The South African
Military History Society

Die Suid-Afrikaanse Krygshistoriese Vereniging

Military History Journal
Vol 16 No 3 - June 2014

Unconquered fortress of the Basotho

David Saks

About 23km south-east of Maseru in the Phuthiatsana valley lies Thaba Bosiu, birthplace of the Sotho people and legendary bastion of their great founding Chief, Moshoeshoe. Perhaps the most celebrated of Southern Africa's mountain fortresses, it has the distinction of never having fallen to the foe, despite numerous attempts by invading forces, both black and white, to take it by storm.

Thaba Bosiu enters the pages of history with its occupation in the early months of 1824 by Moshoeshoe and his then small band of followers. This was at the height of an especially harrowing period of conflict, massacre and ethnic cleansing in South Africa known in SeSotho as the Difaqane/Lifaqane (Zulu: Mfecane), and the hill, a steepsided, flat-topped plateau, provided an ideal place of refuge against attack. Rising sharply to a height of about 120 metres above the surrounding area and ringed by steep vertical cliffs, Thaba Bosiu is a natural fortress. Its name does not, as is sometimes claimed, mean, 'Mountain of the Night', but rather, more cryptically, 'Mountain at Night'. This is explained by the legend that the feature, which in terms of actual height is in reality little more than a hill or elevated tableland, assumes a far more formidable and impressive aspect when approached at night.

Interesting parallels can be drawn between Thaba Bosiu and Hlobane, site of a major British reverse during the Anglo-Zulu War. The latter, albeit that it is a great deal higher, likewise forms a steep-sided, flat-topped plateau with no easy access points. Thaba Bosiu covers an area of about 3km (north-south) by 2km (east-west). Its summit is accessible, with difficulty, via six foot passes, namely Khubelu (the 'Red' Pass), Ramaseli, Maebeng, Mokhachane, Makara and Rahebe. Relatively speaking, only the Khubelu offered a realistic point of entry for an attacking force, and even here, as will be shown, the natural obstacles were formidable. Equally importantly, the summit provided abundant pasture and at least half a dozen natural springs, making it possible for its occupants to withstand even a prolonged siege. Thaba Bosiu became a sanctuary not just for the original group of settlers but for a steady stream of refugees who subsequently joined them. By the end of the decade, they were beginning to refer to themselves as the Basotho, or Sotho people. From this base, Moshoeshoe was able to form alliances with neighboring chiefs, who later became his subjects ( In 1828, an estimated 3 000 people were living on the plateau itself and in some two dozen villages around its flanks.

Thaba Bosiu

Early actions

The first major attack on Thaba Bosiu after the Sotho occupation was made in either June 1827 or February 1828 (the sources differ), by the Zulu-speaking AmaNgwane, whose Chief Matiwane had established himself as the dominant power in the Caledon River Valley. The battle took place near the foot of the Khubelu Pass, with the AmaNgwane advancing via the Berea plateau to the northwest. The Matlama, Moshoeshoe's own age regiment, bore the brunt of the fighting. Moshoeshoe's tactic of holding back part of the regiment in concealment and then hurling it into the fray at what he adjudged to be the best tactical and psychological moment was completely successful (Couzens, Battles of South Africa, pp175-6). Matiwane's regiments were routed, and the AmaNgwane threat permanently removed.

Three years later, in 1831, mounted Koranna raiders, armed with flintlock rifles, began attacking Moshoeshoe's subjects close to Thaba Bosiu. The Sotho themselves would, in due course, become proficient at fighting on horseback, whether armed with spears and battle-axes or with firearms, but that was still a good few years in the future. Even so, they were able to see off the Koranna threat.

A more serious challenge to Thaba Bosiu that same year was posed by Mzilikazi's Ndebele, who had established a powerful military state on the Zulu model north of the Vaal. The Ndebele sought to break through to the summit via five of the six passes, but were repulsed by the defenders hurling assegais, boulders and stones from above from behind their walled fortifications. Tradition has it that Moshoeshoe sent a gift of oxen to the retreating enemy with the message that he believed that hunger had compelled them to invade his country, the consequence of which was that Mzilikazi launched no further attacks in the Caledon Valley. If this is true - and there is no compelling reason to doubt it - this was the first indication of Moshoeshoe's legendary diplomatic acumen, which time and again enabled him to withstand threats to his independence in the decades that followed.

