The road to the north had been pioneered by British missionaries pushing ever deeper into the interior of Africa, far beyond the limits of white settlement. After establishing a mission station at Griquatown, the London Missionary Society sent the Scottish missionary Robert Moffat northwards to set up a mission station among the Thlaping at Kuruman on the fringe of the Kalahari desert. For fifty years, Moffat’s efforts ‘to teach poor heathen to know the Saviour’ achieved only limited success. But Kuruman nevertheless became not only a missionary outpost but also a base for exploration and a centre of learning. Moffat was the first to reduce the Tswana language to written form; he then translated the Bible into Tswana and produced copies from his own printing press. A market-gardener by training, he planted orchards and willow trees, taught the use of the plough and introduced irrigation projects.

Kuruman was soon renowned as the ‘gateway’ to the north. Hunters, traders and travellers passing through were invariably offered hospitality by the Moffat family. ‘A warm autumnal beneficence oozed from Kuruman,’ wrote James Chapman. ‘It was the sort of place you came away from with a pomegranate, a pumpkin, quinces or a cabbage; and if you were trekking north it was the last place where you might recruit your oxen, bullocks, cows, sheep and goats.’

Though disdainful of African customs and traditions such as polygamy, Moffat befriended leading Tswana chiefs and opened a second mission station further north at Molepolole among the Kwena. He also struck up a friendship with Mzilikazi, the founder and leader of the Ndebele people, a former Zulu warrior chief who had carved out a new domain for himself in the Magaliesberg area of western Transvaal. They met only rarely, first in 1829, then again in 1835, but established a bond of trust that had lasting consequences. When Mzilikazi, after clashing with Boer commandos, moved northwards in 1837 and established a new capital across the Limpopo, Moffat visited him there in 1854 and again in 1857 to ask his permission to set up a mission station. Though Mzilikazi himself was never converted to Christianity, he gave Moffat his approval. Two years later, when Moffat set out from Kuruman, leading a small team of missionaries on a four-month journey to Matabeleland, Mzilikazi sent him a message of welcome: ‘The king longs exceedingly to look on the face of Mtjete again.’ The mission station that Moffat founded at Inyati on the banks of the Nkwinkwizi River was the first white settlement in the area north of the Limpopo then know as Zambesia.

Among the missionary recruits whom the London Missionary Society sent to Kuruman was David Livingstone. He arrived there in 1841 as a newly qualified doctor at the age of twenty-eight, serving as an apprentice to Moffat and later, while convalescing from a lion attack, marrying his daughter Mary. As a conventional missionary, Livingstone was a failure. He attached himself to the Kwena but remained with them for less than six years and in that time made but one convert who subsequently lapsed. He was far more influential as a traveller, writing about the depredations of the slave trade in southern Africa and advocating European settlement there. As a result of his experiences among the Kwena, however, he developed an abiding dislike of the Boers. In his writings, he stoked up anti-Boer sentiment, referring to them as ‘white thieves’ and complaining of their mendacity, greed and stinginess, thus adding to the mutual hatred between British missionaries and Boers. And he repeatedly called on Britain to prevent the Boers from closing ‘the missionaries road’ into the heart-land of Africa.

Clashes between Tswana chiefdoms and encroaching Boer settlers became endemic from the 1850s. The Tswana chiefdoms occupied fertile lands and vital watering places along a 500-mile corridor of territory to the west of Boer settlements in the Transvaal and the Orange Free State that the Boers coveted for their own use. The position of Tswana chiefs was weakened by internecine quarrels over land and water-holes, and by succession disputes that frequently culminated in violent conflict. While missionaries sought to protect and defend Tswana interests, the Boers were quick to exploit Tswana rivalries, siding with one group against another, taking land as a reward.

But it was not only land that excited outside interest. In 1867, a German geologist, Carl Mauch, returned from travels to the north of the Limpopo to announce that he had discovered two gold-bearing reefs in Mashonaland, one of which he had traced for eighty miles, the other for twenty miles. In a letter to the Transvaal Argus in December 1867, Mauch wrote: ‘The vast extent and beauty of these goldfields are such that at a particular spot I stood as if transfixed, riveted to the place, struck with wonder at the sight.’

