Moshweshwe (ca. 1787-1868) was a South African king and founder of the Basotho nation. He is generally regarded as the doyen of southern Africa's diplomatic geniuses of the 19th century.

Moshweshwe was born in Menkwaneng during the famine of 1787. His father, Mokhachane, was head of the Bamokoteli, a Sotho-speaking subclan, which paid tribute to its more powerful neighbors, the Basekake. Moshweshwe was given the name Lepoqo (disasters) because of the misfortunes in which he was born.

As was the custom among the princely families, Mokhachane took his son to Mohlomi, a famous seer and philosopher, to study law and acquire wisdom. Mohlomi, whose renown had spread all over southern Africa, taught him that the practice of virtue and discipline was the first prerequisite for the successful governance of men. The wise ruler sought to live in peaceful coexistence with his neighbors and encouraged habits of thrift and industry among his people.

Mohlomi also added that he was concerned about the future of the Sotho-speaking peoples of the plateau above the Drakensberg Mountains. He could see clouds of red dust rising from the east, blowing over the lands of the Sotho and leaving desolation in their wake. The philosopher's teachings made an impression on Lepoqo which was to last all his life. The reference to the red dust made him anxious about the future; he thought the seer had the white people in mind. This fear combined with his hatred of the Basekake tyranny to give him a strong sense of political direction, while the military weakness of his subclan made him a realist who would go to the limits of conciliation and fight with determination when left with no choice.


His African Neighbors

As future leader of the Bamokoteli, Lepoqo was encouraged to participate in the assembly debates, where he made it clear that he wanted to temper justice with mercy. Makara, a notorious cattle rustler and chieftain, had in 1808 fled to Mokhachane for sanctuary. Mokhachane arrested him, and the Bamokoteli clamored for the rustler's execution. Lepoqo intervened, and the assembly spared Makara's life, but the military commanders were angered.

Knowing the effects the military's anger could have on his career and wanting to forestall it, Lepoqo organized a raid on the Khilibileng cattle post of Chief Moeletsi and returned with hundreds of cattle. For this he was said to have "shaved Moeletsi's beard," that is, he had humiliated him. From then he took on the name of Moshweshwe (the shaver).

Cattle raiding was an accepted norm of life in southern Africa at the time. Clans, tribes, and nations built their names and wealth by seizing cattle from their wealthy or weak neighbors. The Basekake planned a raid on the Bafokeng and demanded reinforcements from the Bamokoteli. Moshweshwe feigned illness; his men refused to march without him. When the Basekake left, Moshweshwe marched to Bafokeng territory and captured their livestock for his people. Infuriated, the Basekake warlords seized Moshweshwe's booty. Moshweshwe retaliated by massacring them in their capital and scattering the survivors. Returning home a hero and liberator, he found his father estranged. Mokhachane saw a threat in his son's popularity. Moshweshwe protested that he had no designs on his father's position. He withdrew from Menkwaneng and settled near Butha-Buthe mountain. There he built himself a kraal and called it Qhobosheane.

In 1821 Shaka, the Zulu king, had decided to bring an end to the feuding, the cattle raiding, and the prevalent insecurity and had used the spear to weld the various Zulu-speaking peoples on the eastern side of the Drakensberg into a single, disciplined nation. Many tribes and clans perished resisting him; others fled to the caves of the Drakensberg, where threatening starvation forced them to become cannibals. Moshweshwe reinforced Butha-Buthe mountain and stored grain and water in the caves for the event of an invasion by the Zulu. In 1822 Queen Mantatisi marched on Qhobosheane and in a seesaw battle put Moshweshwe's forces to flight.

The Mantatisi invasion made it clear to Moshweshwe that Butha-Buthe would be difficult to defend against a protracted siege. He slipped out of his mountain fortress and trekked with his people to Qilwane mountain near Qhobosheane. But his grandfather Peete, his sister Mamila, two of his wives, and nearly a dozen babies were cut off from the main body of Bamokoteli by the cannibals and taken to Sefikeng, the cannibal stronghold. Moshweshwe dispatched armed scouts who rescued the three women but reported that Peete and the babies had been eaten. Moshweshwe vowed that he would solve the cannibal problem. He continued the march until late one night he reached the top of Qilwane mountain, which he renamed Thaba Bosiu (mountain ascended in the darkness).

From Thaba Bosiu he sent a mission under Poho to Shaka to arrange a truce with the Zulu and offer to pay tribute. That kept the Zulu out of his lands. In 1826 Moshweshwe sent an army to round up the cannibals and bring them to Thaba Bosiu. The army returned with Rakotswane, their chief, and some of his people. Moshweshwe addressed them on the evils of cannibalism and added that he understood the reasons for their depravity. He ordered them into the cattle enclosure where his medicine men put them through the purification process.

