The African Chieftain Tour That Saved Botswana

Why you should care

Because thwarting the imperial ambitions of Cecil Rhodes left a legacy of democracy.

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As an enthusiastic ally of the British, Khama III, chief of the Bangwato people and a committed Christian, didn’t think twice when Cecil Rhodes asked for assistance in defeating Khama’s sworn enemies, the Amandebele.

It was only after the successful campaign, when Rhodes branded Khama a coward in his own kgotla (court) for not wiping out the Amandebele, that Khama realized “he was next, and Rhodes wasn’t like the other Brits,” says Neil Parsons, author of King Khama, Emperor Joe and the Great White Queen.

Two years later, in 1895, Khama and two other Botswana dikgosi (chiefs) upset Rhodes’ imperial game plan by deploying an improbable tactic: a PR tour of Britain.

Thanks in no small part to the efforts of the three chiefs, Bechuanaland was spared apartheid rule.

In 1870, European involvement in southern Africa was restricted to Portuguese colonies in Mozambique and Angola and British and Dutch involvement in South Africa. Thirty years later, whites controlled the entire region.

When the Bechuanaland Protectorate (Botswana) was established in 1885, the British were happy to let the dikgosi retain de facto control of the relative backwater. But Rhodes — who was both prime minister of Cape Colony and one of the richest men in the world thanks to his mining concerns in South Africa — recognized the territory’s strategic importance as a base for expansion northward to the Zambezi and eastward into the gold-rich Transvaal Republic.

Once Khama and his fellow dikgosi — Sebele I of the Bakwena and Bathoen I of the Bangwaketse — realized that Rhodes intended the British government to hand over the protectorate to his British South Africa Co. (BSACo), they quickly decided to travel to London for the centennial celebrations of a church established in Bechuanaland by the London Missionary Society (LMS). Once in the capital, they planned to petition the colonial office — and Queen Victoria herself, if necessary — to keep their territory out of Rhodes’ clutches.

Their arrival in England was covered by scores of newspapers, including St James’ Gazette, which heralded them as a “trinity of dusky kings.” The article described Khama as “the best-dressed of the three” and Bathoen as “a veritable Samson.” Had Sebele been a white man, the article continued, “he would have been a lawyer as surely as Khama would have been a clergyman and [Bathoen] an inn-keeper.”

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Illustrations of the British South Africa Company’s 1891 expedition to southern Africa.

Source Universal History Archive/Getty

First stop on the itinerary: the offices of Joseph Chamberlain, the new secretary of state for the colonies. But Chamberlain dodged the trio. He was hoping the arrival of Rhodes’ representatives on the next ship would save him from having to negotiate with the dikgosi, explains Parsons: Chamberlain “told them he’d hear them when he returned from his summer holiday in the Mediterranean.”

The dikgosi decided to leverage the delay into a tour of the country and make their case to the people of Britain. While other colonial potentates had visited London and met Queen Victoria, all had received short shrift from the Colonial Office, notes Parsons: “The chiefs’ rural publicity tour was a first.”

Off they went with their guide and interpreter, the Rev. William Charles Willoughby from the LMS. Appealing to the strong female support bases of temperance societies — prior to the trip, Khama had persuaded Sebele to give up drinking — and the anti-slavery and humanitarian movements, they appeared at town halls and church meetings throughout England, Wales and Scotland. “We are not content to be dealt with as things that may be sold by their owners,” Khama told the audience in Liverpool.

Among all the meetings and glad-handing, the dikgosi saw snow for the first time (the worst aspect of Britain, they all agreed, was its cold weather) and went fox-hunting. Khama, a fine horseman and big-game hunter, couldn’t understand “why gentlemen should excite themselves over such [small] things as foxes.”

Despite a few jealous tensions between the dikgosi — Khama, to the annoyance of his companions, became the poster boy of the tour — they returned to the British capital on a groundswell of popular support and in a far stronger position than they had departed it.

But Rhodes and Chamberlain were no pushovers. Rhodes backtracked on taking Bechuanaland in “one gulp,” says Parsons, in favor of a cunning piecemeal solution that would allow the three dikgosi to keep most of their tribal lands “until they left Britain and their cause had been forgotten.” And Chamberlain leveraged the dikgosi’s hatred of Rhodes and the BSACo by getting them to donate the so-called “‘railway strip’ to the queen, who would later hand it over to Rhodes,” Parsons says.

After the agreement had been rubber-stamped at Windsor Castle in a meeting with Queen Victoria — “[I] had no idea she was so short and so stout,” Sebele later wrote — the stage was set to blindside the dikgosi … but fate had other plans. The Jameson Raid, Rhodes’ mercenary-led invasion of Transvaal Republic, petered out after five days, and he never fully recovered from the setback. “The British government punished Rhodes,” says Parsons, by retaining control of Bechuanaland.

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Seretse Khama and his British-born wife, Ruth, in 1950.

Source Margaret Bourke-White/Getty

In the decades that followed, Britain did not upgrade Bechuanaland from a protectorate to a colony because it hoped to cede control of the unprofitable territory to the Union of South Africa or Southern Rhodesia — moves which the dikgosi opposed bitterly due to the terrible treatment of Blacks in both countries. Thanks in no small part to the efforts of the three chiefs, Bechuanaland was spared apartheid rule and remained a protectorate until 1966 when the independent nation of Botswana was established.

Its president? Seretse Khama, who, like his grandfather, had used a tour of Britain to gather support for his cause. Eighteen years after Seretse Khama’s death, his son Ian Khama was democratically elected the country’s fourth president, a position he gave up in 2018 after two terms. To this day, Botswana remains the democratic success story of southern Africa.

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