Lesotho: Rise and consolidation of the Kingdom (1820-1868)

Updated February 2007

In 1820 the first son of Mokhachane, a Bakoteli chief, by the name of Leboqo, branched at the age of 34 to establish a SeSotho chieftaincy of his own based at Butha-Buthe Mountain (Olivier 2005, Lesotho Government Undated). In 1822 the first of several incursions by various Nguni speaking groups from KwaZulu-Natal that was to wreak havoc amongst the SeSotho and depopulate the land occurred, that of the Hlubi under the leadership of Mpangazita. The immediate response of the Moshoeshoe, as Leboqo was to be known, was to seek alliances with other SeSotho groups to counter the invaders, but after warding off an attack by the Hlubi on Butha-Buthe in 1824 he sought a less vulnerable position and occupied Thaba Bosiu in the winter of that year (Eldredge 1993, 2-3; Lesotho Government Undated).

The impregnability and obscurity of Thaba Bosiu (Mountain of the Night) provided the nucleus of the emerging kingdom with security from the waves of attacks that were to follow and a refuge for the victims of these attacks, who were then absorbed into the expanding polity (Eldredge 1993, 3; Olivier 2005; Lyle & Murray 1980, 48). The Hlubi were defeated and scattered by the Ngwane under Matiwani in 1825, who had likewise been driven across the Drakensberg by the Zulu king Shaka; Moshoeshoe subordinated himself to the Ngwane while absorbing into his people those of the Hlubi that took refuge with him (Lyle & Murray 1980, 32, Lesotho Government Undated).

In 1827 Shaka's impis crossed the Drakensberg in pursuit of the Ngwane and captured much of their cattle. The Ngwane attributed the Zulu raid to Moshoeshoe and assaulted Thaba Bosiu, but without success and they were ambushed on their return by the forces of the rebel Zulu general Matzilikazi (Lyle & Murray 1980, 32). The Ngwane then fled to Thembu country where they were routed by a joint colonial/Thembu forces and many of the survivors took refuge at Thaba Bosiu so that once more Moshoeshoe's forces were augmented (Lyle & Murray 1980, 32).

It was through a policy skilful diplomacy, of withdrawal under attack and magnimity to the vanquished combined with skilful political marriages, that Moshoeshoe wielded together the disparate elements that were to form the Basotho nation (Lesotho Government Undated, Olivier 2005). In the case of the Ngwane, for instance, Moshoeshoe persisted in requests for acceptance as a subject, and the protection that that implied, through offers of tribute all the while strengthening himself by absorbing the survivors of Matiwani's attacks. Later he became a tributary of the more distant Shaka to free himself of the nearer Matiwani and after Matiwani's fall he absorbed and incorporated much of the remnants of the Ngwane. "Thus by his following increased dramatically and, and by 1840 his population had trebled to about forty thousand in fifteen years" (Lyle & Murray 1980, 48).

The unplanned but steady expansion of the Cape Colony placed new pressures on Moshoeshoe's people. Rag-tag bands of displaced Kora, Griqua and other disparate renegades, armed with guns and given mobility by horses, saw the emergent Basotho as easy targets and they raided Moshoeshoe's territory continuously in the late 1820s and early 1830s murdering adults, taking the children for slaves, and rustling the cattle. Once more Moshoeshoe proved adaptable, withdrawing to positions inaccessible to horses and ambushing raiding parties to recover stolen goods and obtain guns and horses for himself (Lesotho Government Undated, Eldredge 1993, 26).

In his quest access to guns and horses Moshoeshoe invited missionaries to settle in his territory resulting in the arrival of members of the Paris Evangelical Missionary Society at Thaba Bosiu in 1833. The missionaries introduced literacy and printing, western medicine, new crops such as wheat, potatoes and fruit, new domesticates such as cats and pigs, new farming methods (the ox plough was introduced in the 1850s) and building technologies (Lesotho Government Undated; Olivier 2005; Lye & Murray 1980, 69; Eldredge 1993, 67).

