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The 3 Dikgosi’s 1895 visit to England

Trailblazers: A picture of Three Chiefs in England displayed at National Archives
Following the collapse of Bakalaka kingdom under the Mambo after being subdued by the Ndebele, some Bakalaka fell under the rule of the Ndebele.

The Ndebele rule also extended over Mashona, although the Portuguese sought to dispute this in 1888. In a diplomatic dispatch of April 27, 1888, Senor de Carvalho of the Portuguese Consulate in part transmitted the following to the British High Commissioner for South Africa, Sir Hercules Robinson:

“In the Government Gazette Extraordinary of the 35th instant (April 25) is published a Treaty entered into between Lobengula, ruler of the Amatabele, and the Assistant Commissioner, J. S. Moffat, and duly approved and ratified by your Excellency as Her Majesty’s High Commissioner for South Africa.  In this Treaty the tribes of Mashonaland and Maka Kalaka are acknowledged as tributaries to the said Lobengula, ruler of the Amatabeles.

“The Crown of Portugal claiming rights of sovereignty to the Mashona country by right of conquest and cession, I therefore in my capacity as representative of Portugal beg to record my protest against that part of the Treaty by which the Mashona tribes are acknowledged as tributaries of Lobengula, ruler of the Amatabele”. (sic) (Further Correspondence respecting the Affairs of Bechuanaland and Adjacent Territories, August 1888)

“The British rebuffed this protest on May 23, 1888, by pointing out that they had previously entered into a treaty with King Mzilikazi of the Ndebele (King Lobengula’s father) on March 3, 1836, and that had never been protested by the Portuguese.  In part the response read:

“By that treaty, the King [Mzilikazi] engages to act in concert with the Government of the Cape in subduing whatever may be calculated to disturb the general peace, or retard the civilisation and prosperity of the native tribes of South Africa.”

This demonstrates the formidable stature and power of the Ndebele, and their king, Lobengula. Cecil John Rhodes, a British imperialist, and his company, the British South Africa Company (BSAC), had a view that they could create a British empire that stretched from the Cape to Cairo. 

They could only achieve this if they were in control of the hinterlands of Africa. Noth has observed:

“Cecil Rhodes was an aggressive imperialist administrator who coveted the land and rich mineral resources to the north of the Limpopo River including lands under Lobengula’s hegemony.” (Noth, 1995)

Peters has also said:“The grant of a Royal Charter to the British South Africa Company on October 29, 1889, was an event of great importance to the Protectorate.  Not only was it included in the sphere of operations of the Company, but plans for the development of Mashonaland and Matabeleland meant an increasing importance for the Protectorate as the highway to the north.”

The white settlers wanted to extricate Mashonaland from Lobengula’s rule, and eventually provoke a war with him.  Therefore, in their endeavour to undermine Lobengula, they first settled in Mashonaland in 1890.

“After Frank Johnson had engaged the African auxiliaries at the beginning of pioneer journey at Mafeking – some of them fell out before they even reached Macloutsie in Bechuanaland and their work as labourers was taken over by the Ngwato supplied by Khama for the service.  It would appear that the willingness of Khama to cooperate in the venture may have been born out of the longstanding acquaintance between him and Frank Johnson the organiser of the Pioneer Column.  Whatever the reasons, Khama was very anxious to oblige and provided a battalion of Ngwato auxiliaries under his brother Raditladi, later of Southern Rhodesian fame.

Of even greater importance was the political significance that Khama’s co-operation implied. 

It was to some measure a political gimmick by Rhodes to woe the support of Exeter Hall and render the occupation of Mashonaland as a move motivated not only by political and economic objectives alone, but one tampered with humanitarian or altruistic ideals too.  Indeed the members of the Pioneer Column themselves were well aware of this, but as far as they were concerned, their racial feelings were too strong to accommodate political and humanitarian gestures.  On the contrary, they were greatly offended by what they termed Ngwato ‘praying habits’ and as such were reluctant to work side by side with these Ngwato helpers, whom they ridiculed as well, indicating that, as ‘Curio’ Brown puts it:

They – (the Ngwato) – read the Bible, sing and pray a great deal; but the men of our expedition who had been at their town, Palapye, all agree that their religion was not deep-seated.

