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Moshoeshoe of Lesotho, "Africa's greatest leader"
In midst of fire stood the Basotho people. Loosely organised in chieftaincies and committed to agriculture and herding, the Basotho had few traditions of warship and centralised power. Now, their lands became flooded by refugees from the Zulu expansion, and a Zulu attack seemed imminent.
In such a pressured situation, the Basotho were luckier than many of their neighbour peoples, that were easily subdued by the Boer, British, Zulus and peoples taking up Shaka Zulu's ingenious war techniques. The Basotho found a leader in the skilful chief Moshoeshoe and a refuge in the natural fortress of the Maluti Mountains of today's Lesotho.
But who was Moshoeshoe, and how did he manage to unite the Basotho and resist the invaders?
Born about 1786 as the son of a minor chief of the Bamokoteli sub-clan, Moshoeshoe is said to have stood out as "very brave" already in his young years, thus attracting followers in these troubled times.
While his youthful bravery may be considered later developed myths to praise a great leader, it remains more certain that Moshoeshoe took a leading role in providing shelter to the many Basotho and other refugees falling victim to the Zulu wars. Contrary to the most powerful Basotho leaders of his youth, living in the fertile but difficult to defend plains of today's Free State (South Africa), Moshoeshoe had settled in the highlands of today's Lesotho.
Since around 1820, he ruled from Thaba Bosiu, a natural fortress on a large flat-top mountain with plentiful access to water and pastures, which proved almost impossible to take by attackers. In the lowlands, meanwhile, entire landscapes were burned, plundered and depopulated. Moshoeshoe granted shelter, land and food to Basotho refugees and war victims from other peoples.
But also other, more powerful, Sotho chiefs had gathered their people in mountain fortresses. Moshoeshoe's success came through diplomacy and good tactics. He was not shy to pay tributes to stronger leaders and in this way even managed to halt Shaka Zulu's planned attack on Thaba Bosiu. The Zulu leader instead attacked other Sotho chiefs. Also, Moshoeshoe wisely kept out of the rivalry between Sotho leaders, whose infighting continuously weakened them and eventually left them open to foreign attacks.
In the end, Moshoeshoe provided the safest shelter to the Basotho and other refugees. By now popularly known as the "Chief of the Mountain", other chiefs rallied behind him and the population of his lands grew rapidly. With every new refugee and chief swearing loyalty, also his wealth grew, as all cattle by custom were owned by the chief. These cattle - which thus were the measure of wealth - co
Not many confirmed details of Moshoeshoe's early life are known. The best sources for this time are the books and notes by Eugène Casalis, a missionary from the Paris Evangelical Missionary Society who was brought to Lesotho by Moshoeshoe himself in 1833.
Moshoeshoe had been told about the benefits missionaries could have for other African peoples. He was in particular interested in learning about establishing diplomatic ties with the Europeans, education in European skills, but also access to firearms. Thus, he sent a mission to Cape Town, carrying 100 cattle as a present, seeking contact with European missionaries.
Mr Casalis, who had recently arrived the Cape on his society's first-ever missionary mission, gladly took up on the invitation. The French missionary was to play an important role in the consolidation of Moshoeshoe's new kingdom, for a long time acting as Lesotho's "foreign minister".
The missionary describes Moshoeshoe as having "an agreeable and interesting countenance, his deportment is noble and dignified, and a benevolent smile plays upon his lips." According to Mr Casalis, he and his French followers were "greeted with the greatest demonstrations of joy" by the Basotho when they arrived Moshoeshoe's village.
King Moshoeshoe gave the missionary a brief description of the recent history of the Basotho. Mr Casalis reports:
"At the time of Moshesh's [Moshoeshoe's] birth, the country of the Basotho was extremely populous. Disputes arose from time to time, but generally little blood was shed. The green pastures of Butobute, Moshesh's home, and the steep hills where he and his companions hunted, are still celebrated in the national songs of the Basotho. At the moment when it was least expected, these favourite sports [hunting] were suddenly interrupted by disastrous invasions from Natal. Desolation was carried into the peaceful valleys of Lesotho, fields remained uncultivated, and the horrors of famine were added to those of war. Moshesh breasted the stream. Being of a very observant disposition, he knew how to resist and how to yield at the right moment; procured himself allies, even among the invaders of his territory; set his enemies at variance with each other, and by various acts of kindness secured the respect of those even who had sworn his ruin."
By the mid-1820s, most of the Basotho's most fertile mainlands were ravaged by war. The Zulus and other groups such as the Ndebele started focusing on the last Basotho place of resistance, Moshoeshoe's mountain kingdom. But Thaba Bosiu proved an impregnable fortress, and Moshoeshoe proved a superb diplomat. Not only did he manage to put one enemy up against the other, he also managed to get sympathy among his main enemies.
