Lesotho: Early British protectorate (1868-1913)

Updated February 2007

The proclamation of the Kingdom as a British Protectorate on March 12, 1868 secured the Basotho from further Boer aggression, but did not bring an end to its troubles, for conflict within the Kingdom and between the Basotho and the British was to resurface. On 18 January 1970 King Moshoeshoe, styled 'Paramount Chief' by the British (as were his successors), died and was succeeded by Letsie I who reigned until his death on 20 Nov 1891 (World Statesmen.org Undated).

In November 1871 responsibility for the territory was transferred to the Cape Colony which gained self-governing status in 1872 (Wikipedia 2006). This move was of little significance, for Basotholand (as it was known) remained a High Commission territory and though administrators were quickly dispatched they preferred to govern indirectly through the structures already in place (Institute of Security Studies 2003, Lesotho Government Undated). British government in the Protectorate amount to little more than neglect, as Lye and Murray (1980, 82) remark: "They made a wilderness and called it peace… the primary policy of the British... seemed to be to maintain peace, minimise expenses, and avoid antagonising their white neighbour". The focus of the Resident Commissioner was on taxation, Basotholand's foreign affairs, the settling of disputes overland between chiefs and high level justice administration; no investments in infrastructure or education were made (Lesotho Government Undated; Eldredge 1980, 167). The King governed in consultation with an annual national popular gathering (pitso while regional chiefs governed in consultation with local popular assembles (lipitso) and a gathering of village elders (lekhotla) settled minor disputes on a local level (Lesotho Government Undated).

Conflict among the Basotho and between the Basotho and the colonial government followed shortly on Moshoeshoe's death. In 1879 there was a revolt against British rule in the south led by Chief Moirosi which was put down with difficulty but which led to further difficulties as conflicts erupted between neighbouring chiefdoms over the division of his lands between them (Wikipedia 2006). The Cape government attempted to quell further unrest in Basotholand by disarming the Basotho, through extending the Peace Preservation Act of 1878 to the Protectorate in 1880, while effectively fomenting it by doubling the Hut Tax and announcing the confiscation of the Quthing district for white settlement, all of which provoked the wider spread revolt termed the Gun War (Eldredge 1980, 168-1969). The war was expensive in terms of casualties, resources and administrative disruption and the Cape returned the territory to Crown rule in 1884 (Lesotho Government Undated; Institute of Security Studies 2003).

Despite the loss of the Caledon Valley Basotholand continued to export grain to the Cape and the Free State and was able to respond to the demand for grain from the newly established diamond fields around Kimberley in the 1870s and 1880s; in addition the export of cattle had already been expanding from the 1850s and was to a lesser extent supplemented by low grade wool exports from the 1860s (Eldredge 1993, 3; 151-152). The Hut Tax imposed by the Colonial government stimulated the entry of Basotho into the money economy and by 1872 this was paid almost entirely in cash (Eldredge 1993, 3; 153). Obtaining cash to purchase guns, knives, modern farming implements, utensils, clothing and other commodities formed a further incentive, especially as local craft production declined. Those who did not have access to the resources to engage in agricultural activities could sell their labour to the farmers or on the diamond mines to acquire livestock, pay taxes and buy commodities (Eldredge 1993, 154-155).

The progress of Christianity was slow. In 1843 the French missionaries counted 393 members which expanded to 13 733 by 1894, while the 1904 census reported 13 733 church members of all denominations or 5.5% of the population (Eldredge 1993, 94-95). A measure of the success of the French missionaries was that by 1863 they had appointed Basotho evangelists, so that the work of Christianization continued after they were expelled in 1866 at the insistence of the Boers, and when they returned after the war, "their evangelists delivered to them a thriving church, including several hundred candidates for baptism" (Lye & Murray 1980, 67). Thereafter they set up a seminary and by 1891 had ordained their first native minister and by 1898 had established a locally controlled church government (Lye & Murray 1980, 67). Missionary opposition to many traditional cultural practices subverted the power of the chiefs and "weakened the cohesiveness of Sotho culture" and so aroused the ire and opposition of traditional leaders (Lye & Murray 1980, 67).

Their work in literacy and interest in Basotho culture and history stimulated the development of the press and as early as 1866 works by Sotho authors on these subjects were being published, followed later by fictional, poetic and devotional writings (Lye & Murray 1980, 67). They also stimulated the settlement of traders and encouraged their followers to accept wage labour, drawing the Basotho into the cash economy and so undermined traditional self-sufficiency (Lye & Murray 1980, 69). Religious rivalry was introduced with the establishment of Catholic missions from 1862 onwards and, though progress was slow initially, under the patronage of the monarchy the Catholic Church made rapid progress amongst the chiefs in the early 20th century; the result was that social and political conflicts between the traditional chiefs and the mission educated elites were increasingly underscored by religious divisions (Lodge et al 2002, 89).

Under the conditions of peace established by Moshoeshoe the population of the Kingdom expanded rapidly particularly due to an influx of refugees in the 1860s and further immigration in the 1870s and 1880s, as Table 1 shows (Eldredge 1993, 62-65). Thus in 40 years (1845-1894/5) the population increased more than fourfold and in the next ten years by nearly 40% or just under 4% a year.

