Although the plains, plateaus and mountains of Lesotho have been occupied over countless millennia, the history of the country itself is eventful, but comparatively brief. The rich culture of the Basotho people is traditional Africa at its best, with pride and protection of the land high on the agenda of the ancient tribal traditions incorporated in the predominant Christian religion.
The origins of the country now known as Lesotho go back some 40,000 years to the time of the first San hunter-gatherer bushman tribes, which left their mark on the region via iconic rock art. Over more recent millennia, the land was settled by various tribes. The region emerged as a single united entity under King Mashoeshoe I as late as 1822.
During the early 19th century, Africa was opening up, with Western colonization’s destabilizing effects on the tribal kingdoms causing internal strife. Lesotho, then known as Basutoland, merged with neighboring tribes in a 10-year war against King Shaka Zulu from 1818 to 1828. The evolution of the new state was later shaped by contact with Dutch and British colonists based in the Cape Colony. Christian missionaries, invited to Basutoland by Mashoeshoe I, helped introduce printing in the Sesotho language.
During the rest of the 19th century, contact with the West ran its usual gamut of territorial conflicts, although Basutoland managed to set up diplomatic channels with various tribes and representatives of the colonial empires. Arms dealers sold guns to the Basotho people, initially for use in the war with the Korana people, but later used against encroaching Europeans, including the Boer settlers forced out of the Cape region.
A notable victory over the Boers during the Free State-Basotho War was engineered by Mashoeshoe I, but Basutoland’s final defeat in the 1867 conflict ended with the king appealing to Britain’s Queen Victoria for aid, resulting in Basutoland becoming a protectorate. The boundaries of Basutoland were defined in a treaty between British and Boer generals, signed in 1869, thus reducing the country to half its previous size.
British influence over Basutoland remained inconsistent for the entire colonial period, with the country gaining full independence and renamed Lesotho in 1966. The first general elections saw the ruling Basotho National Party thrown out in favor of the Basotho Congress Party, with civil strife and political infighting continuing until a military coup in 1985. Subsequently, power was firmly placed in the hands of King Moshoeshoe II, who soon lost favor with the military and was forced to flee into exile.
His son, King Letsie III, was installed as a replacement, but was unable to quell the riots and spent much of his time in and out of power, depending on the whims of the military and people. By 1998, after another coup in 1994, the country decided to vote on peace and elected the Lesotho Congress for Democracy by a process agreed upon as fair by international observers. Despite objections from opposition parties, Lesotho has achieved relative stability and peace ever since.
The Basotho people are proud of their unique heritage, in that it remains primarily African, undiluted by Western influences from the colonial era and the vicious policy of apartheid in surrounding South Africa. Although the country is 99 percent Christian, even the religious practices contain strong influences taken from traditional customs and beliefs such as burying the dead facing east in a sitting position so they can rise at dawn when needed by their descendents.
Lesotho’s national anthem, Lesotho Fatse la Bonta’ta Rona, Land of our Fathers, highlights the ancestral heritage crucial to the nation’s culture. Thaba Bosiu, the country's cultural heart, is considered the birthplace of the nation and the burial place of Basotho rulers. Many of the people still live in traditional villages or in the still-inhabited Komo Caves, and all Basotho believe the country’s natural resources must be protected, as they are seen as sacred and joined to the people by spiritual bonds.
Traditional tribal music and dance linked to the seasons and the agricultural lifestyle form an important part of culture here, and traditional handicrafts are produced for actual use as well as souvenirs. Remnants from colonial times include the descendents of missionaries and early British settlers as well as Afrikaans-speaking relatives of Dutch settlers. Nowadays, both groups are firmly integrated into Basotho society, and are passionately loyal to the country and the African way of life.