Christopher Bethell

Title Soldier and Agent
Other Names
Date of Birth 1856-00-00
Date of Death 1884-07-31

Edited 12 October 2016  

Bethell, Christopher:
Born 1856, Died July 1884.

Bethell was born of an aristocratic landowning family in Yorkshire, northern England. When at Cambridge University, he developed a fondness for gambling, and ran up considerable debts. He was in 1878, in his own words, "bundled off to the Cape on the shortest notice by an infuriated parent". Bethell was related by marriage to Colonel (later General) Charles Warren who was then Special Commissioner for Griqualand West settling the land claims of the various contestants. This coincided with the so-called Griqua rebellion, essentially an armed resistance by the indigenous people of the region to the land loss they had suffered as a consequence of the discovery of diamonds in the region.

Sent to Kimberley, Bethell was appointed as a Lieutenant in the Intelligence Department of the Griqualand Field Force.

 As part of his duties he was sent north to the land of the independent Batswana. Here he met, and befriended, Montshiwa, the kgosi  (chief) of the Tshidi-Barolong, living in (what became) Mafikeng. After the end of hostilities in Griqualand West, Bethell moved to Mafikeng and became an agent to Montshiwa, establishing himself as a trader and hunter as well. He formed a close association with the Barolong and assisted them to repel, by force of arms, the repeated invasions of Montshiwa's country by white mercenaries from the Transvaal, whose activities were sanctioned by the Transvaal authorities. He acquired arms and ammunition for the Barolong and recruited white mercenaries to assist in the defence of Mafikeng when it was besieged by the mercenaries in 1881.

Bethell campaigned tirelessly for the extension of British protection to the baRolong, in an effort to secure them in their land. In time, he came to be regarded by British officials in South Africa as a thorn in their flesh. He did earn the respect, however, of the Rev John Mackenzie, then a missionary of the London Missionary Society who was later appointed Deputy Commissioner for Bechuanaland.

In 1883, Bethell married a moRolong, Tepo Boapile, thus identifying himself completely with the Barolong cause, and alienating him further from significant sections of British colonial society and his family. Bethell assisted the baHurutshe under Ikalafeng  to resist the intrusions of the South African Republic by allegedly providing them with guns and ammunition in February 1883. He  was brutally murdered by the white mercenaries in a skirmish that took place at Rooigrond near Mafikeng in July 1884. He ordered a retreat from the scene of action but as the baRolong force withdrew, Israel Molema, a nephew of Montshiwa's, was wounded. Bethell lifted him onto his horse and attempted to carry him to safety, but the attackers caught up with them, shooting him in the face. He then offered to surrender, but the mercenaries shot him dead whilst he lay on the ground.

Bethell's death was not in vain, however, as it attracted the attention of the British authorities and powerful politicians in England, who, along with Mackenzie, argued for urgent British intervention in Bechuanaland. Eventually, the mercenaries were cleared out of the region and a protectorate was declared in Montshiwa's territory. Bethell was regarded as a hero by the Barolong, and his funeral was attended by thousands. His grave still stands in the baRolong stadt, bearing the brief epitaph, "In memory of CHRISTOPHER BETHELL, of Rise, Yorkshire, England, who lost his life while performing Military duties to Her Britannic Majesty in defence of the Barolong Nation". Bethell and Tepo had a daughter Grace, born after he died, who was disowned by his family back in England.

South Africa's North-West province: A Guide to its History and Heritage. © 2017

With special thanks to our sponsors