Botswana: The Tswana Polities (1700-1885)

Updated June 2009

Incursions by Tswana speakers into Botswana began from the late 1600s onwards. Expanding populations, fissions within the Phofu chiefdom and struggles to gain control over trade routes that led to internecine warfare in their western Transvaal homeland (Parsons 1999; Manson 1992, 87). One consequent migration from the area of conflict led to the established the Ngwaketse chiefdom over Khalagari-Rolong in south eastern Botswana around 1700 CE that developed into a military state controlling hunting in the Kalahari, copper mining and engaged in cattle raids on their neighbours (Parsons 1999). In another migration Kwena Tswana speakers settled further north establishing the Ngwato chiefdoms that spread north west across the Kalahari to the region of Ghanzi displacing others from the trade route (Parsons 1999). The mafias feudal system characterised the chiefdoms of 18th and 19th century Tswana as they expanded from the south east of Botswana across the Kalahari to gain control over routes that conveyed ivory, feathers, furs and similar hunting goods between the interior and the Cape Colony (Murray & Parson 1990, 160).

In the second half of the eighteenth century the interior of Southern Africa was increasingly thrown into turmoil as a result of the insatiable appetite of the Portuguese for slave exports from their colonies in Angola in the west and Mozambique in the east, leading to massive population displacements as people fled from slave raiders (Parsons 1999; Cobbing 1988, 504, 506). Matters were further aggravated by widespread and prolonged droughts between 1800-1818 and the rise of the Griqua polity to the south, and renegade bands from them, in the early 19th century who used the advantage of gun and horse ownership to raid for cattle and people to sell to the Cape Colony in the south (Keegan 1996, 175-177; Cobbing 1988, 496-499; Boeyens 2003, 74).

In 1826 the Kololo invaded the territory of the Ngwaketse, but were expelled northwards into the territory of the Ngwato who they terrorised until finally moving off and settling in southern Zambia in 1835 (Parsons 1999). The Ndebele under Mzilikazi moved from Natal to establish themselves in the western Transvaal from where they invaded the territory of the Ngwaketse in 1828, driving them into the Kalahari and then reduced the other Tswana chiefdoms to vassalage (Lye, WF 1969, 89-93). Even after their expulsion to southern Zimbabwe by the Boers the Ndebele continued to present a threat to the reconstituted chiefdoms of eastern Botswana (Lye, WF 1969, 95, 96; Parsons 1999). In the 1840s the Tswana chiefdoms were able to re-establish themselves and regain control over the trading network that was now extended by the building of wagon trails from the Cape Colony to the north; the most important of these were the Kwena, the Ngwaketse and the Ngwato (Parsons 1999; Parsons 1975, 383). The opening of the road south brought not only white traders and adventurers northwards, but also missionaries; the first of these from the London Missionary Society in 1844 and by 1877 they had stations in four chiefdoms including the Ngwaketse, Kwena and Ngwato polities (Chirenje 1976, 404, 405; Parsons 1999).

Missionary documentation shows that hereditary chiefship was the very embodiment of the life of the tribe and the office bearer the personification of the people of the chiefdom and could thus command absolute obedience (Comaroff & Comaroff 1997, 129, 130). However, a chief was expected to maintain good governance, which included the necessity of consulting and listening to the adult male members of the chiefdom, and a chief who lost the respect of his followers through poor governance could find himself without support when challenged by a rival dynastic claimant (Comaroff & Comaroff 1997, 130, 131). The chief's powers included the right to make legislation, to make administrative decisions, to allocate the land usage in the chiefdom, to command labour for projects of benefit to the community and to various forms of tribute; but should these powers be used unwisely they would be curtailed by decisions made in public meetings (kgotlas) as support shifted away from him to the alternative candidate for the chiefship (Comaroff & Comaroff 1997, 132-134). Nevertheless, Tswana society was highly stratified and bound together by tributary extraction: At the bottom were the servile descendants of conquered peoples, then the Tswana commoners, followed by the aristocracy with the chief at the apex; influence waned down the pyramid while tribute flowed up and the chiefs at the top were very wealthy indeed (Parsons 1975, 387; Good 1992, 70, 71).

