Basotho History

Landlocked in the centre of South Africa, Lesotho is one of the few countries in Africa with natural boundaries created by tribal demands rather than those imposed by colonial decree. There are few natural resources and population pressures have decreased the agricultural potential, but the country has an almost overwhelming natural beauty coupled with welcoming, generous people.

Much of Lesotho is covered by the high Maluti Mountains. Even the lowlands, where most of Lesotho’s 1.5 million people live, is 1300m above sea level. This is the highest lowest point of any country in the world.

The Maluti is a rugged and wild mountain range that is ideal for trekking holidays. The mountains do however create their own climate, which can lead to sudden temperature drops, low clouds and thunderstorms.

Evidence of human activity in the Malutis go back at least 30 000 years, with cave paintings and other Bushman relics found in numerous scattered sites. For many thousands of years dispersed nomadic hunters, the San, inhabited Southern Africa. Their rock art has shown us many facets of their lives. We get deeper insight from their images of dancing, hunting and fishing and scenes of semi-settled family life. Sadly, outsiders persecuted the San (known as Bushman by white settlers and as Baroa by the Basotho tribes of Bantu origin) from they spotted them. The San retreated a long time ago to the Kalahari sands, their last refuge.

In the early 19th Century, at the height of power of the Zulu king Shaka, many of his subjugated chiefs took flight and attempted to form their own dominions. The result was a period of terror throughout central southern Africa known as Difaqane, or “Time of Calamity”. The Sotho-speaking tribes of the highveld were scattered. The Maluti mountains formed a natural defence against marauding invaders, and many small tribal groups attempted to take refuge in the region. One such group, led by the enterprising chief Moshesh, selected a small steep-sided plateau at Butha-Buthe. They successfully defended their position for two years before moving to a better fortress at Thaba Bosiu – “Mountain of the Night”.

For ten years Thaba Bosiu proved impregnable to threats and it rapidly gained fame. Fugitives from the Difaqane flocked to the Mountain at Night and were incorporated into the tribe. By 1830, the tribe had become a large cohesive unit of people. Whereas before they had skulked in the surrounding hills and valleys to escape slaughter and famine, they had newly discovered pride. They began to call themselves Basotho, or Sotho people, and referred to their small kingdom as Lesotho.

Moshesh, by now known as Moshoeshoe, grew in stature as his military skill and diplomacy matured, and his kingdom remained unconquered until shortly before his death, in 1870. The British were called in to rescue the situation after the successful Boer invasion of 1868 and the protectorate of Basutoland was declared soon after.

Multi-party politics took hold in the 1950′s and independence was eventually wrested from the British in 1966. There followed the almost inevitable 20 years of conflict, in-fighting and coups d’etat. When the long-time strongman, Chief Jonathan, turned towards Marxism and a one-party system South Africa imposed a full blockade on land-locked Lesotho. In all probability it was them that instigated the coup of 1986 that overthrew Jonathan and re-instated the authority of King Moshoeshoe ll, (great-great-great grandson of Lesotho’s founding father), as Head of State. Since then the government has remained successful, stable, and popular.

Moshoeshoe ll died in a car accident in January 1996 and has been succeeded by his son Chief Letsie lll.

{mospagebreak title=Under Moshoeshoes rule}

Under Moshoeshoe’s rule

Moshoeshoe was born at Menkhoaneng village in the vicinity of Botha-Bothe in the North of Lesotho. His father, Mokhachane was the leader of a small junior branch of the Bakoena tribe. He himself was subordinate of Mpiti, Chief of Sekake who was his kinsman. Moshoeshoe was born roughly in 1786, but since the Basotho did not keep strict account of their age so the date is approximate.

What made Moshoeshoe a great man was his sagacity and his diplomacy. He quickly grasped the situation during the Lifaqane wars and took advantage of the mayhem to build the Basotho Nation.

Moshoeshoe chose Thaba-Bosiu because it was a stronger natural fortress than Butha-Buthe that the Basotho had occupied. It was also on the left bank of the Caledon River and consequently less open to invaders from Natal.

