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Africa During the Scramble: Guns of the Sotho

By Gary Oswald

Flag of Lesotho

Henry Bartle Frere was recalled to London in August 1880 by the new Gladstone ministry to answer for having launched an unauthorised war against the Zulu which led to the loss of nearly 2,000 British Soldiers. But, to an extent, he could defend himself as not having done a terrible job. The UK, after the annexation of the Transvaal Boer Republic, was not far from it's goal of a self defending autonomous United South Africa with an entirely disarmed native population which Britain would not need to send troops to. The Khoisan and Mfengu had handed in their arms in the Cape Colony, the Xhosa had been largely crushed and disarmed in the 9th Frontier war of 1877-79 and the simultaneous Northern War had conquered the Griqua. Moreover the Zulu, who had the largest Army of all the South African polities, had been forever removed as a threat with the 1879 Anglo-Zulu War and the subsequent partition of their land while the Bapedi, who probably had the best Army of all the independent South African polities, had also been destroyed in late 1879.

There were still armed African Kingdoms in the area, such as the Swazi and the Tswana, but they were firmly allied with the British and in land that was both not particularly desirable and far away from the British Population centres. And South Africa was newly at peace.

But within four months of Frere's return to London, two more wars would break out in South Africa, which would illustrate how fragile Frere's successes were and how many underlying problems he had created. Because Britain would lose both. One in the Transvaal and one in the Orange River Sovereignty.

Britain had had an uncertain relationship with the Orange River Sovereignty for decades. The Sovereignty had become the centre of migration and mingling peoples in the 1820s, when what had previously been majority Tswana and Phuthi land, suddenly found itself beset by migrants both from the British Cape Colony, where the new arrivals included both White Boers and Coloured Griquas, and from the Zulu Lands, where the newcomers included the Sotho, Kololo and Tlokwa fleeing the increasing power of Shaka and Mzilikazi. The result was a complicated web of wars and alliances, out of which two major polities emerged. There was the Sotho Nation led by Moshoeshoe, which despite the name was really a multi ethnic society which many Tswana, Phuthi, Kololo and Tlokwa had been integrated into, and Griqualand West led by Adam Kok, who had grown up as a slave in the Cape Colony. In 1843, both of these polities signed treaties of protection with the British wherein the British recognised them as rulers of that entire area.

This angered the white Boer settlers, who had yet to form a real state of their own and were now declared subjects of native chiefs. They petitioned to the Cape for British recognition of their own rights to land in the sovereignty and guarantees of protection, something rejected because they were at the time fighting with the Griqua and Sotho, who had asked for, and later received, British support against this Boer rebellion.

In 1848 the British Commissioner, Harry Smith, attempted to simplify the situation by simply declaring the British controlled all the land, that all rent would by paid to the British and that all the residents, Griqua, Sotho or Boer would answer to London. Various Boers attempted to resist but were defeated in battle and driven out of the area.

The problem with this solution, was a) Britain didn't have enough troops to prevent a further round of ethnic fighting breaking out and b) the British government hadn't really been consulted about this extra burden in terms of defence and resolved to leave the area as quickly as possible. To make matters even worse, having entered the area to defend Moshoeshoe's land rights, the British ended up fighting and losing an embarrassing war against the Sotho in 1851 after trying to tax them.

In the 1852 Sand River Convention, the British recognised that the Boers of the Transvaal were an independent state and swore to neither arm nor ally with any native polities in that area as long as the Boers freed their slaves. Control of the Orange River Sovereignty was left unresolved at that convention but, with a treaty signed, there was now precedent for recognising a Boer Republic. Admittedly within a year both sides had accused the other of breaking that treaty, the British because of Boers still owning Slaves and the Boers because Tswana tribes had been given guns by British Missionaries, but for a British government eager to not take on the burden of administrating the Sovereignty, it was still a tempting solution.

King Moshoeshoe

In 1853, the Orange River Convention happened. While many Boer farmers actively asked for the British to stay, the ones that wanted independence threatened to ally with Moshoeshoe against the British if that happened and so independence won the day. The British largely retreated from the area, which came to be divided into three states. Griqualand West, which was still a British protectorate, the Orange Free State, which was entirely independent and run by the Boers and the Sotho Kingdom, which Britain nullified their alliance with (not unreasonably given they'd just lost a war to their supposed ally) and promised not to sell guns to. For the Boers this was a major diplomatic victory, not only were their rights to their own land recognised, but they'd successfully isolated Moshoeshoe. Moshoeshoe attempted to replace his British Alliance with a Xhosa alliance, sending them the lucky charm he had used to defeat the British, but the Xhosa would soon self destruct in the Cattle Killing Episode of 1856 and, in the aftermath of that, Moshoeshoe would deny having ever communicated with them.

