On Display

Dan Jacobson

  • King Khama, Emperor Joe and the Great White Queen: Victorian Britain through African Eyes by Neil Parsons
    Chicago, 322 pp, £15.25, January 1998, ISBN 0 226 64745 5

Botswana is a landlocked country bordered by South Africa to the south and east, Namibia to the west, Angola to the north and Zimbabwe to the north-east. Though considerably larger than France (with Wales and the Benelux countries thrown in), it supports a population of only 1.5 million, almost all of whom belong to one or another grouping of the Tswana-speaking people. There are also a residual number of the aboriginal inhabitants of the region: the Sarwa (Bushmen) and Kgalagadi. The latter were always treated as little more than serfs by the dominant Tswana; to this day they are generally confined by their masters to herding and domestic labour.

Covered for the most part by a layer of coarse Kalahari sand, the territory is hot, dry and flat. Only in its north-western corner is permanent surface-water to be found, where the Okavango River, instead of running towards the ocean as any sensible river should, takes a fatal turn southwards from Angola and finds itself trapped in the sand. The result is the Okavango Swamps, which are now Botswana’s greatest tourist attraction. Every year they are replenished by the flooding of the entire system. Elsewhere little grows in the Kalahari desert aside from some astonishingly obstinate species of scrub and shrub, as well as thorn trees with roots deep enough to reach through the sand to the hidden sources of water beneath. The eastern plateau (which in effect runs along the border with South Africa and Zimbabwe) has a more generous annual rainfall than elsewhere, and much the largest part of the country’s population is to be found in a thin straggle along it. For the rest, Botswana remains one of the earth’s emptier places.

Enter, into these apparently unpromising regions, the British and the Boers. The British arrived during the first decades of the 19th century as hunters, traders and emissaries of the London Missionary Society; the Boers, who appeared at more or less the same time, had trekked north from the Cape precisely in order to escape from British rule. A three-sided struggle then took place between the newcomers and the resident Tswana for control of the relatively well-watered strip along the eastern edge of the desert (the so-called ‘missionary road’). The Boers coveted it because they were always in search of more grazing lands for their cattle; but not for that reason only. Having already seized the highveld regions which later became the republics of the Transvaal and the Orange Free State, they had the wit to see that if they blocked the missionary road they could prevent or at least greatly hinder British expansion to the north. They would ‘drive us’ – the British – ‘into the desert’, as Cecil Rhodes was later to put it. The Tswana, of course, merely wanted to retain possession of the land and to carry on hunting and raising cattle, as they had always done.

The confrontations between these three groups, though occasionally fierce enough, were for a long time of merely local interest. The missionaries expected the Imperial Government to help them in their work – the flag, in their view, had an obligation to follow the evangel – but London was reluctant to assume responsibility for yet more barren spaces in the interior of the continent, let alone the obscure peoples warring over them. Then diamonds were discovered in Kimberley (in 1870) and gold on the Witwatersrand fifteen years later. These discoveries transformed the subcontinent, as well as the stock exchanges of Europe; they also provided the nutriment for Cecil Rhodes’s grandiose ambitions. The most megalomaniac and ruthless of all those involved in the subsequent Scramble for Africa (only Leopold II of Belgium, who turned the Congo into a private fiefdom, would bear comparison with him), Rhodes used his positions as chairman of the De Beers Company and as prime minister of the Cape Colony to grab every bit of Africa within his reach – and well beyond it. He would ‘annex the stars’, he said, if only it could be done. Short of that, no one was safe from his predations: not the blacks; not the Boers; not the Portuguese, Germans or Belgians either.

Rhodes is seen today as the very type of the ardent Late Victorian, British imperialist. So he was; but only in his own peculiar way. He was always ready to speak of the superior fitness of the Anglo-Saxon race to rule over other peoples, and of its sacred duty to enlarge the regions of which the Queen was sovereign; always ready to play the jingo card in his dealings with politicians and the public at ‘home’. Yet ultimately he never saw British power and capital as anything more than useful instruments of his own will. He was impatiently convinced that ‘the man on the spot’ (i.e. himself) always knew best; and whenever the Imperial Government failed to support him, or threatened to stand in his way, he had no hesitation in trying to circumvent it by every means available to him. Lies, bribery and violence included, of course.

