The Boer Republics, and the Basotho kingdom (a case study)

Moshoeshoe moves to Thaba Bosiu

The 1820s and 1830s were a time of great upheaval. There were many wars about land which caused thousands of people to flee to other parts of the country. For example, the Tlokoa were driven from their villages and, in turn, attacked other settlements in the area.

Moshoeshoe realised that his people needed a stronger fortress to protect themselves from attack. He very wisely chose a flat-topped mountain surrounded by a fertile plain for his new capital. Because they arrived there at night, it was called Thaba Bosiu, which means the Mountain of the Night. Over the next 50 years, many people attacked this mountain stronghold. No one ever succeeded in conquering it.

How Moshoeshoe built up his power

Moshoeshoe built up his power at Thaba Bosiu by attracting people who had been unsettled by the land wars of the 1820s and 1830s. They were given land and were lent cattle and, in return, Moshoeshoe expected them to support him and his people in war. In this way, Moshoeshoe built up his chiefdom from 25 000 people in 1836 to 80 000 in 1848.

Moshoeshoe also used a tribute system. His supporters paid tribute to him by working for a time on his fields without pay or by giving him grain from the land they farmed. In the 1830s Moshoeshoe was able to use this grain, as well as cattle obtained from raids on weaker groups, to buy large numbers of guns and horses from British traders and from some missionaries. With these he could protect his followers from attack by people who were moving into the area.

In a previous grade 10 topic we learnt about the rise of the Basotho state under Moshoeshoe, this chapter takes the story a bit further.

Trouble over the land

By the mid-1830s, Moshoeshoe's chiefdom had spread from Thaba Bosiu over a wide area and had grown into the largest and most powerful chiefdom in the region.

The land that the Basotho occupied was mountainous and had few fertile areas. The most fertile part was the Caledon River Valley. The Basotho used this valley for growing crops and keeping livestock. Grain could be grown without irrigation. Cattle and large herds of game grazed on the thick grass in the area. It was into this fertile valley that the Boers moved.

At first, the Boers and the Basotho lived peacefully with each other in the Caledon Valley. They relied on each other. Trading between the Basotho and the Boers increased: in exchange for grain and cattle, the Basotho got large stores of guns and gunpowder from the Boers. Some of these Boers saw themselves as friends or even subjects of Moshoeshoe.

However, by the end of the 1830s, the Basotho Kingdom, other African groups and some of the Boers all wanted control of the Caledon River Valley because it was so fertile. Moshoeshoe did not want to lose the use of any of this land to the Boers. He also did not want to go to war against them.

By now Moshoeshoe had already become aware of the power of the British in Southern Africa. He had heard how the British had defeated the Xhosa on the Cape Eastern Frontier.

The first boundary line

In 1843 Napier, who was the Cape Governor, and Moshoeshoe signed a treaty of friendship which drew boundaries around Moshoeshoe's territory.

Napier Treaty

The Napier treaty recognised most of the territory that Moshoeshoe claimed. It included land occupied by the Rolong, the Taung, the Kora, the Tlokoa and the Boers. The problem was that the Rolong, the Tlokoa and the majority of the Boers were not prepared to accept Moshoeshoe's authority.

Napier hoped that this treaty would keep peace in the area so that British trade could carry on undisturbed.

The Boers gain land

Some Boers thought they owned the land they occupied. But, as one of Moshoeshoe's sons explained:

  • It is like letting people sit on chairs when they enter your house. They may sit down, but the chairs do not belong to them.
  • To avoid conflict with the Boers, Moshoeshoe finally agreed to make a section of Basotho land in the triangle between the Orange and the Caledon rivers available to the Boers. The Boers could rent, but not buy this land.
  • Moshoeshoe agreed to this in the hope that his people would be protected against losing more land to the Boers. However, this agreement didn't satisfy everybody.

The view from the Khubelu Pass leading to Thaba Bosiu. Source:

Conflict between the Basotho and the British

Tensions increased between the Basotho and some of the Boers over the Caledon River Valley. On the north-west border, Moshoeshoe was having problems with the Rolong who still would not accept his authority. The Governor of the Cape at the time was a man called Harry Smith. His solution was to proclaim British control over all the Basotho territory in 1848: African chiefs in the area would continue to rule over their own chiefdoms and he Boers and the British would be ruled by British magistrates. The Boers would then become British subjects and would hopefully bring stability to the area. This step greatly angered the Voortrekkers who had left the Cape colony precisely because they did not want to be ruled by the British.

