The three Basotho Wars (1858-68) and the formation of Lesotho

The conflict between the Basotho people and White settlers in what is now the Free State/ Lesotho area, consisted of three wars (1858- 68). The purpose of these three wars was the maintenance of territorial rights in the area between the Caledon and Orange Rivers; from present day Wepener to Zastron, and the area north of the Caledon River, which includes present day Harrismith and the area further westwards.

The Basotho wars were preceded by the mass migration of several Nguni groups. This migration occurred during the reign of the Zulu King Shaka, who conquered several Nguni groups, which were absorbed into the Zulu kingdom. Other Nguni tribes fled and settled in other areas during this time- which is known as the Mfecane period.

Mfecane - Zulu name, also known as the Difaqane or Lifaqane in Sesotho), is an African expression which means something like "the crushing" or "scattering". It describes a period of widespread chaos and disturbance in southern Africa during the period between 1815 and about 1840.

In 1818, King Moshoeshoe, who was the son of the chief of the Bakotela branch of the Koena/Kwena (Crocodile) clan, helped to gain power over smaller fugitive and displaced clans. In 1820, Moshoeshoe became chief of a larger unit of Southern Sotho groups, who had fallen under his centralized authority due to competition for resources, which was intensified by a drought.

This competition for resources caused these larger groups to seek protection from other marauding groups, and Moshoeshoe and his people retreated to the mountain fortress of Thaba Bosiu in 1824. Moshoeshoe gave assistance to his defeated enemies by giving them land, which led to the establishment of the Basotho nation.

In the late 1820s, a group of Kora (a group of Khoikhoi settlers also known as the Korana) and Dutch speaking people of mixed descent arrived in the vicinity of Moshoeshoe's kingdom. As they were mounted on horseback and armed with guns, the Basotho retreated. This also led to Moshoeshoe deciding to arm his people and give them horses.

The arrival of White settlers in the area, due to the Great Trek, was initially useful to Moshoeshoe, as the settlers created a buffer between the Basotho and the Kora. These White settlers (known as Boers) crossed the Orange River from the Cape Colony in the mid-1820s. Although these settlers allegedly asked for this permission to settle there, they later claimed it - despite Moshoeshoe's view that he had lent it to them.  

In 1845 a treaty was signed, which recognised White settlement in the area; however no boundaries were drawn between the area of White settlement and Moshoeshoe's kingdom. This dispute led to inevitable border clashes and a discernible boundary became necessary.

The British, who then controlled the area between the Orange and Vaal Rivers (the Orange River Sovereignty) eventually proclaimed the Warden line (after Major Warden). This line divided territory between British territory and the Basotho under Moshoeshoe, and stretched from Cornetspruit and the Orange River through Vechtkop to Jammerbergdrift on the Caledon.

The Warden line caused much resentment, as the fertile Caledon River Valley served as a vital area in terms of agriculture for both the British and the Basotho. This border line was therefore not acceptable to Moshoeshoe, and hostility followed, which led to conflict between the Basotho and the British, who were defeated by Moshoeshoe at the battle of Viervoet in 1851. In 1851, Moshoeshoe also offered Andries Pretorius an alliance against the British in the sovereignty.

As punishment to the Basotho, Sir George Cathcart then brought troops to the Mohokane River, and Moshoeshoe was ordered to pay a fine. When he did not pay the fine in full, a battle broke out on the Berea Plateau in 1852, where the British suffered heavy losses due to the armed Basotho cavalry. This sealed the fate of the sovereignty, even though Cathcart was initially in favour of withdrawal.

In 1854, the cost of maintaining the sovereignty became too much for the British and they therefore handed over the territory to the Boers through the signing of the Sand River Convention. The Boers therefore claimed the land beyond the Caledon River, naming it the Republic of the Orange Free State. This began further conflict over land and undefined boundaries with the Basotho, who regarded themselves as the rightful owners, and who continued to use the land for grazing.

The First Basotho War

Further conflict occurred after JN Boshof; President of the OFS, and Moshoeshoe discussed issues of armed conflict and cattle rustling. However, these discussions only led to Boshof declaring war on the Basotho on 19 March 1858 (also stated as 22 March 1858). The Basotho were formidable opponents, and the Boers suffered substantial losses, as they were unable to penetrate the Basotho mountain stronghold of Thaba Bosiu (also called Thaba Bosigo). This war is also known as the First Basotho War or the War of Senekal (sometimes spelt Senegal).

