Lesotho is made up of remnants of ethnic
groups that were scattered during the disturbances accompanying the
rise of Shaka Zulu (1816–30). They were rallied by Moshoeshoe, a
commoner who founded a dynasty in what is now Lesotho. Moshoeshoe
not only defended his people from Zulu raids but preserved their
independence against Boer and British interlopers. He also welcomed
Catholic and Protestant missionaries. By the later part of the
1800s, Moshoeshoe had established the nation of the Basotho. He was
popularly known as Morena e Moholo/morena wa Basotho. ie.
Great chief/king of the Basotho.
The Mfecane - Lifaqane - Difaqane
Tragedy on a vast scale struck southern Africa in the early 1800's.
The event was named the Mfecane "the crushing" by the Nguni and
Difaqane "the scattering of tribes" by the Sotho-Tswana. Europeans
called the catastrophe the "Wars of Calamity".
By 1825, two and half million starving, homeless people wandered
about southern Africa looking for respite.
The Mfecane gave rise to Shaka Zulu. In less than two decades, a
powerful Zulu empire arose from a typical Bantu decentralized
pastoral society. Shaka Zulu had created a highly centralized, well
organized nation-state, with a large and powerful standing army.
Shaka Zulu (1787 – 1828)
The causes of the Mfecane were many. Starting in 1800, a long
drought made southern Africa inhospitable. People moved in search of
food and fought for meager supplies, producing the Difaqane. The
entire Sotho-Tswana region had fallen into a state of anarchy. One
clan conquered the other, only to be defeated by another.
Shaka Zulu had started his campaign to conquer Natal. Refugee groups
escaping his anger, invaded the lands of present-day Botswana.
Sobhuza of the Swazi moved his people north from the Pongola River
to present-day Swaziland and conquered the peoples living there. The
marauding Hlubi and Ngwane created chaos as they tramped westward.
The Basotho were pushed into the mountains where they were harassed
by cannibals. Setting towns on fire, the Ndebele swept ahead of the
Zulu Impi to settle in present day Zimbabwe, where they absorbed
others and became the Matabele. These Matabele attacked the Mokololo
to the northwest, who were Sotho-Tswana 's speakers from the south
The Native Races
of South Africa
Tribal Migration Map - 1880 - George W. Stow, F.G.S., F.R.G.S
The Mfecane "Difaqane" evidenced through tribal
Forced off their lands, many Nguni and Tswana peoples collided with
the Voortrekkers moving from the south. The Xhosa expanded into
Khoi-khoi lands. Some Khoi-khoi retreated into the Kalahari Desert.
Others were killed or enslaved by the Voortrekkers. The Tlokoa
marched from Natal leaving a path of destruction all the way to
Botswana. They attacked the Fokeng forcing them west. The Fokeng
marched north to the Zambezi River and beyond, where they raided
destitute refugees. Vagrants from various Nguni and Sotho groups
formed a new tribe, the Mfengu, which means 'beggar' in iziXhosa. By
the time of Shaka's murder in 1828, no group of people were living
on their original lands.
expansion of Shaka's Zulu empire, thousands crossed the
and ravaged Sotho land. From his mountain fortress of Botha-Bothe,
Moshoeshoe watched as neighbouring Sotho clans collapsed under the
pressure. Thousands were killed in battle and thousands more
succumbed to starvation and disease. Some desperate villages even
turned to cannibalism to survive this period of great unrest.
King Moshoeshoe I
(1786-1870) King Moshweshwe I
Moshoeshoe knew he would not be able to hold
out forever. By 1824 he had moved his people to another mountain
stronghold to the southwest. After staging a number of cattle raids
on settlements in what is now the Eastern Cape, Moshoeshoe found
himself with a modest kingdom. Secure in his mountain fortress, he
could have weathered the storm and still maintained his kingdom.
Instead, he took great risks and showed uncanny diplomatic skill to
earn the loyalty and respect of his followers.
According to Sotho custom, captured cattle belong to the King.