Mauch suggested that what he had found was the land of Ophir, a city mentioned in the Bible as the place from which King Solomon’s ships brought back gold. He also identified another gold-bearing reef located at Tati in Kalanga territory, an area between the Ngwato, a northern Tswana chiefdom, and Mzilikazi’s Ndebele kingdom. On the strength of gold samples taken from Tati, the Transvaal Argus confidently announced in July 1868: ‘We now declare, on the sacred word of our editor, that the said sample required but to be seen in order to dispel the strongest doubts of even the most sceptical. The “myth”, as the gold discovery has been termed, has resolved itself into a stupendous fact.’

The gold rush that followed to Tati produced only disappointing results, but the belief that to the north of the Limpopo lay the land of Ophir held firm. Rider Haggard picked up the idea while he was stationed in the Transvaal and, on his return to England, turned it into a hugely successful novel, King Solomon’s Mines.

As Boer encroachment on their land continued, a number of Tswana chiefs appealed to Britain for protection, encouraged to do so by British missionaries. Foremost among them was Kgama, the Ngwato chief, based at Shoshong. Sending greetings to ‘Victoria, Great Queen of England’, he asked her ‘to preserve me and my country, it being in her hands’:

The Boers are coming into it, and I do not like them. Their actions are cruel among us black people. We are like money, they sell us and our children . . .

I wish to hear upon what conditions Her Majesty will receive me, and my country and my people, under her protection. I am weary with fighting. I do not like war, and I ask Her Majesty to give me peace. I am very much distressed that my people are being destroyed by war, and I wish them to obtain peace . . .

There are things which distress me very much - war, selling people, and drink. All these things I shall find in the Boers, and it is these things which destroy people to make an end of them in the country. The custom of the Boers has always been to cause people to be sold, and today they are still selling people . . .

When Britain annexed the Transvaal in 1877, the Tswana predicament was temporarily alleviated. But once the British had withdrawn four years later, humiliated by Boer victories, Transvaal settlers - ‘free-booters’ - flocked across the western border agreed with Britain in 1881, in violation of the terms of the Pretoria Convention, knowing that Britain would not intervene. Many enlisted as mercenaries - ‘volunteers’ - supporting rival Tswana factions in return for promises of land. One group of freebooters led by Gey van Pittius aided Moswete in his struggle against a pro-British chief, Montshiwa of the Rolong; a second group under Gerrit van Niekerk helped Mosweu against another pro-British chief, Mankurwane of the Tlhaping.

In May 1882, Mankurwane reported to a senior British official in Pretoria: ‘I have the honour to inform you that there is a Commando of Free State and Transvaal subjects besieging my town of Taungs. I am told that those who form this Commando wish to take my country to form an independent Republic.’ By the time his message reached Cape Town, the siege was over and the Boers had won. Mankurwane was obliged to watch as Boer freebooters divided up his land into farms of 6,000 acres each for themselves. He was also forced to sign a treaty agreeing to refer all future disputes to the Transvaal authorities and not to the British. No British assistance was forthcoming. Writing to the British high commissioner in Cape Town in August, Mankurwane complained: ‘Seeing therefore that I had been deserted by the British Government . . . I have done that which I ought to have done long ago, namely made my peace with the Boers . . . and have had to give up a considerable portion of my country.’

With land taken from Mankurwane running for more than 100 miles westwards from the 1881 border, Van Niekerk and his freebooters - some 400 Boer families in all - proceeded to set up their own petty republic, calling it Stellaland, to mark the passing of a comet, and established a capital at Vryburg near Taungs. The capital was a modest affair, consisting of a score of brick houses, a few stores, a billiard room and a croquet ground.

Having disposed of Mankurwane, the freebooters turned on Montshiwa. Montshiwa held out for three months, but was eventually forced to surrender two-thirds of his land, losing everything south of the Molopo River. He too was obliged to acknowledge allegiance to the Transvaal. On Montshiwa’s land, Van Pittius and his freebooters established the republic of Goshen, a name taken from Genesis - ‘the best of the land of Egypt given to Joseph’. The capital of Goshen, Rooi Grond, was simply a fortified farm, near Mafikeng, one mile west of the Transvaal border, occupied by a few dozen adventurers.