Rhodes’s greedy schemes were hardly what the missionaries were thinking of when they had appealed to London for protection in their dealings with the Boers, and had done their best to convince the Tswana that conversion to Christianity would save them from their enemies in this world as well as the next. What had so far been a three-way struggle thus became a four-way affair, with Rhodes pulling in one direction (towards himself and his cronies), the missionaries pulling in another (towards London), and the Boers and the Tswana looking for advantage wherever it might lie. Rhodes’s interest in ‘Bechuanaland’ (as the territory used to be called) was both central and marginal at the same time. He thought the country pretty valueless in itself, but was obsessed with the importance of the missionary road to the north as the only available route to Central Africa. It was along that road that the troopers of his British South Africa Company (the Charter Company) set out in 1890 to conquer the territories which were to become known as Southern and Northern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe and Zambia). There, he was convinced, new Kimberleys and Witwatersrands were waiting to be found. His next step was to float the idea of building a railway line along the missionary road. Yet even after the Shona and Ndebele people in Zimbabwe had been subjugated, the Tswana and their lands further south remained under the direct, formal ‘protection’ of the British Crown, just as the missionaries wished. This Rhodes found galling for both personal and strategic reasons. Whether as premier of the self-governing Cape Colony or as managing director of the new Charter Company, he was determined to obtain complete mastery of the road and its hinterland.

All of which brings us to Neil Parsons’s entertaining and exhaustively researched account of a visit to Britain undertaken by three Tswana ‘kings’ or chiefs in 1895. They made the journey under missionary auspices; their intention, half-hidden at first, was to generate a major anti-Rhodes (and anti-Charter Company) propaganda campaign. Their visit lasted roughly from the beginning of September to the end of November, with a three-week steamer journey to and from the Cape on either side. Its political climax was the meetings they had with the Colonial Secretary, Joseph Chamberlain (‘Emperor Joe’); its social climax the luncheon they had in Windsor Castle with the Queen (whom they found to be disappointingly small in stature); its daily sustenance a round of public and private meetings with hosts of Nonconformist, teetotal and radical ‘friends of Africa’. By way of diversion, they attended many church services and made even more frequent visits to museums and galleries, shipyards, mills, cathedrals, castles, railway works, ‘granite works’, potteries, fire stations, biscuit factories (Huntley and Palmer’s), chocolate manufacturers (Cadbury’s), cigarette plants (W.D. & H.O. Wills) and a host of other sites which even the most tireless of tourists might wish to be spared. They were also subjected to countless newspaper interviews: some friendly, some insulting, and some supposedly friendly which nevertheless contrived to be insulting as well.

Of the three visitors, Khama (known as ‘Khama the Good’ by admiring missionaries, not least because of his rigid abstention from alcohol) was the ruler of longest standing among them and governor of the largest number of people. It followed that he was also the richest of the three, and for these reasons, as well as for the evident strength of his personality, was regarded by his hosts as the effective leader of the deputation. This inevitably led to a certain amount of un-Christian friction between him and the two others, Bathoen and Sebele, whose followers lived in the more southerly area of the protectorate. As the author points out, the Biblical parallel with three other kings who had come on a long journey in order to pay homage to a monarch far greater than themselves caught the imagination of those members of the British public susceptible to such ideas. The response from other quarters, however, was much more sour. It was ‘not dignified’, as one paper put it, ‘on the part of the English people and the English press to rave about a black man’. The fact that these kings from a remote corner of Africa wore top hats and carried umbrellas excited a great deal of crass comment, as did their ‘Ethiopian’ or ‘ebony’ or even ‘highly ebonised’ complexions.

The book is subtitled ‘Victorian Britain through African Eyes’, which seems to me a surprising claim, given Neil Parsons’s penchant for using, in his Preface and elsewhere, pre-emptive quotation marks around such terms as ‘Western’, ‘discoveries’, ‘Nonconformist conscience’ and so forth. My own inclination, in that case, would be to put triple or quadruple quotation marks around every utterance in the book which purports to express the view of the African chiefs: not because I wish to question their seriousness or the seriousness of the mission on which they were engaged, but as a way of suggesting the number of filters or baffles which lay between them and the words imputed to them. Also because warnings of this kind might help to convey some of the disjunctions within the Africans’ experience of themselves, as well as the distorting effects of their being forever on display: stared at, jostled, fêted and freely commented on.

Consider their situation. Everything they said in public, and everything that was said to them, was transmitted via interpreters. Some of the interpreters were mission-educated Tswana whom they had brought with them; some were missionaries who had sponsored their trip – and who of course had their own axes to grind. The chiefs’ translated words were then passed on by journalists, who were presumably as likely as their equivalents today to mishear and misconstrue what was said to them, and to make careless or deliberate mistakes in their reports. Though the chiefs paid their own hotel bills and most of their travel costs, they knew themselves to be recipients of countless acts of hospitality in a country incomparably richer, more developed and more powerful than their own. Indeed, that was why they had come to it. They were petitioners. They had been left with no alternative but to urge the rulers of the host country to govern their corner of Africa in a manner which they believed would be in their own interest.

