"[An] entertaining and exhaustively researched account of a visit to Britain undertaken by three Tswana 'kings' or chiefs in 1895."—Dan Jacobson, London Review of Books
"Parsons vividly recreates the excitement and the energy generated in Victorian Britain by the visit of this remarkable trio of ambassadors. A significant contribution to the scholarship of imperial history."—Booklist
"Parsons tells the tale vividly and unsentimentally, drawing where possible on local memories as well as on official documents and press reports. It is a moving tale, here made enthralling."—Alastair Niven, Times Higher Education Supplement
An excerpt from|
King Khama, Emperor Joe, and the Great White Queen
Victorian Britain through African Eyes
Epiphany on Clifton Bridge
Clifton Suspension Bridge crosses a dizzying gorge near Bristol where the river Avon cuts through a hillside toward the Severn and the Bristol Channel. (Photo of bridge.) The bridge, completed in 1829, is a monument to the ingenuity of its architect, the twenty-three-year-old engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel (1806-59). With iron frame, wooden planking, brick and masonry towers—and suspension chains taken from London's Hungerford footbridge, demolished to make way for Charing Cross railway bridge over the Thames in 1864—the narrow span stretches for 630 feet (190 meters).
It was across this bridge that four gentlemen could be seen cautiously making their way one morning in September 1895. Three Africans of obvious seniority and respectability, in sober gray woolen suits, were being cajoled to walk onward by a short, bespectacled white man with a pointed beard.
The pathfinder was William Charles Willoughby, an ordained minister of the London Missionary Society (LMS). He had been serving in the southern African mission field of Bechuanaland for four years. His reluctant followers—Khama, Sebele, and Bathoen—were all chiefs or kings of the "Bechuana" (Batswana) people of Britain's Bechuanaland Protectorate.
Reverend Willoughby had sprung the novel experience of the Clifton Bridge on the three dignitaries as a prank to catch them unawares "before they knew where they were." He had taken them for a ride in a horse carriage over the hills on the edge of the city of Bristol, along a road that suddenly jutted out into space across Clifton gorge.
They alighted next to the bridge and looked down into the ravine to see "people and carriages like little spots below them." They were "astonished…beyond measure," but "it was a matter of dignity with them to manifest surprise at nothing."
Willoughby took them to the beginning of the bridge, but the three chiefs refused to walk any further: "We are afraid. We'll go back."
Willoughby chided them, "I'll go on then."
"It's dangerous," they said.
"I've a wife at home," said Willoughby, "and am not a likely man to go into danger. I'm going across anyhow."
He strode out along the footpath on one side of the bridge. The chiefs hesitantly followed him: "At first they went holding fast by the uprights" on the footpath. They then found that it felt much safer to walk down the center of the carriageway. According to the Bristol Mercury, "They were much struck with the view from the middle of the gorge, and then they carefully retracted their steps."
As they regained their balance and good sense, no doubt the three men saw the humor of the situation, joshing at each other's "cowardice." Willoughby was certainly pleased by the experiment in breaking down the reserved manners of his three royal protégés. He later told a journalist from the Westminster Gazette: "There is nothing, in fact, more infra dig. for a South African chief than to show he is astonished."
Nonconformist missionaries like Willoughby saw it as their duty to wear down the stoicism of their converts and to encourage them to express their emotions of pain and joy—to cry out and confess the Lord. Willoughby was the inheritor of a Puritan tradition that, as James Boswell's father had reminded Dr. Johnson, had taught kings they had a joint in their necks. It was a tradition that was antagonistic toward aristocrats and traditional rulers, and that had found a new form in the "moral purity" movement of late Victorian Britain. The movement was characterized by the "Nonconformist conscience" checking corruption in public life, by the temperance movement against drunkenness, and in more radical forms by "Little Englandism" opposed to imperial expansion and by the peace movement against wars in general.
Yet the success of Christian mission work in Bechuanaland was very dependent on the patronage of local royals and aristocrats, and upon the ultimate backing of British imperial control. Missionary societies in Bechuanaland operated through "tribal" state churches, based on royal prerogative and aristocratic privilege. Hence Willoughby and other LMS missionaries were more than a little ambiguous toward African royalty and toward European imperialism in general. Willoughby had a reputation in colonial circles of being an "enragé missionary," because of his exposure in the magazine Truth of the brutalities of the colonial conquest of Rhodesia.
