University of Botswana History Department

The Abandonment of Phalatswe, 1901-1916

by Neil Parsons

Paper presented at SAREC/UB Workshop on Landscape History, Gaborone, Weds. 25 February 1998

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Conventional reasoning about the abandonment of Phalatswe (Old Palapye) by the Bangwato in 1902 is that it was the inevitable consequence of a cycle of ecological depletion. In the words of my dissertation in 1973:

Tswana centralisation in large agro-towns inevitably promoted a cycle of depletion of local grasslands, cultivable soils, woods, and water supplies. The cycle of depletion at Palapye was more rapid than ever before-with itinerants and immigrants in increasing numbers., the new use of ploughs and of trek-oxen and horses, and the demands of woodburners and the accidents of grass-fires.

This was hardly original an original viewpoint. It was expressed in innumerable publications and documents, including the words of Kgosi Khama III, at the time. It is echoed in Richard's Elphick ecological cycles of shifting settlement among Khoisan herders at the Cape of Good Hope, and is also commonplace among archaeologists-certainly since the ecological depletion hypothesis elaborated by Peter Garlake for the abandonment of Great Zimbabwe c.1450.

There is also a literature on Tswana towns, derived from traveller's observations dating from the first year of the 19th century, which suggests that this cycle of depletion might be as short as four to five years before a capital was moved to another site. To put it crudely, Tswana towns started in well-wooded areas, and converted them into grasslands and eventually into deserts. The move to a new site normally came quite soon after the depletion of the woodlands, rather then waiting for the desert.

This paper looks at the case of Phalatswe, which was abandoned as Bangwato capital after thirteen years. While accepting that ecological depletion was the main reason for abandonment, we will also ask whether there were not other reasons which accelerated, delayed or modified the process.

The move from Shoshong

We cannot fully understand the removal of the capital from Phalaptswe to Serowe in 1902 without also looking at the removal from Shoshong in 1889. In 1888 Kgosi Khama wrote to the Deputy Commissioner of the Bechuanaland Protectorate, Sidney Shippard:

Perhaps I ought to explain to Your Honour as I explained to Sir Charles Warren [1885], that I am living on the southern border of my country, not from choice, but because my troubles have hiitherto prevented me from carrying out my purpose to remove from my town [Shoshong] to one of two places where there is an adundance of water for my people and our cattle. At present, with our town situated where it is, we intend entirely upon the rainfall for our gardens. [either] the Chwapong Hills [i.e. Phalatswe] or Serui [i.e. Serowe] are the two places which we hope to remove to

Shoshong had become a 'Desert City' by the 1880s, almost waterless with 'one trickling well' and with 'indescribable filth'. The town had existed in the same location for forty years, possibly a record for a Tswana town. But two factors constrained its removal. First there was the capital investment made in buildings such as a church. Second, and much more important, was the strategic consideration. It had proved a good defensible location from Ndebele attack on a number of occasions. Now, in 1888-89, Khama was emboldened to move his capital northwards by his alliance with the British who were preparing a forward movement to take over Mashonaland and Matabeleland. (A key role probably being played by young Frank Johnson, an ex-policeman turned Shoshong trader who became close to Khama as his church treasurer in 1887-89, and then contracted himself to Cecil Rhodes as the organiser of the 1890 'Pioneer Column'.)

Phalatswe on the north side of the Tswapong Hills was ecologiocally attractive because of water in more than one kloof, notably the nearby water-falls known by the onomatopoeic name of "Phothophotho'. It had possibilities for fruit and tobacco farming as well as for extensive cultivation, grazing, and hunting.

The site of Phalatswe, which was on the road to Tati and Matabeleland (rather than Serowe which was on the road to Ngamiland and the Zambezi), already had historical importance as the site of the temporary Amandebele capital of 1836-37 (on their way north) and of the camps of subsequent Amadebele cattle-raiders as late as 1863. The new town of Phalatswe now took on symbolic value as the token of Khama's alliance with the British forward movement against the Amandebele.

The new capital was also founded hard on the heels of successful Bangwato military assertions over the Baseleka south-east of the Tswapong Hills (1886-87) and over Boer intruders in Babirwa country north of the Tswapong Hills (1887-88). The servile peoples of the Tswapong Hills themselves, the Batswapong under local Bamalete leadership, had been within the patrimony of the Ngwato state since their defeat by Kgosi Sekgoma I in 1848. Khama's age-regiment, the Mafolosa, had blooded itself by attacking the Babirwa of Makhura north of the Tswapong Hills, on its initiation in 1850, but the Baseleka relatives of the Bamalete had remained secure in their tsetse-belt fastness straddling the Limpopo for thirty-sixy ears more.

