Botswana History Pages, by Neil Parsons

1:    A Brief History of Botswana

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Provisional version by Neil Parsons, April 1999


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The history of Botswana does much more than cover a gap between the histories of neighbouring South Africa and Zimbabwe, Namibia, Angola, and Zambia. In prehistoric and very recent times the Kalahari thirstlands of Botswana have been central in the historical geography of the region, as the intermediate territory between the savannas of the north and east and the steppes of the south and west.

Between the 1880s and its independence in the 1960s, however, Botswana was a poor and peripheral British protectorate known as Bechuanaland. The country is named after its dominant ethnic group, the Tswana or Batswana ('Bechuana' in older variant orthography), and the national language is called Setswana (aka 'Sechuana').

Since the later 1960s Botswana has gained in international stature as a peaceful and increasingly prosperous democratic state. It has had one of the fastest growing economies in the world, rising from one of the poorest to lower-middle income level. This new prosperity has been based on the mining of diamonds and other minerals, which have built up state revenues, and on the sale of beef to Europe and the world market. There has been extensive development of educational and health facilities, in villages and traditional rural towns as well as in rapidly growing new towns. But there has also been an increasing gap between classes of new rich and new poor.

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Early Hunting, Pastoral, and Farming People

Khoesan-speaking hunters and herders,P eople speaking Khoesan (Khoe and San) languages, have lived in Botswana for many thousands of years. A site in the Tsodilo hills (Depression Shelter), in the north-western corner of Botswana, contains archaeological evidence of continuous Khoesan occupation from about 17 000 BC. to about 1650 AD.

For most of that period Khoesan people subsisted as hunters and gatherers, their tools made of stone (and wood and bone), with a culture characterized by archaeologists as 'Later Stone Age'. Their hunting and gathering lifestyle was adapted to seasonal mobility in family groups over grassland and scrub, in and around the extensive riverine lakes and wetlands that once covered the north of the country and were dotted elsewhere.

During the last centuries BC many Khoe-speaking people in northern Botswana converted their lifestyle to pastoralism - herding cattle and sheep on the rich pastures exposed by the retreating wetlands of the Okavango delta and Makgadikgadi lakes. Cattle and sheep had been brought from East Africa, where they had previously been herded by other Later Stone Age people for thousands of years.

Some Khoe pastoralists migrated with their livestock through central Namibia as far south as they could, to the Cape of Good Hope, by about 70BC. They took Khoe language to areas where only San languages had previously been spoken.

Bantu-speaking farmers

Both farming of grain crops and the speaking of Bantu languages were carried southwards from north of the Equator over the course of millennia. From West Africa, Later Stone Age farming reached through Angola, and had been converted to the use of iron tools on the upper Zambezi by around 380 BC. From East Africa, Early Iron Age farming spread down the savanna to the Zambezi by around 20 B.C., as well as along the east coast. The farmers brought with them the speaking of western and eastern Bantu languages.

It took hundreds of years for Iron Age farming culture and Bantu languages to replace Khoe pastoral culture in the Okavango-Makgadikgadi area. As early as 200 BC people there were making a kind of pottery known as Bambatha ware, which archaeologists think was Khoe pottery influenced by (western) Iron Age styles. Khoe language was being spoken by pastoralists in the area, on the Boteti River, as late as the 19th century, within recent living memory.

The earliest dated Iron Age site in Botswana is an iron smelting furnace in the Tswapong hills near Palapye, dated around 190 AD - probably associated with eastern Iron Age Bantu farming culture from the Limpopo valley. Meanwhile farming culture of the western Iron Age type spread through northern and into south-eastern Botswana. The remains of beehive-shaped small houses made of grass-matting, occupied by western Early Iron Age farmers, have been dated from about 420 AD around Molepolole, and a similar site in the western Transvaal near Pretoria has been dated as early as 300. There is also evidence of early farming settlement of a similar type in Botswana west of the Okavango delta, existing alongside Khoesan hunter and pastoralist sites in the Tsodilo hills, dated from around 550 AD. Archaeologists now have difficulty in interpreting the hundreds of rock paintings in the Tsodilo hills, which were once assumed to be painted by 'Bushman' hunters remote from all pastoralist and farmer contact.

