The South African
Military History Society

Die Suid-Afrikaanse Krygshistoriese Vereniging

Military History Journal
Vol 9 No 6 - December 1994

(incorporating Museum Review)

The battle of Berea revisited

by D Y Saks

Major-General George Cathcart's abortive Basutholand campaign of 1852 is chiefly remembered for two things, the diplomatic skill of the great Sotho chief Moshoeshoe and the battle of Berea that took place near his capital, Thaba Bosiu, on 20 December. Berea was a curious affair. It is now generally regarded as having been a British reverse(1), but in truth it was not quite as straight-forward as that. At least one account, and an authoritative one at that, considers that it was the British who got the best of the fighting(2), and a re-examination of the evidence may well lead to this conclusion. For one thing, there is reliable evidence that the Sotho, unable to make any headway against their opponents, were thoroughly demoralized after the battle. For another, it was Moshoeshoe who apparently sued for peace in its wake, hardly the action of a victor. Moreover, the Sotho lost over 5 000 head of cattle. To determine exactly what did take place at Berea, therefore, it is perhaps necessary to re-examine the existing evidence relating to this still rather obscure campaign, hopefully resolving some unanswered questions in the process.

Cathcart's invasion was the second major European-led invasion of the Sotho kingdom. The first had taken place the previous year when a mixed British, burgher, Griqua and Barolong column had set out on a punitive expedition in June. The latter attempt had come sadly to grief at the battle of Viervoet, during which the folly of attacking the numerous, mounted and well-armed Sotho with an inadequate force was made starkly apparent. Cathcart was not about to make the same mistake. The force he had mustered by November 1852 was the largest British army to take the field in South Africa since Blouberg nearly half a century before. Infantry detachments included four companies of the Queens (West Surrey) Regiment, three each of the 43rd and 73rd (2nd Battalion the Black Watch) Regiments, four of the 74th Regiment (2nd Battalion Highland Light Infantry) and one of the 1st Battalion the Rifle Brigade. Mounted detachments included two squadrons 12th Royal Lancers and two companies Cape Mounted Rifles (CMR).(3) Together with the Royal Artillery and Sappers and Miners, Cathcart could count on some 2 500 men for his campaign. Moreover, though usually mounted and equipped with firearms, the Sotho would have no counter to his artillery battery, comprising two six-pounder field guns, two twelve-pounder howitzer and rocket tubes. Their flintlock muskets would also be outranged by the rifles carried by the Rifle Brigade and a few picked men of other regiments.

It would soon become clear that Cathcart, supremely confident that the mere sight of so large and powerful a column would be enough to overawe a primitive army, did not expect to fight in order to get what he wanted.(4) This explains his cavalier treatment of Moshoeshoe in the negotiations leading up to his invasion, as well as the carelessness and over-confidence that characterized his conduct of the invasion itself. Moshoeshoe was given a mere three days to deliver 10 000 head of cattle and 1 000 horses to Cathcart's headquarters at Platberg. If he failed to comply with these terms, the general said, then his men would collect the fine themselves and three times the original demand would be seized if they met with any resistance. In a famous reply, Moshoeshoe warned that anxious though he might be to avoid war, 'a dog when beaten would show its teeth.'(5) Cathcart thus had ample notice that his men could expect to be resisted, but he seems to have paid no attention to this. By 19 December, only one-third of the cattle had been delivered and immediately plans were made to invade Basutholand on the morrow.

It is a measure of Cathcart's arrogance that in the end, well under half of his formidable force was detailed to carry out the invasion. The remainder, comprising all four companies of the Queens, three of the 74th, some CMR and the two six-pounders, were left behind to guard the Platberg camp. The fourth company of the 74th was left at Caledon to guard the drift (thereafter known as Cathcart's Drift). Moreover, clearly not expecting serious resistance, the British brought along no spare ammunition, limiting each man to the sixty rounds he carried with him.(6)

Perhaps the riskiest aspect of the plan was that the invading column, little more than a thousand-strong, was to be split up into three divisions, each to operate well apart from the others. Cathcart's scheme, it seems, was for two of the divisions to simultaneously sweep around the Berea plateau, a long irregular tableland with precipitous sides typical of Basutholand, and for the third to move across the plateau itself. All three would then converge in the Phutiastana valley in front of Thaba Bosiu by midday and then advance on the stronghold itself. According to Cathcart, while any cattle encountered along the way were to be rounded up, capturing cattle was secondary to rendezvousing in the valley in good time. As we shall see, there is good reason to suspect that he did not make this clear to his subordinates.

