History Files

African Kingdoms

Southern Africa


Lesotho / Basutoland

Lesotho is a small 'island' kingdom within the heart of the modern state of South Africa. Totally landlocked, it is surrounded on all sides by its bigger neighbour. The earliest peoples here were Khoisan hunter-gatherers. They were largely replaced by Wasja-speaking tribes largely during the last phase of the Bantu migrations around AD 1000.

A single state emerged under the paramount chiefs of the royal clan of the Bakwena when Moshoeshoe I formed the clan in the early nineteenth century, although it was quickly drawn under British control.

(Information by Peter Kessler, with basic original information supplied by Juan Fandos-Rius, with additional information from the BBC documentary series, Lost Kingdoms of Africa, first broadcast on 5 January 2010, and from External Link: Lesotho Genealogy.)



Minor chief.

? - 1822


Son. Minor chief of the Bakoteli clan.


The son of Mokhachane is Moshoeshoe. He now forms his own clan, the Bakwena, and becomes its first chief.

Lesotho house, Sani Pass
This is a traditional Lesotho house of the type to be found across the region, this one being located in the Sani Pass, in the west of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa

1804 - 1870

Moshoeshoe I

Son. Born c.1780, died 11 Mar 1870. First Basotho chief.

1816 - 1828

In the space of twelve years, Shaka turns the small Zulu chiefdom into an empire which surpasses anything his father or the neighbouring tribes had envisaged. He goes from settlement to settlement, persuading with his spear the northern Nguni chieftains to join the newfound empire. This time of empire-building is called the Mfecane, or 'the crushing'. Those who refuse to cooperate can chose between death or exile, and the latter flee to the foothills of the Drakensburg Mountains.

1821 - 1832

Moshoeshoe and his followers settle around the Butha-Buthe Mountain, joining up with former adversaries in their resistance against the Lifaqane, a people who have associations with Shaka Zulu. The Basutoland tribal state is founded by Moshoeshoe (officially from 1822), formed out of this alliance of small groups who are united in resistance. He is termed by later generations as the 'Father of the Basotho people'.

1834 - 1838

The first Boer settlers (trekkers) arrive on the western borders of the tribal region, claiming land rights. This act sparks decades of conflict.

1843 - 1848

In order to halt the flood of settlers, Moshoeshoe signs a treaty with the British governor of the Cape Colony which establishes Basutoland as a protectorate on 13 December 1843. The Boers have to be suppressed in a short-lived action by the British in 1848.

1854 - 1868

The British temporarily pull out of the area, leaving Basutoland to fight its own battles, most notably the Free State-Basotho War against the Boers of Orange Free State in 1858. Following defeats in which much of his territory is lost, Moshoeshoe appeals directly to Queen Victoria and in 1868, Basutoland becomes one of Britain's High Commission Territories.

Protectorate of Basutoland
AD 1868 - 1965

The original native occupants of this region of southern Africa were Khoisan hunter-gatherers. They had largely been replaced by Wasja-speaking tribes during the last phase of the Bantu migrations, around AD 1000. A single Sotho state eventually emerged in the early nineteenth century under the leadership of the paramount chiefs of the royal clan of the Bakwena.

The first Boer settlers had arrived on the western borders of the Basutoland tribal region from 1834, claiming land rights. This act sparked decades of conflict with the Sotho natives, forcing them in 1843 to sign a treaty with the British governor of the Cape Colony. British military action in 1848 suppressed Boer activity for a while, but a temporary British withdrawal from the region between 1854-1868 led to the chief of Basutoland appealing directly to Queen Victoria for help. The result was that Basutoland was established as a British High Commission Territory on 12 March 1868, essentially establishing borders that remain valid to this day. This seemed to be the only way for the British authorities to protect the territory against continued encroachment by Boer settlers who were intent on taking all of the territory for themselves. Unfortunately the agreement involved permanently ceding Basutoland's western territories, which had been taken by the Boers in 1858. During the protectorate period, Basutoland had no flag of its own - instead it flew the British Union Flag as its national flag until independence was achieved in 1966.

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information from External Links: BBC Country Profiles, and Flags of the World, and History World, and Lesotho Genealogy.)

1870 - 1891

Letsie I Moshoeshoe

Son of Moshoeshoe of Basutoland. Born c.1811, died 20 Oct 1891.


The administration of Basutoland is transferred to the British Cape Colony, unfortunately without any reference to Chief Letsie I Moshoeshoe or his people.