During this war, the Boers also destroyed many mission stations in the Basotho kingdom, as they blamed them for educating and instilling a sense of pride among the Basotho. These mission stations had been set up by missionaries from the Paris Evangelical Society, who arrived at Thaba Bosiu in 1833. They had helped to unite the Basotho under Moshoeshoe, and were the first to write the Sesotho language.  

The Second Basotho War (Seqiti War)

After this war an uneasy peace followed. J.H Brand, who replaced Boshoff, took initiative and negotiated with Moshoeshoe, who objected that the frontier was not clear. However, hostilities re-surfaced, and President Brand believed that the OFS should use its military superiority against the Basotho.

Moshoeshoe had also realized his precarious position, and had applied for British protection from Sir Philip Wodehouse, a new commissioner who had arrived in the Cape in 1861.

The Warden Line had then been reaffirmed, and although the Basotho were given time to withdraw, attacks continued later nonetheless. In 1865, the Orange Free State launched the Second Basotho War known in Sesotho as the Seqiti War. The word seqiti refers to the sound made by the new cannon the Boers used to crush the Basotho strongholds, mainly in the present day Free State province.

The Free State army then began to seize cattle and destroy crops, and two attempts were then made to storm Moshoeshoe's stronghold at Thaba Bosiu, where Commandant Wepener was killed.

Moshoeshoe was then compelled to accept the peace of Thaba Bosiu on 11 April 1866, due an exhaustion of Basotho food supplies. Moshoeshoe's son Molapo had also allegedly concluded a separate peace treaty.

Moshoeshoe then renewed entreaties for British protection after a short armistice. This was because due to the fact that the Free State Government was late in allocating land, the Basotho slowly advanced over the border line, and further tensions mounted. The Free State Government began to raise an armed force, which was aggravated by the murder of two Whites in Ladybrand in June 1867.

The Third Basotho War

Brand demanded the hand over of the murderers, but Moshoeshoe stated that he had not agreed to the frontier line of 1866, and therefore the events had not occurred on Free State territory. In July 1867, the third war between the Free State and the Basotho in ten years began, and Boer forces overran Moshoeshoe's land and conquered all the land except the impregnable fortress of Thaba Bosiu.

The Free State forces had achieved great military success, and Moshoeshoe was compelled to ask for British assistance. Basutoland was then annexed on 12 March 1868, after Governor Wodehouse received instructions to negotiate with Moshoeshoe for the recognition of the Basotho as British subjects.

On the 12 March 1868, the British parliament declared the Basotho Kingdom a British protectorate. The Orange Free State was forced to discontinue the war if it was not to raise trouble with the British Empire.

In February 1869, the boundaries of present day Lesotho (previously Basutoland) were then drawn up according to the Convention of Aliwal-North. This convention gave the Conquered Territory to the Free State, and the boundary line was moved further south to Langeberg. No further armed conflict between the Free State and the Basotho took place after this.

As a result, King Moshoeshoe was able to save his kingdom from being overrun by the Boers. King Moshoeshoe died two years in 1870, after the end of war, and was buried at the summit of Thaba Bosiu.


About Lesotho: History [online] Available at: [Accessed 10 June 2009]|Cameron, T. (ed) (1986) An Illustrated History of South Africa. Published by Jonathan Ball Publishers: Johannesburg. p. 137, 138, 143, 147-9, 169.|Free State Basotho War [online] Available at: [Accessed 10 June 2009]|Ladybrand History [online] Available at: [Accessed 10 June 2009]|Potgieter, D.J. (ed) (1971) Standard Encyclopaedia of Southern Africa. Vol. 2 and Vol. 10. Published by NASOU Limited: Cape Town. p. 200- 2; 69.|"Sesotho Online: Basotho in Lesotho" [online] Available at: [Accessed 10 June 2009]|"The encounter between the Basotho and the missionaries of the Paris Evangelical Missionary Society, 1833--1933: some perspectives" [online] Available at: [Accessed 10 June 2009]

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