Mr Casalis describes Moshoeshoe's diplomatic skills during one of the most dramatic attacks on his stronghold, by the Ndebele chief Mzilikazi in 1831:
"Accustomed to victory, the Zulus advanced in serried ranks, not appearing to notice the masses of basalt which cam
Indeed, the Ndebele - an Ngoni group fled from the Zulu, taking up their war techniques and themselves becoming invaders - gave up any attempt to settle in this region. They went on a longer trek northwards, in 1838 attacking the Shona in modern Zimbabwe and establishing a kingdom around modern Bulawayo, nowadays called Matabeleland.
Moshoeshoe's success in halting the powerful Zulu and Ndebele armies is impressive having in mind that Thaba Bosiu remained a small society. Historians hold that his followers in 1833 only counted around 25.000, growing to an estimated 80.000 in 1848, and that Moshoeshoe did not have a standing army. The Basotho joined in voluntary defensive operations to stop the invaders and were not trained in attacking the enemy.
Having rejected many Zulu attacks, Moshoeshoe soon was to meet an even greater threat, the Boers. These European settlers, seeking freedom from the steadily more organised British colonial authority in Cape Town, started on their "Great Treck" into the Southern African hinterland in 1836. They were to occupy all good lands from Orange River up to modern Zimbabwe, also the most fertile lands of the Basotho.
The first meeting with the Boers was peaceful. Arriving the - by now - more sparsely populated Sotho lowlands, the Europeans asked Moshoeshoe for permission to graze while moving through the landscape. The King gave his approval.
But soon, the numbers of Europeans increased, and some started to settle on Sotho lands. As Moshoeshoe reminded them of the temporary grazing permission given, the Boers, now stronger through numbers, claimed the lands had been found deserted, giving them the rights to settle freely. Thus, a series of hostilities broke out.
Moshoeshoe meanwhile had strengthened his position as the King of the Basotho. The missionaries had brought new crops and farming methods to Lesotho and also taught the King modern principles of administration. On the military front, he was able to purchase larger amounts of firearms. Still an excellent diplomat, Moshoeshoe enlarged his skills by Mr Casalis' knowledge of European diplomacy and languages.
This proved key to success, as Lesotho at several crossroads managed to take advantage of the conflict between the Boer settlers and the British Cape Colony. A Bri
In the 1850s, the Basotho army on three occasions even defeated troops from the British colonial regime, while high level diplomacy saved Lesotho from a greater British attack.
The most challenging series of conflicts however started in 1858, as the Boers of the region had already established the independent Orange Free State on the northern borders of Lesotho. Moshoeshoe managed to defend Lesotho and even raid Boer lands in the 1858 war.
But in the 1860s, the Boer state was growing stronger and war luck turned. While the Boers never managed to take Moshoeshoe's stronghold at Thaba Bosiu, the Basotho king had to ask the British Empire for help in both 1866 and 1868.
During these British-led peace negotiations, Moshoeshoe had to cede Lesotho's most fertile territories - most of the lowlands - to the Orange Free State, and the modern boundaries of Lesotho were shaped. Also, in 1868, and faced with a Boer annexation, Moshoeshoe asked Queen Victoria for help and protection, agreeing to his kingdom becoming a British protectorate.
While this may have seemed a capitulation of Lesotho's independence to the British Empire, indeed it secured the kingdom's long-term survival. Moshoeshoe had avoided annexation by the Boer states, and after he died in 1870, his successors victoriously continued the fight against being annexed by the arising state of South Africa. Through the lasting institute of a British crown colony, Lesotho did survive as an autonomous kingdom and avoided the experience of apartheid. In 1966, the Basotho thus regained their complete independence.
Among historians, Moshoeshoe is recognised as one of Africa's greatest leaders of his time, able to react decisively to extremely challenging conditions. Not only is he the nation-builder of the Basotho people, but he managed to protect his people against much stronger enemies and create the institutions needed to consolidate his new kingdom. Moshoeshoe's wisdom and diplomatic skills secured Lesotho's long-term independence from the emerging strong Boer nation.
Among the Basotho, King Moshoeshoe is almost a mythical figure and a source of lasting pride. His death is still commemorated on 11 March every year, a national holiday. And his dynasty is still in power in its Maseru palace, now as a constitutional monarchy very much available to the Basotho people.
Moshoeshoe is buried at his ancient stronghold of Thaba Bosiu, in a breathtaking mountainous area that lets the visitor imagine how the king was able to defend his people against the many enemy armies. The royal graves today are a popular excursion destination and a good starting point for trekking in Lesotho's mountains.
Sources: E. Casalis (Les Bassoutos, 1859), D. Denoon & B. Nyeko (Southern Africa since 1800, 1992), R. Oliver & A. Atmore (Africa since 1800, 1981), J. Simensen (Afrikas historie, 1996), among others.
By Rainer Chr. Hennig
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