The emergence of Basotho as a nation occurred around 1818 when King Moshoeshoe (1786-1870) formed alliances with an amalgam of clans and chiefdoms of southern Sotho people who occupied the area which is presently the Northern and Eastern Free State and Western Lesotho from about 1400 AD.
Moshoeshoe was born at Menkhoaneng in the Northern part of present-day Lesotho in 1786. He was the first son of Mokhachane, a minor chief of the Bakoteli, a branch of the Koena clan. While still under the tutelage of his father Lepoqo, as he was called at the time, played an important role in augmenting the power of the Bakoteli subclan by bringing the senior Sekake group and a number of Bafokeng clans, including the Makara and Ratsiu groups, under his father’s control.
In 1820, at the age of 34, Moshoeshoe moved to Butha-Buthe Mountain with his followers and became chief in his own right, albeit a very minor chief. This coincided with the advent of a highly turbulent period that engulfed the whole of southern Africa and affected the economic and political lives of virtually all the people of the region.
Several unrelated factors were responsible for this, but it was the conflict among the Nguni people in Natal and the arrival of white settlers across the Orange River which had the most far reaching impact on the history of the Basotho and Lesotho.
An important development at this time was the rising military dictatorship of the Zulu King, Shaka, whose attacks on neighbouring clans in northern Natal caused ripple effects which were felt as far afield as Lesotho. This was part of a process of nation building among the Nguni in Natal in the early 1820s which was characterised by the creation of larger political units and centralised structures,of authority.
To compound an already difficult situation, a severe draught hit the region in the early 1800 and sparked off unprecedented competition between these kingdoms for control of prime pasture land and fertile cropping areas. Weaker chiefdoms were either swept aside or absorbed by the centralised structures.
Independent clans such as the Amangwane, under Chief Matiwane, were forced to flee Zululand. In the process they displaced sections of the Zizi and Hlubi people who fled across the Drakensburg in 1818 from the Upper Tugela river basin, followed a short while later by the Amangwane themselves who were being further harassed by Shaka’s armies.
The Hlubi people under Chief Mpagazitha, created a new stream of refugees as they in turn fell upon the Batlokoa people who were at that time living in the area of the present-day Harrismith. The Tlokoa, Hlubi and Ngwane became three separate marauding bands who,seized grain and cattle from each other and from any smaller groups of people they encountered.
These plundering raids, compounded by the drought situation, brought about famine so severe that groups of people in several parts of Lesotho turned to cannibalism. This difficult time, known as Lifaqane, was one of the darkest periods in the history of Lesotho.
Faced with all this widespread devastation of the Lifaqane period, the Basotho were forced to adapt or perish. They soon realised that the most efficient defence strategy against marauding armies was the mountain fortress. Each of the principal chiefs selected a suitable sandstone plateau surrounded by cliffs as their stronghold -the Tlokoa near Ficksburg, the Hlubi near Clocolan and the Ngwane not far from the Berea district of Lesotho.
Meanwhile, Moshoeshoe was attacked by the Tlokoa at his Butha Buthe fortress in 1824. Although Moshoeshoe and his people were not defeated, the clash had exposed the weakness of Butha Buthe as a stronghold. So Moshoeshoe decided to move to the Qiloane plateau, later to be called Thaba Bosiu, as the new site of refuge and defence.
Thaba Bosiu proved to be an impregnable fortress. In was successfully defended against an Amangwane army in 1828; against the Batlokoa during Moshoeshoe’s absence on a cattle raid in 1829; and against the Ndebele of Mzilikaziin 1831.
Meanwhile, Moshoeshoes’s power and influence grew as he offered a friendly hand to his defeated enemies, giving them land and assistance to cultivate crops. Even former cannibals were converted into useful citizens in this way. The Basotho nation was thus largely created from refugees who were shattered remnants of clans scattered by the Lifaqane. It was further strengthened by alliances as Moshoeshoe chose wives from other clans including daughters of the long-established Bafokeng chiefs.