By Abayomi Azikiwe, Editor Pan African NewsWire
Perhaps one of the most well-known and feared women military leaders during the early 19th century was Mantatisi (Mmanthatisi) who was born the daughter of Chief Mothaba of the Basia in the Harrismith District of the later Orange Free State. She became the wife of Mokotjo, the chief of the neighbouring Batlokoa. Mokotjo died while their son Sekonyela was still too young to take over control of the chieftiancy. As a result Mantatisi assumed control and acted as regent for Sekonyela.
Reports claim that Mantatisi was a tall attractive woman who bore her husband four sons altogether. After her husband’s death a series of military encroachments by the AmaHlubi clans who were fleeing their homes in neighboring Natal. According to historians of the region, Mantatisi commanded the Batlokoa into the Caledon Valley where they drove out the more peaceful Sotho clans living in the area. Her troops seized the crops and cattle of the people they attacked leaving a trail of destruction and devastation.
Her reign of military conquest extended as far as central modern day Botswana. At the height of her military and political power her army was estimated to contain forty thousand fighters. However, she eventually suffered a series of defeats beginning in Bechuanaland in January of 1823. Peter Becker describes the developments during this period when he states that:
“Meanwhile Mantatisi was approaching with forty thousand men, women and children. It was January 1823, the time of the year crops were ripening and food was usually plentiful. But the Wild Cat People were compelled to live frugally, for so great had been the chaos brought about by lifaqane in general and the plundering of Mantatisi, Mpangazita and Matiwane in particular that entire tribes had vanished from their settlements even before they had tilled their fields in preparation for planting. Indeed, the Central Plateau swarmed with hunger-stricken stragglers and small, detached parties of bandits. Apart from roots, bulbs and berries, there was little food to be found in the veld, certainly not enough to feed so large a horde as that of Mantatisi.”
Nonetheless, the most prosperous of the Bechuana chiefs, Makaba of the Bangwaketsi, made a firm decision not to surrender to Mantatisi without a struggle. The same above-mentioned author, Peter Becker, continues by saying that:
“Meanwhile, the old Chief had decided not to surrender to Mantatisi without a fight. He called up every available warrior, garrisoned every pass leading to his capital, and with the guile for which he was famous, prepared traps into which he planned to lead his aggressors.
“Since her flight from the Harrismith District Mantatisi had managed to brush aside all opposition in the teritories she traversed, but now in the stifling bushveld of Bechuanaland she was to come face to face with a foe whose fighting forces were as numerous and also better fed than those of the Wild Cat People. The vanguard of Manatisi’s army strode into ambuscades; large groups of men topped headlong into concealed pitfalls and met their death beneath volleys of barbed javelins. A battle broke out, in the course of which hundreds of the invaders were massacred. Before the situation could develop into a rout Mantatisi suddenly disengaged her armies and retreated with her hordes to the east. Thus Makaba became the first Sotho chief to repulse the formidable Wild Cat Army, and to this day he is spoken of as the ‘Man of Conquest.'”
After Mantatisi’s son Sekonyele reached maturity he took control of the Batlokoa social structures and military. Eventually they would be conquered by the Basotho King Mosheshoe I. In the work known as “Chronicles of Basutoland: A Running Commentary on the Events of the Years 1830-1902 by the French Protestant Missionaries in Southern Africa,” a correspondence from church operatives in Basutoland stated the following in regard to the fate of the Batlokoa under Sekonyela the son of Mantatisi:
“There is no doubt that Moshoeshoe would have preferred to win his old adversary to his side but Sekonyela is irreconcilable as well as dangerous. With the British about to retire from the Sovereignty, Moshoeshoe is faced with the prospect of the inevitable alliance between Sekonyela and the Boers. Before it is too late, Sekonyela must be destroyed. Fortunately, the latter chooses this very moment to goad Moshoeshoe to retaliation and thus plays into his hands, once again, but for the last time.
“Moshoeshoe, a man of peace, for the first time in this record appears in the unusual role of a fighting general and at once reveals himself a master. Now at last he is free to deal with his traditional enemy, an enemy whom he has spared for years. Unfortunately, this meant the end of the Batlokoa tribe as such and their crushing defeat will simultaneously rid Moshoeshoe of their presence and clear the field for further penetration by their common foe, the insatiable land-devouring Boer.
“Moshoeshoe…gentle and humane by nature, has seen his power grow from year to year, and he may be described to-day as stronger and, at the same time, more influential and wealthy than any other chief in Southern Africa.”