Chief Moshoeshoe I and ministers
The long-lived founder of the Bosotho kingdom, Chief Moshoeshoe I, remained on the throne for just long enough to see the benefits that were delivered by accepting the safety of a British protectorate, and is pictured here in very low quality surrounded by his ministers

1881 - 1884

The British have been treating Basutoland in the same way as any of their conquests - governing it as a territory without any reference to the people who live there - and this leads to the Gun War in 1881. The conflict is triggered when the administration attempts to relieve the natives of their firearms, but the outcome is surprisingly beneficial for those natives. In 1884, Basutoland is returned to the status of crown colony, and the Basutoland chiefs retain a large degree of autonomy.

1891 - 1905

Lerothodi Letsie

Son. Ruled 20 Oct 1891-19 Aug 1905.

1905 - 1913

Letsie II Lerothodi

Son. Ruled 21 Aug 1905-28 Jan 1913.


The union of South Africa is enacted in 1910 with the merging together of the Cape Colony, the Natal Colony, the Transvaal, and the Orange River Colony. Given the tensions that had arisen when Basutoland had been administered by the union's predecessor, the Cape Colony, between 1871-1881, there is strong and successful pressure within Basutoland to prevent the British ceding the territory to the new republic.

1913 - 1939

Nathaniel Griffith Lerothodi

Brother. Ruled 11 Apr 1913-Jul 1939.

1939 - 1940

Simon Seeiso Griffith

Son. Ruled 3 Aug 1939-26 Dec 1940.

1939 - 1945

The Nazi German invasion of Poland on 1 September is the trigger for the Second World War. With both France and Britain, under Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, pledged to support Poland, both countries have no option but to declare war on 3 September. Both countries are forced to draw on the resources of their respective empires, with the result that 20,000 Sotho serve in the British forces for the duration of the war.

During that time - on 26 December 1940 - Chief Simon Seeiso Griffith dies. With his son only two years of age, the throne is initially safeguarded by Gabasane Masupha, principal chief of Thupa Kuba, as acting paramount chief. Then Mantsebo Amelia 'Matsaba succeeds him in this role until the young Moshoeshoe comes of age and can take the throne in 1960.

1940 - 1941

Gabasane Masupha

Acting head of state, 26 Dec 1940-28 Jan 1941. Died 1949.

1941 - 1960

Mantsebo Amelia 'Matsaba

Female. Acting head of state, 28 Jan 1941-12 Mar 1960. Died 1964.

1960 - 1965

Moshoeshoe II

Son of Simon. Ruled 12 Mar 1960-30 Apr 1965. King 1965-1966.


With political parties having emerged in the 1950s, and the pressure for independence growing, Basutoland is granted autonomy by Britain in 1965. It becomes the kingdom of Basutoland on 30 April of that year. Paramount Chief Moshoeshoe (ie. the chief of chiefs) is now king in his own right, although with a certain level of hand-holding by Britain during this transition process.


Full independence is gained for Basutoland from Britain on 30 October 1966, although the kingdom has already been renamed Lesotho (on 4 October). Chief Leabua Jonathan of the Basotho National Party serves as the state's first prime minister.

Kingdom of Lesotho
AD 1966 - Present Day

The modern Lesotho is unusual in surviving as a kingdom with a ruling family, despite going through the usual process of colonial occupation and subsequent independence. It is a landlocked island state in western South Africa, which surrounds it on all sides along with highlands which mean that many of the villages can be reached only on horseback, by foot, or by light aircraft. It has a population of a little over two million, Sesotho being their main language along with English.

Khoisan hunter-gatherers in this region were largely replaced by Wasja-speaking tribes during the last phase of the Bantu migrations, around AD 1000. A single state eventually emerged in the early nineteenth century, under the leadership of the paramount chiefs of the royal clan of the Bakwena. The new state was quickly drawn under British control as the protectorate of Basutoland, largely on a mutually-agreed basis in order to protect it from Boer settlers who wanted the land. The kingdom gained autonomy from Britain in 1965 as the kingdom of Basutoland. Full independence from Britain followed a year and-a-half later, on 30 October 1966, by which time Basutoland had already become Lesotho (on 4 October 1966). The name roughly translates as the 'country of the Sesotho-speaking people'. Departing the empire on friendly terms, Lesotho remained within the Commonwealth of Nations, with Chief Leabua Jonathan of the Basotho National Party serving as its first prime minister.

Resources are scarce and a large proportion of people live below the poverty line - a consequence of the harsh environment of the highland plateau and limited agricultural space in the lowlands. The former British protectorate had been heavily dependent on South Africa, and modern Lesotho remains so, to an extent. Over many decades, thousands of workers have been forced by the lack of job opportunities to find work in South African mines. The Lesotho Highlands Water Project was completed in the 1990s to export water to South Africa, this being a natural resource that Lesotho certainly does have in plentiful supply. The kingdom's capital is at Maseru, which is also its largest city.