Cathcart's attack

More than two decades elapsed before Thaba Bosiu was again seriously menaced by an invasion force. This time, the enemy were well-armed British regulars, led by Cape Governor, Major-General Sir George Cathcart. In December 1852, Cathcart crossed the Caledon into Basutoland with a force of just over 1 100, roughly evenly divided between mounted troops and regular infantry, and with a small artillery detachment. The intention was to converge on Thaba Bosiu in three columns, one crossing the Berea plateau and the others approaching via its northern and southern faces. Thereafter, the combined force would attack Thaba Bosiu itself. The plan misfired, primarily because the left-hand mounted column failed to join him after being badly mauled in a Sotho counter-attack led by Moshoeshoe's son, Molapo. Cathcart himself was kept at bay and, for a time, seriously menaced by several thousand mounted warriors on the plain some three miles west of Thaba Bosiu. The next day, he retired to the Caledon, intending to return with a much stronger force. He was persuaded to call off the whole campaign, however, when Moshoeshoe, in a diplomatic masterstroke, allowed him to save face by claiming to have been suitably humbled and undertaking to toe the line in future. (For more on the Berea affair, see my article 'Botched orders or Insubordination: The Battle of Berea revisited' in Military History Journal, Volume 9, No.6, December 1994).

The Free Staters storm the mountain

Thaba Bosiu was again threatened during the Free State-Basotho War of 1858. On 6 May, a commando approaching from the south-west took up a position about a kilometre away, and seized the village of Moshoeshoe's brother, Lelosa. A counter-attack by over 5 000 Sotho horsemen forced the Boers to retire to their laager, and several hours of inconclusive fighting ensued before both sides disengaged. The war had not been going particularly well for the Free State, not least because the Sotho had responded to the invasion of their territory by launching effective counter-raids in the Winburg, Harrismith and Caledon districts. This, combined with the latest demonstration of enemy strength around their stronghold, discouraged all but a few from attempting to take the stronghold by storm. The next day, the mountain was bombarded, to little effect, and the next day, the invading force broke up their laager and set off homewards.

The Free Staters attack again

The next round of Boer-Basotho hostilities commenced in 1865. War was declared by the Volksraad on 9 June and soon afterwards 2 000 mounted Boers under Commandant-General Fick crossed into Basutoland. This time, instead of falling back before the invaders, the Sotho attempted to engage them as close to the borders as they could, the idea being to better position themselves to counter-attack by targeting undefended farmsteads as they had done to such good effect in the previous war. Some 3 000 Sotho duly launched a counter-invasion, wreaking a fair amount of havoc in the Caledon River district, decimating a Boer patrol at Jackalsfontein and seizing over 100 000 sheep. Simultaneous raids were launched in the Verkeerdevlei, Rietspruit and Kroonstad areas. By the end of June, however, the Free State forces had regained control of the situation, and Sotho raids caused little further damage as the war progressed.

Meanwhile, Fick's commandos in Basutoland had been sweeping all before them, capturing one stronghold after another with little loss and closing in inexorably on Thaba Bosiu. In these initial campaigns, Commandant Louw Wepener particularly distinguished himself, including leading the successful assault on Bolokoe, the mountain fortress of Moshoeshoe's brother, Poshudi. By the end of July, Fick had cleared the Berea plateau to bring his forces within striking distance of Thaba Bosiu. His main force laagered some three kilometres to the west in the Phuthiatsana valley, while his heavier guns commenced a long-range bombardment of the stronghold from the Berea summit. Shortly thereafter, Wepener arrived from the north, bringing the total Free State strength to just under 3 000. This included some 900 Barolong and Batlokoa levies. Opposing them on and around Thaba Bosiu were about 5 000 Sotho, far fewer than those who had withstood Cathcart's expedition thirteen years before.

On 8 August, the long-awaited assault on Thaba Bosiu commenced with a bombardment from a hill known as Coagula. The idea was to make a diversionary attack against the Mokachane Pass before storming the Rahebe Pass further south. In the end, most of the diversionary force failed to advance, and the main attack, a half-hearted affair, soon petered out without ever seriously testing the defenders. For all that, eight resolute Boers managed to scale the cliffs to the west of the pass and briefly skirmish with the Sotho on the summit itself before retiring, two having been wounded. The record suggests that this was the only time that part of an attacking force succeeded in reaching the top of Thaba Bosiu.

The attack via Khubelu Pass

While none of the attackers had been killed and only ten were wounded, the failed operation was the first check the Free State forces had suffered since invading Basutoland. It had been a half-hearted first effort, but the next attack on 15 May proved to be an altogether more determined affair. This time, the objective was the Khubelu Pass on the northern side of the plateau. Earlier in the day Wepener and some of his burghers, amongst them his step-son, Christiaan du Rand, had begun reconnoitering the position. They were still engaged in this task, under the impression that no operation would take place that day, when Wepener received a written communication from Fick ordering him to commence the attack at once. Wepener wrote back recommending that Fick first inspect the position himself before confirming his order. He also stressed that it was already late in the day for an attack to be launched. Fick rode up to view the ground and, after what seemed to Du Rand to be a very cursory inspection, duly confirmed his instructions. It would seem that he was under pressure to act from President Brand, who had arrived that day. Despite his dissatisfaction at the lateness of the hour, Wepener evidently did not argue the point. Perhaps his own eagerness to get to grips with the foe had clouded his judgment. Practically, it meant that the Free Staters had allowed themselves just a few hours to storm a well-defended position abounding in natural obstacles. If they failed to force their way through to the summit before nightfall, it would mean having to retreat, which would amount to another defeat. Had the assault commenced early the next morning, the result may well have been different.