The cycle of depletion at Phalapye

The breaking of the soil at Phalatswe from September 1889 also saw a severe outbreak of (malarial) fever - usually a symptom of good rather than bad rains. Among the victims was Khama's wife of 25 years, Mma-Besi, who died on December 16th, six weeks after child birth. This was a traumatic event in the Khama family, particularly for Khama's son and heir Sekgoma who is said to have never forgiven his father for poisoning his mother by taking her to an unhealthy new place.

The health of the community appears to have recovered until late 1893 when fever hit again, nearly bearing away both Khama and his new wife (she did indeed die in the following year). Drought and crop failure followed in 1894-95 and 1895-96, being followed by rinderpest which killed off most of the cattle in mid-1896. Drought continued over the 1896-97 agricultural season, and Khama had to forbid the Bangwato to use Phothophotho kloof unless it dried up completely (they had to go to the next kloof three kilmetres away instead).

Khama attempted to put a brave face on the situation, saying things had been much worse in the bad old days at Shoshong. But by April 1898 there were strong rumours that the Bangwato were soon to disperse from Palapye. Seven 'sub-tribes' would go to live in different parts of the country, where their chiefs would have self-rule in all aspects except relations with Europeans (Khama's prerogative). The Phuti or true-Bangwato, shorn of the 'sub-tribes', would then move to a new capital at Serowe.

Khama had begun the decentralisation of power rather than of population at a letsholo in April 1896, when he announced to the Baphaleng, to the Batalalote, and to the remaining Bakhurutshe, as well as to some Bakalanga and other subject communities that:

Henceforth he would not administer justice among them; they should be judged by their own chiefs, and they should have the control of their own villages. The breast of game was no longer to be brought to him but to the chiefs of their own villages. They would go on living in all other respects as they had been doing before. There would be no change in cattle-posts nor in gardens. The regiments would be constituted as at present, and no distinction of tribe would be recognised there. He has also the right to judge cases of appeal.'

From the delegation of judicial powers, the actual decentralisation of population was a logical next step. Between April and July 1898 Khama's now dissident son Sekgoma, who had rebelled over the decentralization of judicial powers (seeing it as robbing him of his future heritage as Kgosi), moved away southwards from Phalatswe to exile, with about two thousand followers. By the beginning of September 1898, Khama had dispersed perhaps two thousand more of Phalatswe's population. Most people went to the Motloutse (around later Mmadinare), and were not yet concentrated in large settlements there. The Baphaleng were told to move back to Shoshong, but their move was delayed until 1900 when sufficient water supplies were opened up. Khama dispatched other people to settle on the Boteti River, and finally in 1902 Khama ordered all Bakaa to join their fellows who had preceded them to Shoshong with the Baphaleng.

By September 1898 Khama definitely decided to move his capital away from Palapye, 'as the people were grumbling about the scarcity of water'. He told the local Assistant Commissioner, J.A. Ashburnham, that, subject to Government approval, he would move his capital in mid-1899 - probably to Mabele-a-podi, north-west of Serowe. But by November 1898 Khama had changed his mind again and decided not to move from Palapye.

However Phalaptswe, while it changed in shape, did not shrink in size, because of the influx of refugees such as Bagananwa from the Transvaal, sheltering from Boer aggression after 1894 and subsequently from the South African War. On his return after two years absence in October 1900, Rev. W.C.Willoughby found that familiar communities had gone to out-districts. But they had been replaced by others. The attempt to slow down the depletion of natural resources at the centre, by decentralizing the population into satellite settlements in outlying areas. had therefore failed. The veld and water-supplies around Phalatswe continued to deteriorate. Willoughby found trees he knew disappeared or dead, and the Phothophotho kloof overrun by smallstock and horses in search of water. There had been no follow-up to the Resident Commissioner's suggestion of conserving the town's water supply by a three-quarter mile pipe and a reservoir.