Thaba-Bosiu is flat-topped and is situated in the valley of the Phuthiatsana River. It is about fifteen miles east of the junction of this river with Mohakare or Caledon that divides Lesotho from the Free State. It rises about 350 ft. from the surrounding valley. A belt of perpendicular cliffs some 40 ft. high on average surrounds its summit.

The summit has an area of about 4 square miles. To get to the summit, one has to ascend one of the six passes:

  • Khubelu or the Red Pass which is also known as Wepener’s Pass after Louw Weperner, the Free State Commandant who was killed by the Basotho in 1865
  • Ramaseli Pass named after Moshoeshoe’s warrior who guarded it.
  • Maebeng Pass
  • Mokhachane Pass
  • Makara Pass
  • Rahebe Pass

The name of Thaba Bosiu means the “Mountain of the Night”. It was in July, 1824 when Moshoeshoe and his people took occupation of the mountain which his brother Mohale had reconnoitred.

Moshoeshoe named Thaba Bosiu – Mountain at Night – because he and his people arrived there in the evening. Preparing the defences lasted long into the night. Many years later a lie was spread among enemies that the mountain grew larger than usual at night.
There were at least eight good springs of fresh water on the mountain. When Moshoeshoe and his followers, with their cattle, first moved to Thaba Bosiu, they occupied the summit where they were safe from attack and where there was plenty of pasture and water for the cattle. Gradually as more and more refugees fleeing from ravaging Zulu hordes flocked to Moshoeshoe for protection, villages sprang up around the foot of the hill. In 1828 there were over 3000 people living on the mountain and in the twenty-two villages around its flanks. Eleven years later Backhouse reported that there were 1500 inhabitants on the top of the mountain alone. Moshoeshoe’s own village was situated between the Khubelu and Ramaseli passes. Mokhachane, his father’s village was located on the western buttress and None’s settlement guarded the southern buttress. Other villages were grouped around the norther and western flanks.

On the 28th June 1833, three French Protestant Missionaries – Eugene Cassalis, Thomas Arbouset and Constant Gosselin – arrived at Thaba Bosiu at the invitation of King Moshoeshoe. In 1838, they completed building a mission house and a chapel. Cassalis, who was stationed at Thaba Bosiu, took take charge of the mission. King Moshoeshoe has a fruitful mutual relationship with the missionaries. Cassalis practically became the King’s secretary and acted as interpreter in all dealings with white people.

By 1840, the Paris Evangelical Mission Society had nine stations in Moshoeshoe’s country in which they taught religion and literacy. As a result, Lesotho today has the highest literacy rate in Africa. The missionaries also introduced new crop plants such as wheat and peaches that have become important in the country’s agriculture.

There is very little trace of Moshoeshoe’s first village remaining. By 1939 he had already begun to build rectangular stone houses after the European style. In 1837 ex-private David F. Webber, a deserter from the 72nd Seaforth Highlanders, eventually reached Thaba Bosiu, where he was given a shelter and in 1841 Moshoeshoe obtained a pardon for him from the Army authorities. Webber was a good mason and carpenter and in 1839 he commenced to build a rectangular stone house for Moshoeshoe. It was in European style and the Chief had intimated that he had only provided accommodation in it for one wife. There is no record of the builder who assisted Webber, but there is the name R. Murphie and the date 1839 engraved on a nearby rock face. This is well cut by a person accustomed to using stone-dressing tools and it is very possible that Murphie co-operated with Webber in the capacity of stone dresser.

This house was situated very near the top of the Khubelu Pass, just beyond and to the right of the main entrance to the settlement. Three stones mark the entrance, although in the time of Moshoeshoe there were only two sets 15 ft. apart. Here visitors were required to halt and wait until their arrival was announced to Moshoeshoe and permission was granted for them to proceed. It was also custom for each visitor, as a mark of respect to the chief, to add a stone to a pile on the left hand side of the entrance and the broken remnants of this cairn still remain.

Ntlama or Mothunts’ana, a relative of Moshoeshoe, built the house whose walls still remain. It was built much later. It consisted of a bedroom and a sitting room and a door made of wood. The windows were large and had glass panes. The King lived in this house though he continued to sleep in his traditional hut. He kept furniture and various untensils in this rectangular thatched house, including a set of teacups from the Maison des Missions in Paris. He also kept his blue military suit, green military jacket and trousers and other European clothes.