The Khubelu Pass rises precipitously from the plain and, just before the summit, terminates in a narrow opening flanked by two huge rocky outcrops. The attackers would need to clear three rough stone defensive walls, while subjected to flanking fire from innumerable clefts and krantzes. The Sotho in this sector were under the command of two of Moshoeshoe's sons, Molapo and Masupha. As a teenager, Molapo had been amongst those charged with guarding the passes during Matiwane's abortive attack in 1828 and his mounted warriors had played a critical part in the success achieved over Cathcart at Berea.

The plan was for Wepener and his men to gradually work their way upwards while five guns bombarded the defences on the summit and riflemen (mainly black auxiliaries) provided covering fire from below. A detachment of Barolong levies were dispatched to occupy the mission station and adjoining area while Commandant Bester's detachment secured the kloofs on the flanks.

Khubelu Pass. The white dot shows the
approximate place where Wepener fell.

Wepener's men rode up to a wall near the foot of the pass, dismounted and commenced the assault. This was at about 13h00. Being late winter, this meant that perhaps four and a half hours of daylight remained. At least in the initial stages, between 300 and 500 volunteers took part in the actual assault, but the total progressively shrunk as the fighting intensified until no more than a hundred or so remained with Wepener for the final push (Grobbelaar, 1939). Amidst a hail of bullets and, as they approached the cliffs, boulders and stones as well, the Free Staters proceeded to close in, darting from rock to rock so as to offer only fleeting targets. A heavy pall of smoke from the continuous musketry and shells bursting overhead also helped to camouflage their movement. Even so, a steady stream of casualties developed as the afternoon wore on. The first of the three walls was cleared, followed by the second, Wepener leading the way armed with a revolver. Progress, however, was necessarily slow, and few could be induced by Fick to come forward to replace those who had been killed or wounded or who had turned back.

It was around 17h00 when Wepener, in the gathering gloom, attempted to lead a final bold rush to capture the last wall. This time, a Sotho slug found its mark, and he fell mortally wounded. A warrior named Hantsi Ramathlapani was generally credited with firing the fatal soot. Adam Raubenheimer, a gallant young burgher who had been at Wepener's side throughout the fight, was also killed. According to Couzens, Wepener's coloured agterryer died in an attempt to drag his master to safety. If true, he is presumably the Jacob Stolz identified as a coloured volunteer and listed amongst those killed in the fight in Major G TyIden's 'Basutoland Roll of Honour 1851-1881' in Military History Journal, Vol 1 , No 5, December 1969. Du Randt, however, makes no mention otthe incident, recording simply that he and Carl Mathey laid out his step-father's body by the third wall (indicating that he had reached this objective before being struck down) and placed his hat over his face (Louw Wepener, 1934).

Command had passed to Commandant Wessels, who continued to press the attack before he himself was severely wounded. With darkness about to fall, the Sotho now launched a perfectly timed counter-attack that drove the Free Staters back down the pass in confusion. The artillery covered the retreat, and the Sotho, exhausted after nearly five hours of fighting, did not press the pursuit. In all, the Free Staters sustained over fifty casualties, including twelve killed or died of wounds. Those left on the battle-field were buried on the initiative of the local French missionaries. After the war, Wepener's son exhumed the remains of his father and Raubenheimer from their common grave for reburial on the family's farm, Constantia.

Thus ended the last assault on Thaba Bosiu. The Free State forces proceeded to carry all before them in future operations against the Basotho, but never again attempted to take the stronghold by storm. In 1868, following Moshoeshoe's urgent appeal for British intervention, Basutoland became a British protectorate. It brought to an end over four decades of Sotho independence, but it was better than being swallowed whole by the Orange Free State. Moshoeshoe, father of the Sotho people, died two years later. He was buried on Thaba Bosiu, the fortress that had never fallen to the enemy and whose embrace had nurtured the birth of a new nation.

Sources & Bibliography

Couzens, T, Battles of South Africa, David Philip, Johannesburg, 2004.
Grobbelaar, JJG, 'Die Vrystaatse Republiek en die Basoetoe Vraagstuk', in Archives Yearbook for South African History, Second year, part II, 1939.
Meyer, S, 'Kommandant Louw Wepener' in Historia, Vol. 7, No.3, 1962
Wepener, FDJ, Louw Wepener, Die Oorloe van die Oranje-Vrystaat met Basoetoeland, Pretoria, 1934.

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