He was known as Khama “the good” or Khama “the great”. Boikanyo Khama, also called King Khama III, became the ruler of the Bangwato people and under his rule and with his approval, Bechuanaland (now Botswana) was put under British protection in the 19th century in what was understood to be a military alliance against enemies. However, the British government started to claim power in the land after some time. Khama III would fight that.
Born in 1835 at Mosu near the Boteti River in Botswana (then known as Bechuanaland), Khama III was the son of King Sekgoma I, who was a powerful kgosi (or ruler) of the Bangwato people or state with Shoshong as his capital. Khama III had a brother called Khamane. The two, who grew up getting exposed to Christian teachings by an evangelist in Bechuanaland, got baptized in 1860.
Khama then went ahead to marry a Christian wife to the disapproval of his father, who was non-Christian. Khama III’s father hated the fact that others in the capital were beginning to follow in the footsteps of Khama III. Along the way, the capital Shoshong became divided into two factions — Christians and pagans. A civil war occurred that led to the exile of the Christian population from the capital.
Not too long after, Macheng, who was an uncle of Khama III, led a revolt against Khama III’s father and took up the kingship. When Khama III heard about this, he decided to help his father to reclaim the throne. So he returned to Shoshong with his Christian followers. Another civil war broke out between the Christians and the pagans but the Christians won this time, enabling Khama III to become the new ruler of Bangwato.
This period also saw the arrival of white traders, missionaries and travelers from the south as Shoshong became a major link to the interior where commodities such as ivory could be obtained and exchanged for money or manufactured goods. According to historians, Shoshong became the center of ivory and fur hunters and traders moving between Matebeleland, Zambezi, Okavango, the Transvaal Boer republic, and British diamond mines at Kimberley.
Inspired by his Christian principles, Khama III banned alcohol and polygamy during his reign. He also abolished the payment of bride prices and got rid of an initiation rite in the clan that usually ended with the killing of one of the initiates. He established schools, introduced mechanized agriculture, increased his cattle herds and gave more power to subject chiefs while allowing them to own cattle as private property. For the first time, daughters could also now inherit from their fathers.
But then, the Boars of South Africa started to encroach on the land of Botswana from the South. The Germans also tried to do the same from the West. Khama III decided to seek the protection of Great Britain. The country eventually became the Bechuanaland Protectorate or a protectorate of Great Britain in 1885.
“He used British support to define and expand his northern borders in the face of opposition from Lobengula’s Ndebele kingdom (now in Zimbabwe) and his eastern borders from the Boer republic of the Transvaal (now in South Africa) in such a way as to bring the gold of the Tati region under Ngwato control,” a profile of Khama III says.
But in the 1890s, he learned of a plan by the British government to annex Bechuanaland to the territory of the British South Africa Company. The Bechuanaland Protectorate was in danger of being forced to join the British South Africa Company under the command of diamond magnate Cecil Rhodes. The incorporation would mean that the protectorate would have no control over itself and would have to adhere to the exploitative rules of the company. Sensing the danger that this brought, Khama III and two other Bechuanaland Chiefs — Sebele I and Bathoen I — got support from the British army and missionaries and went off to England in 1895 to negotiate for the freedom of the protectorate with the Queen.
Khama III and the chiefs were unable to secure an audience with the Queen on their arrival and so they decided to meet the people of Britain with the help of the London Missionary Society. Their aim was to win over the British public, which could eventually get them to the Queen. It did. Khama III and the chiefs held a meeting with the Queen and Joseph Chamberlain, who was the then Secretary of the state for the colonies. The meeting ended in favor of the chiefs and the whole Bechuanaland Protectorate. Queen Victoria put the country under the direct rule of the crown, thus preventing Rhodes from adding it to the British South Africa Company.
The chiefs returned and their brave step would start a revolution in Botswana where local leaders were able to stand up to colonizers until the gaining of independence on September 30, 1966.
Today, in the heart of Gaborone, the capital city of Botswana, is the Three Dikgosi Monument, a depiction of Khama III and the two chiefs who sailed to England to meet the Queen and played a significant role in the country’s history.
Khama III died in 1923 of pneumonia. His son, Sekgoma II took over the throne. Sekgoma II’s son, Sir Seretse Khama, became the first president of the Republic of Botswana when the country became fully independent in September 1966.