On 31st March 1885
Britain declared that the Tswana-speaking land between the Molopo River in the
south and the 22nd Latitude to the north was the British
Bechuanaland Protectorate (now named Botswana), thus preventing German South
West Africa and the Transvaal from colluding in seizing the territory. The
Tswana-speaking land south of the Molopo River was designated as the Crown
Colony of British Bechuanaland. In 1895 South Africa annexed British
Bechuanaland and this territory became part of the Northern Cape. This annexed
land was still referred to locally as Bechuanaland.
In 1896 a serious epidemic of rinderpest (an infectious
viral disease of cattle and some other animals) broke out in Bechuanaland
affecting many herds. The government took drastic measures and issued
regulations to combat the outbreak that included the slaughtering of infected
herds. The Bataplin tribe from the former Crown Colony land objected to the
regulations and refused to implement them. Also a minor Bataplin chief named
Galishiwe fired on a Cape Police party that came to arrest him at Pokwani in
connection with the murder of a German trader living nearby.
Right: The Langberg Mountains
The police then sent 600 men to arrest Galishiwe but as
they arrived the Chief’s men dispersed and he escaped in the confusion. These
“rebels” then killed another European trader and looted his store. Once again
the police party sent to deal with the matter failed to apprehend Galishiwe;
this led to a troop of Cape Mounted Riflemen under Captain Woon riding in
support of the police, but by now the Batlaro natives had also risen in revolt.
Woon decided that the rebels were too strong and so he withdrew. Finally in
mid-February 1897 the Cape Government decided to form the Bechuanaland Field
Force and despatch it to deal with the rebellion.
Meanwhile the rebels, about 2,500 in number and armed with
good rifles and plenty of ammunition, had fortified very strong defensive
positions in the Langberg mountain range that runs in between Kuruman and the
German South West Africa border. Large herds of cattle had been driven into
The major units in the Bechuanaland Field Force were all
South African and included:
Prince Alfred’s Own Cape Volunteer Artillery (40 men)
Cape Mounted Riflemen (133 men, Regular soldiers)
Cape Police (897 men)
Cape Town Highlanders (111 men)
Diamond Fields Artillery (23 men)
Diamonds Field Horse (127 men)
Duke of Edinburgh’s Own Volunteer Rifles (241 men)
Kimberley Rifles (176 men)
First City Volunteers (106 men)
Gordonia Volunteers (76 men)
Queenstown Rifle Volunteers (66 men)
Kaffrarian Rifles (87 men)
Oudtshoorn Volunteer Rifles (42 men)
Vryburg Volunteers (39 men)
Cape Medical Staff Corps (24 men)
Transport Corps (19 men)
Over fifty other unit titles appear on the campaign medal
roll, but most of these units only sent one or two men. Most men were mounted
and came from the volunteer corps and burgher units, more volunteers being
called-up as the campaign progressed. The force was around 3,000 men strong and
was commanded by Colonel G.H. Dalgety of the Cape Mounted Rifles. Only five
British Army personnel were involved.
In early March the Field Force marched the 150 miles from
Kimberley westwards to Kuruman, where a base and a hospital were established,
and then on to Ryan’s Farm which was located 16 miles east of the Langberg mountains.
The Langberg range stretched north to south for 50 miles and was eight miles
wide, rising to an average height of 2,000 feet. The rebels controlled the few
water sources in the hills, and as the surrounding countryside was arid the
Field Force was dependent on the limited supply of water at Ryan’s Farm for all
its needs. Water carts were used to bring water up to the troops, but the
rebels soon learned to ambush the carts and shoot holes into them to cause
leaks. Stronger escorts for the water convoys were provided but the problems
did not end there; this was the winter season and the wells at Ryan’s Farm
froze-up during the night and did not thaw out till later in the following day.
Large storage tanks had to be constructed at the farm and filled during the
warmer daylight hours.
