It is well known that the ongoing struggle for firearm rights in South Africa has a rather tumultuous history. What is perhaps less well known, is that twice in the late 1800s the fight for the right to keep and bear arms involved actual bloodshed. Both upheavals were caused when the British colonial authority attempted to assert imperial control over indigenous tribes by curtailing their ability to own and use firearms. A government using gun control in order to subjugate free people is a tale as old as time, even in South Africa.
The plight of the amaHlubi and Chief Langalibalele
The first of the two events pertain to an ill-intentioned attempt by the British colonial authority in Natal to force the amaHlubi tribe to register their firearms. The young men of the tribe received their rifles as payment for labouring on diamond mines in Griqualand West, and brought the guns home with them. John McFarlane, the magistrate in Estcourt, in 1873 issued an order to the chief of the amaHlubi, Langalibalele, to hand in all the tribe’s guns for the purpose of registering them.
Perhaps sensing that little good could come from complying with such an order, Langalibalele refused to enforce it on his people. His suspicions were more than warranted given that firearms, once handed in, were either retained indefinitely or rendered useless before being handed back. Langalibalele’s defiance of an obvious ploy by the British to disarm his people was not appreciated by the Natal Colony’s Lieutenant Governor, one Sir Benjamin Pine, who promptly revealed his true intentions by ordering the arrest of Chief Langalibalele.
Having expected his decision to cause severe backlash from the colonial authority, Chief Langalibalele had made plans for his people to flee Basutoland via the Bushman’s River Pass. A force of 200 British troops, 300 Natal Volunteers, and approximately 8000 Africans were sent after the amaHlubi and their Chief, but confusion about their actual positions and difficult terrain derailed the effectiveness of the pursuit.
Eventually a small force of 33 carabineers and 25 Basuto under the command of Major Anthony Dunford intercepted the amaHlubi tribesmen up the Hlatimba Pass. During attempts to negotiate with the tribal elders some of the colonial infantrymen lost their nerve and fired. The amaHlubi retaliated, resulting in five of the pursuing soldiers being killed while Dunford and the rest of the force fled back down the pass.
On 13 December 1873, the BaSotho chief Molapo handed Langalibalele over to the British flying columns who entered Basutoland in search of him. He was arrested and put on trial, a farcical affair that was described by Reginald Oliver Pearse as “a disgrace to British justice”. He was found guilty and imprisoned on Robben Island. Only after extensive public outcry over his ill-treatment and the injustice of his sentence was Langalibalele allowed to return home in 1887, but he was to remain under house arrest for the rest of his life.
Chief Langalibalele, in a valiant attempt to safeguard his people from colonial overreach under the guise of gun control, paid a heavy and unjust price. His people, in turn, became the victims of punitive attacks during which over a hundred were killed, and had their cattle and land confiscated by the Natal Government.
The BaSotho Gun War
The second series of events have an altogether different ending. In 1879 the British High Commissioner for Southern Africa, Sir Henry Bartle Frere, claimed a part of Basutoland for proposed white settlement and demanded that all natives surrender their firearms to the Cape colonial authority as stipulated in the 1879 Peace Protection Act. The British imperialists had rapidly been consolidating their power over the independent state of Basutoland, and a disarmed people would be easier to control and effectively subjugate.
The BaSotho were perturbed and annoyed by the Cape colonial authority’s restrictions on their independence and the authority of their chiefs, and did not take kindly to these new heavy-handed proposals. The Prime Minister of the Cape Colony, Sir John Gordon Sprigg, and his government proclaimed that all BaSotho were to surrender their guns by April 1880 or face consequences. While a few BaSotho did indeed comply with the order, the vast majority refused.
The matter escalated as the Cape colonial authority attempted to enforce the law, which led to fighting by September 1880. The war by the BaSotho for their right to keep and bear arms was about to begin in earnest. Within months most BaSotho chiefs were in open rebellion, and they inflicted heavy casualties on Cape Colony forces sent to put them down. The BaSotho not only had the terrain advantage, which provided them with considerable defensive capabilities, but had also received serviceable firearms from the Boer Republic of the Orange Free State. They were also excellent marksmen who were more than a match for the Cape colonial forces.
Making effective use of guerrilla tactics, the BaSotho ambushed a column of the 1st Regiment, Cape Mounted Yeomanry at Qalabani in October 1880, killing 39 men. This defeat of an experienced and well-armed cavalry column at the hands of BaSotho guerrillas was a terrible blow for the Cape authorities, and indicated that the tide was turning against them. The war was beginning to bankrupt the Cape Colony, and it became increasingly unpopular culminating in Sir Thomas Scanlan replacing Sprigg as the Prime Minister of the Cape Colony.
In 1881 a peace treaty was signed with the BaSotho chiefs, and they were allowed to keep all their land and have unrestricted access to firearms in return for a once-off payment of 5000 cattle.
What we learn from history
As we can see from both the events above, gun control has historically been used in order to deprive free people of their independence, their land, their property, and their freedom. It has often been proposed under the guise of “common sense gun laws” like the Peace Protection Act of 1879, supposedly with the purpose of keeping people safe, but which ultimately proves to serve a much more sinister purpose.
When the amaHlubi and the BaSotho rightly decided to defy the intrusive and oppressive laws slapped on them by the British colonial authorities, they were met with heavy-handed actions and instantaneous violence. In the case of Chief Langalibalele the injustice was carried further by subjecting him to a farce of a trial and exile, and by his people being murdered and stolen from by the Natal Government.
Gun control has never been about guns, but has always been about controlling people. As we sit comfortably removed from the aforementioned events by nearly a century-and-a-half, let us not fall into the trap of forgetting the sacrifices made by the amaHlubi and the BaSotho for the right to keep and bear arms. These events should be celebrated by us all, and we can use it as a firm foundation to continue our battle to expand and safeguard gun rights for all South Africans.
If there were a Bantu word for Molon Labe, perhaps it would be Langalibalele.