Basuto War Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

After founding a kingdom in the Drakensberg Mountains, the Sotho people spent several decades resisting the incursions of their Afrikaner neighbors. When they were on the verge of being conquered, they looked to Great Britain for assistance. The British annexation of Sotho territory protected the Sotho from the Afrikaners and assured their fragile independence amid white expansion.

Summary of Event

The Sotho Kingdom, which formed the basis of modern Lesotho, arose from the chaos of the Zulu expansion Zulu;expansion of of the early nineteenth century. After establishing a secure defensive refuge in the Drakensberg Mountains at Thaba Bosiu, Moshoeshoe led his people to safety and organized a nation-state based on extensive marriage alliances and shrewd diplomacy. However, Afrikaners;Great Trek the arrival of Afrikaner (Boer) voortrekkers in the region between the Orange and Vaal Rivers during the Great Trek presented a new and dangerous challenge to the independence and stability of the Sotho, who were also known as Basotho (Basuto). The situation was made even more complicated with the imposition of the British into the area. For his part, Moshoeshoe endeavored to learn all that he could about the British and the Afrikaners, and invited French missionaries Missionaries;in South Africa[South Africa] into his kingdom who could serve as intermediaries and advisers for Sotho diplomatic affairs. Basuto War (1865-1868) South Africa;Basuto War Afrikaners;Basuto War Sotho;Basuto War Moshoeshoe Drakensberg Mountains;and Basuto War[Basuto War] British Empire;and South Africa[South Africa] Orange Free State;and Basuto War[Basuto War] Basutoland [kw]Basuto War (1865-1868) [kw]War, Basuto (1865-1868) Basuto War (1865-1868) South Africa;Basuto War Afrikaners;Basuto War Sotho;Basuto War Moshoeshoe Drakensberg Mountains;and Basuto War[Basuto War] British Empire;and South Africa[South Africa] Orange Free State;and Basuto War[Basuto War] Basutoland [g]South Africa;1865-1868: Basuto War[3800] [g]Africa;1865-1868: Basuto War[3800] [g]Lesotho;1865-1868: Basuto War[3800] [c]Expansion and land acquisition;1865-1868: Basuto War[3800] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;1865-1868: Basuto War[3800] Cathcart, George Grey, Sir George Wodehouse, Sir Philip Brand, Johannes Hendricus Warden, Henry

The struggle over land between the Sotho and the Afrikaners moved the British to mediate in hopes of settling the dispute. In 1845, the British arranged an agreement among several African chiefs, including Moshoeshoe, that would permit Afrikaner settlers access to some lands while restricting them to others. The British provided supervision of the deal in the person of Major Henry Warden Warden, Henry . However, Moshoeshoe could not attempt to control all the chiefs under him without weakening his own authority. Fearing revolt or even disintegration of his state, Moshoeshoe could only enforce the agreement in a limited manner. After further disputes arose, the British again intervened in 1848, when they occupied the Transorangia region and created the Orange River Sovereignty Orange River Sovereignty to govern the Afrikaner settlers.

While remaining in the region as the British resident, Warden attempted to fix a boundary between Afrikaner and Sotho territory. The Warden Line Warden Line , as it was called, heavily favored the Afrikaners in territorial gains, but Moshoeshoe had little choice but to accept the concessions. Despite the separation, continued raiding by both sides forced Warden to act. Siding with the Afrikaners, Warden led an armed force against the Sotho, but was repelled. In 1852, the Cape Colony’s governor, George Cathcart Cathcart, George , led a new campaign to retaliate for Warden’s Warden, Henry defeat, but he was also turned back. Moshoeshoe diplomatically claimed he had been defeated and did not press his advantage. Moshoeshoe’s tactful diplomacy, along with the increasing costs of maintaining peace in the interior, persuaded the British to withdraw and leave the Afrikaners and Sotho to resolve their differences themselves. The British made this decision official in the Convention of Bloemfontein Bloemfontein, Convention of (1854) in 1854.

Freed from British supervision, the Afrikaners expanded into Sotho territory, and both sides raided each other in blatant disregard of the Warden Line Warden Line . The Afrikaners of the Orange Free State, as their domain was now called, requested British arbitration. This request was granted and in 1858 governor George Grey Grey, Sir George presided over the Treaty of Aliwal North Aliwal North, Treaty of (1858) . Although Moshoeshoe regained some Sotho territory through this treaty, he was well aware of his inability to control the territorial expansion of his people, whose numbers were rapidly increasing. Meanwhile, border disputes continued and the Afrikaners, with their superior firepower, became more difficult to repel. It was becoming obvious to Moshoeshoe, who was now in his seventies and concerned about rivalries among his sons for succession, that the Sotho could not prevail in a defensive war with the Afrikaners.