Khama himself also played his part in assuring Lobengula that the Pioneer Column was only proceeding to Mashonaland and did not intend to attack the Ndebele State.” (Makambe, 1979) (sic)

As a result, while Lobengula continued his rule over the Mashona, the white settlers were on the ground in Mashonaland.

“The B.S.A.C never seemed to appreciate why Lobengula resisted the loss of Ndebele power over the Shona.” (Noth)

But the answer really lay in the fact that the Ndebele liked power, control, dominance and subjugation of others through military conquest.

“The Ndebele were a closed knit people: organised in highly stratified caste society with a king, (ikosi), holding absolute power. Following the Zulu pattern, the King was supported by several military units, each led by a separate chief (an induna).  Being a highly militarised society, the Ndebele preferred warfare to cultivation or mining.” (sic) (Noth)

Thus, the Ndebele and the white sellers were uncomfortable neighbours in Mashonaland from 1890-1893.

“The repudiation of the Rudd Concession and the despatch of envoys to Queen Victoria by Lobengula, as well as the Rhodes-Johnson plot to assassinate Lobengula; events which followed in the wake of the Rudd Concession, further strained the Ndebele/BSA Co. relations. 

Yet it was in the face of this mutual hostility that the Pioneer Column undertook the occupation of Mashonaland in 1890 and, for three years, co-existed with Lobengula.  It is not surprising, therefore, that during the 1890-93 period of uneasy truce, the settlers felt the weight of the Ndebele threat like a millstone around their necks.  The Ndebele, on their part, were defiant of white settler presence and carried out military raids in Mashonaland as of old...” (Makambe)

However, the Ndebele were wary of the firepower the white settlers possessed, which might explain why they let them settle in Mashonaland in the first place.

“The Ndebele had tasted the strength of the white men’s weaponry before and had consequently fled from their old home in the Transvaal in the first half of the 19th century as a token recognition of its superiority.” (Makambe)

Although Lobengula tried very hard to avoid a fight, the white settlers were itching for one.  Unsurprisingly, a small, trivial incident in Mashonaland in 1893 ignited a war.  Some Mashona stole telegraph wire from the BSAC to use for bodily ornaments. 

The BSAC police in turn confiscated Mashona cattle.  This infuriated Lobengula since he was the king of the Mashona, and therefore these were his cattle.  At any rate, he reasoned that as the king he should have been the one disciplining the Mashona.  Instead, the BSAC’s chief agent, Dr L. S. Jameson, declared war against the Ndebele which commenced on October 5, 1893.  About a month later the Ndebele were defeated, and Lobengula vanished and his remains have never been found.  The Ndebele kingdom was destroyed.   By the end of 1893, the BSAC and the white settlers were now in control of what became Rhodesia (present-day Zimbabwe).

“In November 1894 Cecil Rhodes made a formal request to the British government for control of the Bechuanaland protectorate in order to facilitate railway construction.” (Mogalakwe) (sic)

Warhurst has said, “in 1890 the Chartered Company [BSAC] occupied Mashonaland with the enthusiastic support of Kgama.” As Khama also liked power, dominance and land grabbing and thus Lobengula was an ever-present threat for him, he was always prepared to cooperate in Lobengula’s elimination.  This was so much so that when on December 16, 1889, Sir Sidney Shippard wrote to Khama to inform him of the grant of a Royal Charter to the BSAC and that the BSAC and Rhodes hoped to count on Khama’s “support and assistance in his [Rhodes] great work of carrying the blessings of civilisation – into Matabeleland and  Mashonaland – etc.”, Khama misconstrued the letter and thought it sought his military assistance against Lobengula. “The letter as delivered at Palapye by representatives of the Company, who must have aroused misconceptions in verbal communication, because Khama’s reply was an enthusiastic promise of military support for the expedition against Lobengula.”  (Peters)