In 1850, Warden, the British magistrate who was put in control of the Caledon River Valley, stated his concern that the Basotho kingdom was becoming too powerful.

In 1851, with Smith's consent, Varden sent an army of British troops, Griqua, Kora, Rolong and a small number of Boers to attack the Basotho. At this stage, many of the Boers preferred to trade with the Basotho rather than go to war with them. The Basotho defeated Warden's army at Viervoet. The next year the British led another attack against the Basotho and again they were defeated. This shows the strength of the Basotho at this time.

The birth of the Orange Free State

After suffering these defeats, both Harry Smith and Warden lost their jobs. The new governor of the Cape, George Cathcart, believed that it would be best for Britain to withdraw from the area. His reasons were;

  • involvement in the region was costing too much financially
  • the Boers were threatening to side with Moshoeshoe against the British unless the British recognised their independence in the areas north of the Cape
  • britain did not want a war against both the Boers and the Basotho.

As Moshoeshoe had feared all along, the British and some of the Boers got together. They held a convention or great meeting in Bloemfontein in 1854. At the Bloemfontein Convention, the British recognised the independence of the Boers in the area between the Orange and the Vaal rivers. This gave rise to the independent Boer Republic of the Orange Free State. No African chiefdoms were consulted. The Bloemfontein Convention made no reference to Moshoeshoe and did not state what the boundaries between the Basotho kingdom and the OFS were. This was to cause conflict in years to come.

The tension mounts

By the time the Orange Free State was established, Moshoeshoe was at the height of his power. He had defeated the Tlokoa in 1853. There were now about 100 000 people under his control. This included all the major African groups in the area except for the Rolong.

Soon after 1854, the Basotho started taking cattle and horses from Boer farms. The Boers called this stock theft, but the chiefs on the frontier thought that they had a right to take Boer stock. As one of the chiefs said:

"They have taken away my country and those who have done it must feed me".

Tension between the Basotho and the OFS increased. The Basotho argued that Boer complaints were exaggerated because they were looking for an excuse to declare war on the Basotho. Moshoeshoe himself said:

"However, Moshoeshoe did not want war with the OFS. He was always afraid that the British would side with the OFS in a war".

War against the OFS

In March 1858, the OFS declared war on the Basotho kingdom. The British came to their aid by supplying them with weapons. The Boers were also helped in this war by Moshoeshoe's old enemies, the Tlokoa.

The Boer forces advanced, attacking and looting villages as they went along. At the same time, Moshoeshoe's soldiers attacked Boer farms, taking livestock and burning homesteads. When this news reached the Boers, many of them returned home.

By September, the OFS had been defeated and a peace treaty was signed.

Moshoeshoe agreed that the governor of the Cape should be called in to settle the peace. Because Moshoeshoe still wanted to keep Britain on his side, he agreed to lose more land to the OFS. Many of the Basotho chiefs were not convinced that this was the right thing to do.

The OFS gains strength

The 1858 war showed that the Basotho people were strong enough to defend themselves against the Boers. The OFS, on the other hand, was weak.

But, for many reasons, the OFS grew stronger in the 1860s. One reason was that the OFS government was able to import large numbers of weapons, including cannons from the British in the Cape.

At the same time, Moshoeshoe's control over his kingdom grew weaker. One reason for this was that it was more difficult to get weapons because Britain refused to allow the sale of weapons to African kingdoms after 1854.

A long and bitter war broke out between the OFS and the Basotho in 1865. The Basotho called it the War of Cannon's Boom. The OFS claimed that the war was about cattle but it was really about land. Although the Basotho were suffering greatly, the Boers were not able to defeat them. All the while, Moshoeshoe still hoped that Britain would come to his aid.

The British rule over "Basutoland"

Moshoeshoe knew that his people could not go on and on fighting the Boers. But, he also knew that he could not just give up his land and his people to them. He realised that the only possibility of keeping any of his land was to bring it under British control.

After a number of appeals from Moshoeshoe, the British finally agreed to take over the Basotho kingdom in 1868. It became known as "Basutoland" and all the Basotho people became British subjects.

A treaty between "Basutoland" and the OFS was signed in February 1869. The map opposite shows the final border settlement between "Basutoland" and the OFS and this is still the border of Lesotho today.

The Basotho kingdom lost most of its fertile land to the Boers. But, under the very able leadership of Moshoeshoe, it survived the kind of pressures which destroyed other African kingdoms.

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