wodehouse received instructions to negotiate with Moshoeshoe for the recognition of the Basotho as British subjects.

On the 12 March 1868, the British parliament declared the Basotho Kingdom a British protectorate. The Orange Free State was forced to discontinue the war if it was not to raise trouble with the British Empire. At the end of May between eight and nine hundred burghers took the field, assisted by a large band of loyal blacks. On the 13th of June Commandant-General Kruger attacked Mapela's mountain, and made himself master of every portion of it except one very strong position on which the chief's principal kraal was built. In the attack two burghers were killed and eleven were wounded, but it was computed that Mapela's loss was at least three hundred warriors killed, besides about two thousand head of horned cattle, three hundred sheep and goats, and twelve guns seized by Kruger's commando.

In February 1869, the boundaries of present day Lesotho (previously Basutoland) were then drawn up according to the Convention of Aliwal-North. This convention gave the Conquered Territory to the Free State, and the boundary line was moved further south to Langeberg. No further armed conflict between the Free State and the Basotho took place after this.

As a result, King Moshoeshoe was able to save his kingdom from being overrun by the Boers. King Moshoeshoe died two years in 1870, after the end of war, and was buried at the summit of Thaba Bosiu.

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Page last modified: 24-04-2017 16:05:53 ZULU