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Iron Age Chiefdoms and States

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Eastern Botswana chiefdoms

From around 1095 south-eastern Botswana saw the rise of a new culture, characterized by a site on Moritsane hill near Gabane, whose pottery mixed the old western style with new Iron Age influences derived from the eastern Transvaal (Lydenburg culture). The Moritsane culture is historically associated with the Khalagari (Kgalagadi) chiefdoms, the westernmost dialect-group of Sotho (or Sotho-Tswana) speakers, whose prowess was in cattle raising and hunting rather than in farming.

In east-central Botswana, the area within 80 or 100 kilometres of Serowe (but west of the railway line) saw a thriving farming culture, dominated by rulers living on Toutswe hill, between about 600-700 and 1200-1300. The prosperity of the state was based on cattle herding, with large corrals in the capital town and in scores of smaller hill-top villages. (Ancient cattleandsheep/goatcorrals are today revealed by characteristic grassgrowing on them.) The Toutswe people were also hunting westwards into the Kalahari and trading eastwards with the Limpopo. East coast shells, used as trade currency, were already being traded as far west as Tsodilo by 700.

The Toutswe state appears to have been conquered by its Mapungubwe state neighbour, centred on a hill at the Limpopo-Shashe confluence, between 1200 and 1300. Mapungubwe had been developing since about 1050 because of its control of the early gold trade coming down the Shashe, which was passed on for sale to sea traders on the Indian Ocean. The site of Toutswe town was abandoned, but the new rulers kept other settlements going - notably Bosutswe, a hill-top town in the west, which supplied the state with hunting products, caught by Khoean hunters, and with Khoesan cattle given in trade or tribute from the Boteti River. But Mapungubwe's triumph was short-lived, as it was superceded by the new state of Great Zimbabwe, north of the Limpopo River, which flourished in control of the gold trade from the 13th to the 15th centuries. It is not known how far west the power of Great Zimbabwe extended. Certainly its successor state, the Butua state based at Kame near Bulawayo in western Zimbabwe from about 1450 onwards, controlled trade in salt and hunting dogs from the eastern Makgadikgadi pans, around which it built stone- walled command posts.

The Butua state passed from the control of Chibundule (Torwa) rulers to Rozvi invaders from the north-east in about 1685. Under Rozvi rule, the common people of Butua became known as the Kalanga. The old Chibundule rulers appear to have fled to the western Kalanga (in the area now in Botswana), where they became known as Wumbe, giving rise to a number of local Kalanga chiefdoms. Other Kalanga chiefdoms descended from Mengwe, the 'uncle' of Chibundule, or from groups of Sotho attracted from the south such as the Nswazwi and Chizwina (Sebina) chiefdoms.

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North-western Botswana chiefdoms

From about 850 AD farmers from the upper Zambezi, ancestral to the Mbukushu and Yeyi peoples, reached as far south and west as the Tsodilo hills (Nqoma). Oral traditions tell of Yeyi farmers and fishermen scattering among the Khoesan of the Okavango delta in the early 18th century, like 'flies across a milk-pail'. The oral traditions of Mbukushu chiefs tell of migrations from the upper Chobe down the Okavango river later in the 18th century. These appear to have been responses to increased raiding in Angola for the Atlantic slave trade. The oral traditions of Herero and Mbanderu pastoralists, south-west of the Okavango straddling the Namibia border, relate how they were split apart from their Mbandu parent stock by 17th century Tswana cattle-raiding from the south.

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Rise of Tswana domination

During the 1200-1400 period a number of powerful dynasties began to emerge among the Sotho in the western Transvaal, spreading their power in all directions. Fokeng chiefdoms spread southwards over Southern Sotho peoples, while Rolong chiefdoms spread westwards over Khalagari peoples. Khalagari chiefdoms either accepted Rolong rulers or moved westwards across the Kalahari, in search of better hunting and the desirable large cattle of the west. By the 17th century Rolong-Khalagari power stretched, as we have seen. as far as Mbandu country across the central Namibia- Botswana frontier. In the 1660's the military and trading power of the main Rolong kingdom at Taung (south of Botswana), in conflict with Kora groups of southern Khoi over copper trade, was known as far away as the new Dutch settlers at the Cape of Good Hope.