Table 1: Basotholand population growth

Year Population Source
1845 50 000-60 000 Estimate British Commandant Gideon Joubert
1855 80 000 Observers' estimate
1865 180 000 Observers' estimate
1873 200 000 Observers' estimate
1891 218 902 Annual Colonial Report
1894/5 250 000 Annual Colonial Report
1904 347 731 Official census
1911 428 000 Official census

Table sources

Eldredge 1993, 62-65 and Lye & Murray 1980, 82.

The concentration of the Basotho population on only part of the land, along with migration and natural population increase, rapidly led to human demands on the environment outstripping its ability to recover. Despite careful management of the land the expanding population and the bringing of ever more marginal areas into cultivation took their toll (Eldredge 1993, 60-61, 63-65, 72-73). Thin mountainous soils, denuded of vegetation for fuel and exhausted from over use in food production were rapidly eroded by the rapid waters of the steep slopes (Eldredge 1993, 60). As early as 1877 massive dongas in the landscape were described by a missionary, by the 1890s trees had disappeared from all but the most remote mountain areas and those planted by missionaries and colonial administrators (Eldredge 1993, 60). Only in 1902 did the British government begin a programme to control erosion (Lye &$38; Murray 1980, 82).

In the 1880s Lesotho grain exports went into decline, for the wars and droughts of 1881-1886 disrupted market supply. When it resumed new grain sources had been found and much market share was lost; the opening of the Cape to Kimberley railway in 1866 further undermined the Kingdom's competitiveness (Eldredge 1980, 82). Large game was depleted by 1900 (Eldredge 1993, 66). The combination of population growth and agricultural decline meant that by 1902 Basotholand was no longer self-sufficient in food, being forced to import food for the first time in 1903, and the Basotho became increasingly dependent on wage labour on the mines, and the attendant migrant labour system for survival (Eldredge 1993, 3, 81). In 1886-8, already, 6 000 Basotho were employed by Chamber of Mines affiliates (Lye & Murray 1980; 82).

King Letsie I died in 1991 and was succeeded by his son Lerotholi (1891-1905) and this was the occasion for further instability as his brother Masupha rebelled in an effort to enforce his claim to the throne (Lye & Murray 1980; 82). During Lerotholi's reign the South Africa War (1899-1902) broke out; Basotholand adopted a stance of neutrality, but the economy benefited briefly from the sale of horses to the British forces (Lesotho Government Undated; Eldredge 1993, 81).

By this time the population had expanded beyond the practicalities of the annual national pitso and these gatherings were rent with strife wrought by conflicts between chiefs over ever scarcer land, so that achieving consensus on important issues became nigh impossible (Lesotho Government Undated; Eldredge 1993, 65). It became rather a platform for the King to announce policy rather than to consult; instead an advisory National Council, composed of chiefs in the main, was proposed by the Resident Commissioner, and was implemented by the King in 1903, being put into effect in 1908 (Lesotho Government Undated; (Lye & Murray 1980, 82). This proved unsatisfactory to mission educated intellectuals who formed the Progressive Association in 1907 to agitate for more representative and democratic structures, followed by the creation of the Commoners' League which championed rather for a revitalisation and democratisation of traditional chiefdom structures (Lesotho Government Undated).

Of great concern to the Basotho at this point was the mooting of the incorporation of the Protectorates of Basotholand, Swaziland and Bechuanaland, into the Union of South Africa that came into being in 1910 and, despite vigorous Basotho opposition, remained a possibility until as late as 1959 (Columbia Encyclopaedia 2007; Wikipedia 2006). In the meanwhile Basotholand was transferred to the jurisdiction of the British High Commissioner in South Africa in 1910 and a Basotholand Council was introduced to defend the Basotho interests in the event of incorporation into the Union of South Africa. This Council consisted of 100 members, 94 of whom were appointed by the King (Columbia Encyclopaedia 2007; Lye & Murray 1980, 82-83; Encyclopaedia of the Nations 2005). King Lerotholi died in 1905 and was succeeded by the less able Letsie II who in turn died in 1913 (Lesotho Government Undated).


COLUMBIA ELECTRONIC ENCYCLOPEDIA 2007, "Lesotho History", 6th ed, Infoplease/Columbia University Press [www] http://www.infoplease.com/ce6/world/A0859249.html [opens new window] (accessed 10 Mar 2010).

ELDREDGE, EA 1993, A South African Kingdom: The pursuit of security in nineteenth-century Lesotho, Cambridge University Press.

ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE NATIONS 2005, "Lesotho History", Thomson Gale, [www] http://www.nationsencyclopedia.com/Africa/Lesotho-HISTORY.html [opens new window] (accessed 10 Mar 2010).

INSTITUTE OF SECURITY STUDIES 2003, "Lesotho: History and Politics", [www] http://www.iss.co.za/af/profiles/Lesotho/Politics.html (offline 10 Mar 2010).

LESOTHO GOVERNMENT UNDATED, "History of the Basotho", [www] http://www.lesothoemb-usa.gov.ls/profile.htm (offline 10 Mar 2010).

LODGE, T, KADIMA, D & POTTIE, D (eds) 2002 Compendium of Elections in Southern Africa, EISA.

LYE WF &338; MURRAY, C 2000 Transformations on the Highveld: The Tswana and Southern Sotho, David Philip.

WIKIPEDIA 2006, "Basotholand", [www] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Basutoland [opens new window] (accessed 10 Mar 2010).

WORLD STATESMEN.ORG UNDATED "Lesotho", [www] http://www.worldstatesmen.org/Lesotho.htm [opens new window] (accessed 10 Mar 2010).