Khama Chameleon

by Liesl Schillinger

King Khama, Emperor Joe, and the Great White Queen: Victorian Britain Through African Eyes
by Neil Parsons University of Chicago Press 322 pp $50 (cloth) $18.95 (paper)

In 1895, when Britain was more powerful internationally than it ever had been or would be again, three chiefs journeyed from the empire's Bechuanaland Protectorate, in southern Africa, to England to meet with Queen Victoria and her new colonial minister, Joseph "Emperor Joe" Chamberlain. The names of the "three kings," as they were called by Britons who were fond of biblical allusion, were Khama, Sebele, and Bathoen. They had traveled across the ocean because their land was about to be ripped from under their noses by Cecil Rhodes and his British South Africa Company, which had recently grabbed Matabeleland. As seasoned statesmen, they knew that their only hope of keeping their territory was to journey in person to England and energetically plead their cause to the distant queen and the people who controlled their country's fate. Accompanied by William Charles Willoughby, an activist clergyman who deplored Rhodes's incursions and who had lived in Khama's country for four years as a representative of the London Missionary Society (LMS), they whipped up British sentiments into a froth of imperial noblesse oblige, imploring piteously, "Let us continue to be the children of the Great Queen." With calculated, Dickensian pathos, they begged Britain to save her helpless wards from being "killed and eaten by the Company."

The arrival of the three black leaders and their attendants and translators stirred up a blizzard of media attention. Their visit coincided with the hundredth anniversary of the LMS, which provided countless opportunities for the men to address audiences at religious celebrations, luncheons, and teas across Britain; it also fell amid the summer recess of Parliament, a slow news period known as the "Silly Season." As the Bristol Mercury, one of more than 135 papers that chronicled their travels, observed, "If their desire is to be talked and written about, interviewed, and photographed, they could not have chosen a better time than the present in which to visit this country." Their stay lasted long enough to elicit more serious debate as well in such political journals as the England-first African Review and the more internationally minded South Africa. In the end, the queen refused to allow them to disturb her seclusion at Balmoral, but the three kings had their day with Emperor Joe and won their campaign, thanks to the outcry produced by their own savvy politicking. It is a David-and-Goliath tale so improbable, so stirring, and so epic in scope that it is astonishing to think that the first person to lay it out in full historic technicolor is not Steven Spielberg but Neil Parsons, a historian at the University of Botswana.

In King Khama, Emperor Joe, and the Great White Queen: Victorian Britain Through African Eyes, Parsons makes a tantalizing promise: to portray the experience of the British colonial period from the point of view of the colonized rather than of the colonizer. As he puts it in his preface, he hopes to "allow imperial 'subalterns' to speak for themselves--portraying Western society as 'other' rather than as 'us.'" And yet, despite promising early augurs, the book never stops being primarily a view of Africans through Victorian eyes, and a view not of all Africans, but of three exceptional, eloquent Africans whom Europeans liked largely as characters in a curious racial pantomime. In the words of one newspaper, "Had [Sebele] been a white man he would have been a lawyer, as surely as Khama would have been a clergyman and [Bathoen] an inn-keeper." Other accounts anointed King Khama the "best dressed of the three," with a "face beneath the hat...of a singular though negroid type." Bathoen was "a veritable Samson" with the "heavy lips of the true child of Ham"; and Sebele was judged to look "almost European, and if it were not for his dark copper hue he might very well pose as the double of an eminent barrister." The Victorians may have had little interest in the whole African chorus, but for a brief time a few romantic leads did succeed in holding their attention. Parsons shows how they managed to get the parts and carry them off so well.

The British had made Bechuanaland into a protectorate just ten years earlier, when gold was discovered in the Transvaal. Parsons makes clear, however, that Bechuanaland was not an imagined or invented country; it had existed in its own right for more than a century, and its well-developed civilization had been admired enough by Western observers to earn its people praise in eighteenth- and nineteenth- century travel and adventure writing--including, remarkably, the Travels of Baron Munchausen and Rider Haggard's King Solomon's Mines. But even if the British did not "create" Botswana, they apprehended it in a strangely British way. Because the tribal governments were orderly, the dynasties traceable, whites accorded the three kings a respect that was unusual in the colonial period; in fact, the chiefs benefited from an honorary European status. Certainly, the men knew how to stroke a monarch and how to impress her subjects. Asked what he admires most about England, King Khama says with brilliant simplicity, "The greenness of everything and the softness of the turf. I walked for the first time the other day over real turf, cut short, and soft as moss. We cannot comprehend how it is made to grow like that." But when he is asked what he dislikes about England, he says, more subtly, that he is troubled by the unhealthy condition of London cab horses. "I can see many of these poor creatures have sore feet," he observes. "A humane people like the English will surely find a remedy." Later he uses the same appeal to conscience and to parable in a moving speech in Leicester, on behalf of his own people:

We black people live on the land; we live on the farms....We think that the Imperial government is throwing us away. [Rhodes's] Chartered Company, when it came, found that we were under the Imperial government, and we say, why should the Imperial government want to hand us over to the Chartered Company?... They hand us over like an ox, but even the owner of the ox looks to where the ox will get grass, and water, land, that sort of thing.

Despite such evocative examples, nearly all accounts of the visit that Parsons cites are English impressions of the three kings: their physiognomy, their eloquence, their dress, their manners, their opinions of England and the English. The kings and their missionary mascot Willoughby made sure that the public impression they gave out was a favorable one, whatever their private reservations. At an exhibit of prime beef cattle--one of countless tours the chiefs made of centers of British agro-industrial might--Willoughby reassured the hosts, who were "worried by the expressionless look on Khama's face and feared he was bored," that "'he is enjoying this far more than you think.'" Certainly Khama would not have gainsaid him.

In a New Yorker magazine cover from 1939, a WASP paterfamilias frowns in baffled displeasure when a Sikh tourist snaps a photo of the American's family as they lunch at an outdoor café on the Upper East Side. "What is there to look at here?" the white patriarch visibly harrumphs. Like that cartoon, King Khama, Emperor Joe, and the Great White Queen tries to flip the positions of observer and observed; but in the end, it can't help paying more attention to the vantage point of the paterfamilias. In the case of Britain at the time of Khama, of course, the African tourists were dealing with a materfamilias. The benevolent Britons did not know that the woman Khama, Bathoen, and Sebele respectfully referred to as "The Great White Queen" was actually known in the Setswana tongue as Mma-Mosadinyana, or "Mrs. Little (Old) Lady." The chiefs called British journalists "hunters of words." Parsons shows that the Africans were no mean hunters themselves.

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