{mospagebreak title=Invaders of Thaba Bosiu (1828 – 1865)}

Invaders of Thaba Bosiu (1828 – 1865)

Invaders never conquered Thaba Bosiu. The various invaders, namely the Ngwane, the Korannas, the British and the Boers attempted on various and separate occasions to overcome the Basotho in raids. All failed in their attempts.

In 1828, shortly after the arrival of Moshoeshoe at Thaba Bosiu, Matiwane, Chief of AmaNgwane, who since the beginning of that year had dominated the inhabitants of the Caledon Valley, tried to conquer the Basotho under Moshoeshoe.

In a great battle that was fought at Thaba Bosiu, Matiwane’s regiments were routed and the AmaNgwane ceased to be a threat to Moshoeshoe.

Since 1831 coloured raiders had been making forays into the Caledon Valley. The raiders repeatedly attacked Moshoeshoe’s subjects very close to Thaba Bosiu. Sometimes they got away with Basotho women, children and cattle. They were driven away despite using firearms and fighting on horseback.

In 1831, the Ndebele of Mzilikazi, who had created a military state on the Zulu model north of the Vaal, invaded Lesotho. On their arrival at Thaba Bosiu, they began to scale the mountain at Rafutho’s Pass. The Basotho hurled boulders, stones and javelins down on them from behind their walled fortifications. According to traditional lore, as the Ndebele withdrew Moshoeshoe delivered some fat oxen with the message that he thought hunger had brought them to this country. Mzilikazi did not launch another attack in the Caledon Valley.

Thaba Bosiu’s renown as a citadel was, therefore, established by the repulse of the formidable Ndebele army. Moshoeshoe had emerged triumphant from African invaders only to be threatened by invaders from the British Colony of the Cape of Good Hope.

In 1852, the Cape Governor, Sir George Cathcart, invaded Moshoeshoe’s territory. The Boers had convinced him that the Basotho had stolen their cattle. In battles that were fought on the Berea plateau and later on the plain some three miles west of Thaba Bosiu, 5000 mounted Basotho armed with muskets, spears and battle-axes attacked Cathcart who was on his way to the fortress. The British had to withdraw. The time for diplomacy had arrived.

By 1854, the British had given independence to the Boers who established their Republic, the Orange Free State. There were tensions between the Basotho and the Boer immigrants as land that was originally occupied by the Basotho had been handed to the Boers. These tensions spilled over into war when the Boers claimed the area between the Orange and the Caledon Rivers and Boer farms became interspersed with Basotho villages.

In 1865 the Free State commando were determined to destroy the Basotho people. Thaba Bosiu withstood the last attack during Moshoeshoe’s lifetime, and with the death of Louw Wepener, the most ruthless of the Boer Commandants, the Free State joined the long succession of people whose leaders failed to storm the mountain. These were Matiwane in 1828, the Korannas in 1831, Mzilikazi’s army in 1831, Sir George Cathcart in 1852 and Boshof who was president of the Free State in 1858.

Today Thaba Bosiu is the most venerated site in Lesotho, for it is not only the mountain where the Basotho Nation was founded, but it is also the burial place of Moshoeshoe and of the leading chiefs of Lesotho, the “Sons of Moshoeshoe”. It was the custom until recently for chiefs to visit the summit early in the morning before going to an important meeting and runners would drive special oxen through the night to await the chief’s arrival on the hill.

Thaba Bosiu is a national monument having been so declared by Lesotho Government in 1967. Ruins of buildings still stand.

In times of national catastrophes and psychological stress, the people look upon the mountain as the source of inspiration and guidance that sustained their spirit in their upward struggle for freedom and political Independence since the times of the Great King Moshoeshoe.

In 1870, the Great King died on the 11th March on the mountain upon which he had lived since his youth. Just two years before, on the 12th March 1868, Lesotho had been declared British Territory and the Basotho became British subjects through Moshoeshoe’s request to the Cape Governor Sir Philip Wodehouse. Four years later in 1872 Lesotho was annexed to the Cape Colony.

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