Thus, with Khama having supported Cecil John Rhodes, the BSAC, and the white settlers, and undermined Lobengula, which led to his defeat in 1893, the BSAC now wanted to take over the Bechuanaland Protectorate.  This caused panic and led to Kgosi Khama of Bangwato, Kgosi Bathoen I of Bangwaketse and Kgosi Sebele I of Bakwena travelling to “England to protest in person against the intention of the British government to transfer the administration of the country to the British South Africa Company, which the British saw as a

means of protecting its colonial interests in the region at no cost to the public purse.”  (Mogalakwe) (emphasis added)

The three Dikgosi were accompanied by a Reverend William Charles Willoughby, and another missionary by the name of Good.  The colonial government was evidently concerned about how it would finance the administration of the protectorate since it did not have any resources of its own.  Hence, the colonialists were prepared to pass on this risk to the BSAC.  The British government was not relenting on the idea of the transfer.  Ultimately, therefore, the three Dikgosi made a direct appeal for support from the British public.

“Khama III, who had banned alcohol and had established a Christian state on his territory, in particular, had wide support from temperance and evangelical voters.  Additionally, Khama’s considerable assistance to Rhodes in the conquest of Matabeleland - in supplies, in troops, and in allowing his territory to be used as a staging ground – meant that he was popular with the pro-imperialist sentiment.   As a result of the popularity of the visit, the Secretary of State for the Colonies Joseph Chamberlain agreed to make some concessions to the chiefs regarding the integrity of their territories, and the potential of land losses was mitigated.”

(Morton & Ramsay)

It appears there was a lot of diplomatic give and take between the three Dikgosi and the British government.  As Selolwane says about Dikgosi:

“For a compromise, however, they were asked to cede parts of their land to the Crown for company [BSAC] use, and to retain the rest of the land where they would rule as their tradition dictated.” (Selolwane) (emphasis added)

A similar point has been made that:“In the face of strong public support for the Tswana chiefs, the plan to transfer Bechuanaland to the BSAC was put in abeyance, and the Colonial Secretary agreed that the Tswana Chiefs would rule their own people ‘much as at present’, but under an officer who would receive his orders from the Secretary of State.” (Mogalakwe) (emphasis added) (sic)

Even though there had been a discussion on the imposition of tax since 1885 when the protectorate was proclaimed, one of the compromises Dikgosi had to agree to, to avert the transfer to the BSAC was the introduction of the tax, ostensibly to fill the gap that would have been plugged through the BSAC finances.  

In engaging the three Dikgosi in 1885, Warren had been instructed by his superiors in London that: “It should be made clear to the chiefs that they were expected to contribute to the cost of the Protectorate by paying hat tax.”

In another context, the point has been made that “G. Grindle did not think, in commenting on the Commissioner’s despatch, that they need press the point on a hut tax which was regarded as the native contribution to the cost of government.” (Stevenson)  Even in 1888, the issue of hut tax was still a hot potato, as Dikgosi had rejected its imposition in 1885. “It had been the mention of hut tax which caused the greatest excitement and even led to the threat of a massacre of whites.  Shippard now assured the tribes that no immediate action was contemplated, though he wanted them to consider the possibility of some sort of contribution to the cost of the Protectorate.” (Peters)

Warhurst has observed that “[t]he attraction for the British Government was that a charter [for the BSAC] would ensure the realisation of these aims without recourse to the [British] taxpayer.”  Therefore, even though the imposition of tax had been on the table since 1886, tax collection was triggered by the 1895 England visit and finally started in 1899.  This was to have devastating consequences for some of the tribes in the Protectorate.

“The Dikgosi were supposed to collect tax through their chief’s representatives, headmen and paid collectors.  This was an arrangement proposed by Khama III, Bathoen I (Ngwaketse) and Sebele I during their visit to England in 1895.” (Makgala, 2004) (sic)

In 1892 gold was discovered in the north.  On September 27, 1892, the High Commissioner issued a proclamation which brought the Disputed Territory under his jurisdiction. “Consequently the Disputed Territory was included within the boundaries of the territory under the High Commissioner’s control, as defined by a High Commissioner’s proclamation September 27, 1892.” (Peters) (sic)