Willoughby had an immediate purpose in wanting to puncture the dignity and reserve of Khama, Sebele, and Bathoen in September 1895. It was now ten days since their arrival in Britain, and they were still proving to be rather too hesitant in front of the congregations that they were facing almost daily.
After their arrival, Khama, Sebele, and Bathoen had been mobbed by journalists, pampered by ministers of religion, and presented to hundreds of people in London. They had also achieved their first interview with the most powerful and glamorous politician of the age, Joseph Chamberlain, the secretary of state for the colonies (colonial minister) in the new Conservative and Unionist government, who held their fate in his hands.
Chamberlain had slipped away on a Mediterranean vacation, promising to attend to their matter on his return. It was decided that Khama, Sebele, and Bathoen would use the interim period to good effect by whipping up support in chapel and town meetings across the country. So that when Chamberlain returned he would find such a groundswell of support in "the provinces," that it would counteract the metropolitan and colonial interests that otherwise held colonial ministers in the palms of their hands. The provincial city of Bristol was chosen as the first stop on this most demanding phase of the Bechuana chiefs' mission to Britain. As their tour manager, Willoughby was determined that the three chiefs' tour of the provinces should be a barnstorming success from the start. (Map of Great Britain in 1895 showing where the Bechuana chiefs went, including railway lines.)
• • •
Khama, Sebele, and Bathoen were suitably impressed with the Clifton Bridge's hanging seemingly unsupported over the abyss. Recalling the seasick sixteen-day voyage from Africa, they humorously suggested: "Well, if you can support a bridge in the air like this, why not build one from London to Cape Town?"
A similar suggestion had been made ninety years before in an English version of the magical fake-memoirs of Baron Munchausen. The baron had found more gold dust and pearls in the Kalahari than he could carry, as well as a civilized empire in this part of the interior of southern Africa with "so polished and refined a people." He therefore proceeded to build a bridge—the eighth wonder of the world—between the Kalahari and Europe.
The Travels of Baron Munchausen was a work of many hands, a satire on contemporary mores, originally published in German in 1796. The civilization in the Kalahari first appeared in an English-language edition published in, or soon after, 1806. The book was a satire on accounts of current exploration by Europeans in Africa. It portrayed the Africans discovered in the Kalahari as more levelheaded and civilized than contemporary Europeans. The notion of a Kalahari bridge mocked the British in particular, who had been crazed by contemplating the possibilities of mechanical and engineering progress during the Industrial Revolution.
Baron Munchausen's civilization in the Kalahari was not a complete figment of anyone's imagination. It was based on an account of "Booshuana," that is, Botswana, which was published in a book of 1806 eccentrically titled A Voyage to Cochin China, in the years 1792 and 1793…To which is appended an account of a journey to the residence of the chief of the Booshuana Nation.
Nor was the idea of a mechanical bridge through the air, from the Kalahari to Europe, to remain for ever fantasy. As the African Critic responded to the suggestion of the three Bechuana chiefs in 1895: "Well, even that may come to pass. The age of flying-machines will, however, surely precede it."
A mere quarter of a century later, in 1919-20, three years before Khama died, landing fields for the Cape-to-Cairo air route were laid out in his country at Palapye and Serowe. Six or seven decades later there was to be an "air bridge" of jet airliners flying in little more than half a day between Europe and the capital city of the Republic of Botswana.
• • •
By an act of singular foresight, the Bechuana chiefs in 1895 commissioned Durrant's Press Cuttings agency in London to clip the newspapers for references to themselves.
More than one copy of such press clippings survives. One copy covering the period up to October 15, originally belonging to Bathoen, is now held in the library of the National Museum of Botswana in Gaborone. Another copy, compiled for Sebele for a period two weeks longer, and by no means identical to Bathoen's for previous weeks, survives in microform in the library of Rhodes House at Oxford University—made on behalf of Dr. Anthony Sillery in the 1950s by the University of Witwatersrand, from an original that has since disappeared at Molepolole. A third copy of the press clippings, made for Khama and likely to be the most complete record, may or may not survive: it appears to have been taken on to Hartford, Connecticut, and then to Birmingham, England, by W. C. Willoughby—and has possibly been left to a descendant.