From 1858 to 1868 the Boers and the Sotho would fight a series of brutal wars as the Boers attempted to annex the Sotho land. Moshoeshoe would spend this time appealing to London to intervene while fighting a brilliant defensive war. In 1868, with the Boers laying another fruitless siege of Moshoeshoe's capital, London finally stepped in and accepted Moshoeshoe's offer of fealty. While much land would be ceded to the Boers, the aptly named 'conquered territory', Modern Day Lesotho would be saved with Moshoeshoe ruling there as a British subject. Three years later, after Moshoeshoe's death, it would become officially a part of the Cape Colony, though they weren't allowed to vote unless they agreed to follow the laws of the Cape above the laws of Moshoeshoe which they refused to.

Despite this grey area however the Sotho were African citizens of the Cape and so, according to Frere's principles, they had to be disarmed. This was easier said than done.

The Sotho had took to European weapons with a vengeance upon their arrival in their modern lands. While their forces in their great victory against Mzilikazi of the Matebele in 1831 seem to have been primarily armed with spears and boulders, they picked up guns and horses from their fights with the Griqua and quickly realised their importance. By 1843, Moshoeshoe had 6,000 cavalrymen and over a thousand guns, a significant amount for a native King in 1840s South Africa. By 1852, at the conclusion of their war with British, they could boast that every cavalry man in their army, and a considerable amount of the infantry, had a gun. In most cases, however these guns were old firelocks, and due to limited gunpowder (the Sotho did make their own but only in small quantities) practice was rare so their aim was also not great. As a result, the standard tactics was for them to only use the guns at close range or when shooting down from their fortresses. This limited supply hampered them, there is a reason the Boers insisted that the Orange River Convention included a promise for the British not to sell the Sotho more weapons.

However after the British annexed the Sotho lands, that promise no longer applied, and the Sotho bought tens of thousands of guns and tons of powder from British shops, with young Sotho working stints at the diamonds mines to earn their own guns as a rite of passage. To the Sotho having a gun was part of what being a man meant. In 1874, the British agent advised Cape Town to stop this trade but also advised them that removing weapons from those who already had them would be a huge mistake. Four years later, in 1878, Frere dismissed the Cape Parliament and replaced them with his appointed man Gordon Sprigg. And Sprigg only had that position so that he could follow Frere's overall aims. As a result they were less inclined to listen to such advice.

In 1879, Morosi, a Phuthi vassal of the Sotho who had fought alongside them against the British and Boers, got into a war with the British. His son had refused to pay new hut taxes introduced by Sprigg to pay for Frere's wars and so had been imprisoned by the Cape Police, under the pretext of him stealing cattle. Morosi sprung him from jail and then retreated his entire people to a newly constructed mountain fortress. The Cape Police laid siege to that fortress for eight months and assaulted it twice but were repulsed. So they asked the Sotho, then led by Letsie I, Moshoeshoe's son, to aid them in return for keeping their guns, justifying this on the basis that since the Sotho had special status anyway in terms of not voting, they could just get another exception here. The Sotho lent 1,500 soldiers to the Cape and Morosi and his men were wiped out entirely in a third assault.

Once the rebels were defeated however, Sprigg broke that promise and attempted to confiscate the Sotho guns, being rather put off by the level of armament they had demonstrated in the campaign against Morosi. He also doubled the hut tax the Sotho had to pay and, to sweeten the deal to the citizens of Cape who'd have to bleed in a Sotho rebellion, promised to seize some of the Sotho's land, Quthing District in the South West, for white settlement. Letsie I attempted to open up negotiations to deescalate the conflict but Sprigg refused to listen. And Frere, having been mostly distracted by the Zulu War, was briefed on the situation and issued an ultimatum that all Sotho weapons must be handed in straight away or they'd be taken by force. This did not have the desired effect. The Sotho began to gather under Letsie's brother, Masopha, who felt that the British had proved themselves weak during the fight against Morosi and could be defeated once again as they had been thirty years earlier.

Masopha in uniform with his standard bearer.