The first attack on the rebels was made on the Gamasep
Kloof (a kloof is a gap or gorge) which contained a good water supply that was
defended by the rebels. Before the operation started the Geluk burgher
contingent opted out, stating that they were “too old and fat” to perform
dismounted duties on the mountain. The Geluk men were hurriedly replaced by
other troops. The plan was that the force would ride at night from the farm to
the base of the mountains, dismount and leave the horses with a protection
party, split into three groups, two of which would climb the slopes on either
side of the kloof and prevent the rebels from escaping whilst the main column
attacked up the kloof.
Right: A Cape Mounted Rifleman in 1904
The southern group of 150 men under the force’s Chief
Staff Officer, Major Frank Johnson, started a very stiff climb at 0200 hours on
a freezing cold night, holding onto the coat tails of the man in front. Loose
boulders and thorn-bush hedges added to the difficulties. At 0400 hours Johnson
ordered the men to “go as you please” so that the summit could be reached by
the fitter men before dawn, and this was achieved just before rebels arrived
with the intention of rolling boulders down the slopes.
Lieutenant Colonel Dalgety’s main column attacked
at dawn and the rebels withdrew towards where the northern group of men under
Captain Woon should have been waiting to confront them. However the rebels
escaped because, according to Johnson, Woon had been deterred by a few random
shots fired down the mountain and his group of 70 men had not moved. (Woon was
dismissed from the Service.) Johnson’s men occupied the crest line and were
strongly attacked that night. At dawn they moved to a better position for a
further night but resupply problems, particularly of water, were acute. Dalgety
then ordered a withdrawal and the force returned to Ryan’s Farm to recuperate
from its exertions. The rebellion dragged on.
For the next few weeks the force, working without accurate
maps and also without useful intelligence as all natives in the area were
unfriendly, patrolled and burned crops to deny them to the rebels. The Langberg
range was blockaded and a few small rebel positions were captured, all being
characterized by the stench of thousands of rotting cattle corpses that the
rinderpest had killed. More burgher units refused to fight and went home.
Attempts to discipline them failed as it was found that they had not been
attested and so did not come under the Army Regulations (Colonial Forces Act).
Lieutenant Colonel Dalgety requested reinforcements whilst the Cape Prime
Minister, far away from the reality, sent a message ordering that the rebellion
be satisfactorily ended by “daily fighting”.
At the end of June a group of miners arrived from
Kimberley to sink new wells at Ryan’s Farm and to erect more water tanks.
Sixteen hundred new men joined the force to replace the burgher defections. The
rebels were now suffering badly from lack of food, and at the end of July their
commander Chief Luka Jantje was killed in a fight at Gamasep Kloof. Afterwards
a white flag was observed flying from the main rebel stronghold. Dalgety
ordered Johnson to ride up the mountain and arrange a capitulation with Chief
Toto, the new rebel commander. On approaching the rebels Johnson’s party was fired
at and his escort retaliated, killing Toto. The remainder of the rebels, apart
from Galishiwe who vanished, surrendered as they were now incapable of further
resistance. Unfortunately an officer in the Cape Town Highlanders (later
dismissed from the Service) decapitated Toto’s corpse and boiled the head so
that he could have a souvenir of the campaign.
The government now acted against the tribes who had
rebelled, cancelling their native reserves and dispersing them around Cape
Colony for eight years indentured service with various employers of labour. The
Cape of Good Hope General Service Medal with clasp “BECHUANALAND” was issued to
members of the Bechuanaland Field Force who saw active service, served as
guards at any point where an attack was expected, or who were detailed for some
specific or special military duty.
(This article has relied almost entirely upon Frank
Johnson’s account as no other personal narratives could be found. It is
unfortunate that there is not an account from the perspective of the rebels, as
they appear to have been effective and well-armed fighters who were defeated by
blockade and starvation tactics rather than by battlefield confrontations.)
The Cape of Good Hope General Service Medal 1880-1897 with
clasp BECHUANALAND displayed here was awarded to Despatch Rider Trooper W.A.
Leach. It is shown through the kindness of the copyright holders the
Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.
SOURCES AND FURTHER READING
Great Days - the Autobiography of an Empire Pioneer by
Lieut-Colonel Frank Johnson DSO
British Battles and Medals published by Spink
The Colonial Wars Sourcebook by P.J. Haythornthwaite