In 1865, a new war broke out and the Orange Free State, which had grown stronger and much more aggressive under its new president, Johannes Hendricus Brand Brand, Johannes Hendricus , ravaged Sotho territory. Using the British humanitarian movement to his advantage, Moshoeshoe portrayed the Sotho as victims of Afrikaner aggression and made it clear that his intentions were only to save his people from Afrikaner tyranny. He petitioned the British to intervene, but they were at first reluctant to reverse the policy already set with the Convention of Bloemfontein. Bloemfontein, Convention of (1854) In 1866, Moshoeshoe was forced to sign the Treaty of Thaba Bosiu Thaba Bosiu, Treaty of (1866) with the Orange Free State; under its terms, he ceded almost all arable Sotho land to the Orange Free State. Afterward, Afrikaner troops withdrew for a time, but the Sotho returned to their ceded lands, thereby prompting a new conflict. Moshoeshoe and the Sotho remained secure on their natural fortress at Thaba Bosiu, but the Afrikaners further devastated the region.

Moshoeshoe again appealed to the British for aid. He even considered allowing Great Britain’s land-hungry Natal, South Africa;British administration Natal Colony to annex his territory to preserve it from Afrikaner occupation. The British government considered this option, as it would require little effort on their part. However, the new Cape governor, Sir Philip Wodehouse, Wodehouse, Sir Philip not trusting Natal’s ability to administer the annexed territory, feared annexation might result in the breakup of the Sotho Kingdom and create an even more unstable situation. Wodehouse tried to keep British colonists strictly neutral in the Basuto War, but the situation progressed beyond his power to control from afar. Moshoeshoe’s desperate pleas for peace and denunciations of Afrikaner hostility began to be heard, though distantly.

In 1868, the British government finally approved the annexation of the Sotho land. However, Wodehouse altered the agreement to have the newly annexed territory administered from London as a protectorate, and not as an addition to the Natal province. Moshoeshoe, who himself only considered annexation to Natal out of desperation, quickly agreed to the conditions. The boundaries of the new protectorate of Basutoland made it cohesive, but it still lost the arable land held prior to 1865. The Second Treaty of Aliwal North sealed the agreement and confirmed British protection of the Sotho. For president Johannes Hendricus Brand Brand, Johannes Hendricus and the Orange Free State, who had almost defeated the Sotho, the result sparked outrage. However, Wodehouse’s Wodehouse, Sir Philip threat to cut off the supply of firearms and ammunition through the Cape Colony persuaded Brand and the Afrikaners to accept the terms, thus ending the Basuto War.


Moshoeshoe died two years later, in 1870, but he succeeded where so many other African leaders failed. Despite enormous odds, Moshoeshoe had maintained the independence of his people in the face of Zulu and Afrikaner expansion. The administration of Basutoland was later handed to the Cape Colony in 1871, and the British attempted to impose disarmament on the Sotho, but their resistance in what became known as the Gun War ensured the fragile independence of Basutoland.

Moshoeshoe founded a nation-state and further provided for its protection through skillful, diplomatic maneuvering. He understood the conflicts between the Afrikaners and British, and used that knowledge to formulate a clever plan of playing one off the other. By seeking British protection, Moshoeshoe created the basis for the modern state of Lesotho, which would eventually gain full independence from Britain in 1966. The Basuto War and its antecedents provided an excellent example of African statesmanship and fully demonstrated the effects of white expansion and rivalry on the native peoples of South Africa.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Eldredge, Elizabeth. A South African Kingdom: The Pursuit of Security in Nineteenth-Century Lesotho. Reprint. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2002. Discusses the expansion of the Afrikaners and the role of British colonialism from the perspective of the Sotho.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Knight, Ian. Warrior Chiefs of Southern Africa: Shaka of the Zulu, Moshoeshoe of the Basotho, Mzilikazi of the Matabele, Maquomo of the Xhosa. Durban, South Africa: Riverside Press, 1994. Compares the various models of leadership among the tribes of Africa, with special focus on Moshoeshoe’s guidance and legacy.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">MacKinnon, Aran. “Africans, Afrikaners, and the British in the Interior, 1830-1870.” In The Making of South Africa: Culture and Politics. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2004. General work that details the prelude to the Afrikaner-Sotho conflict, the war itself, and its consequences clearly and concisely.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Thompson, Leonard. Survival in Two Worlds: Moshoeshoe of Lesotho, 1786-1870. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1975. Classic biography by a distinguished historian of South Africa that provides insights into the difficulties of Moshoeshoe’s reign and his agency in the politics of the war.

Zulu Expansion

South Africa’s Great Trek Begins

Battles of Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift

Zulu War

First Boer War

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Sir George Grey; Paul Kruger; Shaka. Basuto War (1865-1868) South Africa;Basuto War Afrikaners;Basuto War Sotho;Basuto War Moshoeshoe Drakensberg Mountains;and Basuto War[Basuto War] British Empire;and South Africa[South Africa] Orange Free State;and Basuto War[Basuto War] Basutoland

Categories: History