Although the 1918-19 Influenza Pandemic is estimated to have afflicted roughly half of the population in our region, resulting in a 5-8% loss in population; its Botswana legacy has been generally ignored.
But, a notable exception to this relative neglect is John Spears 1979 short study of its impact in Kgatleng. According to Spears, Kgosi Linchwe sought to limit the spread of the disease within his morafe through a combination of traditional medicine and the imposition of quarantines.
At the beginning of the crisis the Kgabo mobilised his dingaka to “doctor the boundaries” of Kgatleng. The country-side was thus scoured for herbs to make sufficient quantities of the strongest medicine. According to oral tradition, the by the time already elderly, Linchwe himself ascended Modipe Hill to gather the vomit of its Kgwanyape. After the medicines were prepared boys were dispatched with buckets to the entrances of each of the roads entering Kgatleng to sprinkle the concoctions on the ground with mosetlha branches.
In terms of quarantine the Kgosi convened a gathering at his kgotla where he decreed that a cordon line was established between Mochudi and Phapane, in which all movement was to be strictly banned. Additional lines were enforced limiting movements between all of the Tribal Territory’s villages.
While the concept behind the village lockdowns was consistent with the best efforts of the period, they were apparently imposed too late to be truly effective in limiting the spread of the Influenza.
With Linchwe’s encouragement Bakgatla also cooperated with their resident DRC missionary nurse, Deborah Retief, whose medicines, notably castor oil, would have been of at best limited benefit.
While there is no scientific count of the infected and resulting casualties, folk memory recorded by Spears dovetails with colonial estimates of the period to suggest that they were very high. With traditional funerals banned survivors later recalled corpses being hastily interned in yards (as was still common custom at the time).
Linchwe, himself, contracted the disease but recovered, though many trace the impaired health of his final years to the disease.
In 1949 Bechuanaland’s former Resident Commissioner Jules “Ramaeba” Ellenberger recalled that: “When it became clear that war between the Boer Republics and Great Britain was inevitable, the Chiefs of the Bechuanaland Protectorate were warned, on instructions from Sir Alfred Milner (later Lord Milner), that if hostilities did break out the conflict would be one between white races only, one in which they must take no part, but that should the enemy invade their Reserves, it would be their duty, as loyal subjects of Queen Victoria, to assist in repelling the attack.”
The fighting began on October 12, 1899. On the same day Boer Commandos launched incursions into Gammangwato and Gammalete, cutting the telegraph line in the vicinity of Mahalapye and Otse. Having mobilised their mephato to repel the invaders the merafe of Botswana, along with the paramilitary Protectorate Native Police (PNP), were thus engaged in the fighting from the very beginning of the conflict.
The war’s first fatality within Botswana was a Mosotho PNP Constable named Chere. On October 22, 1899 he and another mounted policeman went out on patrol from Fort Gaberones. After climbing atop Kgale hill to scan the country below they caught sight of a number of horse-men travelling towards their Fort. Not sure as to whether they had spotted friendly Balete or enemy Boers they decided to go in for better look.
In the thick bush they soon found themselves face to face with what was indeed a large party of Boers. While fleeing for their lives, Chere was wounded and captured before being finally killed. The following day his horse reportedly turned up at the Fort with “blood on its saddle and flanks”. It was later further reported that, after killing Chere “the Boers had robbed him of his boots and placed his body across the railway line.” Today Chere’s grave is located next to the railway a few kilometres south of Old Naledi.
This past week, 123 years ago, the first train reached Bulwayo from Mahikeng, marking the end of an eight-month push to complete the railway. Although work to extend the rail line north of Mahikeng had begun at the end of 1895, by March 1, 1897 construction had only reached Mochudi.
Cecil Rhodes, whose British South Africa Company had commissioned the building of the railway, then ordered the contractor, a certain George Pauling, to ensure that that the track reached Bulawayo before the end of the year. Thereafter the pace of construction picked up considerably. On July 1, 1897 the line to Palapye was commissioned, followed by the line to Francistown on September 1, 1897, culminating in the railway’s completion just seven weeks later.
The rapid progress on what was a limited budget had resulted in some quality compromises. An engineer working for Pauling observed that:
“In the absence of any other means of transport for materials ahead, they were wholly dependent on their own ability to bring materials up from the base, as the rails were pushed forward. All bridges and openings were of a temporary nature, to be replaced by more permanent constructions at a later date. It was essential to make the maximum progress at the lowest capital cost, with refinements to follow when justified by sufficient revenue. ”
Thousands of Batswana took part in the laying of track, at a time when repeated drought and the devastation of the 1896 rinderpest epidemic drove able bodied males to seek wage labour in mass. With the completion of the line, however, the construction jobs disappeared leaving most with little option but to become migrant labourers in the mines at Kimberly and Gauteng.
The construction of the railroad had an immediate adverse effect on those Batswana who had for generations worked as transport riders along the route. Another negative consequence was heavy deforestation along the line of rail.
This week marks the anniversary of the British colonial regime’s imposition of “Proclamation of October 4th, 1892”, which regulated “the granting of permits for the purchase or receipt by natives of ammunition, and providing for the payment or certain fees for the granting of such permit.”
The legislation further provided for the registration of all guns as a requirement for the purchase cartridges, gunpowder, or lead. “Natives”, i.e. indigenous gun owners, were further limited to 100 rounds per annum. Within months of its passage the new law had the dramatic effect of collapsing what had up until then been the still lucrative export of wild ostrich feathers (then in high demand as a luxury good for ladies hats etc.), among other game products, from the Bechuanaland Protectorate. The Bechuanaland Annual Report for 1892-93 thus observed: “The decrease in the native trade in the Protectorate is attributed to restrictions recently placed on the sale of arms and ammunition to natives and consequent loss of two-thirds of the trade in wild ostrich feathers.”
The report further tied the restriction to a decline in imports as well as exports to the territory, noting: “It is observed that the supplies for the natives in the Northern Protectorate have decreased considerably; and there is reason to believe that the restrictions placed upon the sale of arms and ammunition have re-acted prejudicially upon general business. It is reported that many of Khama’s men entertain prejudices against the registration of their guns, without which they are not permitted to purchase cartridges, gunpowder, or lead.
As so few are willing to comply with the requirements of the law, and they are limited to 100 rounds per annum each, the quantity of ammunition procurable by them is insufficient to warrant their starting upon their usual lengthy hunting trips, because, whilst absent from their kraals, (often for several months at a time) they have to depend upon their guns for food. The consequence is that many hunters remain at home now; and, although wild ostriches are very plentiful in the old hunting grounds, only about one-third of the former quantity of feathers is brought to the traders to be exchanged for imported goods.”