Cannibals as ancestral graves: Moshoeshoe’s devoured grandfather

  • Posted on December 12, 2012

Musa’s Hlatshwayo’s story on the Amabhele and the public outrage that has allegations that they were secretly cannibalistic brings to mind the story of Moshoeshoe and his engagement with the people who devoured his grandfather.

Moshoeshoe, born Lepoqo, in 1786, is acclaimed in Lesotho as the father of the Basotho nation. As a young man with aspirations of becoming a great leader Moshoeshoe consulted Mohlomi, an esteemed seer, asking for potions to make him wise and powerful.  Mohlomi advised the young man that these qualities were dependent not on any magical potions but on clarity of mind, goodness of heart and service to one’s fellow-men.  Mohlomi urged Moshoeshoe to stay close to his grandfather, old Peete, cherish his friendship and keep him safe from harm. Claiming that the old man was endowed with psychic gifts that enabled him to keep those he loved in touch with the spirits of their illustrious ancestors Mohlomi instructed Moshoeshoe that when old Peete passed on he must take charge of the corpse because he alone was capable of performing the necessary burial rites for his grandfather.
Some years later, at a time when Southern Africa was beset by conflict,  Mohlomi, warned Moshoeshoe of approaching doom, telling him that mighty war-faring groups would descend on the defenceless Sotho clans and advised him to take his family to a safer place. The journey of Moshoeshoe and his followers from Butha Buthe to Thaba Bosiu, undertaken in mid 1824, is one of the Basotho’s most often recounted stories and is re-enacted annually. The popular account of this epic march bears all the elements associated with a pilgrimage: hardship, danger, victory over almost insurmountable obstacles and the triumphant arrival at a safe destination. It also includes an encounter with cannibals, an incident that has been used over the years to point Moshoeshoe’s extraordinary capacity to unify diverse groups.

On the journey to Thaba Bosiu Moshoeshoe and his people had to pass through an area reputed to be occupied by people who, driven to starvation by famine and turmoil in the region, had taken to devouring enemy corpses and later those of their fallen comrades and relatives. Having acquired a taste for human flesh these cannibals under the leadership of one Rakotosoane, were said to form themselves into hunting parties, setting off daily in search of victims.  While Moshoeshoe and the leaders of his group passed through the area unscathed, a group of older people and several women carrying young babies lagged behind and were cut off from the main party by the scheming cannibals. Old Peete and eleven babies, snatched from the arms of their mothers, were abducted by the cannibals. On hearing about the attack, Mosheoshoe dispatched a group of warriors to rescue the victims. A couple of the younger women were saved but the only trace of old Peete and the babies was a bloodstained rock, a few garments and a single collar bone.

How did Moshoeshoe respond to this vile attack on his people?  Opinions vary, and the tale has been shifted and embellished somewhat as it has been recounted over the years. One common thread that runs through the various accounts of the incident is the depiction of Moshoshoe as a ruler committed to re-humanising the vilified wrongdoers and integrating them into society as loyal subjects. Another that receives less attention in most of the narratives is Moshoeshoe’s somewhat unusual description of the cannibals as the ‘graves of his ancestors’. 

Some versions of the tale describe how, on hearing of the fate that had befallen his grandfather, Moshoeshoe made sacrifices to the spirits of his ancestors, hoping to placate them for not having laid old Peete to rest in accordance with Mohlomi the seer’s instructions.

Another popular narrative has it that when Moshoeshoe learnt of the tragedy he instructed his warriors to capture the cannibals but not to harm them. As the story goes, the cannibals were captured and taken to Thaba Boisu where a feast had been prepared for them. At the end of the feast Moshoeshoe is said to have offered each one a cow and a plot of land on which to build a house, saying, “You are the graves of my ancestors, you belong among us”.

Etienne Casalis, a missionary attached to the Paris Evangelical Society who settled in the area in 1833, uses the story of the encounter with the cannibals to support a view of Moshoshoe as a ‘good’ king, more interested in restoring tranquillity than wreaking revenge: “Those of his subjects who were innocent of this horrible practice were disposed to treat the guilty with rigour. Moshoshoe wary that this would incur the horrors of civil war, and tend to depopulate sill more a land already almost destitute of inhabitants. He knew also that cannibalism not being the result of national customs and traditions must in reality be repugnant to even those who indulged in it. He therefore answered that men-eaters were living sepulchres and that no one could fight with sepulchres…”

D.F. Ellenberger, another missionary who settled in amongst the Basotho in the mid 19th century uses the incident to cement Moshoshoe’s iconic status as the founder of the Sotho nation demonstrating how even those who had committed the foulest deeds were forgiven, redeemed and brought into the fold of loyal subjects, for the greater good. Ellenberger describes the troubling situation Moshoshoe faced when his son reached the age of circumcision and his creative resolution of this. Customary practice decreed that a son could not be circumcised while the ancestor’s grave remained in a state of defilement. But, Moshoeshoe’s dilemma was that as old Peete had been devoured by cannibals, there was no grave to purify. According to Ellenberger, Moshoeshoe summoned the cannibals to appear before him at Thabo Boisiu. They were very much afraid as there were many among the Basotho who wanted them to be put to death as punishment for their misdeeds. But, as Ellenberger writes, this was “not to Moshoshoe’s mind. At that time, he could ill afford to lose any man, so, bringing to bear the ingenuity which rarely failed him at critical moments ..., he observed that to his mind the better plan would be to rub the purification offal over them all, as to all intents and purposes they were the tomb of the departed ... The chief’s view of the matter prevailed and the next morning an ox was killed, and the ceremony of purification carried out in due form, Rakotosoane and his companions being treated as a grave and their lives being spared…”

It’s a fascinating story, playing into the stereotypes of missionary tales of the time which depicted cannibals as inhuman ogres; entangling ancestral rituals and beliefs about the sacred nature of grave sites, wherever they may be and; reinforcing the Christian ideology of the redemptive power of forgiveness preached by the missionaries.

Ricard, A. (1993) The Hungry Cannibals: French Missionary Narratives about Lesotho in the 19th Century, Ohio State University http://www.cean.sciencespobordeaux.fr/pageperso/canible123.pdf
Gill, S.J. (1993) A Short History of Lesotho, Morija Museum & Archives
Government of Lesotho, Ministry of Tourism, Environment & Culture (2007) Moshoeshoe 1 Route, UNDP, Lesotho

Jo-Anne Duggan is the Director of the Archival Platform

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