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Clifton Suspension Bridge crosses a dizzying gorge near Bristol where the
river Avon cuts through a hillside toward the Severn and the Bristol Channel.
(jpeg image, 121 Kb) The bridge, completed in 1829, is a monument to the
ingenuity of its architect, the twenty-three-year-old engineer Isambard
Kingdom Brunel (1806-59). With iron frame, wooden planking, brick and masonry
towers-and suspension chains taken from London's Hungerford footbridge,
demolished to make way for Charing Cross railway bridge over the Thames in
1864-the narrow span stretches for 630 feet (190 meters).
It was across this bridge that four gentlemen could be seen cautiously making
their way one morning in September 1895. Three Africans of obvious seniority
and respectability, in sober gray woolen suits, were being cajoled to walk
onward by a short, bespectacled white man with a pointed beard.
The pathfinder was William Charles Willoughby, an ordained minister of the
London Missionary Society (LMS). He had been serving in the southernAfrican
mission field of Bechuanaland for four years. His reluctant followers-Khama,
Sebele, and Bathoen-were all chiefs or kings of the "Bechuana" (Batswana)
people of Britain's Bechuanaland Protectorate.
Reverend Willoughby had sprung the novel experience of the Clifton Bridge on
the three dignitaries as a prank to catch them unawares "before they knew
where they were." He had taken them for a ride in a horse carriage over the
hills on the edge of the city of Bristol, along a road that suddenly jutted
out into space across Clifton gorge.
They alighted next to the bridge and looked down into the ravine to see
"people and carriages like little spots below them." They were "astonished ...
beyond measure," but "it was a matter of dignity with them to manifest
surprise at nothing."
Willoughby took them to the beginning of the bridge, but the three chiefs
refused to walk any further: "We are afraid. We'll go back."
Willoughby chided them, "I'll go on then."
"It's dangerous," they said.
"I've a wife at home," said Willoughby, "and am not a likely man to go into
danger. I'm going across anyhow."
He strode out along the footpath on one side of the bridge. The chiefs
hesitantly followed him: "At first they went holding fast by the uprights" on
the footpath. They then found that it felt much safer to walk down the center
of the carriageway. According to the Bristol Mercury, "They were much struck
with the view from the middle of the gorge, and then they carefully retracted
As they regained their balance and good sense, no doubt the three men saw the
humor of the situation, joshing at each other's "cowardice." Willoughby was
certainly pleased by the experiment in breaking down the reserved manners of
his three royal proteges. He later told a journalist from the Westminster
Gazette: "There is nothing, in fact, more infra dig. for a South African chief
than to show he is astonished."
Nonconformist missionaries like Willoughby saw it as their duty to wear down
the stoicism of their converts and to encourage them to express their emotions
of pain and joy-to cry out and confess the Lord. Willoughby was the inheritor
of a Puritan tradition that, as James Boswell's father had reminded Dr.
Johnson, had taught kings they had a joint in their necks. It was a tradition
that was antagonistic toward aristocrats and traditional rulers, and that had
found a new form in the "moral purity" movement of late Victorian Britain. The
movement was characterized by the "Nonconformist conscience" checking
corruption in public life, by the temperance movement against drunkenness, and
in more radical forms by "Little Englandism" opposed to imperial expansion and
by the peace movement against wars in general.
Yet the success of Christian mission work in Bechuanaland was very dependent
on the patronage of local royals and aristocrats, and upon the ultimate
backing of British imperial control. Missionary societies in Bechuanaland
operated through "tribal" state churches, based on royal prerogative and
aristocratic privilege. Hence Willoughby and other LMS missionaries were more
than a little ambiguous toward African royalty and toward European imperialism
in general. Willoughby had a reputation in colonial circles of being an
"enrage missionary," because of his exposure in the magazine Truth of the
brutalities of the colonial conquest of Rhodesia.
Willoughby had an immediate purpose in wanting to puncture the dignity and
reserve of Khama, Sebele, and Bathoen in September 1895. It was now ten days
since their arrival in Britain, and they were still proving to be rather too
hesitant in front of the congregations that they were facing almost daily.
After their arrival, Khama, Sebele, and Bathoen had been mobbed by
journalists, pampered by ministers of religion, and presented to hundreds of
people in London. They had also achieved their first interview with the most
powerful and glamorous politician of the age, Joseph Chamberlain, the
secretary of state for the colonies (colonial minister) in the new
Conservative and Unionist government, who held their fate in his hands.