The Boers, thinly scattered over large area, divided, and preoccupied with subjugating the African populations within the territories, did not initially present a threat to the Tswana chiefdoms outside their territories (see South Africa: Africans, Boers and Brits (1795-1880)). When eventually in 1852 they raided the Kwena, the latter retaliated with punitive expeditions in 1853 and 1854, recovering carried off cattle and children and temporarily driving the Boers out of the western Transvaal (Manson 1992, 91). In 1868 a Boer attempt to claim the Tati gold fields in Ngwato territory were dismissed by Regent Macheng, while attempts to demark farms in Ngwaketse territory in 1870 were successfully repelled (Manson 1992, 96). Weakened by internal religious and political conflicts and faced with the power demonstrated by the Kwena, the Boers abandoned an expansionist policy in favour of one of accommodation with the Tswana and they formally acknowledged the territorial integrity of chiefdoms in 1870 (Manson 1992, 92, 94-96). A prime motive for the welcome received by the missionaries from chiefs was the desire of the latter to acquire western technology such as well sinking and river damming, but above all to obtain guns to facilitate hunting and warfare, especially to ward off the Boers and the Ndebele (Chirenje 1976, 405, 406).

Under the leadership of Sechele, who ruled from 1829-92, the Kwena were preeminent amongst the chiefdoms and their capital Shoshong had a population of around 30 000 in 1886, second in size only to Cape Town on the sub-continent (Parsons 1999; Good 1992, 70). He converted to Christianity in 1848 to secure British favour and aid against the Boers, even before the raid of 1852, and in 1853 (Chirenje 1976, 406; Acemoglu et al 2001, 12). However, the able Khama III seized the chiefship of the Ngato from his father in 1875 because the latter opposed his conversion to Christianity (Parsons 1999; Parsons 1975, 383). He astutely recruited white traders and wrested control of key trade routes from Sechele, establishing Ngato hegemony and expanding the extent of his domain (Parsons 1999; Parsons 1975, 383; Hitchcock 1987, 234).

In order to raise the cash to purchase guns Khama allowed young men to undertake migrant labour on the mines of Kimberley and later on the Witwatersrand and other chiefs followed suite (Dale 1978, 18, 19). Armed with guns, massive hunting expeditions in the 1870s and 1880s succeeded all too well and led to the depletion of the game on which much of Tswana trade was founded (Murray & Parson 1990, 160, 161; Hitchcock 1987, 232, 233). Khama invested his income in new innovative economic activities such as stock breeding and wagon transportation (Good 1993, 209). A sincere and progressive Christian, Khama remitted all tribute due to him from serfs in 1875 and then gradually abolished their payment from higher classes until 1907; he encouraged aristocrats to ease the burden on their subordinates, but was not always obeyed (Parsons 1975, 387; Hitchcock 1987, 236). He reformed the administration of the chiefdom and deployed a system of scouts in strategic areas (Good 1992, 71).

Despite the fact that the heads of three of the four most important chiefdoms were Christians (in 1872 a baptised Christian became chief of the Kwena), the missionaries made little headway with the conversion of the Tswanas, for by 1900 out of a population of more than 100 000 people only 2000 were full members of LMS churches although many Tswanas sent their children to mission schools to be educated (Chirenje 1976, 411). The Tswanas found the Christian gospel incomprehensible and Christian rejection of many traditional cultural practices caused social friction (Chirenje 1976, 411). The LMS missionaries were staunch British imperialists and jealously tried to protect the independence of the Church from the state, while the chiefs vigorously strove for independence from the British and Boers alike and even Christian chiefs regarded the missionaries' attempts at religious independence as assaults on their traditional authority (Chirenje 1976, 404, 411, 412).

The British, based at the Cape Colony, entered a new phase of British expansionism in the late 19th century, and fearing German penetration of the interior from South West Africa, through the intermediation of British traders and missionaries formed an alliance with the Tswana polities suffering incursions from the east of the Boers and the Ndebele (Murray & Parson 1990, 160, 161; Acemoglu et al 2001, 12). By the 1880s the Boers had consolidated their position and renewed Boer incursions into free Tswana territory, by the declaration of the republics of Stellaland and Goshen in 1884, acted as a catalyst for the events to follow (Drummond, & Manson 1991, 225). In 1885, at the request of the three dominant chiefdoms, led by Khama III, the British proclaimed a protectorate over the territory that they called Bechuanaland (Dale 1978, 8; Acemoglu et al 2001, 12). The territory of Bechuanaland was divided: The area north of the Molopo River became the Protectorate of Bechuanaland while the area south it became British Bechuanaland, which was annexed to the Cape Colony in 1995 (Drummond & Manson 1991, 220, 225; Acemoglu et al 2001, 12). Thus the Tswana speaking people were divided between three states, those living in the western Transvaal under Boer domination, those under the governance of the Cape Colony and the rump who lived under direct British rule (Drummond & Manson 1991, 220).


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