Wednesday, November 11, 2015

The Road to Botswana I

Michael - Thursday

The history of Botswana is an interesting one.  Most people assume that – like Zimbabwe and Zambia for example – it was carved out on geographic lines as a British colony and eventually became independent, like so many countries in Africa as “the winds of change” swept the colonialists away.  But that’s not the case.

Engraving of Shoshong in the nineteenth century
The people of Botswana are called Batswana—a term that is applied interchangeably to a member of the Tswana group of peoples and now also to citizens of Botswana.  The Tswana peoples don’t have a written history of their early origins, instead it was passed down the generations in tales and legends.  Probably they originated in the area around what is now Rustenburg in South Africa and spread from there.  Although not nomadic in the traditional sense, the tribal groups could not afford to stay in one place for too long because the land was arid and unable to sustain significant settlements and water use for any length of time. Tribal groups split, coalesced, explored, shared resources or fought over them. There were feuds, kings (or dikosi) made alliances by marriage and agreement. Their plots and feuds would do justice to the classical Greeks at their best.

Church building and ox-wagons

In the eighteenth century, Kgosi Malope led the Bakwena tribe into what is now southern Botswana. He had three sons who eventually broke away from him and went off on their own.  They quarreled among each other as well; one split apparently was sparked by a lost cow, and led to attacks on the villages of each other’s followers!

Aerial photo of Shoshong
The period from 1700 to 1850 was a bad time for the Tswana peoples.  Not only were they fighting each other, but the Zulus and Matebele threatened them. In 1770 Kgosi Mathiba split from the Bakwena and made his way to the area of Shoshong and established a stronghold there.  The spot was attractive because of the protection offered by the hills in the event of an attack, and caves in which to take refuge if the odds became too great.  Also, there was a reliable source of water from the river that flowed through a gorge in the hills. One of his sons was the first Khama. This story relates what it was like for him as a boy:

“We were more like game then men in those days, for though I tell you where we lived the fact is that we were always changing. We settled down somewhere and then someone attacked us; and then we moved off somewhere else. And so it went on.”
“Khama says the whole of the Bakaa hid in a single cave, and the Matebele could not kill a single one of them. Khama still remembers the cave in which he hid with his mother, though he does not think he could find it again. And he has not forgot how they rushed their goats into caves at sound of warning leaving them to be herded together by older hands while they fled to the caves where their mothers were. Of course there were always spies about watching for the Matebele night and day.”

Khama III and his wife

Khama III, who was born around 1837, was to be the strong leader who started the foundations of the Botswana nation.  From 1850 the area was opened up to trading and hunting by explorers and missionaries like David Livingstone.  Khama embraced Christianity and exploited the opportunities that commerce offered. As a young man, he was active in the new trade, owning guns, horses and ox-wagons. He spoke fluent Dutch. But relations with his father were strained and feuds between the two men led to him leaving Shoshong.  His father tried to have him killed, they reconciled, fought again, and eventually Khama defeated his father in a month-long armed conflict between their followers.  Despite this inauspicious start, Khama III was a fine leader and sometimes referred to as Khama the Good.

Kgotla (meeting) to discuss the protectorate

But when he finally became Kgosi in 1875, Khama was beset on all sides.  Drought was threatening Shoshong, the Ndebele in the north were making incursions into his lands, the Dutch Voortrekkers where at his door in the south, and German colonists were moving in from the west.  Cecil Rhodes also had his eye on the region - he wanted it for his Cape to Cairo railway and as part of his overall plan of British dominion in Africa. Against this backdrop, Khama took a very unusual step.  Along with two other chiefs, he set sail for England and asked Queen Victoria for protection.  It was a brilliant and courageous move.  Despite strong opposition from Rhodes, the British government agreed, and declared Bechuanaland a protectorate.  Thus, it was never a colony and retained much of its own locally-based governing structures that survive to this day.  The Bechuanaland Protectorate was administered by the British from Mafeking – a town in South Africa!  

The chiefs in London

On hearing of the decision of the British government, Khama declared:
“I,.Khama, chief of the Bamangwato, with my younger brothers, heads of my town, express my gratitude at the coming of the messenger of the Queen of England, and for the announcement to me of the Protectorate, which has been established by the desire of the Queen, and which has come to help the land of the Bamangwato also. I give thanks for the word of the Queen … and I accept the friendship and protection of the Government of England within the Bamangwato country…”

Statue commemorating the three chiefs

In 1966, Khama III's grandson became the president of a new united country called Botswana. A story for another occasion.

Photographs courtesy of the Botswana National Archives


  1. Fascinating history. Maybe this is why Mma Precious Ramotswe, the matriarch of Alexander McCall Smith's series, set in Botswana, sometimes mentions respect for the Queen.
    I wondered why. This may explain it.
    That series is wonderful. Nothing like it to regain faith in humanity. And it is rife with respect and love for Africa.

    1. Yes, there is still a close relationship with Britain and none of the animosity of past conflict.

  2. How fascinating, Michael. And how wonderful that being a Protectorate worked out so well for Botswana. So different than in British East Africa, which had the disadvantage of an extremely benign climate in the highlands, which was too attractive to European settlers for BEA to stay a Protectorate for long. It became the colony of Kenya, with the usual brutal results as we both know. Viva Botswana!

  3. If you're going to build a kingdom, it's best to do it where the going is hard, and there aren't obvious resources that others will want. Then toss in some smart people and a HUGE dollop of luck...

    Greed and strife have always been with us and, I fear, always will be with us.

    Thanks, Michael!

  4. It certainly was helpful that only imperialism attracted the Rhodes types. There is a rumor that when De Beers made the discovery of the first big diamond deposit, they agreed with the new president in waiting to keep it to themselves until after independence.
    Rhodes would have said: 'I told you so!'

  5. Really nice to have this history! Thank you for sharing it.