Moshoeshoe I

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Moshoeshoe I
King Moshoeshoe of the Sotho - Lesotho - from the Natal Archives.jpg
King of Lesotho
Reign1822 – 18 January 1870
Predecessorfirst monarch
SuccessorLetsie I
Bornc. 1776
Menkhoaneng, Leribe, Southern Africa
(present-day Lesotho)
Died11 March 1870 (aged c.94)

Moshoeshoe (/mʊˈʃwɛʃwɛ/) (c. 1776 – 11 March 1870)[1] was born at Menkhoaneng in the northern part of present-day Lesotho. He was the first son of Mokhachane, a minor chief of the Bamokoteli lineage- a branch of the Koena (crocodile) clan. In his youth, he helped his father gain power over some other smaller clans. At the age of 34 Moshoeshoe formed his own clan and became a chief. He and his followers settled at the Butha-Buthe Mountain.[2] He subsequently became the first King of Lesotho from 1822 to 1870.

Great King[edit]

Moshoeshoe I with his ministers

Moshoeshoe was the first son of Mokhachane,[3] a minor chief of the Bamokoteli sub-clan of the Basotho people.[4] He was born at Menkhoaneng in Botha-bothe, Lesotho as Lepoqo (meaning 'disasters'), which resembled the fact that he was born during a time when the Bamokoteli experienced great misfortunes. Moshoeshoe and his agemates went to initiation school and he got the name Letlama meaning strong bond. During his youth just after initiation, he was very brave and once organised a cattle raid against Ramonaheng and captured several herds. As was the tradition, he composed a poem praising himself where, amongst the words he used to refer to himself, said he was "like a razor which has shaved all Ramonaheng's beards", referring to his successful raid. In Sesotho language, a razor is said to make a "shoe...shoe..." sound, and after that he was affectionately called Moshoeshoe: "the shaver". He also referred himself as the person of Kali, thus showed that he was a descendant of the Great Kali or Monaheng who is said to be the ancestor of most Bakoena people in Lesotho with the exception of the senior Bamolibeli.

Moshoeshoe and his followers, mostly the Bakoena Bamokoteli, some Bafokeng from his maternal side and other relations as well as some clans including the Amazizi, established his village at Butha-Buthe, where his settlement and reign coincided with the growth in power of the well-known Zulu King, Shaka and what is now known as the 'time of troubles' (previously known as 'Difaqane'). During the early 19th century Shaka raided many smaller chiefdoms along the eastern coast of Southern Africa (modern day Kwa-Zulu Natal), incorporating parts of them into his steadily growing Zulu chiefdom. Various small clans were forced to flee the Zulu chief. An era of great wars of calamity followed, known as the time of troubles/Difaqane. It was marked by aggression against the Sotho people by the invading Nguni clans. The attacks also forced Moshoeshoe to move his settlement to the Qiloane plateau. The name was later changed to Thaba Bosiu or "mountain at night" because it was believed to grow during the night and shrink during day. It proved to be an impassable stronghold against enemies.


The most significant role Moshoeshoe played as a diplomat was his acts of friendship towards his beaten enemies. He provided land and protection to various people and this strengthened the growing Basotho nation. His influence and followers grew with the integration of a number of refugees and victims of the wars of calamity.[citation needed]

By the latter part of the 19th century, Moshoeshoe established the nation of the Basotho, in Basutoland. He was popularly known as Morena e Moholo/morena oa Basotho (Great King/King of the Basotho).

In 1833, missionaries from the Paris Evangelical Missionary Society began setting their outposts in Basuto lands following Moshoeshoe's invitation.[5]

By chance, three representatives of the Society arrived in the heart of southern Africa: Eugène Casalis [fr], Constant Gosselin [fr] and Thomas Arbousset [fr]. Moshoeshoe brought them to his kingdom. Later Roman Catholic Missionaries were to have a great influence on the shape of Basotho History (the first being, Bishop M.F. Allard O.M.I. and Fr. Joseph Gerard O.M.I.).

From 1837 to 1855 Casalis played the role of Moshoeshoe's Foreign Advisor. With his knowledge of the non-African world, he was able to inform and advise the king in his dealings with hostile foreigners. He also served as an interpreter for Moshoeshoe in his dealings with white people, and documented the Sesotho language.

In the late 1830s, Boer trekkers from the Cape Colony showed up on the western borders of Basutoland and subsequently claimed land rights. The trekkers' pioneer in this area was Jan de Winnaar, who settled in the Matlakeng area in May–June 1838. As more farmers were moving into the area they tried to colonise the land between the two rivers, even north of the Caledon, claiming that it had been "abandoned" by the Sotho people. Moshoeshoe, when hearing of the trekker settlement above the junction, stated that "... the ground on which they were belonged to me, but I had no objections to their flocks grazing there until such time as they were able to proceed further; on condition, however, that they remained in peace with my people and recognised my authority."

Eugène Casalis later remarked that the trekkers had humbly asked for temporary rights while they were still few in number, but that when they felt "strong enough to throw off the mask" they went back on their initial intention.

The next 30 years were marked by conflicts.


