The South African
Military History Society

Die Suid-Afrikaanse Krygshistoriese Vereniging

Military History Journal
Vol 2 No 5 - June 1973


H.W. Kinsey

This article is a transcription of a talk by Mr H.W. Kinsey to the S.A. Military History Society in December, 1972.

Editor's note: Published in two parts. Part I follows. Part II will appear in Vol. 2 No. 6 December, 1973

The story of Sekukuni and the military campaigns agains him and the Bapedi is a fascinating and romantic one, largely because of the history of the Bapedi people and the comparative remoteness of the area in which Sekukuni's stronghold was situated.

In order, however, fully to appreciate this story it is necessary to know something of the history of the Bapedi people, of which Sekukuni was the chief, the historical and political background in the Transvaal in the 1870s and to have in one's mind the geography of Sekukuniland and the surrounding areas of the Transvaal involved. It is also interesting to note that Sekukuniland is the only Native area of any magnitude in South Africa which carries the name of the most renowned chief of the area.

Relatively speaking, the Sekukuni Wars are not very well documented - certainly not in the same way as the Zulu War - and apart from a thesis by Mr. K. W. Smith in the Archives Year Book for 1967, no single work deals fully with the subject. However, there is much to be found scattered all over many publications, and this too is a fascinating aspect of the subject.

There were three separate campaigns against Sekukuni, i.e. the First Sekukuni War of 1876 conducted by the Boers, and the two separate campaigns of the Second Sekukuni War of 1878/1879 conducted by the British. These two latter campaigns were interrupted by the Zulu War.

It appears that the Sotho people migrated southward from the Great Lakes in Central Africa about five centuries ago in successive waves and the last group, namely, the Hurutse, settled in the Western Transvaal towards the beginning of the sixteenth century. It is from this group that the Bapedi eventually originated through the Bakgatla offshoot which takes its name from the chief Mokgatla. Very little is known of the history of the Bakgatla people for the first few generations after their founder Mokgatla had seceded from the parent group, but it is known that, arising from a further split at a later date, a chief by the name of Tabane left with his followers and settled at what is now known as Schilpadfontein in the vicinity of Pretoria.

It is not known how long they lived there, but Tabane appears to have been succeeded by his son Motsha, whose son and heir Diale (or Liale) had a number of wives, the youngest of whom was his favourite wife Mathobele. The other wives were jealous of her favoured position and when she was expecting her first child they made mocking songs about her and said that her child cried whilst still in it mother's womb. The child, a male child, was born normally and was named 'Lellelateng' meaning 'it cries inside', but the unusual event was attributed to witchcraft and the Kgatla, or council, wanted to kill the mother and child. Diale interceded for them and they were both spared.

However, as the baby grew older it became apparent that he would not be accepted by the tribe, and it seems that he and his family, together with a large following, broke away or were driven away and trekked to the east with their flocks and herds to found the Bapedi nation.

They crossed the Olifants River below its junction with the Elands River and passed through the country north of Middelburg. They crossed the Lulu Mountains and eventually settled near Steelpoort in approximately 1650.

This mythical explanation of the origin of the Bapedi is typical of tribal histories, but it is more probable that the nickname 'Lellelateng' was given to the founder of the tribe in praise of qualities of strength and fearlessness. In support of this Dr. H. O. Monnig tells us that the Bapedi have a well-known proverb in praise of men who control their emotions saying, 'Monna ke nku, O lella teng' (the man is like a sheep, he cries inside), which refers to the fact that sheep make no noise when slaughtered, for which they are greatly admired and which makes them highly desirable sacrificial animals.

Dr. Monnig also tells us that Thobele seems to have been the proper name of Lellelateng and that, although there is little evidence of this assumption, it seems reasonable since Lellelateng is generally taken as the founder of the Bapedi, although tradition makes no further mention of his sons or successors, whereas Thobele is accepted as the man who led the Bapedi to their new home. Certainly as the name indicates, Mathobele was his mother.

One further side-light is that when crossing the Lulu Mountains they found a porcupine quill and promptly accepted or adopted the porcupine as their totem in place of the monkey of the Bakgatla which they had had previously.