This collection of press clippings is an extraordinary resource for the study of British public opinion in the autumn of 1895. The clippings are taken from 135 different newspapers and periodicals—including thirteen London daily newspapers, thirty-one London weeklies or monthlies, seven London international periodicals, and twelve London or national Christian publications. The English provinces are represented by fifteen newspapers from the South, sixteen from the Midlands, and twenty-four from the North of England. There are also clippings from twelve Welsh, Scots, or Irish newspapers, and two from New York dailies.
The British press was fascinated by the "Three Kings" from the outer reaches of the ever expanding empire. Newspapers commented on the amount of news coming out of Africa, and on the increasing number of visits to Britain by "dusky potentates" from all over the world—be they Afghan, Swazi, or Ashanti. Press men and press women clamored to get interviews with Khama, Sebele, and Bathoen. The Westminster Gazette remarked on how much one would like to "read a Roman interview with some contemporary of Armenius who had come to Rome to get his wrongs righted."
Bathoen's and Sebele's press clippings form the basis for this book. They also set the pattern on which the book is written—keeping the story as authentic as possible by using the original words of primary sources, and thus heeding the advice given to a journalist by Khama in 1895: "Be sure now, and only write as I have spoken to you, nothing more than my words."
The chiefs had dubbed journalists the "hunters of words." At an important meeting in Birmingham's Council House, Khama remarked:
I know that you live a long way off, and it is difficult for those who live a long way off to distinguish between words. Words are words, and it is hard to tell which are the right words and which are the wrong when they are spoken.City dignitaries responded with cries of "Hear, hear."
Khama, Sebele, and Bathoen appreciated the political value not only of spoken words but also of written words carried in official correspondence and newspaper reports. They were literate in their own language, Setswana ("Sechuana") and could read letters and newspapers as well as Scriptures in it. Sebele and Bathoen also spoke, and possibly read, Dutch in its Afrikaans variant. But they and Khama had a mere smattering of English and could only communicate effectively in English through interpreters.
As otherwise proficient linguists and litigious politicians, the three chiefs were acutely conscious of the importance of words and meanings. On landing in Britain, they told of the difficulty of relating the Setswana language to the new technology of steamships, steam trains, electric lighting, telegraphs, and telephones.
It will be very difficult to make our people understand how iron and wood can move without being pulled by someone. Formerly we blamed the missionaries for not making these things plain, and we thought it was their imperfect knowledge of our language."Yes," Bathoen continued in philological vein, "we shall now have to tell our people that although we are masters of their language, we cannot explain these new ideas, because we have no words to correspond."
The illustrious Rev. Dr. Parker of the City Temple, London's Congregationalist "cathedral," saw other virtues in the Setswana language in one of his sermons. Commenting on Khama's talk from his pulpit a week earlier, when the interpreter had had to use three or four sentences in English to expound on three or four syllables from Khama in Setswana, Parker remarked of the English language:
We are foot-caught in our own dictionaries. Our words and modes of speech belong to the decaying aristocracies and fallen princedoms in language.
• • •
From Chapter Two
A Trinity of Dusky Kings
The "trinity of dusky kings" who arrived at Paddington railway station on the afternoon of September 6, 1895, were the first Bechuana rulers to come to London. But news about Bechuanaland and the Bechuana had featured in British newspaper reports for more than a decade, and British knowledge about land and people dated from the beginning of the century. The chiefs themselves also had their own preconceptions of Britain and about British people, drawn partly from common historical experiences and partly from their biographies as individuals from childhood upward.
• • •
British knowledge of the Bechuana can be dated, as we have seen in the introduction to this book, from the appendix on the "Booshuana Nation" in the 1806 publication of A Voyage to Cochin China, satirized by the authors of Munchausen's Travels. Early-nineteenth-century European travelers lighted upon the Bechuana after a thousand-mile wagon trek northward into the interior across scrub and semidesert. They found a "nation" of town dwellers, with cultivated fields as well as flocks and herds, practicing metallurgy and dressed in "decent" leather clothing—anxious to trade with southerners bringing manufactured goods like firearms. By contrast with the migrating herders and scattered hunter-gatherers seen in the scrublands on the way, and "naked" warrior farmers seen in the forests of the southeast coast, the Bechuana struck early Europeans as being reassuringly familiar in lifestyle and positively "civilized" in their demeanor.
