Written by: Thandeka Mujati
The world-renowned Basotho tribal blankets are unique for a plethora of reasons! They have received recent fame around the world from being worn by Wakanda’s Border Tribe in Black Panther but they have been an integral part of Lesotho culture for over 100 years and have become a part of everyday life.
Basotho blankets are fascinatingly woven into the history of the Basotho nation, and are a perfect example of Lesotho’s colonial legacy and their relationship with the British. Legend has it that the first blanket was given to King Moshoeshoe I in 1860 by a trader named Mr. Howel. The king liked it and took to wearing it around his shoulders as a kaross and his subjects followed suit. This was a shift from the animal skin and hinds that people had been wearing before. The blankets became an integral part of their lives. They are now a constant feature at all important life events from childbirth to coronations.
The blanket is also a part of Lesotho’s history because in 1865, with his kingdom under siege it is believed that Moshoeshoe appealed to Queen Victoria to make Lesotho a British protectorate. When she agreed to his request, he spoke of her “spreading her blanket” of protection over the country. This further wove the history of the Basotho blanket into the story of Lesotho.
Another popular myth about the birth of the Basotho blanket is that in 1897, on a visit to Basutoland for her diamond jubilee in 1897 Queen Victoria presented King Lerotholi Letsie with a blanket which he draped around himself and his subjects followed suit. But this is unlikely because Queen Victoria never actually set foot in Africa or any of her many colonies at the time.
In celebration of the Queen’s diamond jubilee, the Victoria England brand of the blankets was released to commemorate the bond between Lesotho and the United Kingdom. They were produced by the Wormald and Walker blanket mill of Yorkshire in 1877 and imported to Basutoland (Lesotho) by companies such as Frasers LTD. In the early 1990s Frasers LTD was bought out by Aranda Textiles Mills in Randfontein, South Africa. Aranda then became the primary manufacturer and supplier of Basotho blankets. Under a special royalties agreement, they are also the sole manufacturers of the Victoria England brand, the royalties of which funds community development in Lesotho to this day.
South African traders that were giving and selling the blankets to their workers quickly became overwhelmed with demand for blankets, which were manufactured from high-quality woven cloth in England. The characteristic pinstripe on the Basotho blanket was originally a weaving mistake. This pinstripe has now become a symbol of growth and determines how the blanket should be worn (traditionally the pinstripe should be vertical).
Across Lesotho, a variety of Basotho blankets are worn to represent the different rites of passage in society for example:
- Seana Marena – This particular blanket is exclusively worn by the king and his chiefs, it has the highest status of all Basotho blankets.
- Motlatsi – Designed and produced to pay tribute to the birth of Prince Lerotholi.
- Kharetsa – Named after the aloe which is indigenous to the Maloti Mountains of Lesotho.
- Sefate and Morena: Used by the Basotho people as an everyday wearing blanket.
- Lingoetsi: A bride’s blanket.
Basotho blankets are a cultural emblem in Lesotho. They are fascinatingly part of Lesotho history, and are a perfect example of a colonial legacy adopted and transformed with greater meaning. They quickly became a constant feature in every rite of passage from childbirth to marriage to burial ceremonies and everything else in between.