BECHUANA, a South African people, forming a branch of the great Bantu-Negroid family. They occupy not only Bechuanaland, to which they have given their name, and Basutoland, but are the most numerous native race in the Orange River Colony and in the western and northern districts of the Transvaal. It seems certain that they reached their present home later than the Zulu-Xosa [Kaffir] peoples who came down the east coast of the continent, but it is probable that they started on their southward journey before the latter. It would appear that the forerunners of the movement were the Bakalahari and Balala, who were subsequently reduced to the condition of serfs by the later arrivals, and who by intermingling to a certain extent with the aborigines gave rise to the "Kalahari Bushmen" (see Kalahari Desert). The Bechuana family may be classed in two great divisions, the western or Bechuana proper, and the eastern or Basuto. The Bechuana proper consist of a large number of tribes, whose early history is extremely confused and involved owing to continual inter-tribal wars and migrations, during which many tribes were practically annihilated. Further confusion was produced by subsequent marauding expeditions by the coast "Kaffirs." An ingenious attempt to disentangle the highly complicated tribal movements which took place in the early 19th century may be found in Stow's Native Races of South Africa. One migration of particular interest calls for mention. In the early part of the 19th century a number of Basuto, led by the chief Sebituane, crossed the Zambezi near the Victoria Falls, and, under the name Makololo, established a supremacy over the Barotse and neighbouring tribes on the upper portion of the river, imposing their language on the conquered peoples. After the death of Sekeletu, Sebituane's successor, the vassal tribes arose and exterminated their conquerors. Only a few escaped, whom Sekeletu had sent with David Livingstone to the coast. These established themselves to the south of Lake Nyasa, where they are still to be found. Sesuto speech, however, still prevails in Barotseland. The chief Bechuana tribes were the Batlapin and Barolong (the last including the Baratlou, Bataung, Barapulana and Baseleka), together with the great Bakuena or Bakone people (including the Bahurutsi, Batlaru, Bamangwato, Batauana, Bangwaketse and Bakuena). The clans representing the southern Bakuena were in comparatively recent times welded together to form the Basuto nation, of which the founder was the chief Moshesh (see Basutoland). The Basuto have been not only influenced in certain cultural details (e.g. the form of their huts) by the neighbouring Zulu-Xosa [Kaffir] peoples, but have moreover received an infusion of their blood which has improved their physique. They are good riders and make considerable use of their horses in war and the chase.
The Bechuana, though not so tall as Kaffirs, average 5 ft. 6 in. in stature; they are of slender build and their musculature is but moderately developed except where a Kaffir strain is found. Their skin is of a reddish-brown or bronze colour, and their features are fairly regular, though in all cases coarser than those of Europeans. One of their chief peculiarities lies in the fact that each tribe respects (usually) a particular animal, which the members of the tribe may not eat, and the killing of which, if necessary, must be accompanied by profuse apologies and followed by subsequent purification. Many of the tribes take their name from their siboko, as the animal in question is called; e.g. the Batlapin, "they of the fish"; Bakuena, "they of the crocodile." The siboko of the Barolong, who as a tribe are accomplished smiths, is not an animal but the metal iron; other tribes have adopted as their particular emblem respectively the Sun, rain, dew, etc. Certain ceremonies are performed in honour of the tribal emblem, hence an inquiry as to the tribe of an individual is put in the form "What do you dance?" In certain tribes the old and feeble and the sickly children were killed, and albinos and the deaf and dumb exposed; those born blind were strangled, and if a mother died in childbirth the infant was buried alive in the same grave. With the extension of British authority these practices were prohibited. Circumcision is universally practised, though there is no fixed age for it. It is performed at puberty, when the boys are secluded for a period in the bush. The operation is accompanied by whipping and even tortures. Girls at puberty must undergo trials of endurance, e.g. the holding of a bar of heated iron without crying out. The Bechuana inhabit, for the most part, towns of considerable size, containing from 5000 to 40,000. Politically they live under a tribal despotism limited by a council of elders, the chief seldom exercising his individual authority independently, though the extent of his power naturally depends on his personality. They have their public assemblies, but only when circumstances, chiefly in reference to war, require. These are generally characterized by great freedom of speech, and there is no interruption of the speaker. The chief generally closes the meeting with a long speech, referring to the subjects which each speaker has either supported or condemned, not forgetting to clear his own character of any imputation. These public assemblies are now, except in Basutoland, of very rare occurrence. The clothing of the men consists of a leather bandage; the women wear a skin apron, reaching to the knee, under which is a fringed girdle. Skin cloaks (kaross) are worn by both sexes, with the difference that the male garment is distinguished by a collar. The hair is kept short for the most part; women shave the head, leaving a tuft on the crown which is plastered with fat and earth, and adorned with beads. Beads are worn, and various bracelets of iron, copper and brass.