Early-nineteenth-century European travel accounts thus praised the civic and commercial virtues of the Bechuana. But these works, in German and French as well English, were rarely reprinted and achieved relatively small circulation, except in semiscientific libraries and among interested collectors in Western Europe and North America.
The Western image of the Bechuana was to be more fully built up in the nineteenth century by popular works of missionary travel and of big-game hunting, published in midcentury and frequently reprinted thereafter. The first of these was Missionary Labours and Scenes in Southern Africa by Robert Moffat, a Scots Congregationalist and former gardener turned missionary. It was published in 1842.
Moffat told a tale of evangelical, agricultural, and educational "labours" at the Kuruman mission station, on the southern edge of Bechuana territory. His main purpose was to raise sympathy and financial support for the London Missionary Society, and his portrayal of the Bechuana was often lurid and superficial—painting a picture of heathen darkness that only the light of Christianity could expunge. Though even he could not resist favorable physical comparison of the Bechuana with other Africans, contrasting their brown complexions with the yellowness of "Bushmen" and the blackness of "Negroes."
The two classic works of travel literature touching on the Bechuana, both published by John Murray and featuring among the best-selling books of the whole nineteenth century, were A Hunter's Life in South Africa by Roualeyn Gordon Cumming (1850) and Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa by David Livingstone (1857). It was the latter especially that brought the Bechuana to the attention of English-speaking households around the world.
Over the next fifty years Cumming's Hunter's Life went through numerous editions, under a variety of titles such as The Lion Hunter. Dr. Livingstone's Missionary Travels was even more successful: the book was being given as a school prize to British pupils well into the next century.
Livingstone painted a generally sympathetic picture of the Bechuana, whom he saw as good friends who would help to extend commerce and Christianity into central Africa. It was Missionary Travels that brought to the world's attention the emigrant Dutch or "Boer" settlers of the Transvaal colony, or republic, whom he portrayed as slave-traders in conflict with the Bechuana—an image for which the Boers never forgave him.
Meanwhile, after he abandoned his mission among the Bechuana, David Livingstone became famous in Victorian Britain and America as the great traveler—a missionary saint, and arguably the only working-class lad to become an unambiguous hero in Victorian Britain. Even the acerbic Lytton Strachey feared to criticize Livingstone when he debunked recent historical figures in his ironically titled Eminent Victorians (1918). The paring down to size was left to the editor of Livingstone's journals, Isaac Schapera, in the mid-twentieth century. Schapera pointed out that the supposedly great missionary had made only one full convert to Christianity—his close but somewhat wayward friend named Sechele.
The death of David Livingstone in 1873, and the publicity whipped up by people like the journalist Henry Morton Stanley, who had linked his name with Livingstone's a few years earlier by a publicity stunt of "discovering" the doctor on Lake Tanganyika, helped to set off the imperialist fervor of the later 1870s.
It was another Scots missionary of the London Missionary Society, John Mackenzie, who most fully impressed the issue of Boers and Bechuana on British public opinion in the early 1880s. Mackenzie's agitation led to the Warren Expedition, which expelled the Boers of the Transvaal from Bechuana country south of the Molopo River in 1885. He pushed for the extension of British "protection" over the part of Bechuanaland and the Kalahari north of the Molopo River—the territories ruled by Livingstone's friend Sechele (father of Sebele), by Gaseitsiwe (father of Bathoen), and by Khama.
The result was the declaration of a British protectorate over Bechuanaland and the Kalahari in January 1885, which in September 1885 was divided into a Crown Colony called "British Bechuanaland" south of the Molopo, and a British protectorate called "the Bechuanaland Protectorate" north of the Molopo.
By the time Mackenzie produced his great polemical work entitled Austral Africa: Losing It or Ruling It, in 1887, the historian Daphne Trevor claims, "Bechuanaland was certainly not as important as Egypt…but Mackenzie's propaganda, Warren's expedition, and the controversy over his recall had impressed its existence on the newspaper reading public."
But Mackenzie's humanitarian imperialism for Bechuanaland was rapidly overtaken by the capitalist imperialism associated with the name of Cecil Rhodes, the British South African diamond magnate and politician who was to become prime minister of the Cape Colony in July 1890. Rhodes had complex political affiliations. In Britain he was closer to Liberal imperialists than to Conservative imperialists, despite his antihumanitarianism, because of his espousal for colonial home rule—starting with Ireland. In South Africa he was allied with the Afrikander Party at the Cape but was dead set against Afrikaner nationalism in the Boer republics.