Chamberlain had slipped away on a Mediterranean vacation, promising to attend
to their matter on his return. It was decided that Khama, Sebele, and Bathoen
would use the interim period to good effect by whipping up support in chapel
and town meetings across the country. So that when Chamberlain returned he
would find such a groundswell of support in "the provinces," that it would
counteract the metropolitan and colonial interests that otherwise held
colonial ministers in the palms of their hands. The provincial city of Bristol
was chosen as the first stop on this most demanding phase of the Bechuana
chiefs' mission to Britain. As their tour manager, Willoughby was determined
that the three chiefs' tour of the provinces should be a barnstorming success
from the start. (Map of Great Britain in 1895 showing where the Bechuana
chiefs went, including railway lines-gif image, 44 Kb)
* * *
Khama, Sebele, and Bathoen were suitably impressed with the Clifton Bridge's
hanging seemingly unsupported over the abyss. Recalling the seasick
sixteen-day voyage from Africa, they humorously suggested: "Well, if you can
support a bridge in the air like this, why not build one from London to Cape
A similar suggestion had been made ninety years before in an English version
of the magical fake-memoirs of Baron Munchausen. The baron had found more gold
dust and pearls in the Kalahari than he could carry, as well as a civilized
empire in this part of the interior of southern Africa with "so polished and
refined a people." He therefore proceeded to build a bridge-the eighth wonder
of the world-between the Kalahari and Europe.
The Travels of Baron Munchausen was a work of many hands, a satire on
contemporary mores, originally published in German in 1796. The civilization
in the Kalahari first appeared in an English-language edition published in, or
soon after, 1806. The book was a satire on accounts of current exploration by
Europeans in Africa. It portrayed the Africans discovered in the Kalahari as
more levelheaded and civilized than contemporary Europeans. The notion of a
Kalahari bridge mocked the British in particular, who had been crazed by
contemplating the possibilities of mechanical and engineering progress during
the Industrial Revolution.
Baron Munchausen's civilization in the Kalahari was not a complete figment of
anyone's imagination. It was based on an account of "Booshuana," that is,
Botswana, which was published in a book of 1806 eccentrically titled A Voyage
to Cochin China, in the years 1792 and 1793 ... To which is appended an
account of a journey to the residence of the chief of the Booshuana Nation.
Nor was the idea of a mechanical bridge through the air, from the Kalahari to
Europe, to remain for ever fantasy. As the African Critic responded to the
suggestion of the three Bechuana chiefs in 1895: "Well, even that may come to
pass. The age of flying-machines will, however, surely precede it."
A mere quarter of a century later, in 1919-20, three years before Khama died,
landing fields for the Cape-to-Cairo air route were laid out in his country at
Palapye and Serowe. Six or seven decades later there was to be an "air bridge"
of jet airliners flying in little more than half a day between Europe and the
capital city of the Republic of Botswana.
* * *
By an act of singular foresight, the Bechuana chiefs in 1895 commissioned
Durrant's Press Cuttings agency in London to clip the newspapers for
references to themselves.
More than one copy of such press clippings survives. One copy covering the
period up to October 15, originally belonging to Bathoen, is now held in the
library of the National Museum of Botswana in Gaborone. Another copy, compiled
for Sebele for a period two weeks longer, and by no means identical to
Bathoen's for previous weeks, survives in microform in the library of Rhodes
House at Oxford University-made on behalf of Dr. Anthony Sillery in the 1950s
by the University of Witwatersrand, from an original that has since
disappeared at Molepolole. A third copy of the press clippings, made for Khama
and likely to be the most complete record, may or may not survive: it appears
to have been taken on to Hartford, Connecticut, and then to Birmingham,
England, by W. C. Willoughby-and has possibly been left to a descendant.
This collection of press clippings is an extraordinary resource for the study
of British public opinion in the autumn of 1895. The clippings are taken from
135 different newspapers and periodicals-including thirteen London daily
newspapers, thirty-one London weeklies or monthlies, seven London
international periodicals, and twelve London or national Christian
publications. The English provinces are represented by fifteen newspapers from
the South, sixteen from the Midlands, and twenty-four from the North of
England. There are also clippings from twelve Welsh, Scots, or Irish
newspapers, and two from New York dailies.
The British press was fascinated by the "Three Kings" from the outer reaches
of the ever expanding empire. Newspapers commented on the amount of news
coming out of Africa, and on the increasing number of visits to Britain by
"dusky potentates" from all over the world-be they Afghan, Swazi, or Ashanti.
