by Neil Parsons
There is nothing more memorable in Bechuana history than the action and character of this great white chief. He had a body suited to the character of mind, and which became command, he could roar like a lion when law is transgressed, and thunders there and there when duty is not performed to his satisfaction. The Bechuana nicknamed him "LORATE".
I heard him saying to Khama, "Had I been resident Commissioner during your son's revolt, your son could not have deserted you, for I should have deported all the ring leaders".
Sir Ralph knew native much, and therefore generally trusted them but little, [but] when he knew any man to be good like Khama, he reposed in him an entire confidence. His skill as Resident Commissioner was directed by practised wisdom and common sense acquired from the many years he had spent in different parts of south Africa. He rarely made mistakes and he provided for every possible contingency from the strength of his courage and his will which always aimed high. To rule the native was his pride, that he earned for himself the great name "Kgosi Lorate".
He had behind him a strong personality, Mr. Barry May, as Government Secretary.
His shrewdness and inflexible determination was beyond compare when dealing in native cases, and yet he could not speak the language.
A ruler as capable as he, has never been in the Bechuanaland. Yes, he had vices in his Administrations, and great ones but they were vices of a great mind. Ambition which aimed high, the malady of every extensive genius of a great man.`
The first glance at him when you enter his presence for the first time produces an arresting impression upon you. Even if you are not aware of his identity, you feel at once as you look into his stern but ugly face that you are in the mouth of a hungry lion or in the presence of greatness of an extraordinary superiority. The law-breakers, white or black or even the chiefs who are today looked upon as paragon of perfection, he looked upon with contempt, and treated with cruelty when they receive their doom.
He could scream like a wounded elephant, tables turned up-side-down, papers thrown here and there as if by magic or a cyclone, the walls of his office shake as if by earth tremor at the thundering order of this great chief.
He would never permit himself to be oil-influenced by his subordinate officials, to this point he was very sarcastic.
He cared not even for his own staff, when wrong is committed, was imperious and arbitrary and was severe to all who opposed his plans but above all he took a deep interest in the police that was one of his standing pride.
This entry from Simon Ratshosa's 'My Book on Bechuanaland Protectorate' (c.1931) sums up the Bangwato view not just of Ralph Williams' character, but of the way in which he put the Bechuanaland Protectorate on a regular administrative basis-and how he established a mutual confidence with Khama, which subsequent administrators were not to match up to.
Ralph Champneys Williams (1848-1927), a Welsh relative of the Bethell and Warren families, came to the B.P. from the Colonial Secretaryship of Barbados (1897-1901) and Treasurership of Gibraltar (1890-7). So though he had had the conventional pro-Rhodes, South African and military experience (1882-90) of B.P. administrators, Ralph Williams imported for the first time Colonial Office bureaucratic norms into B.P. government.
His first problem as Resident Commissioner of the B.P. was to create a uniform system of administration. The protectorate was faced with the anomaly that most of its junior administrative officers were not wholly subject to the authority of the Resident Commissioner-because they were officers of the police, which since 1895/6 had been part of the British South Africa Police. Indeed the reason why the administrative capital of the B.P. had been placed at Mafeking, a ridiculous but understandable experience according to Williams, was that it was the temporary local police headquarters in expectation of the imminent transfer of B.P. administration to the supervision of Salisbury in Southern Rhodesia. On appointment in 1901, Williams tackled the B.S.A.P. commandant at Mafeking, Col. Walford, who made it clear that the R.C. had no real control over him.
I then made it clear to him that the old dual control was at an end, and that I intended to assume the control of everything...after a time I asked Lord Milner [the High Commissioner] to allow me practically to disband them and to reconstitute them.
In 1902 and 1903 the Bechuanaland Protectorate Police (B.P.P.) was formed from the amalgamation of the Bechuana;and section of the B.S.A.P. with the ('Basuto') Native Police, reducing the number of white N.C.O.'s. 'I was never prouder of anything in my life than my Basuto police' - Williams later recalled.
The second area in which Williams established the supremacy of his civilian administration was judicial. Elements of the British Army in the B.P. were attempting to be a law unto themselves-despite the fact that the B.P. was the only British territory south of the Zambezi not put under martial law during the South African War. The Assistant Commissioners at Gaborone's and Palapye were confirmed in their criminal jurisdiction and civil judicial power, while the R.C. himself constituted the court of appeal and sole arbiter of murder cases. Williams also obtained a railway carriage for frequent travel into the B.P., and utilised the telegraphic service to the full.
The third element of Williams' 'system of control' was reinforcement (at least outside Ngamiland) of the principle that 'the paramount chief retained the dignity of his power and the respect of his people while knowing well that his position depended on the [Resident] Commissioner.' This he ensured through frequent, almost ritual, visits to the Chiefs. In the Southern Protectorate (and in 1906, Ngamiland) Williams particularly depended on Vivien Ellenberger - 'probably the best Sechuana linguist now living' - who assured the South African Native Affairs Commission (S.A.N.A.C.) in 1904 that there was no formal code of B.P. administration, only a policy of supervision of the Chiefs' powers of judicial administration and tax-collection, plus control of aliens, peace-keeping, and acts of violence to persons or property.
In the Northern Protectorate outside the Tati concession, R.C. Williams relied heavily on Chief Khama. Khama, of course, was on terms of personal cordiality with the Colonial Secretary [Joseph Chamberlain] himself. Every High Commissioner made it his duty to establish such personal contacts and to become the subject of Khama's 'old-fashioned grace that would have done honour to the [English] beau of a hundred and fifty years ago.' The 'advice' of Khama's Assistant Commissioner, Panzera, had to be couched in almost obsequious terms-to persuade him only to make official communications with foreign whites through the B.P. administration, for example.
