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Ghanzi In History (Part 5) – The Kgalagadi Scramble

Between 1876 and 1885 a Cape Colony official named William Palgrave struggled to establish British rule in the western Kgalagadi. In 1878 he was mandated, as Special Commissioner, to annex Walvis Bay and proclaim a Protectorate over much of the rest of Namibia. But, the latter initiative was ultimately repudiated by the Imperial authorities in London.

As a result in 1884, the Germans were able to begin their own occupation of Namibia on the pretext that the land was not under the effective jurisdiction of another so-called “civilised”, that is to say European, power. The history of Botswana as well as Namibia would undoubtedly have been much different had Palgrave succeeded.

The European scramble for Africa came to Botswana in 1885 with the arrival of separate British and German military expeditions at Shoshong, the capital of the Bangwato Kgosi Khama III. 

Earlier, on Christmas Eve 1884, Berlin had agreed to London’s proposals for the division of the Kgalagadi along today’s southern Botswana-Namibia border. As a quid pro quo Britain agreed to abandon any claims to the territories of the Nama and Ovaherero in southern and central Namibia. Thus, on January 27, 1885 a Proclamation was made in London declaring: “....the establishment of a British Protectorate over the Territory known as Bechuanaland and the Kalahari.....east of the 20th degree meridian of east longitude, and south of the 22nd parallel of south latitude, and not within the jurisdiction of any civilised Power.”

Contrary to colonial mythology, local Dikgosi were never consulted about this momentous development. The Batswana, more specifically “kings Khama and Sechele”, were only formally informed of the new status quo in April-May of 1885, after Germany’s March 1885 formal consent to the arrangement. By then many Batswana were, nonetheless, aware of the event through South African newspaper coverage following the March 31, 1885 publication of the proclamation. 

As Kgosi Sechele informed General Warren at an April 27, 1885 meeting in the Molepolole Kgotla:

“I do not know the exact object of your coming here. When we see you appear here we do not know if it will be life or death to us, but that we know it will be death to us if you do to us as the Boers do to the Bahurutshe. We shall be dead men if you do to us as the Boers did to the Bakgatla at Rustenburg. If you talk merely in parables we shall not understand you easily.

“I have seen a newspaper in which it is said I asked for protection, also Gaseitsiwe and Khama. I do not understand this asking. The Bakwena were collected together as they are now when I went to the Cape to get guns and powder to defend myself with. I went with Sanwe, Mr.

Sam Edwards, here. There are others who can testify if I ever asked for anything beside to be allowed to buy guns and powder; to be allowed to obtain weapons the same as what the Boers had, to defend myself against them.

As to our friendship I do not know why, because of that our country should be taken possession of. Why is known only to you white people and the missionary who lives here.” Between 1885 and 1890 control over the Batawana kingdom, which then incorporated much of the Caprivi, as well as the modern Ghanzi and Northwest Districts, remained up for grabs.

During the second half of 1885 a small German expedition, under a Captain von Topper, passed through Ghanzi and Ngamiland to Shoshong. This expedition was followed by “Article One of the German Imperial Ordinance of 30 December 1886” in which the Kaiser’s Reich claimed all of Gatawana. Germany’s ambitions in north-west Botswana were effectively countered by Kgosi Moremi’s granting of economic concessions to British-oriented capitalists. In edition to the Ghanzi claims of the late Van Zyl’s estate, the Batawana had negotiated a number of mining agreements.

Most of these concessions were consolidated as the British West Charterland Company (BWCC) with Sir (later Lord) Frederick Lugard as its local administrative agent. Lugard’s experiences amongst the Batawana is said to have influenced his subsequent championing of “Indirect Rule” in Northern Nigeria and other parts of British Africa.

In addition to the Germans, BWCC claims were contested by Cecil Rhodes’ British South Africa Company (BSACo), which in September 1889 received Mmamosadinyana’s blessing to exploit all of Botswana as part of its Rhodesian domain. Although BWCC claims to most of Gatawana were eventually upheld, the company abandoned the area after the Boteti region was awarded to Gammangwato, still within the BSACo sphere to operations. After years of prospecting Lugard’s men had come to believe that the wealth of the region lay in diamond deposits around Letlhakane. 

In 1890 Britain and Germany finally agreed on the northern boundaries of their respective Protectorates over what is now Botswana and Namibia, thus completing the western Kgalagadi’s partition.

Shortly thereafter both nations’ colonial establishments concluded that the region should become a zone of white settlement. In reaching this curious conclusion, given the Kgalagadi’s arid environment, the imperial authorities were guided by misinformation from vested interests eager to exploit the area for quick real estate profits.

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