At dawn on 20 December, much to Moshoeshoe's dismay and his subjects' indignation, the three British divisions crossed the Caledon into Basutholand and began their southward advance. Moving off to the left were the cavalry under Lieutenant-Colonel G Napier, 233 rank and file and including 119 men of the CMR and 114 of the 12th Lancers.(7) Napier's instructions, so Cathcart claimed, were to sweep around the northern shoulder of Berea by way of reconnaissance and then to move down south along its eastern face until he reached the valley. He was not to take his men up onto the plateau at all and only to round up any cattle that happened to be in his path.(8) It was, in fact, inevitable that Napier would have to go over the mountain at some stage. Unbeknown to his commander, the Berea was not an isolated feature but was attached to the main range by a long nek on its north-eastern extremity. As it turned out, this simple topographical error did not come into play.

The central column, consisting mostly of infantry, were to move up and over the Berea, driving before it any cattle encountered and then descending into the valley via pathways on the southern face. Initially, just under 500 men were detailed for this operation, including 271 of the 73rd, 102 of the 43rd and 90 of the Rifle Brigade (the balance was made up by small detachments of Lancers, CMR and artillerymen to man the rocket tubes as well as some mounted Mfengu herdsmen).(9) The total was reduced to around 400 when the company of the 43rd, on Cathcart's orders, left Eyre's column and joined his division, the third, moving down along the western side of Berea. Cathcart thus had just under 400 men in his column, including the three companies of the 43rd, artillerymen to man the two six-pounders and some CMR and Lancers. Expecting to soon be joining with his other divisions, he was not unduly worried about his weakness in numbers.

That everything went wrong almost from the start with Cathcart's rather casual plan is now known. How and why events unfolded as they did is less easy to determine. What is clear is that either Cathcart's instructions to Eyre and Napier were extremely badly worded, since both men seem to have completely misread them, or Eyre and Napier independently decided to ignore their orders and acted as they saw fit. Cathcart later blamed Eyre and Napier for 'running wild after cattle' (an expression he used three times) instead of joining him in the valley as planned, this despite being told that seizing cattle was of secondary importance.(10) Indeed, Eyre's men, once on the plateau, became engaged in a prolonged cattle hunt instead of proceeding southwards in good time. It was only at 13:00, already an hour after midday (when Cathcart had wanted them to join him) and still a long way away from their destination, that they set off again. It looked like an act of downright insubordination on Eyre's part, but he evidently did not see it this way. In his official report, he claimed that the general object of his instructions had been to capture the cattle on the mountain and only then to join his commander in the valley.(11) This, of course, directly contradicts Cathcart's claims.

It is possible, of course, that Eyre was to blame for not paying sufficient attention. However, if this was the case, why did Napier make exactly the same mistake? In his official report, Napier makes no mention of joining up with the other columns at all. His force, he wrote, proceeded along the north-eastern side of Berea 'for the purpose of intercepting any cattle driving in that direction'.(12) Having rounded up about 4 500 head (after sending his force up the mountain in apparent defiance of his orders), Napier apparently then decided to take them back to Caledon camp.(13) It is too far-fetched to claim that he had simply forgotten his orders to proceed to Thaba Bosiu and extremely unlikely that both he and Eyre had simultaneously and independently decided to disobey their commanding officer. It is not hard to conclude, therefore, that Cathcart had failed to make his objectives clear from the beginning.

The upshot of this dismal mix-up, of course, was that Cathcart was left to fend for himself for most of the day, increasingly menaced by large columns of Sotho horsemen in the Phutiastana valley. In other parts of the field, meanwhile, things were by no means going smoothly for the other divisions. Napier's men first bore the brunt of an unexpected Sotho counter-attack. Soon after midday, while they were herding the captured cattle off the mountain, about 700 Sotho horsemen under Moshoeshoe's second son Molapo suddenly emerged from a gorge where they had been concealed and fell on their rearguard. A detachment of some thirty Lancers under Major Tottenham, unable to manoeuvre their heavy chargers quickly enough along the broken ground, were soon experiencing difficulties. Driven down along a dried-up watercourse, which they mistook for a path, they were ultimately held up by a stony ridge further down and almost wiped out as the Sotho, wielding battleaxes and hurling assegais, charged down amongst them. Meanwhile, up on the summit, five CMR were cut off near the Berea mission station and shot dead on the steep hillside.

Despite these successes, however, the Sotho failed to recapture their cattle and the British, having regrouped at the bottom of the mountain, were able to hold them off with relative ease before setting off for the camp. An attempt by Molapo's men to get between the retreating cavalry and the river was thwarted by the company of the 74th, left at the drift, which held off the Sotho with long-range volleys from their Minie rifles.(14) Napier was thus able to cross the Caledon with the captured cattle and horses, but the cost had been high. Thirty-two men had been killed (nearly a tenth of his force), several more wounded and ammunition had run low. Napier never admitted it officially, but the Sotho counter-attack had effectively put his column out of action and he was to take no further part in the day's events.