To their surprise, Moshweshwe sent them back home with cattle, grain, and seed and asked them to start a normal life again. Some of the cannibals refused to leave Butha-Buthe, saying no ruler had understood their tragic situation or treated them in the way Moshweshwe had done. Bands of them started coming to Thaba Bosiu to ask for Bamokoteli citizenship. Refugees from all over southern Africa converged on the mountain capital. Before long, Moshweshwe could command a force of 5,000 men. The Basotho nation had been born.


Boers and Britons

Up to 1826 Moshweshwe had dealt largely with African adversaries who used the spear. After 1830 he was to deal with people who carried and used the guns: the Korannas, bandits of mixed blood from the Orange area; the Boers trekking from the Cape Colony; and the British trying to impose their rule on the Boers.

About this time Adam Krotz, a Griqua hunter who was deacon of the church at Philippolis, visited Lesotho. When Moshweshwe asked him for help in procuring the guns, Krotz said he knew of white missionaries who could offer him something better than arms. Moshweshwe asked Krotz to do all in his power to bring them to Lesotho. Three Frenchmen from the French Evangelical Society arrived in Lesotho in 1833, led by Eugene Casalis, who was to be Moshweshwe's friend to the end of the King's days.

From 1835 onward bands of Boer settlers crossed the Orange River and occupied lands belonging to the Sotho peoples. In 1843 the British sent an army to bring the Boers under the Queen's authority. The British governor at the Cape, Sir George Napier, sent an emissary to Moshweshwe to enter a treaty with the British in which he would undertake to keep law and order in Trans-orange, deliver fugitives to the Cape Colony, and keep the Cape government informed on subversion against it. In return the British would pay him an annual grant of £75 or its equivalent in arms and ammunition. They would recognize the junction of the Orange and Caledon rivers as his western boundaries, while his country would stretch to Butha-Buthe on the east, the Orange River in the south, and an imaginary line about 30 miles to the north of Caledon. Moshweshwe signed the treaty.

The Boer incursions continued, and Moshweshwe appealed in vain to the British for help. In the end he insisted that all whites, with the exception of the missionaries, should leave Lesotho territory. The British replied by proclaiming the lands to the north the Orange River Sovereignty and continued to shorten Moshweshwe's boundaries. When he resisted, they sent a motley force against him in the winter of 1850. Moshweshwe sent it to flight at the battle of Viervoet mountain.

In the meantime Moshweshwe was keeping his missionary friends in London briefed on developments in his country. They exerted enough pressure on Sir George Grey, the secretary of state for the colonies, to persuade him to discourage warlike policies against the Basotho. Impressed by this triumph of Sotho diplomacy, the Boers undertook to be neutral in the event of war between Moshweshwe and the British.

In 1852 the British restored to Lesotho some of the lands previously incorporated in the Orange River Sovereignty. But the new governor at the Cape, Sir George Cathcart, distrusted Moshweshwe and he believed there could be no peace in the north unless Moshweshwe's power was broken. Cathcart marched to the sovereignty at the head of an armed force and sent an ultimatum to Moshweshwe, demanding 10,000 head of cattle and 1,000 horses for Basotho attacks on the Boers in the sovereignty. He gave the Basotho 3 days in which to deliver the animals. Moshweshwe met Cathcart at Platberg and asked for an extension of time. Cathcart insisted on the deadline and threatened forcible collection.

Three days later Moshweshwe sent about 3,000 cattle and some horses, but war followed. After the first day of fighting Moshweshwe declared himself a British subject, forcing Cathcart to withdraw. The Basotho were jubilant with this triumph of Moshweshwe's diplomacy. Although the request for British protection had been refused previously, Lesotho was proclaimed a protectorate on April 15, 1868.

Moshweshwe's health had been failing for many years. He had gone to church regularly but had not embraced Christianity. Like Constantine the Great, he announced his conversion on his deathbed. He died on March 11, 1868.


Further Reading on Moshweshwe

In Hill of Destiny: The Life and Times of Moshesh, Founder of the Basotho (1969) Peter Becker gives a sympathetic and informative picture of Moshweshwe and his times and problems. For a better understanding of the Basotho, D. Fred. Ellenberger and J. C. Macgregor, History of the Basuto: Ancient and Modern (1912; repr. 1969), in spite of weaknesses can be recommended. Further background can be found in G. Tylden, The Rise of the Basuto (Cape Town, 1950); John G. Williams, Moshesh: The Man on the Mountain (1950; 2d ed. 1959); and Eric A. Walker, A History of Southern Africa (3d ed. 1957; originally published in 1928 as A History of South Africa).