In such circumstances, would you not make a habit of telling the people from whom you are receiving favours, and from whom you hope to receive a far more significant favour still, what they expect to hear? Or rather, what you believe they expect to hear? Or what you hope will persuade them in the direction you wish them to go? Would you not be inclined, at least at times, to adopt the roles that you think would most endear you to them: to play up your simplicity, perhaps, or your piety, or the respect you feel for the displays of might they put on for your benefit? And would these temptations (if that is what they are) not be felt all the more strongly if you had already undergone the enormous moral upheaval of repudiating the beliefs and customs of your own people, and chosen instead to follow a wholly new religion brought to you by a set of strangers whose goods (rifles, wagons, medicines) and skills (reading and writing above all) were apparently inseparable from the everlasting truths revealed to them?

Power has many aspects and forms. All of them exist only in so far as they are used. The power of the Tswana over the Kgalagadi was one kind. Khama’s power over his people, and over his colleagues in the campaign, another. Rhodes’s power yet another. The missionaries’, ditto. (Even historians – and their reviewers – have a kind of power.) Compared with someone like Rhodes, the missionaries were in most respects gentle and honourable people; but they knew what they wanted, and when some of them came up against Lobengula, King of the Ndebele, who forbade his people to convert to the new religion, they used language about these recalcitrants which was almost as violent as any white settler’s. Khama and his companions had long known that they were no match, militarily or politically, for any of the competing white groups who had arrived in their country. They had sought protection from the missionaries, as the least bad of the options open to them. The missionaries, in their turn, sought help from the Government in London because they knew that at ‘home’ they could mobilise a degree of influence which would never be available to them locally. None of this means that the chiefs’ espousal of Christianity should be regarded as insincere. On the contrary, it was probably all the more sincere, or all the more traumatic, if you wish, for being in effect the acceptance of a historical change that could not be evaded.

Victorian Britain through African eyes? Or Britain looking at itself through the eyes of Africans who had no choice but to look at, and speak to, Britain in a way that history had imposed on both parties? Yes, the chiefs did remark on how green Britain was, how crowded, how industrialised, and on how many unmarried women frequented its streets; ironically enough, they arrived in the country during a belated heatwave and suffered much from it, especially as they all wore the gentlemanly garb that had been deemed appropriate for them. But if we are to talk of appearances, of eyes and gazes, there is a compelling symbolic force in the comment made by an official in the Colonial Office when it was suggested to him that the visitors might be taken to inspect a prison: ‘Prisoners feel keenly the humiliation of being looked at by visitors, and it would be a new experience for the oldest to be looked at by Kaffirs. Besides, is it wise to give them the means of telling their countrymen that they had seen so many of the White Race in such degraded circumstances?’

The immediate upshot of the chiefs’ visit to London was an agreement with Chamberlain which gave generous tracts of land to the British South Africa Company for the building of its railway to the north, but nothing more than that. Much to Rhodes’s disgust, the rest of the territories were denied to him. ‘It is utterly humiliating to be beaten by these three niggers,’ he wrote with characteristic delicacy to a collaborator in London. However, he had at least secured a base from which he planned to launch what was perhaps the greatest gamble of his career. The Jameson Raid was his attempt to seize the goldfields of the Witwatersrand by gathering a band of armed irregulars in the land just ceded to him and sending them across the western border of the Transvaal, while an uprising took place simultaneously in Johannesburg. In the event the whole thing was a fiasco. The Johannesburgers stayed put, the raiders surrendered ignominiously to a Boer commando; Rhodes’s participation in the affair could not be hidden. He was forced to resign the premiership of the Cape and to give up permanently his dream of a delayed but irresistible takeover of the protectorate by the Charter Company.

The Tswana people can hardly be said to have prospered during the six decades of British rule which followed. More than forty years later, for example, there was no suitable secondary school at which Seretse, Khama’s grandson, and future first President of an independent Botswana, could receive his education: for that purpose he had to be sent away to South Africa. The protectorate’s most significant source of income throughout this period remained the unskilled labour it exported to South Africa’s mines and factories. When the country finally gained its independence in 1966 it was reckoned to be one of the poorest in Africa, per capita. Today it is one of the richest. The mineral wealth Rhodes had hoped to find in Zimbabwe and Zambia actually lay under the despised sands of the Kalahari.

One last word of commendation for Neil Parsons’s book. Most indexes nowadays consist of little more than a list of names with page-numbers attached. The index to King Khama, Emperor Joe and the Great White Queen, by contrast, is wonderfully old-fashioned and informative. Even the housefly which Sebele was shocked to see within the walls of Windsor Castle finds its place there. But my favourite entries relating to this particular chief read simply: ‘says he won’t drink again, 242; drinks again, 248’.