Up on the plateau, Eyre's men, being mostly unmounted, had less success in rounding up stray cattle. They had easily scattered those few warriors who had contested their ascent early in the morning, at little cost to themselves, but had quickly discovered that controlling thousands of frightened animals while on foot was a far more difficult proposition. By 13:00, they had about 1 500 head under control, and might have rounded up more had the Sotho not launched their second counter-attack around this time. About 300 of Molapo's horsemen, some of whom were wearing the uniforms and helmets of Napier's dead Lancers, appeared, seemingly out of nowhere, and charged right into Eyre's mounted detachments.(15) In this initial rush, Captain W B Faunce of the 73rd was made a prisoner and his orderly was killed. Eyre himself was lucky to escape, eventually getting away by using his revolver after having his hat knocked off by a knobkerrie. In fact, the threat posed by the Sotho was more apparent than real. They had no numerical advantage over Eyre's infantry and were easily held at bay by musketry and rocket fire once the British had recovered from their surprise. At around 16:00, a torrential thunderstorm broke, bringing the fighting in this sector to an end. As noted above, the Sotho attack cannot be called a complete failure since it at least prevented any more of their livestock from being driven off. Eyre lost five men killed and ten wounded during the operation. The death toll rose to six after the unfortunate Captain Faunce, in retaliation for the killing of some Sotho women during the initial advance, was clubbed to death in captivity. Sotho casualties mounted to about fifty killed and wounded.

Basutho's Berea - Caledon Camp, January 54'. Detail of pencil sketch by Thomas Goodrich,
depicting the Sotho charge on Eyre's Staff at around 13:00 (MuseumAfrica)

By midday, Cathcart's column had halted on a knoll above a stream, close to the south side of Berea and about three kilometres from Thaba Bosiu. Cathcart expected his other divisions to join him around this time, but all he saw instead were thousands of Sotho horsemen massing on his front and to his right. The latter were led by two other sons of Moshoeshoe, Letsie and Nehemiah (and, according to at least one authority, Moshoeshoe himself)(16) and most of them carried firearms. They proceeded to circle and wheel menacingly, occasionally threatening to charge but seldom coming within musket range. Although they looked impressive (Cathcart later compared them to Cossacks)(17), the Sotho never really looked like properly engaging their foes, with only Nehemiah leading any sallies of note. They seem to have been overawed by the coolness and discipline displayed by the 43rd and were particularly impressed to see their opponents cooking lunch inside their squares as if unconcerned by the daunting odds confronting them.(18) What the Sotho did not know, however, was that their threatening demonstrations had made a profound impression on Cathcart. In effect, the tables had been [turned] neatly on him. He had arrogantly planned to intimidate the Sotho by staging an elaborate show of force, but they were instead staging a more than effective show of force of their own. Clearly, a war with Moshoeshoe was not going to be as easy as anticipated.

The thunderstorm briefly interrupted proceedings and, when it let up around 17:00, it looked as if the Sotho were at last preparing to charge. At this point, Eyre made his welcome, if belated, appearance and the combined force then fell back some two kilometres to a stone kraal to bivouac for the night. Only now, when the odds had evened considerably, did the Sotho start attacking with any determination, probably goaded by the sight of so many of their cattle being driven off. Although they looked and sounded formidable enough, however, they seldom looked like pressing their attacks home and, after several more hours of desultory skirmishing, the fight petered out at around 20:00. The respective states of the two opposing armies at this point anticipated in some ways the better-known conclusion of the battle of Spion Kop, where both sides had erroneously assumed their opponents to be substantially unshaken whilst they had been badly battered. Certainly the Sotho were disheartened, indeed near panic. They had lost thousands of head of cattle and failed completely to make any impression on the rock-fast British lines. It is even possible that a general attack on Thaba Bosiu the next morning might have met with no resistance.(19) On the other hand, the day's events had shaken Cathcart more than he cared to admit. He had not even expected the Sotho to put up a fight, let alone that they would be so numerous and well-armed. One of his divisions had not turned up, while the other had arrived too late for the planned attack to go ahead. What was more, his men were worn out after marching and fighting all day and ammunition was practically exhausted. There was nothing to be done, but to return to camp on the morrow and return in strength at a later date. On 21 December, therefore, much to Moshoeshoe's relief, the British began retiring to Cathcart's Drift.