A traveller passing through in 1900 noted that women were drawing their water from wells dug down to fifty feet deep in the sandy bed of the Lotsane River. They had to pay for each pot-full with grain handed over to a Mongwato official sitting on a rock. In May 1900 mortality and morbidity was very high, especially in the garden-lands along the fever-ridden Lotsane valley. The worst fever season ever according to Khama. What little harvest there was had been eaten by locusts.

Food prices were sky-high because of scarcity and the demand of British-Rhodesian troops, who also gave good wages for manual labour and other service. This gave a temporary but soon spent prosperity to those people with a cash income. But the high prices for crops and liberal rates of pay passed the Bangwato by as the railway was reopened. By 1903 Khama was forced to allow his people to be recruited to the Witwatersrand gold mines. (Khama and Linchwe of the Bakgatla had banned such labour recruitment in 1898, in protest against the high mortality in the gold mines, and probably in response to the reduction of African wages by 30% in 1897.) As soon as the hostilities of the South African War began to die down, and the while the temporary cash surplus made the capital costs of moving to a new town less burdensome, Khama once again determined to move his capital-and this time he chose Serowe as the site.

The move to Serowe

The first move of a section of Phalatswe to Serowe was reported in May 1901. Though in October Khama's plans for moving were still said to be confidential, not known to black or white at Phalatswe, because he had had not yet receibved permission for the move from the Resident Commissioner.

In October 1901 the new Resident Commissioner, Ralph Champneys Williams personally inspected the proposed capital site at Serowe prior to official approval for the move. There was no direct road from Phalatswe to Serowe, but rather a network of tracks from cattle-post to cattle-post. The ever exuberant Williams apparently exploded in fury when Khama led the party on mules off the beaten track on a prolonged waterless hike. Williams thought Khama had lost his way: Khama explained it was a diversion to avoid a washed-out drift.

Colonial Office approval for the removal came in January 1902, and on February 26th Khama and his chiefs pegged out the wards of the new town away from the government 'camp' (i.e. boma) that Panzera had chosen on the previous day. The church and mission sites were chosen on February 27th, and trading stands allotted on March 20th.

The move from Phalatswe to Serowe began in earnest in June 1902,with the main movement of population in the following month. Once the removal was completed, Khama sent a regiment to burn down the old capital at the end of August:

It was a novel and wonderful sight. The regiment divided into parties and went into different sections of the town, the men running from one hut to another with torches, and setting them on fire, so that presently the huts were all ablaze together. The whole place was enveloped in flame and smoke, and it was so hot one could hardly breathe. For two or three days afterwards a haze hung over the ruins... Nothing could exceed the weird dreariness of Phalapye after that fire.

But the Assistant Commissioner remained at Phalatswe for the time being. The Colonial Office did not want to take on the expenditure of following Khama to Serowe. A cartoon portraying the magistracy standing lonely in an abandoned town was sent to the Colonial Office, but has not been located in the Public Records Office. Finally in 1903 Ralph Williams persuaded the Colonial Office to sanction the Assistant Commissioner's removal to Francistown. Serowe was allotted a Police officer with the lowly rank of Assistant Resident Magistrate.


It is clear that the cycle of ecological depletion was particularly rapid at Phalatswe. The pressure on soil, grass and water had been truly extraordinary because of the heavy and rising ox-waggon traffic between 1889 and 1897. But the considerable capital investment at Phalatswe, not least in the church building, as well as in colonial administrative and commercial buildings, worked against removal of the capital town to another place. The delay in moving the town, after the idea was first broached in 1898, made the cycle of depletion all the more desperate. There was, however, some alleviation during those years because of the centralization of population, from Phalatswe to new towns in outlying areas. But Phalatswe was also a magnet for new populations who came to it seeking refuge during the South African War.

That said, we should bear in mind ideological or symbolic as well as ecological considerations about conserving or abandoning Phalatswe as a capital place.

Firstly, Phalatswe was a locality of political symbolic value. The place had belonged to the alien and heathen Batswapong, and been further alienated by periodic Amadebele occupations between the 1830s and the 1860s. Khama appropriated it for the Bangwato state and Christianity by making it his capital. The new town at Phalatswe, looking north across the plains, was also a symbol of alliance with the British in 1889. But that association had grown colder as the British presence became increasingly 'Rhodesian'; and long-distance waggon trade was largely replaced by the railway. Hence it was said that Khama was glad to withdraw to Serowe from the moral corruption represented by the railway line.