In September 1880, 200 reinforcements were sent from the Cape to the Sotho lands and were attacked by Sotho troops. Masopha quickly called up 23,000 cavalry all armed with guns to fight for their right to bear arms. The Cape in return, already stretched from wars elsewhere, could muster only 4,000 soldiers armed with mortars and heavy guns to face them. Quickly the local Cape Garrisons found themselves besieged by vastly superior forces and several outposts were abandoned. The outbreak of this war also encouraged further rebellions among the apparently defeated Xhosa and Griqua, meaning the Cape had to withdraw troops from the Sotho lands to deal with that throughout late 1880 and early 1881. There was even a panicked recruitment of black soldiers into the Cape militia for the last time, despite that having been outlawed two years earlier.

On 19th October, at the battle at Qalabane, Sotho soldiers mauled a British relief column and while the British did win several other battles, they were unable to take the offensive. They lacked the numbers to either besiege the Sotho fortresses or pin down the mobile all cavalry force that opposed them. Eventually the Cape, tired from years of brutal war against everyone else in South Africa and on the verge of bankruptcy from the spiralling costs of the war, agreed to peace in 1882. The Sotho were allowed to keep their guns, if they paid a one pound annual gun tax on them, and the rebels would be given amnesty as long as they paid restitution in the form of a collective fine of 5,000 cattle. A year later, the Cape unannexed the Sotho and it became an independent Territory with a Resident commissioner governing through the existing Chiefs.

The Sotho forces were competent and used their numbers advantage well but they undoubtedly took more casualties than they gave, the peace deal happened as much because of the shifting political situation elsewhere as it did Sotho victories in the field. The Cape itself was suffering war weariness after the Zulu, Xhosa and Bapedi Wars and lacked both the funds and men to fight another long and brutal war by itself, but it didn't have to be fighting by itself.

The change in government in London with the more moderate Gladstone replacing Disraeli in 1880 meant there was much less enthusiasm for South African federation. Frere's replacement, Henry Hugh Clifford, refused to even send more British reinforcements to a war he felt the Cape Colony had started and should win themselves. Disraeli wouldn't have been thrilled by the costs of all the warfare either but he had appointed Frere and might have felt more closely tied to him politically and so needed to see it through by winning the Gun War. And the First Boer War broke out in December 1880, which prevented the Cape from getting aid from the Orange Free State, who would have been happy to fight the Sotho again had not the British been fighting their brother Boers in the Transvaal. Had circumstances elsewhere been different, and the Cape had been properly reinforced by the British and the Orange Free State, they probably would have been able to assemble a force capable of breaking the Sotho fortifications and so continued in their full disarmament and annexation policy.

But in OTL, the Sotho, in pretty much every meaningful way, won and that victory was significant because it forced the British to be much more flexible. Instead of every native polity being disarmed and annexed and their land handled out to white settlers, some loyal Africans would maintain control and merely be protectorates. After the Sotho won that privilege, the same deal would be offered to the Tswana, and then to the Swazi.

Apartheid South Africa would not control those areas and so they would emerge with the pre colonial social structures and aristocracy generally intact and with Black majority rule 30 years earlier. If the Sotho had lost, or if the Cape had simply shown flexibility and waited until a more opportune moment to disarm them, they almost certainly wouldn't have done so, which changes a lot of people's lives.

But could they done even better and won full independence? It's unlikely because ultimately however badly the British had treated them over the last decade the Sotho benefited from their arrangement with the British because it kept the Boers off their back. Letsie himself wished to remain loyal and had tried everything to prevent bloodshed. Moreover with pretty much their entire population committed to the fight, there was genuine worry that they'd starve to death due to lack of farmers if peace wasn't agreed by the next harvest. They couldn't afford to fight for full independence, when the terms they were offered were more than satisfactory.

The Sotho Gun War also acted to shield the Orange Free State from British interest, during a time when it was the only major independent state in South Africa. With the Basuto in rebellion, rather than being able to be recruited as allied soldiers, the British position was too weak to press that case, which we know they had hoped to do. This allowed the Free State considerable freedom of movement during the First Boer War where they provided aid to the rebels and kept diplomatic channels open that allowed for peace to be negotiated. If Frere had been more flexible with the Sotho and the Gun War hadn't started, the result might have been a more extensive First Boer War. Which is the other war Britain lost and is the topic of the next article of this series.


Gary Oswald is the editor of the 'Grapeshot and Guillotines' Anthology.


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