Ralph Williams' first substantial contact with Khama was in October 1901, when the R.C. inspected the proposed new Bangwato capital site at Serowe, prior to official approval for the move. The ever exuberant Williams apparently exploded in fury when Khama led the party miles off the beaten track on a prolonged waterless hike. Williams thought Khama had lost his way: Khama explained it was a diversion to avoid a washed-out drift. Anyway, the two headstrong men made up their quarrel and became firm friends. Colonial Office approval for the removal to Serowe came in January 1902. On February 26th, Khama and his chiefs pegged out the wards of the new town-away from the government 'camp' (i.e. boma) that Panzera had chosen on the previous day. The church and mission sites were chosen on February 27th, and trading stands were allotted on March 20th. Once the removal was completed, Khama sent a regiment to burn down the old capital at the end of August:
It was a novel and wonderful sight. The regiment divided into parties and went into different sections of the town, the men running from one hut to another with torches, and setting them on fire, so that presently the huts were all ablaze together. The whole place was enveloped in flame and smoke, and it was so hot one could hardly breathe. For two or three days afterwards a haze hung over the ruins...Nothing could exceed the weird dreariness of Phalapye after that fire.
But the Magistracy and the Assistant Commissioner remained at Old Palapye, for the time being. The Colonial Office did not want to take on the expenditure of following Khama to Serowe, so in 1902-3 Ralph Williams persuaded the Office to sanction instead the A.C.'s removal to Francistown in the Tati Concession, instead. Serowe was allocated a police officer with the lowly rank of Assistant Magistrate.
Williams proved also to be a champion of the interests of the 'Bechuana' before that bugbear of all colonial administrations -the British Treasury. He was particularly concerned that people who had shown singular loyalty to the British during the War, supplying invaluable men and money and intelligence services, should not have their taxes doubled to the Basutoland rate of £1.
The imposition of such a tax would give colour to a rumour which I have sometimes heard of as current amongst the natives that now we have beaten the Boers we should give away native property also.
It was the Williams policy to support a Chief against all comers: 'if we support our weak kings we will not allow Earls of Warwick [king-makers] to trouble us'. He absolutely rejected the old policy of rewarding conspirators against Chiefs with 'quasi independence', and threatened their banishment (to the Colonial Office's chagrin) out of the Protectorate. To this he added the proviso that Chiefs would be foolish to disturb their 'golden ease' by encouraging 'Ethiopianism', and 'that the day is gone when a native chief may dictate to Government.' The test of his policy was to come at the end of his reign in 1906, over the Sekgoma Letsholathebe case ('by far my best and most important work in the country') in Ngamiland.
The celebrated deposition of Sekgoma Letsholathebe from the Tawana Chieftainship by R.C. Williams in 1906 can be seen as the culmination of a long-term plan by Khama. There had been growing antagonism between the two Chiefs from 1895 up to 1901. Khama came to support Mathiba, the candidate of the Tawana king-maker Dithapo Meno, against Sekgoma Letsholathebe. The B.P. administration was alarmed by the situation in 1905, because Ngamiland lay in the interstice between African resistances to colonialism in German South West Africa and Portuguese Angola, and by the fact that the pro-Mathiba party had begun to openly oppose Sekgoma Letsholathebe's continuation as Chief. At first Ralph Williams dismissed the pro-Mathiba case as missionary propaganda, and would have been content to let the matter lie - had not Sekgoma Letsholathebe himself arrived in Serowe in April 1906 when the High Commissioner, Lord Selborne, was visiting. Williams' attitude until this point had been that 'Premature intervention simply creates a party against the whites, which it is above all things necessary to avoid in the interests of economy and a peaceful South Africa.' Or,
They who in quarrels interpose
Do often get a bloody nose. (Hudibras)
Selborne, however, preoccupied with the Bambata rebellion in Natal and the potential spread of anti-colonial risings, fell in with Khama's point of view. He even gave Khama the right to detain Sekgoma Letsholathebe at Serowe. Sekgoma Letsholathebe then removed under detention to Mafeking, and Melbourne ordered Williams to go to the Tawana capital, Tsau. Here the Resident Commissioner, after a long enquiry into marital and dynastic claims, ruled in favour of Mathiba's succession, much to Khama's satisfaction. Khama had evidently made a strong impression on Ralph Williams as the official party left Serowe in May 1906 to trek to Ngamiland:
I shall never forget Khama's greeting to me when he came to bid me good-bye. After assuring me that I might be confident that he would aid me in every possible way, even with force should I call upon him to do so, the old man put his hand on my shoulder, an unusual thing for a native to do [to a white official], and, speaking in Sechuana, said, "You are going far and on a dangerous mission, may the great God guard you and bring you safely back".
Khama and R.C. Williams never saw each other again. Williams went off to become Governor of the Windward Islands at the end of the Ngamiland enquiry. But he left a stamp on Bechuanaland Protectorate administration. The Williams regime institutionalised the centrality of a government secretariat at Mafeking by promoting the R.C.'s accountant to the new post of Government Secretary in 1904. The post being held by the efficient Barry May from 1904 to 1915. But Williams' momentum was lost by the succession of Panzera as R.C., generally characterised as a bone-headed military man . If only Williams had stayed on, a subsequent R.C. told the European Advisory Council in 1921, the capital-that ultimate symbol of B.P. lack of autonomy and subordination to South Africa-would have been transferred to within the Protectorate.
[extracted from Q.N. Parsons, "Khama III, the Bamangwato and the British, 1895-1923' University of Edinburgh: PhD, 1973, chap.8 'The Williams Régime and the Union Question'.]
Copyright © 1999 Neil Parsons
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Last updated 24 April 2010