For the greater part of the nineteenth century, conflict among the Africans, British and Boers escalated in southern Africa. The British sought to expedite their imperial cause by intensifying their efforts to control the Africans and contain the Boers. As a result, the Boers trekked northwards, encroaching and eventually settling on lands where Bantu-speaking peoples had lived for centuries. Political and economic disputes resulted in war between the British and the Boers, with the ultimate impact on Africans being the colonization of their traditional kingdoms by the British.
Meanwhile, the rise of the Zulu kingdom under Shaka dislocated neighboring states and widespread migrations cast refugees in all directions. One group of Sotho people, led by Moshoeshoe, fled to the mountains.
Born in 1786, Moshoeshoe emerged as a militarist and diplomat, forging a nation out of the chaos created by Shaka's military campaigns. Considered one of Africa's greatest statesmen, Moshoeshoe merged the displaced with his own people into a unitary state with defined borders and one language.
The Basuto originated as a people around 1820 and eventually settled on the mountain Thaba Bosiu. By 1840, the Basuto kingdom increased from 2,000 to 40,000. Although they based their military on the Zulu model, Basutoland was not a centralized state, but rather a federation of semi-independent states.
Moshoeshoe instilled a sense of identity and unity that inspired his people to defend the kingdom against any external threat to their independence and was able to resist the Zulus and the Boers. Moshoeshoe resorted to diplomacy to avert the Zulu threat, while he sought British protection to forestall the Boers from colonizing Basutoland.
Also, Moshoeshoe invited missionaries to Basutoland to gain information about the outside world, particularly about Christianity and literacy. Moshoeshoe reckoned that if his people became Christians, the British would temper their aggression toward "fellow" Christians. The upside of the missionaries' sojourn was the development of the Basuto's written language. However, although Moshoeshoe could readily quote passages from the Bible, he never converted to Christianity.
In the late 1830s, Boer trekkers from the Cape Colony showed up on the western borders of Basutoland and subsequently claimed land rights. The next 30 years were marked by conflicts, highlighted by one war in 1858 where Moshoeshoe defeated the Boers and another in 1865 where Moshoeshoe lost a great portion of the western lowlands.
In the interim, Moshoeshoe signed a treaty with the British. He then attacked the Boers, who had also signed a treaty with the British. As expected, the British launched an attack on Basutoland, but they were soundly defeated.
In 1868, Moshoeshoe realized that continued pressure from the Boers would lead to the destruction of his kingdom and he placed himself under British protection.
In 1869, the British signed a boundary treaty with the Boers. Moshoeshoe, expecting to recover all his lands, had to relinquish yet more land, which effectively reduced his kingdom to half its previous size. These boundaries have lasted to this day.
In 1870, Moshoeshoe, warrior and statesman extraordinaire, died.
In 1966, Basutoland gained independence from Britain and was renamed Lesotho.
General History of Africa, Vol. VI: Africa in the Nineteenth Century Until the 1880s. UNESCO, 1999.
Cambridge History of Africa, Vol. 2, J.D. Fage (ed.). Cambridge University Press, 1979.
Southern Africa: Monomotapa, Zulu, Basuto, Kenny Mann. Dillon Press, 1996.
Search for 'Moshoeshoe' on Amazon.com or Amazon.ca.
Copyright © 1996-2008 5x5 Media and African Images. All rights reserved.