Not an article about Cecil Rhodes
The year is 1947 and Seretse Khama, a trainee barrister and former student of Balliol College Oxford, has decided to marry his girlfriend. But there is a problem: Seretse Khama is the chief of the Bamangwato people from present day Botswana and his girlfriend is Ruth Williams a white insurance clerk at Lloyd’s of London. Inevitably this interracial marriage becomes a diplomatic incident.
The Bamangwato people have been governed by Seretse’s uncle since his father died when he was four. Upon the marriage Seretse is summoned back from London by his uncle who demands that it is annulled.
Seretse eventually triumphs — partly through the popularity of his wife — and is reaffirmed as ruler.
But the bigger opposition to the match comes from colonial powers. Apartheid South Africa cannot reconcile itself to the possibility that its nearest neighbour is ruled by a black man married to a white woman and so puts pressure on the Labour government in Britain to remove Seretse from his post.
Whether it was because the heavily indebted UK could not afford to piss off a trading partner, or the need for South African uranium for Britain’s nuclear deterrent, or just the old fear of black men’s sexuality: Seretse is removed from his position as chief and goes into exile.
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Let’s go back a bit. Let’s go back to Seretse’s grandfather in 1895.
Sekgoma II, as he was known, visited Britain as part of a deputation called “The Three Chieftains”, as he was accompanied by two other tribal leaders from the Bechuanaland protectorate. The reason why these three men had travelled to Britain was Cecil Rhodes.
Rhodes’ British South Africa Company had designs on their territory after already taking land in what is now Zambia and Zimbabwe for his new country of Rhodesia.
A decade before the Bechuanaland protectorate had been established as a sort-of buffer state by the British. They had very little interest in this patch of land but wished to block expansion by both the Boers and the German empire.
Knowing they could not defeat Cecil Rhodes militarily the chieftains travelled to Britain to lobby the British government for protection. An advantage they was their Christianity — the first translation of the Bible into an African language was in Tswana and Sekgoma II was a Christian convert himself.
For this reason the London Missionary Society sponsored their trip and paid for the chieftains to travel around Britain. Their main base of support were non-conforming evangelicals such as quakers, Methodists and baptists in the north and midlands although they travelled widely around the country.
Rhodes’ own failures likely helped their case . The disastrous Jameson Raid on Boer territory, made without the consent of the colonial secretary Joseph Chamberlain, lowered Rhodes’ standing in the eyes of the British establishment.
In a meeting on November 6 Chamberlain would agree to the three chieftain’s request, not wishing it to become an election issue, and the colonial office made this statement the next day:
Each of the three chiefs, Khama, Sebele and Bathoen, shall have a country within which they shall live as hitherto under the protection of the Queen. The Queen shall appoint an officer to reside with them. The chiefs will rule their own people just as at present.
We know Cecil Rhodes reaction from a telegraph sent to an employee: “I do object to being beaten by three canting natives,” he said.
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I have always had some difficulty with the argument that we cannot apply our present day morality to the past. For a start, the past is rich in stories and it is one of the many ways in which we can make sense of how we ought to behave; it can be as didactic or allegorical as much as any fiction or contemporary problem.
Second, the idea that we ought not to apply present day morality to the past is itself part of present day morality, we cannot step outside of history to examine it.
Overwhelmingly, though, my objection is to those who think of the past as having a single set of standards or single way of viewing the world. While some in the establishment would have been supportive of Cecil Rhodes, the example of the three chieftains shows us that the standards of his time included opposition to him; both among the peoples who were at risk of being colonised and in the nations who he claimed to be acting on behalf of.
We can apply the standards of his own time to Cecil Rhodes and come up with thousands of different perspectives on him. Standards which are mostly the same as there are now.
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It was likewise for Seretse Khama’s exile. The outrage to the blatantly racist judgement of the Attlee government was swift, and public opinion turned in support of the fairytale-like story of the king and the insurance clerk. In the Bechuanaland protectorate, his people refused to appoint a new king and once more sent a deputation to Britain to lobby the government. By 1956 Seretse and Ruth Khama were allowed to return as private citizens.
The exile only served to boost his reputation at home and when Botswana became independent in 1966 he was elected as president.
President Khama was a good president. Botswana was largely democratic and avoided the post-independence civil wars that damaged may African countries. The discovery of diamonds in 1967 in the country was used for the improvement of public services and he worked with foreign mining companies to get the most out of the resources rather than diverting them for private gain.
This is a story with several happy endings: Botswana is often used as a positive example in development economics. Its GDP per capita went from $84 per head at the time of independence (meaning the average citizen lived on an income of 23 cents per day) to $7,315 in 2013. Some put this down to the fact that the country managed to stay out of Cecil Rhodes clutches but who really knows. A development lecturer I once had just shrugged his shoulders and told the class that “sometimes people are good.”
Most recently, someone or other has decided to make a feel-good film about Seretse and Ruth Khama, who are in the photo shown below.