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Power in Colonial Africa

Conflict and Discourse in Lesotho, 1870–1960

Elizabeth A. Eldredge

Publication Year: 2007

Even in its heyday European rule of Africa had limits. Whether through complacency or denial, many colonial officials ignored the signs of African dissent. Displays of opposition by Africans, too indirect to counter or quash, percolated throughout the colonial era and kept alive a spirit of sovereignty that would find full expression only decades later.
    In Power in Colonial Africa: Conflict and Discourse in Lesotho, 1870–1960, Elizabeth A. Eldredge analyzes a panoply of archival and oral resources, visual signs and symbols, and public and private actions to show how power may be exercised not only by rulers but also by the ruled. The BaSotho—best known for their consolidation of a kingdom from the 1820s to 1850s through primarily peaceful means, and for bringing colonial forces to a standstill in the Gun War of 1880–1881—struggled to maintain sovereignty over their internal affairs during their years under the colonial rule of the Cape Colony (now part of South Africa) and Britain from 1868 to 1966. Eldredge explores instances of BaSotho resistance, resilience, and resourcefulness in forms of expression both verbal and non-verbal. Skillfully navigating episodes of conflict, the BaSotho matched wits with the British in diplomatic brinksmanship, negotiation, compromise, circumvention, and persuasion, revealing the capacity of a subordinate population to influence the course of events as it selectively absorbs, employs, and subverts elements of the colonial culture.

“A refreshing, readable and lucid account of one in an array of compositions of power during colonialism in southern Africa.”—David Gordon, Journal of African History

“Elegantly written.”—Sean Redding, Sub-Saharan Africa

“Eldredge writes clearly and attractively, and her studies of the war between Lerotholi and Masupha and of the conflicts over the succession to the paramountcy are essential reading for anyone who wants to understand those crises.”—Peter Sanders, Journal of Southern African Studies

Published by: University of Wisconsin Press


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pp. i-ii

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. iii-iv


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pp. v

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pp. vii-ix

Historians by definition are “time travelers,” traversing the presumed boundaries of differences in culture created by the passage of time. The project of writing history requires the ability to identify and take into account cultural difference in our interpretations of the past, whether that project involves a translation across time or across space and differences of language and culture. The ability to generate the trust necessary to gain access to information as well as the sensitivity to nuances of ...

Names and Terms

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pp. xi-xii

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1. Power in Theory and Practice

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pp. 3-24

This is a study of power and how it operates. Studying the operation of power in a colonial setting is particularly appropriate because colonial rule has been so often misunderstood in terms of unremitting and successful domination through both coercion and persuasion. Virtually the entire world has been shaped by the colonial experience through the historical actions of people, individually and collectively, as colonizers or as colonized. The widespread influence of Western modernity across ...

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2. Transcripts of the Past: The BaSotho under Colonial Rule

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pp. 25-39

After a series of wars against their aggressive Boer neighbors, to whom the BaSotho had gradually lost most of their arable land, Paramount Chief Moshoeshoe requested and received British colonial protection. In 1868 Lesotho was annexed to the British Crown, and in 1871 it was turned over to the Cape Colony, which had just received the status of Responsible Government from Great Britain. Moshoeshoe had hoped ...

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3. Prelude to Rebellion: Pitsos, Magistrates, and the Imposition of Colonial Rule

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pp. 40-54

The transfer of Lesotho, now called Basutoland, from British imperial hands into the care of the government of the Cape Colony signaled only minor changes in the new colonial administration in 1872. The Governor’s Agent, responsible to the governor of the Cape Colony, consolidated colonial authority with the creation of administrative districts placed under the authority of District Magistrates, who in turn ...

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4. The White Horse and the Jailhouse Key: Moorosi’s Rebellion

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pp. 55-70

Colonial and BaSotho reactions to the jailhouse escape exposed the dynamics of colonial rule at various levels. The Cape Colony had hoped to wield power and administer the colony without the use of military force by means of the authority of the District Magistrates with the support of the chiefs. The District Magistrates, however, were aware that their authority was fragile because it lacked moral legitimacy among the ...

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5. Guns, Diplomacy, and Discourse: The Gun War

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pp. 71-89

Even before the end of Moorosi’s rebellion the BaSotho chiefs were preparing for their own fight against the Cape Colony in what became known as the Gun War of 1880–81. Ostensibly fought over the right of the BaSotho to bear arms, this was a war over issues of land, sovereignty, and the establishment of colonial rule by the Cape Colony. In April 1880 the Cape government extended the Peace Preservation Act, which had already been imposed in the Cape Colony, to ...

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6. Hidden Discourse in the Public Transcript: Ceremony and Subversion

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pp. 90-117

The formal pitso of 3 July 1880 was the stage on which the hidden transcript of resistance was performed publicly, but it was disguised in the discursive tropes of loyalty from the colonial repertoire. Griffith was right to trust his intuition that the speeches were meant to be misleading, even if he couldn’t quite interpret them himself. Yet an analysis of the pitso speeches reveals the very strategies that so confounded colonial officials, who could not condemn the BaSotho for either what was said ...

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7. Lerotholi and “Masopha’s War”: The Colonial/Civil War of 1898

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pp. 118-139

The resumption of direct British Imperial rule over Basutoland in 1884 prevented the alienation of land in Lesotho for white settlement and allowed the BaSotho to keep their guns, but administrative goals and strategies remained largely the same. A typical British policy of indirect rule was implemented through increasing reliance on chiefly authority under the watchful eyes of the new British Resident Commissioner and his District Commissioners. Politically, British colonial ...

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8. Of Laws, Courts, and Chiefs: The Twentieth Century

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pp. 140-167

The assertion of central authority by Paramount Chief Lerotholi over Masopha in 1898 seemed to accomplish a major administration goal of the British colonial government, and Lagden later wrote, “Lerotholi, who behaved with gallantry and intelligence, enjoyed for the first time undisputed supremacy.” But colonial authority and that of the paramountcy remained fragile and were challenged by regional events over the coming decades. War broke out across the border in 1899, and Sir ...

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9. Of Paramente and Power: Terror in Basutoland

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pp. 168-183

Paramente screamed. He didn’t stop screaming until someone held something under his nose, sending him into a stupor that ended his awareness and resistance and allowed his attackers to guide him, stumbling on his own feet, to the hut where they would keep him, drugged, until the next night. He must have known when he first saw them that there was only one reason why a large portion of the adult male population of the village would sit waiting for him to return home in the early ...

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10. Discourse and Subterfuge: Responses to Medicine Murder

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pp. 184-214

The struggle over “medicine murder” in the 1940s and 1950s highlights that there was no one local position, “the African perspective,” posed against a single colonial perspective in the discussion of liretlo. In the conversation that ensued, European colonial discourse, embracing discordant voices and views of the problems, revealed common ground and common assumptions in the language of the “primitive”; of “illness,” “psychosis,” and “treatment”; of racism and the teleology of development, ...

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11. Seeking Sovereignty and the Rule of Law

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pp. 215-224

Contests over authority, policy, and the political dispensation in government were waged in colonial Lesotho by means of force and persuasion, involving guns, rhetoric, and a more encompassing discourse of colonialism that defined the parameters of the possible and the preferable. Within that colonial discourse about politics and authority colonial officials and BaSotho chiefs deployed their rhetorical skills to achieve their goals and, when that failed, resorted to forms of coercion and force.


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pp. 227-248


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pp. 249-258


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pp. 259-275

E-ISBN-13: 9780299223731
Print-ISBN-13: 9780299223700

Publication Year: 2007