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Kgosi Moshoeshoe: a wise and diplomatic leader, writes Dr Tlou Setumu

In this instalment Kgosi Moshoeshoe of the Basotho is featured with an excerpt from the book, Until Lions Document Their Heritage, by Dr Tlou Setumu

KGOSI Moshoeshoe is best known as the great ruler and a genius diplomat who founded and built the Basotho nation. Moshoeshoe’s wisdom and diplomacy added to his outstanding military tactics. Moshoeshoe built and sustained the Basotho nation in the face of many challenges and threats which could have destroyed it. But he kept his community intact and the Basotho are still a distinct nation occupying the present-day mountain kingdom of Lesotho.

Moshoeshoe was born in 1787 at Menkwaneng during a serious famine. The little boy was given the name, Lepoqo, meaning tragedies, perhaps because of the famine tragedies. His father, Mokhachane, was a ruler of a small clan, the Bamokoteli, which was a sub-branch of the Sotho-speaking group of the Bakwena. At young age, Lepoqo was taken to the renowned Sotho prophet and oracle, Mohlomi, to study philosophy, law and wisdom.

Mohlomi’s teachings had a great impact on Lepoqo in later life, especially the virtues of wisdom, diplomacy, peace, discipline and frugality. Lepoqo was heir to his father’s throne of the Bamokoteli people. From a young age, Lepoqo was groomed to become a meaningful ruler after his father, Mokhachane.

In addition to having been sent to study under Mohlomi, the young future ruler was encouraged to engage in political debates. Even when his father was still the ruler, Lepoqo participated in important political and judicial matters. For instance, in 1808, Lepoqo intervened and saved a certain cattle thief, Makara.

Makara was sentenced to death by the Bamokoteli, but was arrested by Mokhachane. Lepoqo’s interception saved the life of Makara, but at the same time did not go down well with some of the Bamokoteli councillors.   The name of Lepoqo later changed to Moshoeshoe.  Lepoqo got the name “Moshoeshoe” because of the practice of cattle raiding prevalent during that period. Black communities were involved in raiding cattle among one another and those who succeeded in that practice increased their wealth.

The young Lepoqo once led a cattle raiding party against the people of Ramonaheng. The party raided cattle in an expedition which led to Lepoqo being a hero as he led that party.    Lepoqo composed a short praise poem-cum-song in celebration of the raid of Ramonaheng’s cattle. In that poem-like-song Lepoqo metaphorically indicated how he “shaved Ramonaheng’s beard”.

That was in reference to how he raided the cattle. The Sotho reference to the sound of that incident was “shoashoaila” and as a result, Lepoqo, who led the exercise of the “shoashoaila”, became known as “Moshoeshoe”, “moshoashoaila”, referring to that “sh…sh” sound. The name stuck to him and he became known as Moshoeshoe far and wide. The name “Lepoqo” was completely replaced and almost forgotten.

Mokhachane, who was still the ruler of the Bamokoteli, became increasingly worried and threatened by the growing popularity and influence of his son. Apparently, Moshoeshoe on his part realised his father’s resentment and jealousy about his achievements. Moshoeshoe, fearing further tensions and animosity between him and his father, withdrew from his father’s capital at Menkwaneng.

He took along his followers which comprised some Bamokoteli, Bafokeng and Amazizi and settled on the foot of the Butha-Buthe Mountains, where he named his new settlement, Qhobosheane.   In 1822, the feared and respected Batlokwa warrior queen, Manthatisi, attacked Moshoeshoe’s settlement of Qhobosheane on the Butha-Buthe Mountain.

Manthatisi and her people were also pushed by the fleeing Nguni groups from Zululand such as the Hlubi. After Manthatisi’s attacks on Moshoeshoe at Butha-Buthe, Moshoeshoe realised that ButhaButhe Mountain was not a reliable stronghold. As a result, Moshoeshoe disengaged and withdrew from Butha-Buthe.

He led his people, marched until they reached the plateau of Qilwane Mountain which they intended to turn into their new fortress. They arrived on top of Qilwane Mountain at night, and as a result, they gave it the name, “Thaba Bosiu” (“night mountain”). Thaba Bosiu was a higher, impregnable stronghold and it was more secure than ButhaButhe.

It was on top of Thaba Bosiu that Moshoeshoe became a ruler of his people as he began to build his nation. Moshoeshoe used his wisdom and great diplomacy to achieve that. As already mentioned, many communities were fleeing from Shaka who was on the attack. A diplomatic Kgosi Moshoeshoe then sent out his envoys led by Poho, to sue for peace with Shaka in which Moshoeshoe offered to pay tribute to the Zulu. That arrangement ensured that Moshoeshoe would never be attacked by Shaka.

