Moshoeshoe is widely credited at the architect of the mighty Basotho nation – a nation with its own culture, language, customs and territory.
Moshoeshoe was the son of Mokhachane, a minor chief of the Bamokoteli sub-clan. Born at Menkhoaneng in Leribe, Lesotho. He was given the name of Lepoqo (meaning “disasters”) by his parents.
During his youth, he was very brave and once organised a cattle raid against Ramonaheng and captured several herds of cattle. 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 makes a “shoe…shoe…” sound, and after that he was affectionately called Moshoeshoe “the shaver“.
Moshoeshoe’s reign coincided with the growth in power of the well-known Zulu chief, Shaka. During the early 19th century Shaka raided many smaller clans along the eastern coast of Southern Africa, incorporating parts of them into his steadily growing Zulu chiefdom. Various small clans were forced to flee the Zulu chief.
The attacks also forced Moshoeshoe to move his settlement to the Qiloane plateau. The name was later changed to Thaba Bosiu or “mountain of the night” because it was believed to be growing during the night and shrinking during day. It proved to be an impregnable stronghold against enemies.
Moshoeshoe 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 Zulu wars.
It is therefore perfectly understandable that Moshoeshoe more than once expressed himself as follows:
“I want peace” – and then quite poetically: “Peace is the rain that makes the grass grow. War is the wind that dries it up.
By the latter part of the 19th century (1884), Moshoeshoe established the nation of the Basotho, in Basutoland (Then “the kingdom of Lesotho” since independence in 1966). He was popularly known as Morena e Moholo/morena oa Basotho (Great King/King of the Basotho).
Although he had ceded much territory, Moshoeshoe never suffered a major military defeat, just many minor ones. He retained some of his kingdom after all the wars, though the geographical extent of his kingdom is hard to measure, as South Africa was not very populated prior to the Boer expansion. His death on the 11th March 1870 marked the end of the traditional era and the beginning of the modern colonial period.
The date is now a national holiday (Moshoeshoe’s Day) to commemorate the day of Moshoeshoe’s death and remind Basotho of both their origin and how they should live as a nation.
In one of the best biographical studies of Moshoeshoe (Moshoeshoe, Chief of the Sotho, published in 1975, almost a hundred years after the reign of Moshoeshoe), the author (Peter Sanders) comes to the following conclusion after doing thorough scientific historical research:
“In terms of achievement, he (Moshoeshoe) was one of the most successful South Africans of the nineteenth century; in terms of perception, one of the most far-sighted. In a period of conflict, he strove for peace, and his tolerance and humanity far transcended the bigotry and racialism of so many around him.”
In his obituary of King Moshoeshoe in the Cape Argus of 6 April 1870, Orpen wrote the following:
“It is the fashion to look down upon those whose skins are coloured, but all who can raise themselves above such vulgar prejudices must acknowledge that in Moshoeshoe were united qualities which made him one of the greatest men in South Africa.”