The Bechuana are mainly an agricultural people, the Bangwaketse and Bakuena excelling as cultivators. Cattle they possess, but these are used chiefly for the purpose of purchasing wives, especially among the Basuto. At the same time they are excellent craftsmen, and show no little skill in smelting and working iron and copper and the preparation of hides and pottery vessels. The most efficient smiths are the Barolong and Bamangwato (the latter were spared by the Matabele chief Umsilikazi on this account); the Bangwaketse excel as potters; the Barolong as wood carvers, and the Bakuena as hut builders. The huts, with the exception of those of the Basuto who have adopted the Kaffir model, are cylindrical, with clay-plastered walls and a conical roof of thatch. In spite of the constant tribal feuds dating from the beginning of the 19th century, the Bechuana cannot be classed as a warlike people, especially when they are compared with the Zulu. Their weapons consist of the throwing assegai, usually barbed, axes, daggers in carved sheaths, and, occasionally, bows and arrows, the last sometimes poisoned. Hide shields of a peculiar shape, resembling a depressed hour-glass, are found except among the Basuto, who use a somewhat different pattern. Hunting usually takes the form of great drives organized in concert, and the game is driven by means of converging fences to a large pitfall or series of pits. Their religious beliefs are very vague; they appear to recognize a somewhat indeterminate spirit of, mainly, evil tendencies, called Morimo. The plural form of this word, Barimo, is used of the manes of dead ancestors, to whom a varying amount of reverence is paid. There is universal belief in charms and witchcraft, and divination by means of dice is common. Witchdoctors, who are supposed to counteract evil magic, play a not insignificant part, and the magician who claims the power of making rain occupies a very important position, as might be expected among an agricultural people inhabiting a country where droughts are not infrequent. They have a great dread of anything connected with death; when an old man is on the point of expiring, a net is thrown over him, and he is dragged from his hut by a hole in the wall, if possible before life is extinct. The dead are buried in a sitting position with their faces to the north, in which direction lies their ancestral home. Under the influence of missionaries, however, large numbers of the Bechuana have become Christianized, and many of the customs mentioned are no longer practised.
Polygamy is the rule, but, except in the case of chiefs, is not found to the same extent as among the Zulu-Xosa [Kaffirs]. The woman is purchased from her father, chiefly by means of cattle, though among the western Bechuana other articles are included, many of which become the property of the girl herself. The wives live in separate huts, and the first is given priority over those purchased subsequently. Chastity after marriage is the rule, and adultery and rape are severely punished, as offences against property. Cannibalism is found, but is rare and confined to certain tribes.
The Bechuana language, which belongs to the Bantu linguistic family, is copious, with but few slight dialectic differences, and is free from the Hottentot elements found in the Kaffir and Zulu tongues. The richness of the language may be judged from the fact that, though only oral until reduced to writing by the missionaries, it has sufficed for the translation of the whole Bible.
Bibliography. - G.W. Stow, The Native Races of South Africa (London, 1905); Gustav Fritsch, Die Eingeborenen Sud-Afrikas (Breslau, 1872); Robert Moffat, Missionary Labours and Scenes in Southern Africa (1842); David Livingstone, Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa (London, 1857); J.C. MacGregor, Basuto Traditions (Cape Town, 1905).
(T. A. J.)
Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)