It is not clear where the name Pedi or Bapedi comes from. Major D. R. Hunt says they found a Venda clan called Vhambedzi who were outstanding iron workers and as the Bapedi at that time used iron hoes for lobolo, and as they esteemed iron work very highly, they accepted the Sotho equivalent of the Venda name. Bulpin mentions that they took the name from a resident minor group of dispossessed Karanga people from Rhodesia and called themselves Pedi which was the nearest their language could get to the Karanga name of Mbedzi, the dispossessed people.

The Rev. Alexander Merensky, however, who probably knew more about the Bapedi than any other European at that time, tells us, inter alia, that Sekukuni's people were made up of a conglomeration of various tribes, the most important branch of which called themselves the "Bapedi" or "Baperi", meaning the "Family of the King". Further more, Merensky affirms that it must have been 200 years since this tribe settled along the Steelpoort River, and he mentions that on some Portuguese maps about 150 years old he had found the name of the kingdom of the 'Biri' on exactly the same spot where the Bapedi then dwelt.

It seems probable, however, that they took the name either from an ancestor, a mythical Mopedi of Bahurutse origin, or from the country in which they settled. What is important, however, is that the tribe established by Thobele and the various divisions and offshoots that broke away all have the porcupine as their totem and are the only tribes that primarily call themselves Bapedi.

Following a number of 'begattings', subjugations of and intermingling with other tribes, the Bapedi as we know them today were finally re-united in about 1780 by one Thulare who was one of the greatest and most loved of their chiefs. Under his reign the tribe grew and prospered and the Pedi empire was greatly extended. According to Major Hunt, Thulare died in 1824, on the day of a solar eclipse and this is the first definite date we can establish in the history of the Bapedi.

There is some uncertainty as to Thulare's successor as about 1826, i.e. about two years after his death, the whole Bapedi empire was crushed and disrupted by Mzilikazi in his rampage throughout the Transvaal. However, in the chaos and carnage that followed Sekwati, the senior living son of Thulare, gathered together what he could of the Bapedi and fled to the north where he took refuge with Ramapulana to whom the Bapedi were related some five generations before. He left behind him a country devastated by the Matabele who had completely denuded the country of all stock and grain. The remaining people of the old Bapedi empire had fled into the mountains and caves from which they stole forth at night to find whatever food they could. Here again we have another side effect of Tshaka's reign. Many of the people became cannibals and eventually, after an absence of about four years, Sekwati returned and established the paramountcy of the Bapedi and rid the country of the remaining cannibals. He established himself at Phiring near Pokwani on a rocky hill which is known today as Magali's Location.

Although the Bapedi originated from the Bakgatla and were of Sotho stock, their wanderings and their admixtures with other tribes by conquest, etc., resulted in the absorption of many words in the Bapedi language (generally known today as Northern Sotho) and customs which are not of Sotho origin, but which are akin to the Venda and Lovedu peoples, etc. and the Karanga from Rhodesia. However, this is a matter for the anthropologist and does not really concern us here.

It might be of interest to our subject, however, to take a look at the Bapedi and tribal warfare. Major C. L. Harries tells us that it could hardly be said that the Bapedi were a warlike tribe, and that it is difficult to ascertain whether they ever had the courage to fight a pitched battle with a rival tribe. The custom was to send men to the tribe to be attacked, ostensibly for the purpose of doctoring or of selling bead work but, in truth, they were spies who reported upon a favourable opportunity for the onslaught on the kraal. The chief would then summon all the men of his following to assemble with their weapons, which consisted chiefly of assegais and battle axes. The men were aware of the need to bring food supplies. It did not take long to assemble and the whole of the Bapedi army would set off in the opposite direction to their destination which was kept secret from the main following until the second night, when suddenly the course would be changed and all haste made to the kraal to be attacked. The attack was made stealthily and no prisoners were taken, except the women and children. In most cases the attacks were effectual and a great deal of bloodshed resulted.