In the 1820s, the Basuto faced a number of cattle raids from the Koranna. It was during this time that they first encountered horses and guns in a combat setting. After a number of initial setbacks, the Basuto managed to either capture or acquire horses and guns of their own, and began stockpiling gunpowder. By 1843, Moshoeshoe had accumulated more horses and guns than any other chieftain in South Africa. Nevertheless, most of the guns in Basuto possession were outdated flintlocks, which had flooded the South African market after the introduction of percussion lock muskets.[6]

Moshoeshoe signed a treaty with the British Governor, Sir George Thomas Napier. Among the provisions of this treaty was the annexation of a tract of land (now called the Orange River Sovereignty) that many Boers had settled. The outraged Boers were suppressed in a brief skirmish in 1848, but remained bitter at both the British and the Sotho.[citation needed]

The situation erupted in 1851. A British force was defeated by the Sotho army at Kolonyama, touching off an embarrassing war for the British. After repulsing another British attack in 1852, Moshoeshoe sent an appeal to the British commander that allowed him to save face. Once again, diplomacy saved the Sotho kingdom. After a final defeat of the Tloka in 1853, Moshoeshoe reigned supreme.

However, the British pulled out of the region in 1854, causing the de facto formation of two independent states: the Boer Orange Free State and the Sotho Kingdom.

In 1858, hostilities broke out between the Basuto and the Orange Free State. Inferior in both marksmanship and materiel, the Basuto suffered a series of defeats in the ensuing three wars that lasted until 1868.[7] In 1866, the two sides signed the Treaty of Thaba Bosiu, whereby Moshoeshoe ceded most of his kingdom's arable land to the Boers. Hostilities resumed soon afterwards and the Boers began employing a scorched earth policy, leading to starvation among the Basuto. Fearing that the destruction of the Basuto people was imminent, Moshoeshoe, his sons and local missionaries began appealing to British High Commissioner for Southern Africa Sir Philip Edmond Wodehouse and the Colony of Natal for protection. Although, initially reluctant to intervene, the British were worried by the disruption in trade caused by the war and the possibility of Boer expansion to the Pondoland coast. In December 1867, the Colonial Office approved Basutoland's annexation by Natal. Distrusting the Natal administration and believing that the Cape Colony was not yet ready to absorb the new territory, Wodehouse disregarded those instructions. He blocked the supply of ammunition to the Free State and on 12 March 1868 proclaimed Basutoland to be a royal dominion.[8] Moshoeshoe died in 1870 and was succeeded by his oldest son Letsie I.[9]


Moshoeshoe's senior wife was named ’MaMohato with whom he had three sons and Letsie, Molapo and Masopha.[10][11]


Grave of Moshoeshoe I atop Thaba Bosiu.

Although he had ceded much territory, Moshoeshoe never suffered a major military defeat and retained most of his kingdom and all of his culture. His death in 1870 marked the end of the traditional era and the beginning of the modern colonial period. Moshoeshoe Day is a national holiday in Lesotho celebrated every year on 11 March to commemorate the day of Moshoeshoe's death.[citation needed]

Moshoeshoe I International Airport is named in his honour.

Cultural references[edit]

South African-made shweshwe fabric is named for King Moshoeshoe I who once received a gift of it and then popularized it throughout his realm.[12][13]

In episode two of the American animated series Animaniacs, the debuting Pinky and the Brain segment "Win Big" referenced Moshoeshoe I briefly when the Brain attempted to win $99,000 on a quiz show entitled "Gyp-parody" so that he might construct a machine that would magnetically hold to the earth any one with loose change in his pockets. One of the categories in the Jeopardy!-like game show is "Kings Named Moshoeshoe", to whose first answer, "He ruled Lestho [sic] in 1820", Brain gives the proper question, "Who was King Moshoeshoe I?" The program makes an error in date, as Moshoeshoe did not become monarch until 1822.

See also[edit]

Regnal titles
Preceded by
First monarch
King of Lesotho
Succeeded by


  1. ^ "Mshweshwe". Encyclopædia Britannica. 2008. Retrieved 7 April 2008.
  2. ^ Soszynski, Henry. "LESOTHO". Archived from the original on 30 June 2017. Retrieved 1 November 2015.
  3. ^ "Genealogy". Archived from the original on 30 June 2017. Retrieved 1 November 2015.
  4. ^ Eldredge, Elizabeth A. (22 July 2017). Kingdoms and Chiefdoms of Southeastern Africa: Oral Traditions and History, 1400-1830. Boydell & Brewer. ISBN 9781580465144 – via Google Books.
  5. ^ Maliehe 2014, pp. 29–32.
  6. ^ Atmore & Sanders 1971, pp. 536–537.
  7. ^ Atmore & Sanders 1971, pp. 540–541.
  8. ^ Burman 1981, pp. 15–16.
  9. ^ Machobane & Karschay 1990, pp. 43–44.
  10. ^ Irvine.
  11. ^ Rosenberg, Weisfelder & Frisbie-Fulton 2004, p. 232.
  12. ^ Kuper, Jeremy (19 April 2013). "London shows material interest in Africa's old clothes". Mail & Guardian. Archived from the original on 25 May 2013. Retrieved 20 January 2014.
  13. ^ Holmes, Thalia (22 November 2013). "The fabric of society needs underpinning". Mail & Guardian. Archived from the original on 20 January 2014. Retrieved 20 January 2014.


External links[edit]