Secondly, Phalatswe was popularly seen among the Bangwato as an unhealthy and thus as an unlucky place. It had once been on the edge of the tsetse-belt and was still a malarial area. It was seen as a place of ill-omen because Khama's much loved wife, Mma-Besi, died of fever soon after they arrived and was buried there. The move to Serowe in 1902, therefore, could be seen as some find of absolution on Khama's part for her death. Hence we have the tradition, strong today, of people calling Serowe (rather than her burial place at Phalatswe) 'Mma-Besi a Khama'.

Thirdly, Phalatwe was an inauspicious place for the Bangwato in terms of traditional religion and magic. Like other falls in the Tswapong hills, Phothophotho was a shrine for Batswapong spirits and thus alien to the Bangwato. Phillip Segadika records how Batswapong oral traditions today speak of the success of their spirit-guardians in driving away Khama and the Bangwato. Khama is seen as having had insufficient magic. That is, until the moment he was preparing to move from Phalatswe, when he married a young Motswapong (Molete) woman named Semane - at the suggestion of his oldest child, Bessie the daughter Mma-Besi. It was then up to Tshekedi Khama (born 1905), the son of Semane and Khama, to try to bring the Batswapong to heel. The 'curse' of the Tswapong hills came to some people's minds in the 1970s and early 1980s, when foreign academics tried to study their history. The first scholar dropped dead in the National Archives. The second scholar was robbed of all her notes in the Gaborone mall, and changed her topic.


The idea of putting at Phalatswe a missionary educational institution, a combination of high school and technical or teacher-training college, had first occurred to Rev. W.C.Willoughby in 1894. The idea was picked up enthusiastically by Khama, and then by Sebele and Bathoen, during their 1895 tour of Great Britain. But Khama refused to consider any freehold grant of land to the London Missionary Society. Thus the L.M.S. concluded the purchase of the farm 'Waterloo', 13,000 morgen some seven miles south of Vryburg, for £1,190 from an Afrikaner rebel on 28th November 1900.

But in August 1901 Willoughby wrote to the L.M.S. in London urging it to sell off 'Waterloo' at a profit after the War, and to take up the option of a site at Phalatwe instead. Why? Because of 'perhaps the most important information I have ever had to communicate'-that Khama was to move his capital from Phalatswe to Serowe. Willoughby argued that the extensive stone and brick buildings which would be left at Phalatswe would be an excellent nucleus for the institution. The L.M.S. could compensate people for the roofs and beams that would otherwise be removed and taken to Serowe. Willoughby furthermore said he would go ahead and make this offer to Khama.

Khama put off any decision on what to do with the Phalatswe buildings, until arrangements for the actual move to Serowe had been made. Meanwhile he or others of the Bangwato élite, notably his political secretary and son-in-law Ratshosa, were making other discreet enquiries about other possibilities. C.A. Rideout, a black American emissary of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in the United States, had this to report on 4th March 1902:

Just a few days ago we had another call from paramount Chief Khama of Bechuanaland, who made a similar offer to us as the Basutos [to finance an inustrial and teacher-training institution], the difference being this: the buildings are ready for use, the same being occupied by other Missionary people who abandoned them and left the country, and the Government desires Paramount Chief Khama to take them over. The Chief has written a letter… but received no reply: therefore he dispatched a man to me. I will do the best I can and advise him that the matter will be looked into at the earliest opportunity.'

When the annual conference of L.M.S. Bechuanaland missionaries met at Phalatswe on 24th May 1902, a general assembly of the Bangwato ('We are the Nation, of the Bamangwato') met in Kgotla and to agree to lend (adisa) the Phalatswe buildings to the L.M.S. for its educational institution-provided that it was understood that the nation was not selling or giving away the buildings or the land or the local water-supplies:' But work in it, there will not be [any] hindrance in it. We gladly lend it to you.'

However, the L.M.S. decided to press ahead with developing its 'Waterloo' instead, beginning to construct an institution to be known as Tiger Kloof-for which colonial government aid was being promised. When Khama was challenged about the approach to the A.M.E. Church, after the publication of Rideout's letter in the August 1902 number of the Christian Express of Lovedale, he 'treated it as a joke, making a great fun of the whole business.' .

The approach to the A.M.E. Church was merely one of a number of opinions being explored for the setting up of a national school at Old Palapye.There were three options that presented themselves-the L.M.S., which was a case of touch-and-go; the A.M.E., which appealed to current 'Ethiopianist' sentiment; and the Anglicans, who represented the respectable state-church of British imperialism.