This enabled the Basotho, who had been expanding the land under cultivation and slowly rebuilding their herds, to further expand food production. When Boer settlers arrived the Caledon Valley they were able to supply these pastoralists with the grain they could not raise themselves on the less fertile soils to the west in exchange for cattle; indeed attempts by the Boers to wrest these grain lands from the Basotho was to be the major source of conflict between the two groups (Eldredge 2000, 53, 59). These lands became all the more desirable, for the Basotho established a grain trade with the Cape Colony in the 1940's that flourished into the 1880s (Eldredge 1993, 151).

By this time Moshoeshoe had developed an extensive network of diplomatic and trading relations through the sub-continent that included the AmaSwazi, BaPedi, BaHurutsie and the AmaZulu and later the BaRolong (Eldredge 1993, 26; (Lyle & Murray 1980, 49). The missionaries provided the King with knowledge and expertise to engage in diplomatic dealing with White settlers and the Cape Colonial government (Lesotho Government Undated, Olivier 2005).

Disaffection among the Cape Colonists led to the emigration of Dutch farmers (Boers) into the territory of Moshoeshoe from 1835 onwards. Initially they acknowledged his suzerainty and they were welcomed and were granted transient grazing rights to allow for their movement north and east (Eldredge 1993, 49). By 1837 they had driven Matzilikazi north of the Limpopo and claimed his lands and subjects by right of conquest; as a result their numbers were augmented by new settlers from the Cape (South African History Online Undated; Lyle & Murray 1980, 60). The British annexation of Natal in 1842 not only blocked eastward movement by the Boers but also led to an influx of settlers wishing to escape British rule there (South African History Online Undated, Lyle & Murray 1980, 62-64, 62).

To counter the threat that their growing numbers and superior military technology presented, the King signed treaties with the Governor of the Cape (Olivier 2005, Wikipedia 2006, Institute of Security Studies 2003). This was insufficient to protect the Kingdom and a series of wars with the British and the Boers ensued. In 1845 Moshoeshoe was forced into a treating recognising permanent white settlement rights on his territory (Lesotho Government Undated; Lyle & Murray 1980, 62-64, 64). In 1848 the British annexed the Boer republic as the Orange River Sovereignty and attempted to impose boundary settlements in the region which led to war in 1851, resulting in a crushing defeat of the British and their allies at the hands of the Basotho. When a British punitive expedition failed a settlement was reached in 1853 (Lesotho Government Undated, Murray 1980, 62-64, 70-71).

Finding the Orange River Sovereignty too taxing on their resources the British withdrew in 1854 and the Orange Free State Republic was proclaimed by the Boers; soon initially cordial relations turned sour over boundary disputes and war with the Boers broke out in 1858 which enabled Moshoeshoe to recover some of the land lost in 1845 (Lesotho Government Undated; Eldredge 1993, 51-58). Recognising the precariousness of his situation Moshoeshoe repeatedly applied to the British for protection from the early 1860's onwards (South African History Online Undated). Conflict over land and cattle continued and in 1865 war between the Basotho and the Boers erupted once more, in which the Basotho, weakened by drought and smallpox, fared the worst and in 1866 a treaty was signed which seceded the fertile Caledon Valley to the Boers and accepted the expulsion of the missionaries from the Kingdom (Lyle & Murray 1980, 71; Eldredge 1993, 53, 79).

Belatedly the British heeded Moshoeshoe's pleas for protection and proclaimed the rump state in the mountains a British Protectorate on March 12, 1868; the situation was regularised in a treaty of February 1869 which established the current borders of Lesotho and made the lose of over half the Basotho's arable land permanent (Lyle & Murray 1980, 71; Transformation Resource Centre 2006; Lesotho Government Undated). This left the Basotho with a territory where only 28% of the land was suitable for agriculture and a further 60% suitable only for grazing and this, because of the mountainous terrain, subject to such extreme fluctuations in precipitation and temperature that farming was hazardous and yields unpredictable (Eldredge 1993, 59).


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