Press men and press women clamored to get interviews with Khama, Sebele, and
Bathoen. The Westminster Gazette remarked on how much one would like to "read
a Roman interview with some contemporary of Armenius who had come to Rome to
get his wrongs righted."
Bathoen's and Sebele's press clippings form the basis for this book. They also
set the pattern on which the book is written-keeping the story as authentic
as possible by using the original words of primary sources, and thus heeding
the advice given to a journalist by Khama in 1895: "Be sure now, and only
write as I have spoken to you, nothing more than my words."
The chiefs had dubbed journalists the "hunters of words." At an important
meeting in Birmingham's Council House, Khama remarked:
I know that you live a long way off, and it is difficult for those who live
a long way off to distinguish between words. Words are words, and it is hard
to tell which are the right words and which are the wrong when they are
City dignitaries responded with cries of "Hear, hear."
Khama, Sebele, and Bathoen appreciated the political value not only of spoken
words but also of written words carried in official correspondence and
newspaper reports. They were literate in their own language, Setswana
("Sechuana") and could read letters and newspapers as well as Scriptures in
it. Sebele and Bathoen also spoke, and possibly read, Dutch in its Afrikaans
variant. But they and Khama had a mere smattering of English and could only
communicate effectively in English through interpreters.
As otherwise proficient linguists and litigious politicians, the three chiefs
were acutely conscious of the importance of words and meanings. On landing in
Britain, they told of the difficulty of relating the Setswana language to the
new technology of steamships, steam trains, electric lighting, telegraphs, and
It will be very difficult to make our people understand how iron and wood
can move without being pulled by someone. Formerly we blamed the
missionaries for not making these things plain, and we thought it was their
imperfect knowledge of our language.
"Yes," Bathoen continued in philological vein, "we shall now have to tell our
people that although we are masters of their language, we cannot explain these
new ideas, because we have no words to correspond."
The illustrious Rev. Dr. Parker of the City Temple, London's Congregationalist
"cathedral," saw other virtues in the Setswana language in one of his sermons.
Commenting on Khama's talk from his pulpit a week earlier, when the
interpreter had had to use three or four sentences in English to expound on
three or four syllables from Khama in Setswana, Parker remarked of the English
We are foot-caught in our own dictionaries. Our words and modes of speech
belong to the decaying aristocracies and fallen princedoms in language.
The "trinity of dusky kings" who arrived at Paddington railway station on the
afternoon of September 6, 1895, were the first Bechuana rulers to come to
London. But news about Bechuanaland and the Bechuana had featured in British
newspaper reports for more than a decade, and British knowledge about land and
people dated from the beginning of the century. The chiefs themselves also had
their own preconceptions of Britain and about British people, drawn partly
from common historical experiences and partly from their biographies as
individuals from childhood upward.
* * *
British knowledge of the Bechuana can be dated, as we have seen in the
introduction to this book, from the appendix on the "Booshuana Nation" in the
1806 publication of A Voyage to Cochin China, satirized by the authors of
Munchausen's Travels. Early-nineteenth-century European travelers lighted upon
the Bechuana after a thousand-mile wagon trek northward into the interior
across scrub and semidesert. They found a "nation" of town dwellers, with
cultivated fields as well as flocks and herds, practicing metallurgy and
dressed in "decent" leather clothing-anxious to trade with southerners
bringing manufactured goods like firearms.
Excerpted from King Khama, Emperor Joe, and the Great White Queen
by Neil Parsons
Copyright © 2003 by University of Chicago.
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
List of Illustrations Preface and Acknowledgments A Note on Terminology Introduction: Epiphany on Clifton Bridge
1. Then Let Us All be Philistines
2. A Trinity of Dusky Kings
3. Another Sphere of Existence
4. We See You with Our Eyes
5. Besieged by a Curious Crowd
6. A Kind of Middle-Class Royalty
7. The Day a King Came to Enderby
8. They are Strong and We are Weak
9. The Fountain Whence Came the Missionaires
10. A Thing to Look at with the Teeth
11. In Every Town we have Found Friends
12. Khama Will Play the Old Gooseberry
13. Chamberlain's Settlement
14. Rhodes Beaten by Three Canting Natives
15. I Had No Idea She Was So Small
16. Dr. Jameson, You Have Got a Smooth Tongue Conclusion: Half a Loaf?
Appendix: Ballads of the 1895 Tour Notes Bibliography Index