Unlike the Zulus and the Matabele, to whom the art of war and military strategy was a science and military discipline was a way of life, the military organization of the Bapedi was very crude. Each man provided for himself and followed his own ideas as to what he should do. Tactics were formulated by the chief in council, and the execution of the tactics was assigned to the chief's own brother, who exercised active command of the tribesmen. All the cattle looted were handed to the man in command, who caused a third to be slaughtered, a third to be sent to the chief's kraal and the remaining third to be handed back to the party who had looted them. Women and children were regarded as loot and divided among the followers of the chief.

Despite these observations of Major Harries, the fighting habits and qualities of the Bapedi were the cause of much concern to the European forces which set out to subdue them and to the European population in the surrounding areas, and were very well suited to the mountain region in which the Bapedi lived.

After Sekwati had established himself at Phiring the Boers appeared on the scene. A party of Voortrekkers under Louis Trichardt passed through the Eastern Transvaal in 1837, and in 1845 another group under Hendrik Potgieter entered Bopedi on their way to the founding of Origstad. However, following land encroachment on the part of the immigrant Boers and stock thefts on the part of the Bapedi, there was constant bickering between the two peoples.

Potgieter attacked the Bapedi in 1847 and again in September 1852 with a commando of about 320 burghers. The attack was repulsed, but it is interesting to note that when the Bapedi were besieged and their water supply was cut off at Phiring with dire results, Sekukuni, the son of Sekwati, and a bold young warrior at that time, succeeded with men of his Matuba regiment, and some young girls carrying pots, in breaking out of the besieged village. The young girls drew water and the party returned safely to relieve the position of the defenders.

Sekwati no longer appeared to be safe at Phiring and moved to Thaba Mosega in 1853 under the eastern slope of the Lulu Mountains to a village which he established there by the name of Dsjate, and which he fortified heavily.

There was constant friction, however, between the Bapedi and the Boers, who claimed that Bapedi carrying arms were continually stealing stock - this the Bapedi seemed to have developed into a fine art - whilst the Bapedi claimed that the Origstad farmers stole Native children to be indentured as farm labourers.

An agreement was entered into between the Boers and Sekwati on 17th November, 1857, which, inter alia, fixed the Steelpoort River as the eastern boundary of Bapediland, i.e. the boundary between the Bapedi and the white men. Incidentally, the Bapedi still regard this as their boundary.

Thereafter, the tribe lived in peace for several years and we understand from the Rev. Dr. Alexander Merensky, a Lutheran missionary from Germany, who established a mission station at Dsjate in 1861, that towards the end of his life Sekwati commanded some 60 000 to 70 000 people and an army of about 12 000 men, of whom fully a third was armed with guns.

Sekwati died on 20th September, 1861, and was buried on the summit of Thaba Mosega. He was succeeded by his son, Sekukuni, who claimed the chieftainship by force, with the result that his half-brother Mampuru, who was the rightful heir, was eventually forced to flee.

Sekukuni, who at that time was about 47 years of age, was a hard cruel man and unloved by his people. He forced Alexander Merensky to flee, accompanied by Sekukuni's brother, Johannes Dinkwanyane, and it was as a result of this move from Sekukuniland that Merensky founded the Botsabelo Station in 1865 and built Fort Wilhelm, near where Middelburg, at first known as Nazareth, was established a year later in 1866.

It appears from various accounts that, in the years that followed his accession to the chieftainship of the Bapedi, Sekukuni quietly collected a store of muskets and ammunition from certain farmers who 'ran' these arms through from Delagoa Bay, and in 1875 the Bapedi under Sekukuni successfully withstood an assault by a Swazi impi. Although the impi penetrated nearly as far as Thaba Mosega they were defeated by the Bapedi who were better armed with muskets. This confirmed Sekukuni's feeling of security in his stronghold in the Dsjate valley backed by the Lulu Mountains with the hills of Mosega and Modimolle guarding the entrance and with the 'Fighting Koppie' as the citadel.

Sekukuni considered Sekukuniland to be independent and not subject to the Transvaal Republic and refused to allow miners from the Pilgrims Rest goldfields to prospect on his side of the Steelpoort River.

Things came to a head, however, in an incident on 13th March, 1876, when one, Jancowitz, beaconed off a farm near the stad of Johannes Dinkwanyane, the brother of Sekukuni, who had established himself near Lydenburg after leaving the Botsabelo Mission Station in 1873. The beacons were removed and the wood which Jancowitz had collected was thrown off his wagon.