The Cape Colony had made a brief bid to absorb Bechuanaland south of the Molopo in 1884. Rhodes revived the Cape Colony's claim to British Bechuanaland in 1888. He told the Cape Assembly in August 1888 that Britain would also be willing to hand over the Bechuanaland Protectorate to the Cape Colony at some future date. The message was passed on to the Tswana chiefs by Rhodes's old friend Sir Sidney Shippard (Morena Maaka, "Lord Lies"), who was both administrator of the colony and deputy (later resident) commissioner of the protectorate.
The BaRolong people, based at Mafeking in British Bechuanaland and across the Molopo up to Pitsane in the Bechuanaland Protectorate, responded by holding protest meetings in October of that year. At Mafeking, leading Christian headman Israel Molema told the meeting that the Cape English were as bad as the Boers, and another headman proposed three cheers for the queen and three boos for the Cape. At Pitsane (later famous as the base for the Jameson Raid), the local BaRolong meeting in their kgotla (central court) resolved to fight rather than to accept Cape government.
Rhodes soon changed his tune. In 1889 he and other mining capitalists based in South Africa combined with key financiers in the City of London (most notably the Rothschilds) and a royal duke or two to obtain a royal charter to colonize a vast area that a century later is covered by Botswana, Zimbabwe, Zambia, and Malawi. Mackenzie and Chamberlain protested, but the charter of the British South Africa Company was granted in October 1889. Knutsford, the colonial minister, said that the charter did not for the time being "supersede or affect" the administration of the Bechuanaland Protectorate by Shippard but regarded eventual transfer to BSA Company administration as inevitable.
In 1892 Rhodes proposed what might a hundred years later be seen as a typical "privatization" ploy—speedy transfer of Bechuanaland Protectorate administration to his company in return for an annual subsidy from British government funds. The Colonial Office considered Rhodes's bid "stillborn," but arrangements were made to clear out rival mineral concessions from the Bechuanaland Protectorate in preparation for the full combination of administration and exploitation by the BSA Company. The Cape Colony was also building a railway from Kimberley to Vryburg in British Bechuanaland, from whence the line would be taken northward through Mafeking by the Bechuanaland Railway of the BSA Company. An editorial in the Manchester Guardian called the railway "the subject of one of the many friendly understandings between Mr. Rhodes the Cape Premier and Mr. Rhodes the representative of the British South Africa Company."
The Colonial Office became instantly more sympathetic to Rhodes when Lord Rosebery, an out-and-out imperialist (married to a Rothschild), succeeded Gladstone as prime minister in March 1894. In May 1894 the BSA Company was formally given the right to administer on behalf of the Crown the land that soon came to be called (Southern) "Rhodesia," northeast of the Bechuanaland Protectorate.
The BSA Company's need to incorporate the Bechuanaland Protectorate into Rhodesia became ever more pressing because of the impending extension of the Bechuanaland Railway across the Molopo from Mafeking—which would ultimately be financed by selling off the land along the line for white farmlands and townships. Hence while he was in London, in November 1894, Rhodes as chairman of the BSA Company put in a formal claim at the Colonial Office for "an assurance from Her Majesty's Government that their policy is unchanged, and that when, in their opinion, the time has arrived, they will transfer the administration of the Protectorate to the Chartered Company, thus carrying out the terms of the Charter and the former assurances of their predecessors." The reply of the colonial minister (Lord Ripon) to Rhodes was reassuring, though he added that the qualms of the "large and admiring classes in this country" who supported Khama in the Bechuanaland Protectorate, because of his opposition to alcohol, would have to be accommodated.
Rhodes's reason for taking the Bechuanaland Protectorate became all the more urgent now that Rhodes and his co-conspirators had decided to use the protectorate as their springboard for a sudden attack on and coup d'état in the neighboring Boer republic of the Transvaal.
Meanwhile separate negotiations were being conducted by the Colonial Office with Rhodes as the Cape premier for the final incorporation of British Bechuanaland into the Cape Colony. When arrangements for this were being finalized in June 1895, Cape newspapers (all known to be more or less supporting Rhodes to the hilt) reported that the transfer of the Bechuanaland Protectorate to the Chartered Company would follow soon. It was this news that set the leading chiefs of the protectorate on their way overseas to appeal unto Caesar.