This article appears in Historical Dictionary of the British Empire.
This was a war between the Basotho and the Cape Colony. With the discovery of diamonds and the flood of diggers, there was a great demand for cheap, unskilled labor. The most successful inducement for Africans to supply this labor was the opportunity to acquire a gun. Thousands of cheap guns were sold annually (to the benefit of the Cape Colony which charged high import duties). Although the guns were said to pose a greater danger to users than to others, nervousness among whites in South Africa became acute. When war broke out with the Xhosa in 1877-78, the government of the Cape Colony, with strong urging from the governor, Sir Bartle Frere, decided to disarm all Africans in the Cape Colony. Accordingly, the Peace Preservation Act was passed in 1878. The act required that all weapons (knobkerries and spears as well as guns) be turned in to magistrates who would decide whether owners would be allowed to keep them or be given compensation. In practice, whites kept their weapons but Africans were required to surrender theirs. Compensation was small; closer to the real value of the guns rather than the inflated prices which Africans had paid. The act was enforced against all Africans, including allies of the British.
The British government had reluctantly acquiesced in the annexation of Basotholand to the British Crown in 1868. However, the Cape Colony was induced to take over in 1871, although the transfer was unwelcome to the Basotho. The impact of Cape administration and law was creating increasing discontent and a rebellion by a sub-chief, Moorosi, in 1879 although the Basotho supported the Cape and sent substantial forces. Then, after disarming Africans in the Cape Colony, the government announced that it was disarming the Basotho and increasing taxes as well. The British Colonial Secretary warned that no aid would be forthcoming from Britain if troubles arose and many within the Cape Colony also regarded the action as unwise. Nevertheless, the Cape government of Sir Gordon Sprigg pressed ahead and set April 1880 as the date for surrendering weapons. Although some Basotho with great reluctance were willing to surrender their guns, the majority united under their leaders, the sons of Moshoeshoe, refused; government attempts to enforce the law brought fighting by September.
The Basotho had guns and horses and were highly skilled in the use of both. Moreover, their leaders adopted guerrilla tactics very effectively in mountainous Basotholand. The Cape forces (the British provided no assistance) were a hodgepodge of armed police and poorly trained and poorly led volunteers and conscripts of whites, coloureds and Africans. Militarily, the Basotho held their own. On the other hand, the troubles of the Cape government mounted. The costs of the war when added to the earlier war with the Xhosa and renewed troubles in the Transkei were dragging the Colony towards bankruptcy. The war was becoming increasingly unpopular, and the Sprigg government was replaced by the Thomas Scanlen government. In desperation, Colonel Charles "Chinese" Gordon was employed to lead the Cape forces. However, he made matters worse and tried to make his own deal with the Basotho; he resigned when the government tried to reign him in.
Finally, the Scanlen government decided to withdraw and urged the British government to assume responsibility, not only for Basotholand but also for the Transkei. Although it refused the latter, the imperial government did resume responsibility for Basotholand. However, the Basotho were warned that if they caused trouble or failed to heed the skeleton staff of white administrators, the British government would abandon them to the tender mercies of the Boers in the Orange Free State. Although they had achieved their objectives (keeping their guns and again coming under imperial control), the Basotho remained divided under the squabbling sons and descendants of Moshoeshoe. The next two decades were characterized by turmoil, civil war and growing poverty. Nevertheless, as a crown colony, Basotholand did not become part of the Union of South Africa in 1910 or subsequently. With the 'winds of change' in the 1960s, it became independent Lesotho. (Reference: Sandra Burman, Chiefdom Politics and Alien Law: Basutoland Under Cape Rule, 1871-1884, 1981.)