 The defeat of Lobengula in 1893 would have been a huge relief for Khama, as it provided him with an opportunity to claim territory north of the Motloutse River, including the Disputed Territory.  However, the threat of the transfer of the Bechuanaland Protectorate to the BSAC was not the only worry for Khama now.  The company now lodged a competing claim for the territory he had always coveted as well. “Thus the danger of Matabele attack was removed from the Protectorate.  Henceforth Khama’s disputes as to boundaries were with the company.  Besides the old problem of the Shashi-Macloutsie area in the northeast, a new dispute had arisen in the north.  In 1892 gold discoveries were made west of Tati and reported as being in Khama’s territory.  Rhodes thereupon denied that Khama’s territory extended north of 22nd parallel S. latitude – claims in the new area belonged to the B.S.A Company as heirs of Lobengula.”  (Peters)

The 1895 trip to England, therefore, became pivotal for Khama.  Bathoen and Sebele also feared transfer to the BSAC. “Sebele and Bathoen also expressed anxiety at being transferred to the Company’s administration and decided to accompany Khama to England.” (Peters)

As the stakes were now much higher than in 1885 when Dikgosi refused to pay hut tax when the protectorate was imposed, Dikgosi now not only embraced its payment but suggested its mode of payment. “They all stated their willingness to pay hut tax if only they could remain under the Crown.” (Peters)

The three Dikgosi produced a seven-point plan for discussion with the Colonial Office in London, as well as the BSAC.  Direct negotiations between the three Dikgosi and the BSAC reached an impasse, but the BSAC did suggest that “each tribe should have a reserve, based largely on those marked out for Sir Charles Warren in 1885.” (Peters) (sic)

The three Dikgosi wrote to the Colonial Office on September 24, 1895, setting out their seven-point plan.“In a letter to the Colonial Office of September 24, the chiefs recapitulated their case as given verbally in the earlier interview.

  • They wanted to remain under the Queen.
  • They enumerated reasons for distrusting the company, e.g. drink etc.
  • They asked for boundaries between them to the fixed.
  • If it was inevitable that they should come under the company they asked for a postponement for 10 years.
  • They requested that the government should not listen to idle appeals from their ‘younger brothers’.  In the old days, rebellion meant war but now the rebel might even be rewarded by the government with a piece of land, to prevent bloodshed.
  • Hut tax should be collected by the chiefs themselves.
  • A resident appointed by the government should live with them and hear complaints.” (Peters) (sic)

As direct negotiations between the three Dikgosi and the BSAC had not been fruitful, it was left to Joseph Chamberlain, who was the colonial secretary at the time, to settle the matter.

In part, Chamberlain decided three major points as follows on November 6, 1895:

“A strip of country along the Transvaal border as far as Elebe was to be given up by the chiefs for the building of the railway.

“The Chiefs were each to have reserves in which they would live under the Queen.

“No liquor would be allowed into the reserves, and hut tax would be paid, the chiefs for the present collecting it themselves.

“Boundaries were laid down for all the reserves.  Khama obtained more territory than he had specified in 1885 especially in the north and west where his boundary was the Nata River.” (Peters) (sic) (underlining in original)

Thus, Khama finally got most of Bukalanga – his coveted prize. Khama wanted Bukalanga primarily because of the waters in its rivers, but perhaps also due to mineral deposits discovered there.  Naturally, the BSAC was not happy.

“The chief point in the settlement which the Company disputed with the Colonial Office was the extension of Khama’s boundaries to include areas which they stated were occupied by the Matabele.” (Peters)

However, Chamberlain refused to budge. Rhodes was furious.

“The general feeling of Rhodes about the settlement, apart of course from achieving the satisfactory railway strip, is found in a telegram he sent to Harris on 12th November 1.  ‘It is humiliating to be utterly beaten by these niggers they think more of one native at home than the whole of South Africa.’” (Peters) (sic)


*Malebeswa holds a Master of Laws (LLM) University of Sheffield (United Kingdom) and Bachelor of Laws (LLB) University of Botswana. Mmegi is serialising excerpts from his note entitled ‘Tribal Territories Act, indirect rule, chiefs and subjects’.

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