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information from World Population Prospects, Table A1, Department of Economic and Social Affairs Population Division (2009), and from External Links: BBC Country Profiles, and the New York Times, and Lesotho Genealogy.)

1966 - 1970

Moshoeshoe II

King, 30 Oct 1966-10 Feb 1970. Exiled until later in the year.


The ruling national party loses the first general election, but the prime minister, Leabua Jonathan, refuses to cede power to the winning opposition. Instead he declares himself as having been returned as the country's head of state. A low-level and generally ineffective revolt begins against him while the king is reduced to the role of ceremonial monarch and is temporarily sent into exile in the Netherlands.

King Moshoeshoe II of Lesotho
Moshoeshoe II enjoyed an 'interesting' time as the leader of his people, being promoted from paramount chief of Basutoland to king in 1965 and then renaming the state as Lesotho in 1966, and being sent into exile twice during his kingdom's troubled political situation (shown here with Princess Marina representing Queen Elizabeth II during Lesotho's independence celebrations)


Leabua Jonathan

Head of state, 10 Feb-5 Jun 1970.



Wife of Moshoeshoe II. Queen regent, 5 Jun-5 Dec 1970.


Mamohato performs the role of regent for the country between 5 June and 5 December 1970. By this time, Leabua Jonathan has regained control of the country and feels that it is safe for the king to return. Jonathan retains full executive powers, however, and Moshoeshoe is little more than a ceremonial ruler.

1970 - 1990

Moshoeshoe II

Restored, 5 Dec 1970-10 Mar 1990. Exiled again in 1987.

1986 - 1990

South Africa blockades the state, demanding the expulsion of anti-apartheid activists. A military coup forces the ruling party of Chief Jonathan out of office and a military council is established by Major-General Justin Lekhanya which grants executive power to the king, but after a falling out in the following year (in 1987) the king again goes into exile. He retains the title until 1990. His wife, Queen Mamohato, acts as regent between 10 March and 12 November 1990, after which the tribal college of chiefs picks a successor and her son is sworn in as king.



Queen regent again, 10 Mar-12 Nov 1990.

1990 - 1995

Letsie III

Son. King, 12 Nov 1990-25 Jan 1995. Abdicated.

1991 - 1995

The military junta changes hands in 1991, with Major-General Lekhanya being forced out by Colonel Elias Tutsoane Ramaema. The ban on political activity is lifted and, as a result, power is handed over to a democratically elected government in 1993. This fails to achieve stability within the kingdom, however, and fighting is sparked between rival army factions in 1994. During this uncertainty, Moshoeshoe returns as a private citizen in 1992 and Letsie abdicates in favour of his father being restored to the throne in 1995.

1995 - 1996

Moshoeshoe II

Restored, 25 Jan 1995-15 Jan 1996. Died in a car accident.


Almost exactly one year after regaining his throne, the fifty-seven year-old Moshoeshoe dies in a potentially questionable car accident, and his wife assumes the position of regent for the second time between 15 January and 7 February. Her son Letsie III then succeeds Moshoeshoe to the throne for a second time. However, by this stage the monarch has no legislative or executive powers. The majority of his duties are ceremonial.



Queen regent for a third time, 15 Jan-7 Feb 1996.

1996 - Present

Letsie III

Returned to the throne from 7 Feb 1996.

1997 - 1999

The Basutoland Congress Party dismisses Ntsu Mokhehle as its leader, so he forms the Lesotho Congress of Democrats (LCD). In the following year he wins the general elections and Pakalitha Mosisili becomes prime minister. The opposition stages protests against the results and rioting breaks out. At the government's urging the South African Development Community (SADC) sends in a joint Botswanan-South African military force to help restore order, and they remain until 1999.


In February, Prime Minister Mosisili declares a state of emergency and appeals for food aid. Aid officials state that hundreds of thousands face shortages after a three-year struggle against drought. Bizarrely, perhaps, March sees the official opening of the first phase of the multi-billion-dollar Lesotho Highlands Water Project, which supplies water to South Africa.

Katse Dam, Lesotho
The year 2004 saw the opening of the first phase of the Lesotho Highlands Water project, which would supply the kingdom's most plentiful natural resource to South Africa - and by 2006, the Katse Dam was the highest in Africa

2014 - 2015

Prime minister Thomas Thabane briefly flees to South Africa in August 2014, alleging a military coup against him. South Africa becomes involved in mediating during the crisis, and elections are brought forward by almost two years in an effort to sort out the kingdom's fractious political state. Held in February 2015, the Democratic Congress (DC) party ousts Thabane's All Basotho Congress (ABC) party by uniting with smaller parties. After the election produces no clear winner, Pakalitha Mosisili heads the country's second consecutive coalition government.

Prince Lerotholi Seeiso

Son and heir. Born 2007.

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