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Joseph McCabe (1816-70)

Publishing Date : 08 May, 2018


This week’s photo, taken in Molepolole in 1865, shows the merchant Joseph McCabe surrounded by women and children. Among the ivory for gun runners who armed the Batswana on the eve of the 1852-53 Boer War few names became more celebrated among Batswana, or despised by the Transvaal Boers, than McCabe.

On at least two occasions, in 1846 and 1850, McCabe was detained and had his goods confiscated by the Transvaal authorities for smuggling guns to the Batswana. To some extent he was his own victim, as he was in the habit of publishing his travelogues in local newspapers. It was after his first arrest that Boer suspicions also began to focus on Livingstone. Like a number of traders, McCabe used Livingstone's mission station as a storage depot.

In May 1852, with the prospect of war imminent, the Bakwena Kgosi Sechele and Bangwaketse Kgosi Senthufe together agreed to allow McCabe, along with a German colleague named Maher and several Batswana, to travel to Ngamiland via the Dultwe, Kang, and Ghanzi. At Kang they were joined by some Griqua and a party of Bangwaketse.

While Batswana had conducted trade across the Kgalagadi for generations, prior to 1852 its routes had remained closed to European and Griqua wagons. McCabe was thus the first outsider to observe and record how local Bakgalagadi, Basarwa, and Batswana communities had adapted themselves and their livestock to the harsh, semi-arid environment, notably learning from them and subsequently publicising to the world of botany the value of tsamma melons.

After reaching Toteng, McCabe visited the Chobe, where he initiated trading with the new Makololo Kgosi Sekuletu. By the time he returned to Sechele's in December the Batswana-Boer war had been going on for several months. In this respect, Maher, who had separated from him, had been killed by Barolong who mistook him for a Boer. After the war McCabe prospered trading among the Batswana and Amandebele before his death in Molepolole in 1870.



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