In the early 1800’s there was a great deal of migration and upheaval in Southern Africa, mostly as a result of the Mfecane. There were a number of conflicts between various tribes and, as a result of the Mahlatule famine, some people were even driven to cannibalism.

King Moshoeshoe. Source:

Moshoeshoe and Lesotho

Moshoeshoe is seen as the father of the Basotho people as he was responsible for drawing together the scattered Sotho peoples who had been driven apart by Zulu and Ndebele raids, and for creating Lesotho, the Basotho Kingdom. Moshoeshoe was the son of Mokoleti, a sub-chief and became a minor chief leading a group of young men of the same age during the early 1800’s. He defended a mountain fortress at Butha Buthe in northeastern Lesotho and, although this camp was in a strong position, the tribe was still attacked by various other groups, like Sekonyela and the Tlokwa. Moshoeshoe didn’t feel safe at Butha Buthe any longer and started looking for another location.

A map of Lesotho ©

As a result of erosion of the sandstone in the area by the lowland rivers, flat-topped and freestanding mountains formed. One of Moshoeshoe’s followers found a virtually impenetrable location about 30km from Maseru and he decided to move his tribe to this safer area called Thaba Bosiu, meaning ‘mountain at night’. This area was virtually unconquerable as there were only seven paths of access to the top of the flat-topped mountain, all of them easily guarded. It also had natural springs and could support up to 3000 people and their animals. Moshoeshoe successfully defended his people against attacks from the Ndebele under Mzilikazi, the Griquas, the Boers on several occasions and the British, under the control of General Cathcart.

Mzilikazi ©

His reputation of a wise and compassionate leader towards those he defeated, and his successful defence of his own people resulted in many people flocking to his city for protection. He also conducted cattle raids and by lending these cattle to destitute groups, and even rehabilitating cannibals, he won the loyalty of people around him and thus the Kingdom of Lesotho was born. In 1966 the Kingdom of Lesotho became an independent nation and the present Monarch, King Letsie III is a great grandson of King Moshoeshoe I.

The view from the Khubelu Pass leading to Thaba Bosiu.
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Thaba Bosiu
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Attacks on the Basotho

In 1830 or 1831 Thaba Bosiu was attacked by the Ndebele, who were defeated, and as they retreated Moshoeshoe sent them a diplomatic gift of cattle. Kora and the Griqua bandits also raided the Kingdom, but were ambushed by the Basotho, who seized their guns and horses.

More Griqua, Kora and Rolong, in the company of Wesleyan missionaries, arrived on Moshoeshoe’s frontiers in 1834. The Rolong and missionaries were not prepared to submit to Moshoeshoe and his missionary advisors from the Paris Evangelical Society, whom he had invited to his land earlier during the century. In the absence of his French advisors the Wesleyans convinced Moshoeshoe to give them absolute ownership of the Thaba Nchu area.

In 1867 and 1868 most of Moshoeshoe’s land was overrun by Boers from the Orange Free State and he appealed to the British for protection. In March 1868 his country became a British protectorate and the Basotho was saved and the current borders of Lesotho were established. Most of their territory was lost, specifically fertile farming area west of the Caledon River, which they had ceded to the Boers.

For a period Basutoland, as the Kingdom was called at that stage, fell under the rule of the Cape Colony. This state of affairs led to increased tension and in 1880 the Gun War broke out. The result of the conflict was that Basutoland came under direct rule from London, where it remained until its independence in 1966.


There has been debate regarding the cultural identities of various indigenous groups in South Africa. These identities easily get obscured by debates about spelling and language. In this case we ask whether the founder of Lesotho called Moshesh, Moshweshwe or Moshoeshoe and were his people the Suthu, Basotho or Basuto? In cultures where history and tradition are orally transferred from generation to generation it is difficult to confirm events in the manner of Western historians and researchers, but this doesn’t negate the occurrence of these events.

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