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.

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