Can Berea be called a Sotho victory? Determining this on the basis of the official reports by the British officers involved is extremely difficult. Post-bellum despatches are seldom models of veracity, but even taking this into account, the reports of Cathcart, Napier and Eyre are self-serving and self-exculpatory in the extreme, requiring a fair amount of reading between the lines in order to obtain a more probable record of events. In particular, one has to determine exactly why Napier left his commander in the lurch and returned to the Caledon camp. Was it, as he claimed, because he wished to secure the captured cattle there? It has already been shown that Cathcart's orders must have been extremely badly worded, since both Eyre and Napier failed to realize the importance of reaching the Phutsiastana valley by midday and pursued the cattle instead. However, Eyre at least arrived in the valley in the end, even if he was nearly five hours late, whereas Napier never arrived at all. The answer, it seems, is that Molapo's fierce counter-attack had in fact effectively put the British cavalry out of action and that Napier chose to disguise this embarrassing fact in his report. With 32 men dead and ammunition running dangerously low, he was in no state to resume the dangerous journey south, not with hundreds of well-armed enemy horsemen opposing him. Napier's report is full of references to the steadfastness of his men and his own coolness in rallying them to hold the Sotho off, but to take it at face value (as historians like Cory have done)(20) is short-sighted.

Molapo's men, apart from repelling the cavalry, were also able to limit livestock losses on the plateau itself, despite making no headway against Eyre's troops. Even the lack-lustre Sotho performance in the valley was not entirely useless. As indicated above, it provided a rude shock for the over-confident Cathcart and also ensured that the British were forced to expend most of their ammunition in defence rather than in attack. All in all therefore, while hardly covering themselves with glory, the Sotho probably did enough at Berea to claim a victory, albeit an incomplete one. Moshoeshoe's famous 'submission' to Cathcart the day after the battle, in which he claimed to have been suitably humbled and begged for peace, was mostly bluff. It was not accompanied by a single concrete concession and should really be seen less as evidence of defeat than as a masterful diplomatic charade. Cathcart was being given an opportunity to publicly claim victory and he gratefully took the bait suspending his Basutholand operations. With staggering dishonesty, he also claimed that between 500 and 600 Sotho warriors had been accounted for in the battle (the real number was probably no more than fifty).(21)

Actually Cathcart had thoroughly botched his first attempt to cow the Sotho. Judging by his correspondence, which is full of sour references to the incompetence of his subordinates, he probably knew it. Thirty-eight of his men had died, to date Britain's highest losses in any South African engagement, and his threat to seize 30 000 head of cattle if his men were resisted had resulted in a mere 5 000 being driven off. Ironically, an incomplete victory was more beneficial to the Sotho than a comprehensive one would have been. No amount of diplomatic manoeuvring could have saved Moshoeshoe had his people pressed home their advantage and inflicted a decisive defeat on any of the three divisions. Cathcart, assuming he survived, would have been forced, for appearance's sake, to plan a new invasion and a British victory was inevitable in the long run. In the final analysis, Berea was a tame affair, even more tamely resolved, but its aftermath enabled the antagonists to pull back from the brink before more blood was shed. More importantly for Moshoeshoe, the amicable resolution of the dispute ensured that, thereafter, Anglo-Sotho relations would remain on a friendly footing and this would save his country from annexation by the Orange Free State fifteen years later.


1. See, for example, Cameron, T and Spies, S B eds, A New Illustrated History of South Africa (Southern Book Publishers, Johannesburg, 1991), p 138; Walker, E A, A History of Southern Africa (Longmans, 1965), p 255.
2. Tylden, G, 'The Affair of the Berea Mountain, 20 December 1852' in Journal of the Society for Army Historical Research, Volume 14 (1935), p 40.
3. Tylden, G, The Rise of the Basutho (Longmans, 1951), p 54.
4. Theal, G M, History of South Africa since 1795, Volume III (Unwin & Allen, 1927), p 337.
5. Cory, G E, The Rise of South Africa, Volume 5 (Struik facsimile reprint, 1965), p 477.
6. Sanders, P, Moshoeshoe, Chief of the Sotho (David Philip, 1975), p 188.
7. Tylden, Affair of the Berea, p 37.
8. The Hon Sir George Cathcart's Correspondence on Kaffraria (John Murray, London, 1857), pp 343, 345.
9. Theal, History of South Africa, p 338.
10. Cathcart's Correspondence, pp 343-5.
11. Theal, G M, Basutholand Records, Volume III, p 625 (report of Lt-Colonel W Eyre).
12. Theal, Basutholand Records, pp 623-4 (report of Lt-Colonel G Napier).
13. Tylden, Affair at the Berea, p 37.
14. Tylden, Affair at the Berea, p 38.
15. Carey, G, Battles and Sieges (South Africa Handbooks No 19, London, 1903), p 16.
16. Tylden, Rise of the Basutho, p 61.
17. Theal, Basutholand Records, p 634.
18. Sanders, Moshoeshoe, Chief of the Sotho, p 192.
19. Becker, P, Hill of Destiny, The Life and Times of Moshesh, Founder of the Basutho (Longman, 1969), pp 186-7.
20. Cory, Rise of South Africa, p481.
21. Cathcart to Duke of Newcastle, 13 January 1853 (Cathcart Correspondence) p 346.

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