1902 Encyclopedia > Bechwana


BECHWANA, or BBTJUANA, the name of a nation extending over a large tract of the interior of South Africa, lying between 22° and 28° S. lat. and 22° and 29° E. long. There are remains as well as traditions indicating that they once occupied lands further to the south and north of their present boundaries. The country is bounded on the W. by what may be called the southern Sahara ; on the E. by the Limpopo, and on the N. by the Matebele, a tribe which escaped the power of the Chaka, the bloody chief of the Zulus. The country, though hilly and undulating, abounds in grassy plains and considerable forests of acacia. Trees, however, are scarce, as the grass is generally burned off every year; and the young wood is thus not allowed time to grow. The natives also, in order to get fresh garden ground and obtain branches to raise their houses and make fences, are constantly destroying trees, and thus increasing the dryness and sterility of the country. It is evident, from the dry beds of what were once rivers and from remains of ancient forests, that, at an early period, the country must have been abundantly watered. From the many cattle folds and walls of defence scattered over the country, and ruins of ancient towns, it is also evident that at that period stone-dykes were very common.

The number of the Bechwana has been variously estimated, and according to some amounts to more than 200,000. Their language is copious, with but few slight dialectic differences, being entirely free of the Hottentot elements found in the Kaffre and Zulu. The power of the language which, like the Kaffre and Zulu, belongs to the Ba-nta family, formerly unwritten, may be conceived when it is known that, besides elementary and educational works, the whole of the Bible has been translated into it and is now read by thousands.
The Bechwana are divided into numerous tribes, all inde-pendent of each other, and each governed by its own chiefs and councillors. The names of some of the principal tribes are Batlapee, Barolong, Bangwaketse, Bakhatla, Bakuena, Bamangwato, and Batauana, the last living near the lake Ngami, first visited by Dr Livingstone. There are numerous minor divisions, with laws and customs very similar. With the exception of the Balala (the poor inhabiting the country), they are not nomadic, but live in towns of considerable size, containing from 5000 to 40,000. Doubtless, their former warlike habits had the tendency to induce them to congregate for security ; for latterly they live, for the sake of agriculture and pasturage, in many formerly uninhabited places.

Though from time immemorial they had been engaged in constant strife with each other, and thus inured to warfare, they were no match for the warlike Kaffre and butchering Zulu and Matebele. Since the introduction of Christianity among the Bechwana, their clannish strifes have ceased; and, being a people of industrious habits, and acute observers of whatever may increase their property and comfort, they go in great numbers to Cape Colony and other parts where they can obtain labour and wages, being prized as servants. This enables them to return enriched to their homes in a few years.

The government of the Bechwana may he said to be both mon-archical and patriarchal, and of a comparatively mild character, the king, as chief, seldom exercising his individual authority inde-pendent of his councillors and subordinate chiefs. They have their public assemblies (parliaments), but only when circumstances, chiefly in reference to war, require. These are generally characterized by great freedom of speech, and sometimes the king's shortcomings are unsparingly dealt with. All is taken in good part, and there is no interruption of the speaker occupying the arena. The king gener-ally closes the meeting with a long speech, referring to the subjects which each speaker had either supported or condemned, not forget-ing to endeavour to clear his own character of any imputation. These public assemblies are now of very rare occurrence.

The Bechwana are well formed, dark brown ox bronze, and the majority handsome and not assimilated to the negro type. In most the lower part of the face projects, but the skull exhibits no differ-ence from the European type, and many have broad high foreheads, while there is nothing to be seen like the bent-out legs of the negro. The lips are generally thicker than in Europeans, and many have the nostrils wider. The hair is not wool, but simply hair curled and frizzled. They possess the knowledge of smelting iron and copper ore, and make hoes for husbandry, spears, battle-axes, tools, and a great variety of ornaments, chiefly of brass and other alloys. They prepare the skins of animals, and fabricate a variety of utensils. Agriculture and house-building (in which more skill and labour are required than with African huts in general, .the houses being always round and admirably adapted to resist high and stormy winds) are the work of the women, while the men make the garments, hunt, and go to war when required.

The wealth of the Bechwana consists in their cattle, which they tend with the greatest care, manifesting a shrewd discrimination of localities and pasture suited to oxen, sheep, and goats. Living in a warm climate, they require few garments; but, though to a European they appear scantily dressed, both sexes are strictly decent, and are disgusted by the comparative nudity of the Kaffre and Matebele. Circumcision is practised, and for that purpose youths are selected from 10 to 13 years of age ; these retire from the towns, the place in which they are being considered sacred till the season of seclusion, a month or more, is over, when they are allowed to return to their friends, and are looked on as men ready to go to war. The people have many ceremonies and superstitions, believing in the influence of witchcraft and charms, but no one of these has the most remote reference to religion. They have no knowledge whatever of idols, or anything intended to represent an invisible power, and consequently have nothing of a religious character. They do not possess a vestige of worship. With regard to a divine Being their ideas are vague in the extreme. The name morimo, from mo, a personal pronoun, and rimo, from gorimo (above), instead of being applied to something or some one heavenly—the Creator, Upholder, and Ruler of all-—is ap-plied to something that does harm, that inflicts death, or, according to some, a noxious creature that sometimes emerges from a hole to do mischief. So little do the natives care about it, that it never enters into their minds to have recourse to a charm, or anything of a fetish character, to ward off the influence it might be thought to possess. They never allow their thoughts to pierce beyond the moment of death, which is to them the finale of man's existence. Among some of the interior nations there is a belief in the manes of dead kings of note, but not of the commonalty. Dr Moffat was once present when Moselekatse, the king of the Matabele, in a meeting in the midst of his nobles, in the dark, consulted the spirit of Maehobane, his long deceased father. Whatever worship the Bechwana of old may have had, they have none now, not even of any of the animals—the fish, crocodile, monkey, &c.—from which some of the tribes are named. They have a superstitious dread of some things, which, in most if not in all cases, originates with the rainmaker. This is a notable character among all the interior tribes, and possesses supreme influence over the native mind. He has only to speak and it is done, whatever his orders may be. He pretends to give medicine to the clouds, and has recourse to all sorts of tricks and demands on his impatient dupes in order to gain time. Very frequently, when all fails, he falls a sacrifice to their wrath.

The country of the Bechwana south of the tropic of Capricorn is healthy, and admirably suited for pulmonary complaints. The temperature ranges from zero to 105°, and when it exceeds this, as it sometimes does, heavy thunderstorms follow, and not un-frequently hail falls of great size. The principal products are a variety of species of millet (Holcus Sorghum), kidney beans, pumpkins, water melons, sweet reed, &c.

The resources and capabilities of the country are small. Hitherto the exports have been principally ostrich feathers, ivory, and cattle ; but the first two are become very scarce since the introduction of the horse and rifle. The elephant is now found principally in the regions where the tsetse fly abounds, and where horses cannct live, while the ostrich betakes itself to the deserts. (E. M.)

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