Both ‘republics’, however, lay across the road to the north, blocking access to the interior. One of the first actions taken in Vryburg was to impose a tax of £3 a fortnight on all traders passing through Stellaland. Stellaland and Goshen thus represented a significant threat to the Cape’s trade with the African interior, then worth a sizeable £250,000 a year. They were moreover an obstacle standing in the way of the only feasible rail route northwards to Zambesia and its fabled riches, outside the Boer republics. It seemed inevitable that they would eventually merge into a greater Transvaal, leaving the Cape out on a limb.

Preoccupied with more pressing issues than an obscure conflict on the edge of the Kalahari desert, the British government responded to Boer raids into Bechuanaland with studied indifference. ‘A most miserable page in South African history,’ a Colonial Office official noted in December 1882, ‘but as we shall not attempt to coerce the Boers, Montsoia and Mankoroane must face starvation as best they can.’

But Cecil Rhodes was galvanised into action. Despairing of British help and infuriated by what he saw as the ‘constant vacillation’ of British policy, he campaigned relentlessly for the Cape to take control of the area, stressing the advantages of ‘Cape colonialism’. In May 1883, he persuaded the Cape’s prime minister, Thomas Scanlen, to send him north to investigate the state of affairs in Bechuanaland and, on his return to Barkly West, bombarded Scanlen with telegrams. ‘If Transvaal get them [Stellaland and Goshen] we are shut out from interior trade, and our railway to Kimberley comparatively useless . . . Don’t part with an inch of territory to the Transvaal. They are bouncing. The interior road runs at the present moment on the edge of the Transvaal country. Part with that, and you are driven into the desert . . . If you part with the road you part with everything.’ Rhodes urged Scanlen to ‘act at once’, but Scanlen was not persuaded.

In a speech to parliament in Cape Town in August 1883, Rhodes went further, claiming that ‘the whole future of this Colony’ was at stake:

I look upon this Bechuanaland territory as the Suez Canal of the trade of this country, the key of its road to the interior . . . The question before us really is this: whether this Colony is to be confined to its present borders, or whether it is to become the dominant state in South Africa - whether, in fact, it is to spread its civilization over the interior . . .

The land to the north lying beyond the Transvaal, he said, had great prospects. ‘I claim the development of the interior as the birthright of this Colony.’ If the Cape failed to secure control of the interior, then ‘we shall fall from our position of the paramount State’.

Despite such rhetoric, Rhodes failed to win parliament’s support for colonial expansion; the Basutoland fiasco served as a warning of the perils it involved. But he found Britain’s high commissioner, Sir Hercules Robinson, more favourably disposed to the idea. Robinson was an outspoken advocate of colonial ‘home rule’ rather than imperial rule and considered that colonists rather than metropolitan officials were better suited as agents of African administration. He was amenable to using his influence with London. According to Rhodes, as a result of his own efforts, Robinson rapidly ‘grasped the fact that, if Bechuanaland was lost to us, British development in Africa was at an end’. Robinson’s version, given to the Cape Times in 1895, was different: ‘Rhodes did tell me a story once about his taking me up an exceedingly high mountain and showing me all the wonders of the Northern Expansion; but the truth is, I saw the Northern Expansion before I ever saw Mr Rhodes.’

The missionary lobby was also effective in prodding the British government into taking a more active interest in the fate of Bechuanaland. While Rhodes’ preoccupation was to safeguard a trade corridor to the north, the missionaries wanted Britain to exercise trusteeship on behalf of the Tswana and protect them from Boer depredations. The main champion of the Tswana cause was John Mackenzie, a grizzled Scottish missionary who had headed the London Missionary Society station at Shoshong for fourteen years before moving to Kuruman in 1876. While on home leave in 1882-3, Mackenzie toured England arousing public opinion with articulate attacks on the activities of Boer freebooters in the two republics.

