Moshoeshoe (circa 1786-1870) was the founder and first king of Basutoland, now Lesotho. Renowned for uniting the Basotho people, he skillfully navigated colonial pressures, establishing diplomacy with the British to ensure his nation’s survival amidst South African conflicts.

Introducing Moshoeshoe

Moshoeshoe was one of the most successful Southern African leaders in the 19th century, by combining diplomacy and aggressive military counteraction against colonial invasions. He managed to build a large African state despite being attacked by Boers, British raiders, local African rivals and raiders from coastal lowlands of Southern Africa.

Moshoeshoe was born in Menkhoaneng in the northern areas of modern-day Lesotho. He was the first son of a minor chief from the Bamokoteli lineage (Mokhachane) which is a branch of the crocodile (Koena) clan.

At a young age, he was already involved in politics by helping his father gain power over some small clans. By the age of 34, he became the first king of Lesotho from 1822 to 1870. He achieved this by creating his own clan, becoming a chief and settling in the Butha-Buthe mountain.

Before he was known as “Mosheshoe” he was called Letlama which meant strong bond. After his initiation school, he was already brave and led a cattle raid against Ramonaheng and captured a few herds. Following tradition, he wrote a poem congratulating himself and described himself as “a razor which shaved all of the Ramonaheng’s beards”, describing his successful raid. The razor is known to make a “shoe, shoe” sound which led to him being called Moshoeshoe, the shaver. It was believed that he was a person of Kali or Monaheng which is the ancestor of most Bakoena people of Lesotho.

Image of Moshoeshoe holding a cane

Birth of the Sotho Nation

Moshoeshoe and his followers consisted of some clans such as Bakoena, Bamokoteli, Amazizi, Bataung and some members of the Bafokeng. Some of these clans were formed by the Tswana people. They built a village in Butha-Buthe and this settlement was built during the same time the Zulu king, Shaka was extending his power. Shaka led the raids of many small chiefdoms on the eastern coast of South Africa and made them part of his growing Zulu chiefdom. This era was known as “Difaqane” or “the time of troubles”.

Plenty of wars happened, and small clans were fleeing Shaka and his Zulu chiefdom. The Nguni clans were also invading the surrounding areas and attacking the Sotho people. These attacks led to Moshoeshoe moving his settlement to the Qiliane Plateau. This was then known as the mountain at night or Thaba Bosiu because they believed it grew during the night and shrunk during the day. This became a stronghold enemies could not pass through. Because of this, his following grew as other African people were attracted to his settlement because of the protection he was able to provide, especially during the time European invasions were occurring across the land. This led Moshoeshoe to unite multiple groups to create the Sotho Nation. He made his new nation stronger by raiding Tembu and Xhosa groups nearby for cattle and adopted the use of horses and firearms. This led to him defeating Griqua and Korana raiders with mounted cavalry and expanding his control into the Caledon Valley.

Image of Moshoeshoe forming the Sotho nation

The Boer – Sotho wars

The Boer and Sotho people fought for the fertile lands of Caledon Valley with the British drawing boundary lines between the two groups. Moshoeshoe defeated the British army twice, the first time in 1851 in Viervoet and the second time in 1852 in the battle of Berea near Thaba Bosiu. A year after that, Moshoeshoe defeated and took control of Tlokwa which were local African rivals.

For the next 10 years, the Sotho nation was able to continuously defeat the Boers which led to the Treaty of Aliwal North in 1858. This led to Sotho gaining control of the land on both sides of the Caledon River, which led to an assertive expansion of black people against the contending whites in Southern Africa and Moshoeshoe reigned supreme.

Moshoeshoe & Diplomacy

Moshoeshoe was known to show acts of friendship towards his defeated enemies. This enabled him to strengthen the Besotho nation as he gave land and protection to multiple people. He grew his influence and followers by allowing refugees and victims to join his nation during the wars.

It was known the Moshoeshoe spent time with chief Mohlomi who was known as a wise man. This strengthened Moshoeshoe’s ability to treat allies and enemies generously.

The arrival of the Dutch led to the introduction of guns and Moshoeshoe was determined to get them as well as a white advisor. Moshoeshoe brought Eugine Casalis, Thomas Arbousset and Constant Gosselin to his kingdom. Casalis became his foreign advisor and he informed and advised him when dealing with hostile foreigners. Casalis was also an interpreter for Moshoeshoe when dealing with white people as well as documenting the Sesotho language.

One of the key diplomatic moves Moshoeshoe made was sending an appeal to a British commander, allowing him to save face after defeating the British army twice. This saved the Sotho kingdom from further conflict.

The legacy of Moshoeshoe

Moshoeshoe never lost a major military defeat and kept most of his kingdom and all of his culture. Moshoeshoe died on the 11th of March in 1870 aged 94 in Thaba Bosiu. This date is a national holiday in Lesotho to commemorate the day of his death. The international airport of Lesotho is named after him as he was considered to be the father of his country.

The history of Lesotho dates all the way back to 40,000 years ago with the Bantu expansion. Modern-day Lesotho is a result of the chief Moshoeshoe the first in 1822.

A statue of Moshoeshoe to honour his rule and being the founder of Lesotho.


Sources

Sanders, Peter Basil. 1963. Moshoeshoe: Chief of the Sotho. Pearson Education Limited (12 May 1975)

Encyclopedia Britannica. “Moshoeshoe I.” Encyclopedia Britannica, Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc., 7 Sep. 2020, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Moshoeshoe.

South African History Online. “King Moshoeshoe I.” South African History Online, South African History Online, 20 Apr. 2011, https://www.sahistory.org.za/people/king-moshoeshoe-i.

(“JSTOR Article Title,” JSTOR, accessed August 19, 2022, https://www.jstor.org/stable/181789)