The main Tswana (Central Sotho) dynasties of the Hurutshe, Kwena and Kgatla were derived from the Phofu dynasty, which broke up in its western Transvaal home in the 1500-1600 period. Oral traditions usually explain these migrations as responses to drought, with junior brothers breaking away to become independent chiefs. The archeology of the Transvaal shows that the farming population was expanding and spreading in small homesteads, each clustered round its cattle corral, across open countryside - with a few larger settlements as evidence of petty chiefdoms. But after about 1700 the settlement pattern changed, with stone-walled villages and some large towns developing on hills - evidence of the growth of states often hostile to each other. These states were probably competing for cattle wealth and subject populations, for control of hunting and mineral tribute, and for control of trade with the east coast.

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Growth of Tswana States

Kwena and Hurutshe migrants founded the Ngwaketse chiefdom among Khalagari-Rolong in south-eastern Botswana by 1700. After 1750 this grew into a powerful military state controlling Kalahari hunting and cattle raiding, and copper production west of Kanye. Meanwhile other Kwena had settled around Molepolole; and a group of those Kwena henceforth called Ngwato further north at Shoshong. By about 1770 a group of Ngwato, called the Tawana, had even settled as far north-west as Lake Ngami, in country occupied by Yeyi and previously frequented by Khalagari-Rolong and Kwena hunters and traders.

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Times of war

Southern Africa as a whole saw an increasing tempo of disruption, migration and war from about 1750 onwards, as trading and raiding for ivory, cattle and slaves spread inland from the coasts of Mozambique, the Cape Colony and Angola. By 1800 raiders from the Cape had begun to attack the Ngwaketse. By 1826 the Ngwaketse were being attacked by the Kololo, an army of refugees under the dynamic leadership of Sebetwane, who had been expelled north- westwards, possibly by raiders from Maputo Bay. The great Ngwaketse warrior king, Makaba II, was killed, but the Kololo were pushed further north by a counter-attack.

The Kololo moved through Shoshong, expelling the Ngwato northwards, to the Boteti River, where they settled for a number of years - attacking the Tawana and raiding for cattle as far west as Namibia, where they were warded off in a battle with Herero. In about 1835 they settled on the Chobe River, from which the Kololo state stretched northwards until its final defeat by its Lozi subjects on the upper Zambezi in 1864. Meanwhile the Kololo were followed in their tracks by the Ndebele, a raiding army led by Mzilikazi, who settled in the Butua area of western Zimbabwe in 1838-40 after the conquest of the Rozvi. These wars are called the Difaqane by historians.

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Post-war Tswana commercial prosperity

The Tswana states of the Ngwaketse, Kwena, Ngwato and Ngwato were reconstituted in the 1840s after the wars passed. The states took firm control of commoners and subject peoples, organised in wards under their own chiefs paying tribute to the king. The states competed with each other to benefit from the increasing trade in ivory and ostrich feathers being carried by waggons down new roads to Cape Colony in the south. Those roads also brought Christian missionaries to Botswana, and Boer trekkers who settled in the Transvaal to the east of Botswana.

The most remarkable Tswana king of this period was Sechele (ruled 1829-92) of the Kwena around Molepolole. He allied himself with British traders and missionaries, and was baptized by David Livingstone (see Links for link to free electronic text of his classic Missionary Travels). He also fought with the Boers, who tried to seize Africans who fled to join Sechele's state from the Transvaal. But by the later 1870's the Kwena had lost control of trade to the Ngwato, under Khama III (ruled 1875-1923), whose power extended to the frontiers of the Tawana in the north-west, the Lozi in the north and the Ndebele in the north-east.

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A British Protectorate

The Scramble for Africa in the 1880s resulted in the German colony of South West Africa, which threatened to join across the Kalahari with the independent Boer republic of the Transvaal. The British in Cape Colony responded by using their missionary and trade connections with the Tswana states to keep the "missionaries' road" to Zimbabwe and the Zambezi open for British expansion. In 1885 the British proclaimed a protectorate over their Tswana allies, as far north as the Ngwato; and the protectorate was extended to the Tawana and the Chobe River in 1890.

