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The history of Botswana is characterised by migrations of peoples into the country from the north and west and particularly from the east and south, as well as internal movements of groups of people. The group which eventually emerged as most numerous, and dominant, were the Batswana. Their pattern of dividing and migrating saw the formation of numerous Tswana tribes, and their eventual occupation of all areas of the country.

The term "Batswana" refers to the ethnic group of people who speak the Setswana language and share the Sotho-Tswana culture, while in its common contemporary usage, it refers to all citizens of the Republic of Botswana, regardless of their ethnic background. The singular is "Motswana": a citizen of the country. "Tswana" is used as an adjective - for example "Tswana state" or "Tswana culture".

First inhabitants

The earliest modern inhabitants of southern Africa were the Bushman (San) and the Hottentot (Khoe) peoples. They have lived an almost unchanged lifestyle in the country since the Middle Stone Age.

The physical characteristics of the Khoe and the San are similar. Both tend to have light, almost coppery skin colour, slanted, almond-shaped eyes, high cheekbones, thin lips and tufted, tightly curled hair. Both speak click languages, though there are major differences between them. Both hunted and collected wild foods and neither grew crops.

Approximately 60,000 years ago, the peoples of sub-Saharan Africa were of one tribe, probably of Khoe/San type. It is believed that the Bantu-speaking people were an offshoot from the Khoe/San tribe. This occurred in the tropical rain forests of equatorial Africa about 10,000 years ago. The Bantu-speaking people gradually developed darker skin pigmentation and different physical attributes because of the different environments they eventually occupied.

The origins of the Tswana tribes

In Botswana, about 1,000 years ago, large chiefdoms began to emerge in the area between Sowa Pan and the Tswapong Hills. Large settlements developed on hilltops. These people are known as the "Toutswe", after the first of their capitals, which was excavated on Toutswemogala Hill. Soon these communities were eclipsed by the Great Zimbabwe Empire, which spread its domain over much of eastern Botswana.

Around 1300 AD, peoples in present-day Transvaal began to coalesce into the linguistic and political groups they form today. This resulted in the emergence of three main groups: the Bakgalagadi, the Batswana and the Basotho, each of which had smaller divisions. Each group lived in small, loosely knit communities, spread widely over large areas of land. They spoke dialects of the same language and shared many cultural affinities.

Two central features of the history of the Batswana are fission and fusion. Groups of people broke off from their parent tribe and moved to new land, creating a new tribe and absorbing or subjugating the people they found there. This is how a single group of Batswana living in the Magaliesberg Mountains in northern Transvaal evolved into the numerous Tswana tribes, which exist today.

In 18th century further movements and split-ups of the Batswana resulted in the Tswana tribes which exist today: Bakhurutshe, Bangwato, Bakwena, Bangwaketse, Bakgatla, Batlhokwa, Barolong, Batlhaping and, much later, the Batawana.

The earlier farming inhabitants of Botswana - the Bakgalagadi - also split into several groups, namely the Bakgwateng, Babolaongwe, Bangologa, Baphaleng, Bashaga and many smaller groups. This then was how the Tswana tribes came to be living in Botswana as they were until about 200 years ago.

The Difaqane wars

The Difaqane wars were a devastating wave of tribal wars that swept across Botswana and much of southern Africa in the early 1800s.

By the early 19th century, populations in southern Africa had expanded to such a point that most fertile land was occupied. During the 1700s, the slave and ivory trades increased rapidly in southeastern Africa - minor kings were attacking their neighbours and selling their captives to slave traders. Along the Orange River, white bandits began to terrorize people living in the east.

Nguni peoples (Bantu-speaking peoples including the Zulus and Xhosas) began to form themselves into stronger units to resist these pressures. In 1816 King Shaka seized control of the Zulu chiefdom, and, by forcefully incorporating other smaller tribes, rapidly formed a powerful, war-like nation. Conquered peoples, began to move northwestwards in vast numbers (80,000 - 100,000) destroying everything in their path.

Towards the end of the Difaqane wars, tribes slowly began to re-establish themselves. The chiefs, in their efforts to reconstruct, began to exchange ivory and skins for guns with European, Griqua and Rolong traders, who began to infiltrate the African interior at that time.

Missionaries and traders

In the 19th century numerous missionary societies were formed in Europe and America to send out proselytizers around the world. The London Missionary Society was one of the first to preach amongst the Batswana. It set up a mission station at Kuruman (near present-day Vryburg in South Africa) in 1816. The untiring Robert Moffat headed the station for 50 years.

The famous Dr. David Livingstone arrived in 1841, worked out of Kuruman for about two years, and then married Moffat's daughter, Mary. Though much more interested in exploration than missionary work, and later much more involved in the abolition of the slave trade, Livingstone set up a mission station at Kolobeng amongst the Bakwena.

From Kuruman, Christianity very gradually spread to the interior. Missionaries settled amongst the people, often at the invitation of the chiefs who wanted guns and knew that the presence of missionaries encouraged the traders. By 1880 every major village of every tribe in Botswana had a resident missionary and their influence had become a permanent feature of life.

The missionaries worked through the chief, recognizing that the chief's conversion was the key to the rest of the tribe. Chiefs' responses varied - from Khama's (of the Bangwato) wholehearted embrace of the faith, to Sekgoma Letsholathebe's (of the Batawana) outright rejection, which he claimed was in defence of his culture.


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