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Scotty Smith, the Nama and the British

Publishing Date : 25 December, 2017

JEFF RAMSAY
BUILDERS OF BOTSWANA



We last left off with the German killing of the Australian Edward Presgrave, who was suspected of smuggling arms to the Nama resistance leaders Jacob Morengo and Simon Kooper via Bechuanaland.


Another more notorious figure running guns from Bechuanaland was the infamous highwayman, illicit diamond buyer, flimflam artist, cattle rustler and horse thief and sometime Chobe elephant hunter, George St. Legar Gordon Lennox, aka Scotty Smith, whose mercenary support for the Nama complimented his other role as a British spy.


The life of the outlaw Scotty Smith has been the subject of romantic mythmaking in accounts that portray him as a white South African version Ned Kelly, Billy the Kid or Dick Turpin. This image is best  reflected in Frederick Charles Metrowich’s classic 1962 biography ‘Scotty Smith – South Africa’s Robin Hood’, which in 1970 was adapted as a modestly popular  ‘Western’ style motion picture. Unravelling the real character from legend and hearsay remains a challenge.


Given his long association with British military intelligence, Scotty’s career is arguably more comparable to the likes of Captains Drake or Morgan, an agile freebooter whose adventurous life dovetailed with his long service to the Empire. The history of imperialism is indeed full of such shadowy figures. In this context there is value trying to separate the man from the myths.


Having supposedly deserted from the British military after fighting the Xhosa c. 1878, Scotty nonetheless acted as a British spy, as well as mercenary, on the side of the Batlhaping during the Batswana conflict with the Stellaland and Goshenite filibusters (1881-83). In this context he is said to have assisted the outgunned Kgosi Mankurwane by organizing night raids on Boer farmsteads.


But, when a large faction of the Batlhaping rose up against the British in 1897 he rendered “very valuable work” as an intelligence agent and scout for the expeditionary force that crushed the rebellion. Scotty continued to serve the British as a secret agent during the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902). At the end of the latter conflict he reportedly received a full royal pardon for past legal transgression against the Crown.


Scotty’s relationship with the Nama is known to have predated their uprising against the German occupation. In this respect, even before the conflict he had raised German suspicions leading to their rejection of his claims to a farm among the Nama in southern Namibia. It is also alleged that, again before the war, the Germans had on at least one occasion confiscated goods laden wagons belonging to Smith as contraband.


What is certain is that by 1904, Scotty had established his base near the British German colonial border at Leitland’s Pan in the vicinity of Reitfontien, not far from what is now the southern boundary of the Trans-Kgalagadi Frontier Park. From Leitland’s Pan, Scotty not only ran guns to Witbooi, Marengo and Kooper.  He also organised his own private commando, consisting at any given time of 30-40 Nama, originally recruited by Witbooi, as well as a few white partners, who were further assisted by Khoe (Basarwa) trackers. At the same time, besides maintaining his military intelligence connection, he was also appointed as Justice of the Peace for the region, reflecting a not uncommon imperial frontier pattern of appointing outlaws to uphold the law.



From 1904-07 Scotty’s commando profited by provisioning the Nama, while waylaying German supply wagons and rustling cattle. It is said that the German soldiers in civilian dress often ended up crossing into British territory to buy back their stolen livestock. According to Metrowich:


“The one big weakness of the Hottentots [Nama] was their lack of arms, ammunition and provisions. Scotty was their chief source of supply, and with his gang he smuggled a constant stream of commodities to the rebels. In addition he would raid the German horses and cattle during the night and rush them over the frontier, across the Molopo River, and into the Colony. His stock lifting was so well organised and on such a vast scale that he soon found it necessary to establish a chain to cattle posts in various parts of the Kalahari. At these camps the cattle were fed and rested so that they would fetch good prices when they were sold on the open markets in Kimberly, Vryburg and Upington.”


On at least one occasion the Germans struck back by launching a cross border raid against some of the cattle posts operated by Scotty’s syndicate. The Kaiser also put a bounty of 20,000 marks on his head, which was higher than the rewards initially offered for the capture of the leading Nama Kaptiens. Here it should be remembered that Britain was in no way at war with Germany at the time, and therefore could not be seen to have condoned forays of Scotty’s commando. These exploits on several occasions included the ambushing German forces under the cover of darkness.


How did Scotty get away with what at the time would have been officially seen as blatant cross border crimes? Clearly his status and value as an intelligence agent was an important part of the puzzle. In this respect it is of further interest that the known names of his handlers at the time were associated with the Bechuanaland Protectorate, rather than Cape Colony establishment.

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