We left off with Dikgosi Bathoen, Khama and Sebele giving a series of joint interviews to the London Press. It was during these initial interviews that they made public their desire to have an audience with Queen Victoria, whom Sebele at least already referred to as “Mmamosadinyana.”
One hundred and twenty years later the recorded words of Bathoen, Khama and Sebele’s collective press and public speaking engagements, there were ultimately scores of each during the course of their visit, provide a testament their public relations acumen; a historical benchmark perhaps for public officials today.
Whether speaking directly to the press, or before wider public audiences, throughout their stay in Britain the Dikgosi were consistently on message, maintaining a united front while addressing a wide range of issues and audiences. Their feat was all the more impressive given that they were operating for the first time and at the highest level in what was for them an alien environment – the capital of the world’s then leading Empire.
While some of the credit for their success must presumably be shared with their able assistants, David Sebonego, Simeon Seisa and Kehutile Gohiwamang, as well as the political savvy of the Rev. Willoughby, the genius of the Dikgosi themselves is manifest in their individual interventions.
By the time of his arrival in Britain, the Bangwato monarch already enjoyed minor celebrity status, having become an icon in missionary and colonial circles as the personification of a loyal Christian ruler.
His profile as Khama “the Good” was further enhanced by the popularity of the missionary James D. Hepburn’s book “Twenty Years in Khama’s Country,” which was conveniently published a few months before the Dikgosi’s arrival. An additional missionary publication, the Rev. Edwin Lloyde’s “Three Great African Chiefs: Khame, Sebele and Bathoeng,” was also rushed to print in 1895 in the context of the visit.
In virtually all of his communications the ever laconic Khama was effectively concise and to the point. To try to undermine the Phuti’s reputation Rhodes’ media network spread the story that he had abandoned the fight against the Amandebele two years earlier.
This gambit, however, backfired insofar as besides convincingly denying the charge itself, Khama responded by both asserting the central role of his regiments in the conflict – “the Matebele had been quickly defeated by our column” - while also raising questions about the administrative fitness of Rhodes’ Company.
For his part, Bathoen proved most adept at reinforcing the messages of his two collaeges. At a public meeting in Birmingham town hall he noted that after the missionary Robert Moffat had visited the Amandebele there had been “peace for many years; but when they were handed over to the company they very soon found war,...and
Bathoen also frequently won the most laughs: “We do not like to be governed by men whose one object is to take out metals from the earth and whose business in life is to hunt for precious stones, for they might take it in their heads to dig us in the same manner.”
In the words of the LMS Foreign Secretary Wardlaw Thompson, however, it was Sebele who “was certainly the best public speaker of the three, and had the knack for saying things which greatly pleased his auditors.”
Much to the consternation of Rhodes, Sebele used his own history of drinking (Bathoen, as well as Khama, was a teetotaller, while Sebele abstained throughout the visit) to rally support among the temperance (anti-alcohol) movement:
“I can say more about the habit of liquor than my younger brothers, for, alas! I know it in my own personal experience as the great destroyer. If a man should drink the fire-water of the traders, although he be a king, although he be a Christian, he will grow drowsy...”
In the trade halls of northern England Sebele appealed to radicals and organised workers by attacking the very notion that their land could be handed over to an exploitive company “to be cut up into little bits that they may be given away to the white man.”
The Mokwena was most in his element, however, at Christian gatherings where he invariably made reference to his first teacher: “...My first acquaintance with Englishmen was when Dr. Livingstone came to our town to live and teach us. He began to speak about the love that God has, and now I see that it is even as Dr. Livingstone said. We were first prompted to come to England by certain words which we read in a newspaper, and which said that we were to be placed in the hands of a new Government.
“Then we chiefs spoke to one another, and we said: ‘Can it be that we shall be given away in ignorance, the Government not knowing the things they do, because we are not like a man’s oxen, who can be given without consultation and it must be our work to go to England and speak to the great Queen, that she may know the things that we do here today.’”