Three men on a mission

King Khama and the Great White Queen

August 14, 1998

We have seen so many examples in recent years of the power of the press and public opinion to make and break reputations - the hounding of Mary Bell being only the most recent - that it is fascinating to see the process beginning over a hundred years ago. Neil Parsons has based this book mainly on press cuttings in national and local newspapers in 1895 when three chiefs from Bechuanaland came to Britain to plead their case to Joseph Chamberlain, the then colonial secretary, that their land should not be appropriated by the expanding British South Africa Company. The success of their mission, limited though it was, owed everything to the way they were portrayed in the newspapers and to the effect that their personalities had on the people they met in a peregrination that lasted nearly three months and which took them all over Britain. The culmination of their stay was an audience with Queen Victoria, who had declined to receive them at Balmoral so that, at their own expense, they had to stay on three extra weeks until she had returned to Windsor.

The queen approved the other mission of the three chiefs, which was, despite the propensity of at least one of their number to break his own rules, to prevent liquor being available to their people. Khama, Sebele and Bathoen were all products of nonconformism - Khama as an adult convert,Sebele as the son of the great Sechele, whom Livingstone had baptised, and Bathoen as an ardent sabbatarian. Their desire to keep Cecil Rhodes and his company out of their territories was as much to prevent the spread of drinking as it was to preserve their own sovereignty, which they always accepted would have to be under some form of British protection. They simply preferred Victoria's to Rhodes's.

The historian Neil Parsons tells a riveting tale. The book begins with a pedestrian summary of where Britain was at in 1895, the year of Oscar Wilde's arrest. A few Martians may be enlightened, but it is a flat opening to what becomes absorbing once the chiefs have safely arrived in Britain after a rough voyage from Cape Town. It was only when they were in sight of the Cape Verde islands that Khama fully believed that the ship had not lost its way and that he would again see dry land. From this point on Parsons adopts a diary format, describing day by day the main events of the visit. It may not be the most sophisticated device and some historians may feel it comes close to the journalism upon which it feeds. It allows him, however, to make the three chiefs, and their slightly Mephistophelean travelling companion, the Reverend William Willoughby, seem very human. We know when they are tired or dejected; we appreciate the small jealousies that arose from their constantly being together, with Khama always being treated as the most important; we know who said what at which civic dinner,when they seemed to have parcelled out the work even-handedly. We can even marvel in this other age of privatised railway travel how dependable were their timetables as they frequently visited several towns in a day.

With the exception of The Times, the press lavished goodwill on the three men. Rhodes, who was to feel shame at being "utterly beaten by these niggers" (which actually he was not), emerged from the constitutional debates angry at the chiefs' tenacity and Chamberlain's attempts to make some concessions to them. He had not reckoned on the strength of the criticism of him that was expressed in so many newspaper commentaries.

If Rhodes is the villain of the piece, Chamberlain ("Emperor Joe") is the consummate pragmatist. At times the spirit of W. S. Gilbert seems to waft around him as affairs of state are put aside while he completes his holiday abroad, but he also comes across as a man of brisk decisiveness when he felt there was the slightest chance of being out-manoeuvred. The "great indaba" at the Colonial Office on November 6 1895, when the amounts of land to be given up by the chiefs for railway development were settled, would serve as a model exercise for Foreign and Commonwealth Office trainees today in the courteous brutalities of diplomacy.

The subtitle of Parsons's book is only partly accurate. We do indeed see something of Victorian life, particularly its Sunday observances, its transportation system and its civic ceremonies, through the eyes of these three often rather uncommunicative men, but the real heart of the matter is Africa itself, loved by the chiefs, patronised by Willoughby, exploited by Rhodes, reluctantly admired by Chamberlain. In the history of Botswana the visit of 1895 is of paramount importance, for without it there would have been no modern state, now admired as one of the most successful in Africa. 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 is director ofliterature, British Council.He was formerly director, Africa Centre, London.

King Khama and the Great White Queen: Victorian Britain through African Eyes

Author - Neil Parsons
ISBN - 0 226 64744 7 and 64745 5
Publisher - University of Chicago Press
Price - £39.95 and £15.25
Pages - 322

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