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Threats of incorporation

British colonial expansion was privatized, in the form of the British South Africa (BSA) Company, which used the road through the Bechuanaland Protectorate to colonize Zimbabwe (soon to be called Rhodesia) in 1890. But the protectorate itself remained under the British crown, and white settlement remained restricted to a few border areas, after an attempt to hand it over to the BSA Company was foiled by the delegation of three Tswana kings to London in 1895. The kings, however, had to concede to the company the right to build a railway to Rhodesia through their lands.

The British government continued to regard the protectorate as a temporary expedient, until it could be handed over to Rhodesia or, after 1910, to the new Union of South Africa. Hence the administrative capital remained at Mafeking (Mafikeng), actually outside the protectorate's borders in South Africa, from 1895 until 1964. Investment and administrative development within the territory were kept to a minimum. It declined into a mere appendage of South Africa, for which it provided migrant labour and the rail transit route to Rhodesia. Short-lived attempts to reform administration and to initiate mining and agricultural development in the 1930s were hotly disputed by leading Tswana chiefs, on the grounds that they would only enhance colonial control and white settlement. The territory remained divided into eight largely self-administering 'tribal' reserves, five white settler farm blocks, and the remainder classified as crown (i.e. state) lands.

The extent of Bechuanaland Protectorate's subordination to the interests of South Africa was revealed in 1950. In a case that caused political controversy in Britain and the Empire, the British government barred Seretse Khama from the chieftainship of the Ngwato and exiled him for six years. This, as secret documents have since confirmed, was in order to satisfy the South African government which objected to Seretse Khama's marriage to a white woman at a time when racial segregation was being reinforced in South Africa under apartheid.

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Advance to Independence

From the later 1950s it became clear that Bechuanaland could no longer be handed over to South Africa, and must be developed towards political and economic self-sufficiency. The supporters of Seretse Khama began to organize political movements from 1952 onwards, and there was a nationalist spirit even among older 'tribal' leaders. Ngwato 'tribal' negotiations for the start of copper mining reached agreement in 1959. A legislative council was eventually set up in 1961 after limited national elections. The Bechuanaland People's Party (BPP) was founded in 1960, and the Bechuanaland Democratic Party (later Botswana Democratic Party, BDP) - led by Seretse Khama - in 1962.

After long resistance to constitutional advance before economic development could pay for it, the British began to push political change in 1964. A new administrative capital was rapidly built at Gaborone. Bechuanaland became self- governing in 1965, under an elected BDP government under Seretse Khama as prime minister. In 1966 the country became the Republic of Botswana, with Seretse Khama as its first president.

For its first five years of political independence, Botswana remained financially dependent on Britain to cover the full cost of administration and development. The planning and execution of economic development took off in 1967-71 after the discovery of diamonds at Orapa. The essential precondition of this was renegotiation of the customs union with South Africa, so that state revenue would benefit from rising capital imports and mineral exports - rather than remaining a fixed percentage of total customs union income. This renegotiation was achieved in 1969.

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From 1969 onwards Botswana began to play a more significant role in international politics, putting itself forward as a non-racial, liberal democratic alternative to South African apartheid.

South Africa was obliged to step down from its objections to Botswana building a road, with US aid finance, direct to Zambia avoiding the old railway and road route through Rhodesia. From 1974 Botswana was, together with Zambia and Tanzania, and joined by Mozambique and Angola, one of the "Front Line States" seeking to bring majority rule to Zimbabwe, Namibia and South Africa.

Economic and political growth

With an economy growing annually between 12 and 13 percent, Botswana extended basic infrastructure for mining development and basic social services for its population. More diamond mines were opened, on relatively favourable terms of income to the state, and less economically successful nickel-copper mining commenced at Selebi-Phikwe. The BDP was consistently re-elected with a large majority, though the Botswana National Front (BNF, founded 1965) became a significant threat after 1969, when "tribal" conservatives joined the socialists in BNF ranks attacking the "bourgeois" policies of government.

The later 1970s saw civil war in Rhodesia, and urban insurrection in South Africa, from which refugees flowed into Botswana. When Botswana began to form its own army, the Botswana Defence Force, the Rhodesian army crossed the border and massacred 15 Botswana soldiers in a surprise attack at Leshoma (February 1978). Botswana played its part in the final settlement of the Rhodesian war, resulting in Zimbabwe independence in 1980. But its main contribution was in formulating the Southern African Development Coordination Conference, to look to the future of the region.