This includes cattle that was stolen from his subjects and
re-acquired in subsequent raids. Moshoeshoe stopped this practice,
returning stolen cattle to its proper owners and keeping only a
nominal number for himself, this a significant gesture in an economy
where cattle are the main units of wealth. He also opened his
kingdom to the refugees, a practice unheard of in a time of
rationing and sacrifice. Families were granted land in exchange for
loyalty to Moshoeshoe. Furthermore, any chiefs who came to him were
allowed to retain their authority if they pledged loyalty to
Moshoeshoe. He also introduced an innovative loan system to grant
people cattle from the national herd. He even made peace with the
cannibal tribes living around him, granting them both land and
His success gained him enemies in the form of the Ngwane under Chief
Matiwane. A refugee from Shaka's rule, Matiwane unseated several
Sotho clans to settle east of Moshoeshoe. Matiwane expanded westward
to the border of Moshoeshoe's kingdom by 1826. Seeking to avoid war,
Moshoeshoe paid tribute to Matiwane. In 1828, seeking all Sotho land
and cattle, Matiwane struck but was soundly defeated by Moshoeshoe's
Moshoeshoe also faced attack at the hands of
Ndebele leader Mzilikazi. His forces travelled south to confront
Moshoeshoe at his mountain fortress, only to be repulsed by a fierce
assault of boulders and spears. In yet another display of diplomatic
expertise, Moshoeshoe reportedly sent an offering a cattle and a
message of salute for the Ndebele warriors and their chief.
Mzilikazi never bothered the Sotho again.
By the late 1830s, Moshoeshoe had withstood the results of Shaka's
wars and fended off his two main rivals. His people were no longer
going by their clan name, but rather larger name of BaSotho or
"Sotho People". With the exception of a series of annoying but
largely harmless raids by a group of bandits known as the Kora,
things were looking good...
The first missionaries came to him in 1833 and Moshoeshoe welcomed
them with open arms. He acutely saw the superiority of European arms
and sought to align himself with them. Through them, he was able to
access horses, guns, and first-hand knowledge of European culture.
The Boers arrived on their "Great Trek" in 1835 and again, he sought
to avoid conflict. He allowed them to pass through his land
unmolested and granted grazing rights to some.
His benevolence could not prevent the inevitable. After a number of
clashes with the Boers, Moshoeshoe sought British protection,
signing the Napier Treaty. Among the provisions of this treaty was
the annexation of a tract of land that many Boers had settled. The
outraged Boers were suppressed in a brief skirmish in 1848, but
remained bitter at both the British and the Sotho.
Meanwhile, a dispute between the Sotho and the Tlokoa threatened
Moshoeshoe's northern border. Cattle raids between the two groups
grew in number and intensity. In time, the Boers and another African
society called the Rolong, would become entangled in the web.
After the Sotho expressed support for the Xhosa in their dispute
with the British, the British retaliated by sending refugees from
the Xhosa wars into Sotho lands.
The situation erupted in 1851. A British force was defeated by the
Sotho army at Konoyana, touching off an embarrassing war for the
British. After repulsing another British attack in 1852, Moshoeshoe
sent an appeal to the British commander that allowed him to save
face. Once again, diplomacy saved the Sotho empire. After a final
defeat of the Tlokoa in 1853, Moshoeshoe reigned supreme.
Sotho supremacy would last only one year. The British pulled out of
the region in 1854, causing the de facto formation of two
independent states, the Boer Orange Free State and the Sotho
Kingdom. The first war broke out in 1858, which ended in a stalemate. The
second war in 1865, was far more destructive. Both sides lost men, land
and cattle. The last war in 1867 ended only when the British, eager
to check Boer advances, agreed to make Lesotho a protectorate.
Basutoland - 1868 to
This would be his last shrewd act. Moshoeshoe
who was now in his 80s, knew that rivalries among his sons
would threaten his empire and that the British presence would
prevent the same.
Although he had ceded much territory,
Moshoeshoe retained most of his kingdom and all of his culture. The
fact that he never suffered a major military defeat undoubtedly
caused hesitation among the Boers and British, who satisfied
themselves with what they had and left the Sotho to themselves. His
death in 1870 marked the end of the traditional era and the
beginning of the modern colonial period.
Sotho resolve would be tested one last time in
1880. The Sotho revolted against British attempts to disarm their
army, causing such losses that the British eventually backed down.
Lesotho remained a British Protectorate until 1966 when it gained
its independence. King Moshoeshoe II was the new head of state of
the constitutional monarchy of Lesotho. Although Lesotho was
unaffected by South Africa's repressive Apartheid system of
government, King Moshoeshoe was very supportive of efforts to
resist. So supportive in fact, that the South African government
blockaded Lesotho for failing to release several dozen African
National Congress activists. A coup occurred soon thereafter,
"presumably instigated by South Africa" and Major General Lekhanya
took control. He was ousted in 1991, but armed opposition continued
through the 1990s.
During this period, King Moshoeshoe II lived in exile and his son,
Letsie III served as King. Letsie stepped down when Moshoeshoe II
returned from exile in 1995, only to retake the throne after
Moshoeshoe II's death in 1996. Another political crisis in 1998
required South African intervention, and the political instability
Elections in 2002 brought hope, as the new government
begins the task of healing past wounds and improving the quality of
life for all Sotho.