We have seen how the thieving of stock by the Bapedi from the land-hungry Boers and the natural fear of the Bapedi about their position with the constant land encroachment on their borders had led to continual friction and had finally culminated in the Jancowitz affair. It must be assumed from the evidence that Johannes Dinkwanyane was aided and abetted in his actions by Sekukuni. The inevitable result, of course, was that the Volksraad declared war on Sekukuni on the 16th May, 1876, and by July, 1876, President Burgers himself had moved up with a force of about 2,000 burghers with a few Krupp guns and between 400 and 500 wagons. He was joined by a strong force of Swazis who, it is claimed by some, were brought into the affair by Mampuru, the half-brother of Sekukuni who, it will be remembered, had been ousted from his rightful place by Sekukuni.

The force advanced up the Steelpoort River from Middelburg, and the first objective was the capture of Johannes Dinkwanyane's stad on the east and Mathebes Kop in the west to cover the Boer lines of communication and to clear the country of hostile Natives on both sides of the Lulu Mountains. President Burgers himself was in command, with Martinus Wessels Pretorius as Commandant-General and Commandant Nicolas Smit as deputy. The force was divided into an eastern section and a western section. Pretorius was to lead the eastern section which was to consist of about 600 men, mainly from Lydenburg, under Commandant C. G. Coetzee, and the Swazis, with the object of capturing Johannes's stad before proceeding to Sekukuni's stronghold.

The western force of about 1 000 men under Commandant Smit was to clear the Olifants River area of hostile Natives. The first clash occurred on the 8th July, 1876, between the eastern force and the enemy at Magnet Heights, which were cleared with a loss of about 400 of the enemy. One Boer and eight Native allies were killed. In the meantime, the western section under Smit failed at first to take Mathebes Kop, but after the arrival of President Burgers, the position was successfully stormed on 4th and 5th July, 1876, with a loss of three burghers killed and seven wounded, and five Native allies killed. This victory made a big impression on the minor chieftains and thus all Bepedi resistance in the south-west and south-east had been crushed.

On 13th July, 1876, the burghers of the eastern force under Commandant Coetzee took up a position opposite Johannes's stad on the Spekboom River, whilst the Swazis hid themselves for a surprise attack. Coetzee, however, gave no orders for the burghers to attack the stad which was attacked successfully by the Swazis alone and Johannes himself was mortally wounded. This unsupported action by the Swazis is confirmed by E. V. Corrie in a brief but stirring account from which we also learn that the Swazis refused to hand over to the Boers any of the cattle taken on the grounds that the Boers had not taken part in the action nor assisted in the capture of the cattle. Disgust with the Boers for leaving them to fight alone appeared to be the main reason for the Swazis returning home the next day, although there were also rumours of an impending attack on Swaziland which may have contributed to their decision. Mopping up operations were carried out by the Boers and it appears that an impi sent by Sekukuni withdrew. The remants of Johannes's people surrendered and thereafter the two burgher sections united for the attack on Sekukuni's stad.

The force moved up on 31st July, 1876, and it was decided that the attack was to take place the following day. It is not clear from the various accounts as to the actual approach route of the Boer commando as it moved up to Sekukuni's stad, and although it might appear from some accounts that the Boers moved up round the northern end of the Lulu Mountains, this does not seem to have been the case, as it would seem from the accounts of Major Hunt and others that the burgher advance continued from the Steelpoort River on a broad front until the Boers arrived within reach of Thaba Mosega from the eastern side. I am inclined to the latter view. C. J. Uys, however, draws attention to the use by the British in 1879 of the old Boer road during the advance to Dsjate from the north, but this may have had reference to an old wagon road.