The idea behind SADCC, as expounded by Seretse Khama, was to coordinate disparate economies rather than to create a unified market in southern Africa. All the states of southern Africa, except South Africa (and Namibia), formed SADCC in 1980, to work together in developing identified sectors of their economies - particularly the transport network to the ports of Mozambique.

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Masire succeeds Seretse Khama

Seretse Khama died in July 1980 and was succeeded as president by his deputy since 1965, vice-president Quett (aka Sir Ketumile) Masire.

Between 1984 and 1990 Botswana suffered from upheavals in South Africa when South African troops raided the 'Front Line States'. Two raids on Gaborone by the South African army in 1985 and 1986 killed 15 civilians. A new era in regional relations began with the independence of Namibia in 1990, and continued with internal changes in South Africa culminating in its free elections of 1994.

The economy continued to expand rapidly after a temporary slump in diamond and beef exports at the beginning of the 1980s. The expansion of mining output slowed in the 1990s, but was compensated for by the growth of manufacturing industry producing vehicles and foodstuffs for the South African market.

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Mogae succeeds Masire

In April 1998, Quett (Sir Ketumile) Masire retired as president, and was succeeded by his vice-president Festus Mogae. Since then the main opposition party, the BNF, which had begun to approach parity with the ruling BDP in the elections of 1994, has been split in half by a leadership dispute.

Botswana handed over leadership of SADCC, now the Southern African Development Community(SADC), to South Africa in 1994. But the secretariat of SADC remains housed in the capital of Botswana, Gaborone.

As well as SADC, the Republic of Botswana is a member of the United Nations, the Organization of African Unity (OAU), the Non-Aligned Movement, and the Commonwealth. Botswana is also a member (with Lesotho, Namibia, South Africa, and Swaziland) of the Southern African Customs Union (SACU).

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History Links

See Page 2 for Comments and many more Links. Probably the best History web-sites in the region are the University of Cape Town History Department and the University of Natal History Department.

A note on Colonial Office Confidential Print including affairs in Bechuanaland c.1870 - c.1930.

Try searching for "Botswana History" in Dogpile which will scan a number of other search engines.

For 20 best-selling books on Botswana history see Amazon.Com USA on Botswana History. (There is no equivalent page on

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(1a) Michael Crowder, The Flogging of Phinehas McIntosh, A Tale of Colonial Folly and Injustice, Bechuanaland 1933 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988) ISBN 0 300 04098 9

(1b) Michael Dutfield, A Marriage of Inconvenience: the Persecution of Seretse and Ruth Khama (London: Unwin Hyman, 1990) ISBN 0 04 44095 6

(1c) Fred Morton, Andrew Murray & Jeff Ramsay, Historical Dictionary of Botswana. New Edition. (Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1989.) ISBN 0 89680 157 8. [bibliog. pp.143-216]

(1d) Fred Morton & Jeff Ramsay, The Birth of Botswana: a History of the Bechuanaland Protectorate from 1910 to 1966 (Gaborone: Longman Botswana, 1987) ISBN 0 582 00584 1

(1e) Neil Parsons, King Khama, Emperor Joe and the Great White Queen (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998).

(1f) Sir Charles Rey (eds. Neil Parsons & Michael Crowder), Monarch of All I Survey: Bechuanaland Diaries 1929-37 (Gaborone: Botswana Society & London: James Currey, 1988). ISBN & 0 85255 016 2

(1g) Thomas Tlou & Alec Campbell, History of Botswana (Gaborone: Macmillan, 2nd edn. 1997) ISBN 0-333-36531-3

(1h) Diana Wylie, A Little God: the Twilight of Patriarchy in a Southern African Chiefdom (Hanover, NH: Wesleyan University Press/ University Press of New England, 1990) ISBN 0 8195 5228 3

For a longer bibliography see Select Bibliography on Botswana History. See also Resources for local history.

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Copyright © 1999 Neil Parsons

The Botswana History Pages by Neil Parsons may be freely reproduced, in print or electronically, on condition
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Last updated 19 September 2000