The issue of Bechuanaland was thus high on the agenda when Paul Kruger arrived in London as the newly elected president of the Transvaal to discuss some unfinished business from the 1881 settlement. In ebullient mood, Kruger started by demanding a new western boundary incorporating the whole of the road to the north, making the Transvaal’s critics all the more determined to stand firm. In a deal eventually concluded in February 1884, Britain made a number of concessions: it dropped all reference to imperial ‘suzerainty’ and reduced the Transvaal’s outstanding debt. In return, Kruger agreed to a new border line with Bechuanaland, taking a slice of Tswana territory, but leaving the bulk of Tswana territory intact. The deal gave Britain overall responsibility for administering the troubled southern half of Bechuanaland, including the two republics of Stellaland and Goshen, thus securing the road to the north. Robinson claimed that his role at the London Convention had been crucial in obtaining the deal. ‘The Northern Expansion could never have been if the road up to it had not been kept open,’ he said in 1895, ‘and the battle of opening the road was fought and won by me in London in the winter of 1883-4.’ The records support his claim.

The task of administering southern Bechuanaland was assigned to a British commissioner. The first candidate selected for the post was John Mackenzie, the ardent defender of Tswana interests. In making this commitment, Britain fully expected that in due course, its protectorate over southern Bechuanaland would be handed to the Cape, relieving it of the burden and the cost.

Mackenzie’s task was fraught with peril. He was asked to establish order in a region torn apart by years of strife and plunder and occupied by aggressive gangs of freebooters and land sharks who had no intention of submitting to British authority, least of all to a missionary with a record of defending Tswana interests and of open hostility to them. To accomplish his task, Mackenzie was allowed to recruit a police force of ‘not more than twenty-five men’. Saying farewell to him in Cape Town, Robinson was hardly reassuring. ‘I have only one anxiety,’ he told Mackenzie, ‘that some ruffian may “pot” you; otherwise I have no doubt of the result.’

Mackenzie nevertheless took to the task of establishing imperial protection with relish. He signed an agreement with Mankurwane promising him the return of his lands and declared the Goshen farms to be the property of the Crown pending a proper investigation of titles. But not only did his actions enrage the freebooters, they infuriated Rhodes and Robinson who wanted Cape expansion, not imperial trusteeship.

Rhodes’ campaign to extend the Cape’s boundaries gathered momentum during 1884. Addressing parliament in July, he repeated his warning of the previous year:

Is this House prepared to allow these petty republics to form a wall across our trade routes? Are we to allow the Transvaal and its allies to acquire the whole of the interior? Bechuanaland is the neck of the bottle and commands the route to the Zambesi. We must secure it, unless we are prepared to see the whole of the North pass out of our hands . . . I do not want to part with the key to the interior, leaving us settled just on this small peninsula. I want the Cape Colony to be able to deal with the question of confederation as the dominant state of South Africa.

If the Cape did not move to annex Bechuanaland, he said, then the British government would ‘interfere’ there, adding, ‘We must not have the Imperial factor in Bechuanaland.’ This time, Rhodes’ views gained widespread support. He now manoeuvred to get Mackenzie removed.

Unaware of how precarious his position had become, Mackenzie decided that a flag-raising ceremony in Vryburg, the capital of Stellaland, would be an appropriate sign of the new British presence. In a despatch to Robinson in Cape Town, Mackenzie painted a rosy picture. ‘As they hoisted the flag amid hearty cheers, I thought here is the answer to all unjust and silly remarks which have been made recently in Cape Town about “eliminating” the Imperial element from Bechuanaland, and especially concerning myself as a breeder of strife’ - a clear gibe at Rhodes.

Robinson, however, was not amused. ‘You are not authorised to hoist the British flag as that implies sovereignty and Bechuanaland is just a protectorate,’ he replied. He told Mackenzie his actions were likely to provoke conflict, and ordered ‘Come down here at once.’

To replace Mackenzie as commissioner, Robinson chose Rhodes. Rhodes often liked to tell the story of his appointment, dressing up what had in fact been a telegraphic exchange:

The Governor said, ‘Oh, you can go up [to Bechuanaland] but I can give you no force to back you up. You must use your own judgement.’

I replied: ‘Will you allow me to do what I like?’

‘Yes,’ said the Governor, ‘but if you make a mess of it, I shan’t back you.’

I said, ‘That is good enough for me.’

On learning of the appointment, an official in the Colonial Office asked: ‘What information have we respecting Mr Rhodes?’ A colleague replied that Rhodes was ‘a sensible man’ although inexperienced and untrained in administrative work. The general view in London was that he would ‘do very well as a stop gap’.

But Rhodes had hardly begun his mission to Bechuanaland when a new threat appeared on the horizon.

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