However, the force moved up as mentioned on 31st July, 1876, with Commandant Smit in command, as Commandant General Pretorius was ill, and with Jan Joubert as deputy. The President was not to take part personally. The plan was for Joubert with 800 burghers and 500 Natives to attack from the south and for Smit with 900 burghers and a Native impi to attack from the northern end. At the same time a Captain Otto Riedel with four cannon was to bombard the stad. These were presumably the Krupp guns referred to earlier. During the night of 31st July, Joubert and his men went to take up a position behind the stad, but their progress was halted by the large numbers of the enemy who occupied the schanzes and Joubert returned to camp with his men. For some unknown reason there was no contact between the two forces, probably by virtue of the terrain and the distance, with the result that Smit was unaware of Joubert's failure and, although the Boers reached the stad and actually set fire to some of the huts, they were forced to withdraw owing to lack of support from Joubert. As a result the Boers failed to dislodge Sekukuni.

Hunt tells us that, in any event, the burghers' hearts were not in it as they distrusted both the military and religious capacity of President Burgers. They returned from the scene of the action with some haste until they had recrossed the Steelpoort River - which confirms, I think, that the advance was from the eastern side - and then dispersed to their homes. For this reason the First Sekukuni War was often referred to as 'die huis-toe oorlog'.

K. W. Smith tells us, however, that the Krygsraad tried unsuccessfully to fine the burghers who had refused to attack, and it was finally agreed that the best plan would be to guard the borders of Sekukuni's country. The President was obliged to abide by the majority decision in this respect. Accordingly, to meet this situation it was decided to hold the line of the Steelpoort River against Sekukuni with some volunteer mercenaries. A fort was at once built within the junction of the Steelpoort and Spekboom Rivers opposite the drift on the Steelpoort River at the foot of the triple crowned Morone Mountain. The outline of this fort, which was named Fort Burgers, after President Burgers, after first being referred to as the Steelpoort Fort, may still be seen and is in the vicinity of the village known today as Burgersfort.

The fort was manned by some volunteer mercenaries called the Lydenburg Volunteer Corps who were placed under the command of a Prussian ex-officer, Captain von Schlickmann who, incidentally, was the holder of the Iron Cross, with orders to keep the Bapedi in check and to harass them as far as possible.

At the same time another fort, Fort Weeber, named after O. C. Weeber, the Landdrost at Middelburg, was built t the west of the Lulu Mountains and a few miles west of the present Jane Furse Hospital, and not far from Maseleroom of which we shall hear more later. This fort, traces of which can still be seen, was garrisoned by some Middelburg Burger Volunteers under the command of Captain Ignatius Philip Ferreira, later Colonel Ferreira, CMG, and the founder of Ferreira's Camp, the original site of Johannesburg. We shall hear more of this distinguished soldier and expert strategist of Native warfare. This fort was on an open plain free from surprise attack and in a healthier situation than Fort Burgers. As a result of the successful patrols from the fort the plains on the west side of the Lulu Mountains were under the control of the Boers by the end of 1876.

On 29th September, 1876, Sekukuni attacked Fort Burgers with the object of recovering cattle supposedly looted from the Bapedi by the volunteers. Although the Bapedi failed to take the fort, they recovered the cattle and killed two of the volunteers. The volunteers were reinforced by recruits from the Kimberley diamond fields who were recruited by Alfred Aylward, an ex-Fenian whose name was probably Murphy and who was the author of The Transvaal of To-day.

Unfortunately, however, on 17th November, 1876, von Schlickmann was ambushed in a kloof some six miles from the fort whilst on a cattle-looting expedition. He himself was killed and the volunteers suffered six other casualties. Aylward then took command at Fort Burgers and carried out raids within a safe radius of the fort.

The policy of the Boers, namely to harass the Bapedi and prevent them from sowing their crops, had the desired effect, and Sekukuni had no alternative but to make peace overtures. After a form of peace treaty had been concluded, peace was eventually restored along the border by February, 1877. Dr. Alexander Merensky acted as mediator and the peace terms were discussed at Botsabelo mission station between representatives of Sekukuni and the Boers.

Sekukuni ratified the treaty in February, 1877, in which he acknowledged that he was a subject of the South African Republic and agreed to pay a fine of 2,000 head of cattle. He also agreed upon the boundaries of his territory. Thus peace was at last proclaimed along the border in February, 1877. There is some doubt, however, as to whether Sekukuni actually acknowledged himself to be a subject of the South African Republic.

Editor's Note: Part II and the author's references will be published in Vol2 No 6 December 1973


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