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Khama Boikanyo (aka Khama III), c.1835-1923


            Khama Boikanyo (aka Khama III) was born near Moshu on the shores of the Makgadikgadi at some time between the MaKololo invasion of 1833 and the AmaNdebele (Matebele) invasion of 1837. His mother was Keamogetse, and his father was Sekgoma, who became a strong kgosi of the BaNgwato state after moving to Shoshong as his capital in 1850.

            Khama was baptised as a Christian by German Lutherans in May 1860, but British missionaries of the London Missionary Society (L.M.S.) settled at Shoshong soon thereafter. Khama hated all alcoholic drinks but readily adopted Western dress, firearms, and horses. He fought with his non-Christian father and with another kgosi, Macheng, brought in from the AmaNdebele. 

            Khama became kgosi in the 1870s when Shoshong became the centre of ivory and fur hunters and traders moving between Matebeleland, Zambezi, Okavango, the Transvaal Boer republic, and British diamond mines at Kimberley.


            Khama built up his power by increasing his cattle herds, taking tribute in ivory, and sharing out other goods. He gave more power to subject chiefs (dikgosana) and allowed them to own cattle as private property. He also disciplined drunken and unruly white traders: ‘If you despise us, what do you want here in the country that God has given to us? Go back to your own country.' 

            In 1885 the British declared a ‘protectorate’ over Bechuanaland that was understood to be a military alliance against enemies. But the British government began to claim power in the land from 1891 onwards, and in 1895 proposed to donate the Bechuanaland Protectorate (B.P.) to the British South Africa Company of diamond magnate Cecil Rhodes.

            Khama sailed to England, together with Sebele of BaKwena and Bathoen of BaNgwaketse, to petition the British people and government. As a result, after Rhodes fell from British favour in 1896, the whole of the B.P. was saved from Rhodesia.


            Despite the 1896 rinderpest epidemic that had killed most cattle, the Bangwato prospered from selling livestock and labour to the British army during the 1899-1902 South African War. Then came the crash. Livestock prices dropped for the next forty years. The new railway to Bulawayo took water and sand for free from the Bangwato, who also paid taxes to keep it going, but gave nothing back. The newly rich white settler governments of the Union of South Africa and Southern Rhodesia wanted to take over the B.P. But the international prestige of Khama was still such that it made the British government reject ‘the bare suggestion of handing him over to the Union’ (1913).  

            Khama attempted to isolate his country and make it economically self-sufficient. In 1910 Khama bought a local trading firm, Garrett, Smith & Co., and used it as a royal treasury that would trade with his people and also feed them during drought and bad harvest. But this was opposed by a big South African/Rhodesian company, and Khama was forced by the British colonial authorities to sell the business in 1916. This soured Khama, now in his 80s. He complained that he received none of the ‘good laws’ of England, only oppression from its officials.


            Khama eventually died in 1923 after catching a chill from a very long horse ride.

by: Neil Parsons

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