Masopha (also spelled Masuphag or Masopa) (circa 1820-99) was a Sotho leader, who, throughout his life remained independent in spirit, seeking to defend his own freedom of action, as well as the interests of the southern Sotho people. He was the only African leader to successfully resist the Cape administration, which he did in Basutoland (now known as Lesotho) in the 1870s. His opposition during the Gun War of 1880 was the primary factor in the decision by the Cape to hand the territory back to British administration, with the consequence that Lesotho eventually became an independent state instead of a part of South Africa.
In character and appearance, he was the son who most resembled his father, Moshoeshoe, founder of the Sotho nation. He was, in fact, the third son of Moshoeshoe by his first wife ‘MaMohato.
In 1833, missionaries of the French Evangelical Society came to the Sotho people. Masopha, then aged 13, was educated by them, and in 1841, he was baptized a Christian and given the name David. In 1845, he and two other sons of Moshoeshoe, Letsie I and Morapo, were taken to Cape Town by the missionaries and spent a year there. During this time, he learned English and gained experience in dealing with whites.
It was also in 1845 that he ceased to be a Christian, in response to the missionaries’ opposition to a war, which he believed to be just, against a neighboring Sotho chief. Throughout the rest of his life, he upheld many traditional Sotho customs opposed by the Christians.
During Moshoeshoe’s reign, Masopha distinguished himself as a warrior, thus building a following among the Sotho. In the early 1850’s, he took part in raids against settlers living near Bloemfontein, and he fought at the battle of Berea at the time of the British invasion of Lesotho. He also fought in the 1853 campaign which resulted in the defeat of Moshoeshoe’s opponent, Sekonyela.
After the Orange Free State had attacked Lesotho in 1853 because of disputes over land and cattle, Masopha fought in the war (in which his country remained undefeated) and participated in the peace negotiations which followed.
In 1865, when war with the Orange Free State resumed, he led forces which captured much livestock (although the Boers recaptured many of them). When his own village was destroyed, he established himself on a fortified summit named Thaba Bosiu, from which he was able to repel any attackers.
When Masopha’s brother Letsie I became king in 1870, and Lesotho came under the administration of the British at the Cape, Masopha acted independently of both Letsie and the British. In 1880, when British attempts to disarm the Sotho led to the Gun War of 1880-81, he was a center of resistance, although he played only a minor role in the fighting. The Basotho were victorious, but the period that followed was marked by political disagreements from which Masopha remained aloof. In 1886 he accepted that a British magistrate be installed in the district. In 1891 when Lerotholi acceded to the kingship, Masopha opposed him. However, he lost his power when Lerotholi captured Thaba Bosiu and destroyed his fortifications in 1898.
Mark R. Lippschutz and R. Kent Rasmussen, Dictionary of African Biography, Chicago: Aldine Publishing, 1978; Gordon Haliburton, Historical Dictionary of Lesotho, Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1977.
This article was reprinted from The Encyclopaedia Africana Dictionary of African Biography (In 20 Volumes). Volume Three: South Africa- Botswana-Lesotho-Swaziland. Ed. Keith Irvine. Algonac, Michigan: Reference Publications Inc., 1995. All rights reserved.