KHAMA THE GOOD KING OF BECHUANALAND (1819-1923)
Khama distinguish his reign by being highly regarded as a peace loving ruler with the desire of advancing his country in terms of technological innovations. He instituted scientific cattle feeding techniques which greatly inproved his country’s wealth and prestige. During his reign crimes were known to be as low as zero within his country.
Khama the Great (c.1835–1923), chief of the Ngwato, was born at Mashu in Ngwato country, in what later became Botswana. Son and heir of Sekogma I (c.1795–1883), Khama grew up in years of relative peace. In his early twenties, to his father’s annoyance, he fell under the influence of an itinerant evangelist and in May 1860 was baptized a Christian. John Mackenzie of the London Missionary Society, missionary at Shoshong from 1862 to 1876, became his mentor. Khama remained a devout Christian and an extreme teetotaller, regarded by many Europeans as the exemplar of an African Christian. On 22 May 1862 he married Mogatsamocwasele, known as Mma-Bessie (d. December 1889). It is possible that he had had an earlier marriage. Fierce internal dissensions were common in the Ngwato chiefdom and in 1872, at a time when the Ngwato were beginning to be exposed to new forces of colonial expansion, Khama briefly seized power before restoring his father as chief. In 1875 he deposed his father and from then until his death ruled the chiefdom.
Khama first appealed to the British to act against the Boer trekkers entering his country from the east in 1876. Although nothing was done immediately, the British came to see him as an ally in keeping open the ‘road to the north’ or ‘missionaries’ road’—the corridor which ran west of the Transvaal. Khama was delighted when in 1885 a British expeditionary force arrived in the area to expel Boer ‘filibusters’ and when its leader, Sir Charles Warren, declared a British protectorate over Bechuanaland, including the lands of the Ngwato. Mackenzie, who accompanied Warren, persuaded Khama to offer the British some frontier farmland for the settlement of white Christians, an offer which was not accepted.
In 1895 Khama heard that the British government proposed to transfer the administration of his country to Rhodes’s British South Africa Company. With two other Tswana chiefs, he travelled to England to oppose such a transfer. Queen Victoria presented him with a Bible, in which she wrote that that book was the secret of his greatness. Joseph Chamberlain, the colonial secretary, promised the chiefs that they would remain under the queen’s protection, though they did agree to cede a narrow strip of territory for the building of a railway to the north.
Khama returned to Bechuanaland to find his European-educated son and heir, Sekogma, in effective control. Disliking Sekogma and suspecting him of wanting to usurp power, Khama in October 1897 forced his son into exile. Khama then married in 1900 a twenty-one-year-old schoolteacher, Semane Setlhoko (1878/9–1937), who bore him a son, Tshekedi Khama (1905–1959), when he was seventy (he had earlier been married to Elisabetha, his second known wife). In 1907 he recognized Tshekedi as his heir, disowning Sekogma. However, when Khama had a minor accident in 1916, Sekogma returned to Serowe, beginning a process of reconciliation which led in 1920 to his being made heir in place of Tshekedi. Sekogma married, produced an heir, and succeeded Khama, but Khama’s prior recognition of Tshekedi helped to fuel tensions in the chiefdom long after his death. He died of pneumonia in his capital of Serowe, in the Bechuanaland protectorate on 21 February 1923, and was buried at Serowe Hill.
Courteous and athletic, Khama’s authoritarianism nevertheless estranged him from many of his senior relatives. A pragmatic ruler of the largest reserve in the British protectorate, he proved himself a shrewd entrepreneur, who launched a trading company which was so successful that rivals persuaded the British to close it down in 1916. He continued to receive strong moral support from Christian nonconformists in Britain, and the regard in which he was held, as a Christian gentleman, helped to ensure that the British did not hand over Bechuanaland to either Southern Rhodesia or South Africa.
Sources Q. N. Parsons, ‘Khama III, the Bamangwato and the British, 1895–1923’, PhD diss., U. Edin., 1973 · A. Sillery, ‘Kgama III’, DSAB · A. Sillery, Founding a protectorate: history of Bechuanaland, 1885–1895 (1965) · J. Chirenje, Chief Kgama and his times: the story of a southern African ruler (1978) · Q. N. Parsons, The word of Khama (1972) · A. Sillery, Botswana: a short political history (1974) · A. Dachs, Khama of Botswana (1971) · D. Wylie, A little god: the twilight of patriarchy in a southern African chiefdom (1990) · J. Mockford, Khama: king of the Bamangwato (1931) · A. Sillery, John Mackenzie of Bechuanaland (1971) · Q. N. Parsons, King Khama, Emperor Joe and the Great White Queen (1997)
Archives SOAS, London Missionary Society MSS · TNA: PRO, CO records
Likenesses Elliott & Fry, photograph, pubd 1902, NPG [see illus.] · photographs, repro. in W. C. Willoughby, Native life on the Transvaal border (1900) · photographs, repro. in Dachs, Khama of Botswana · photographs, repro. in Parsons, The word of Khama · photographs, SOAS, London Missionary Society MSS · portrait, South African Library, Cape Town, South Africa