By the 1830’s the European colonial forces were beginning to encroach on Moshoeshoe’s territory. Moshoeshoe was also threatened by the Korannas, who like the Boers, had guns. It was during that period of a possible external threat to the Basotho that Kgosi Moshoeshoe made plans for the security of his kingdom. It was at that time that he heard of the white missionaries from a Griqua hunter, Adam Krotz. Moshoeshoe asked Krotz to organise and send some missionaries to Thaba Bosiu.

Historian, Author and Cultural Expert Dr Tlou Setumu. Photo: Lebogang Makweka/Visual Buzz SA.

In 1833, indeed three missionaries from the French Evangelical Society arrived at Kgosi Moshoeshoe’s capital at Thaba Bosiu. They were Eugene Casalis, Constant Gosselin and Thomas Arbousset. Kgosi Moshoeshoe wanted the white, European missionaries to help him to understand and deal with the approaching European colonial forces.

The missionaries were also to serve as his interpreters in his dealings with other Europeans. Casalis later even became Moshoeshoe’s advisor on foreign affairs.

The missionaries even committed the Basotho’s language to writing. Although Moshoeshoe valued the services of the European missionaries to his kingdom, and although he encouraged his people to support the missionaries’ activities, he was never converted into Christianity by those missionaries. It is said that he was only baptised on his death-bed when he was so frail and weak to decide on his own.

The first Boers to arrive in Kgosi Moshoeshoe’s country were under Jan de Winnaar. They settled at Matlakaneng in mid-1838. Those Boers had asked to settle there temporally. But as more and more Voortrekkers flocked there, they began to claim permanent settlement. Kgosi Moshoeshoe warned those Boers that that was his land, but they ignored him. Moshoeshoe, with his usual diplomacy, turned to the British colonial government at the Cape in which he signed a treaty with the governor, George Napier.

Napier then sent an army in 1843 to subjugate the Boers who were giving Moshoeshoe problems. Another part of the agreement was that Moshoeshoe should report anything the Boers did to undermine the British. Kgosi Moshoeshoe was also offered money and arms by the British government as his reward to keep the Boers in check. In 1848 the Boers were suppressed in a short battle and they calmed for a while.

It later appeared to Kgosi Moshoeshoe that the British did not keep some of the provisions in their treaty with the Basotho. The Boers continued to encroach on Moshoeshoe’s territory and the British did nothing about that. Moshoeshoe gradually realised that the British were apparently colluding with the Boers against him. As a result, he instructed both the British and the Boers to leave his country.

The British were furious and sent troops to attack the Basotho in 1850. Kgosi Moshoeshoe’s forces defeated the British at Kolonyane during the Battle of Viervoet. Again Moshoeshoe repulsed another British attack in 1852. In the meantime, Moshoeshoe was using his missionaries’ connections to put pressure on George Grey, the British secretary of state for colonies, to refrain from aggression against the Basotho.

Eventually, in 1854, the British pulled out of the affairs which affected the Basotho and the Boers. With the British out of the picture, the Boers and the Basotho had to battle it out on their own against each other. In 1858, the Basotho of Kgosi Moshoeshoe defeated the Boers during the Free State-Basotho War.

After the other subsequent wars between the Basotho and the Boers in 1865 and 1867, Kgosi Moshoeshoe approached the British monarch, Queen Victoria, for intervention. Indeed the British monarch agreed to make Moshoeshoe’s country a British protectorate in 1868. In 1869, the British signed a treaty at Aliwal with the Boers in which the borders were clearly marked between the Boers and the Basotho territories.

Through Moshoeshoe’s diplomatic intelligence, Basutoland, (the new reference to Moshoeshoe’s country) was now protected by the British. Kgosi Moshoeshoe had thus ensured that his kingdom was never destroyed by the colonial forces – and it is still intact to this day as the mountain kingdom of Lesotho.

Dr. Tlou Setumu is Author and Researcher of History, Heritage and Culture. His books include: Biographies of Bra Ike Maphoto, TT Cholo and Max Mojapelo; His Story is History; The Land Bought, the Land Never Sold; Ideas with no Space; Footsteps of Our Ancestors; etc. Books are available on tlousetumu@ webmail.co.za; and also in Polokwane – Academic Bookshop (opposite CNA Checkers Centre); and Budget Bookshop (c/o Rissik and Landros Mare Streets).

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