As Khama's next L.M.S. missionary, A.E. Jennings, was to remark Willoughby had tried to buy the 'beautiful piece of land including a large tract of garden soil, with the church (valued at £4000), a large school building, and other buildings'-which the Bamangwato were offering as a free gift. Jennings remarked in May 1904:

On this Mission Station there is a smouldering intention of beginning independent mission work with the building of Phalapye, which may burst into flame at any moment.'

Jennings and Willoughby engaged in acrimonious debate.(Willoughby had gone off to become the first principal of Tiger Kloof Institution.) The Bangwato themselves refused to consider the question of building a new church building at Serowe while the future of the church buildings at Phalatswe remained open.

In January 1905 Jennings thought that he had persuaded his deacons, after tea and buns, and a Kgotla assembly appeared to agree that the building of a Serowe church should begin in that year, but nothing happened. In 1907 Khama assured Jennings that a new church would be built at Serowe once the Phalatswe buildings were demolished. Jennings was sent to Kimberley at the Chief''s request to obtain plans and estimates for the new church in July 1907, but nothing happened until 1911. Why? The answer may lie in the suggestion that an architect was engaged but his plans were scrapped, with enormous fees ate that up £3000 of the available funds.

In 1911 the Bangwato turned to the colonial government for assistance, not to the L.M.S., and appointed the government's nominated contractors (J.Callaway of Mafeking) and architect (Wallace) to design and construct the new building at Serowe. Jennings was summoned to the Magistrate's court in January 1912, and the following appeared in the court diary as the words of Monaheng, a prominent Church member:

The new church will be built and will be the property of the Tribe. The Missionary, Mr. Jennings, will preach in it, but it will be the property of the Tribe.

It was the Resident Commissioner of the Protectorate, Col. 'Pan' Panzera, who laid the church building's foundation stone on August 6th, 1912-a stone that made no mention of the L.M.S. The new church building at Serowe was eventually opened for worship in June 1915-by Panzera. The offer of a medical missionary and a school master to supplement the then mission establishment of three (two ministers and a schoolmistress), made by the L.M.S. to the Bangwato in March 1914, appears to have reconciled Khama to the good intentions of the London Mission. But the actual reconciliation between Khama and the L.M.S. followed Khama's falling out with the Protectorate administration, over its stopping him from his trading venture.

The government's own contractor had proved to be a jerry-builder. The Tiger Kloof instructor in masonry inspected the building: the main gables were giving outwards up to 3 inches out of true, the roof was leaking, walls were left unpainted, carpentry and joinery were 'wretched', and building materials skimped. Above all the construction had failed because of insufficient cost planning and inefficient quantity surveying-the mortar was already turning to dust! Remedial action would cost at least £700, re-building £3,000.

Khama gladly handed the solution of the problem to the L.M.S. in September 1915; and it was arranged that repair would be undertaken by the 'industrial' students of Tiger Kloof in 1916. Khama declined to sue the Government's contractor or architect, to shame them as he said: he insisted the restoration would not cost the Society a penny, and showered the L.M.S. with thanks.

An estimate of at least £1225 was given for restoration expenses in March 1916; and the 'industrial' students arrived in Serowe at the end of June. By January 1917 the church was almost re-built, and towards the end of the year Khama gave to the L.M.S. another £200 as thanks to God for his recovery from a riding accident. The reconciliation with the L.M.S. was complete.

Anglican attempts to set up a mission in Gamangwato came too late. Bishop Gore-Browne (who believed 'The London Missionary Society is doing little and we ought to claim the whole native people') arrived at Serowe at Easter time in 1916 was only allowed to see Khama for five minutes and could not posssibly discuss business — because the Chief was seriously ill from his riding accident on Good Friday. It is thought that the bishop would have made Khama a firm offer of an Anglican educational mission with a college based at Phalatswe.

But it was too late. The final symbolic end to Bangwato claims to invite another mission into the country was made in the second half of 1918 when, at last, the Phalatswe church roofing (after sixteen years) was removed and brought to Serowe. But the idea of a 'Bamangwato College' in the Tswapong Hills was not dead: it was to be achieved thirty years later at Moeng, as the crowning achievement of the regency of Khama's son Tshekedi.

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Copyright © 1999 Neil Parsons
Last updated 7 September 1999