Bechuanaland: An Introduction

fullsizeoutput_23deAlthough I am not a “topical” stamp collector, there is one “topic” I have a soft spot for — stamps on stamps. For some reason, the framing of a stamp-within-a-stamp holds special appeal to me, like a trompe l’oeil painting by William Hartnett — a philatelic diorama; not to mention that the reproductions of early stamps are usually very fine on these commemorative issues. I have quite a few of these stamp-on-stamp issues, and would be glad to share them in a post if you wish.

At right is one stamp-on-stamp from the southern African nation of Botswana. Issued in 1985, it commemorates a century of postage stamps — though the region was called Bechuanaland in 1885. I’m struck by the decision of postal authorities in the sovereign state of Botswana, which gained it independence from Great Britain in 1966, to issue these stamps  at all. Stamps appearing in this set were put out during the years when the area known as Bechuanaland was part of the British Empire. Were the tensions of post-colonialism over by 1985? Was all forgiven between Motswana (the name for Botswana citizens) and their former colonial rulers? Were there nostalgic anglophiles in the post office who still valued British tradition? Or were they exercising a fine sense of irony, reprinting these emblems of colonial subjugation with a wink and a nod, with the proud banner of “Botswana” emblazoned at the top?

Such speculation may be idle, but it’s just the thing to amuse stamp collectors. In this short post, profusely illustrated as usual, my plan is to have some more fun with these stamps on stamps. I also must provide as background a short course on the interesting history of Botswana/Bechuanaland across the century prior to 1985. Finally, I expect I will have to share with you my impressions of why Botswana has sustained a relatively sturdy democracy in its first half-century of independence — an anomaly in sub-Saharan Africa.

… All this, by way of circling back to what will follow: a review of my Bechuanaland stamp collection, continuing my British Africa stamp review that was interrupted so long ago, after Basutoland/Lesotho. It’s all riveting stuff. On to Bechuanaland!

By the 1880s, the swashbuckling imperialist Cecil Rhodes was clamoring for the Cape Colony to claim dominion over the arid plains to the north known as Bechuanaland. In 1883 he made his case to “Grandmama,” his irreverent nickname for the Victorian home government. He invoked the shades of Livingstone and Moffat and their missionary roads of past decades. The path north could be the “Suez Canal” of trade to the interior, Rhodes argued. But Gov. Scanlen of Cape Colony demurred, dismissing the sparsely populated region as mostly desert, ruled by squabbling chiefs — in short, not worth the effort.

Still, imperial authorities in London were uneasy. Boer freebooters were streaming across the border of the Orange Free State, seeking new pastures and opportunities in what there was of a Bechuanaland veld. The neighboring Ndebele tribe also had aggressive territorial designs on its longtime Tswana rivals. In 1885, Sir Charles Warren left the Cape Colony with 4,000 imperial  troops. As he moved north, he signed treaties of protection with local chiefs. Among them was the remarkable Tswana leader, King Khama III.

fullsizeoutput_23dcKhama rightfully deserves a biography of his own — indeed, the first account of his life was written in the 1880s, when the king and his entourage visited London to lobby for British protection from the Boers, the Ndebele and expansionists like Rhodes. Khama enjoyed an audience with the queen, and drew enthusiastic crowds at receptions sponsored by evangelical groups who applauded Khama’s conversion to Christianity and promotion of “civilized” values like education,   modernization and monogamy.

Khama had become king in 1875, after prevailing in power struggles  between tribes and family members that included three assassination attempts and a fateful dispute over a lost cow. He earned his title, Khama (the Good)  by his far-sighted policies, which included consolidating and expanding his sparsely populated territory, fostering trade with all comers, and promoting up-to-date farm techniques.   He was particularly adept at blending traditional practices with western innovation — for example, using the voluntary labor of tribal mephato contingents to build schools, silos and irrigation systems.

Khama was a charming, charismatic leader and an effective, multilingual  diplomat. He prevailed in the climactic confrontation with would-be usurpers on his borders.


Above is a map of Bechuanaland before 1885, surrounded by variously covetous neighbors like the Germans to the west, the Cape Colony, Boers from the Orange Free State and Transvaal, as well as smaller state-lets like Stellaland, Griqualand West and East, and the Orange Free State. The map below shows how the crown colony of British Bechuanaland (all pink) in 1885 was carved out of the larger Bechuanaland Proectorate (outlined in pink).. The crown colony incorporated smaller states into what would become provinces of South Africa.

The deal reached in 1885 created the Bechuanaland Protectorate, under direct imperial supervision, shielding the lands of King Khama from schemers and squatters in the Transvaal and the Cape Colony as well as the Ndebele and other hostiles.

The southern region of Bechuanaland, meanwhile, became  British Bechuanaland, a crown colony.  By and by, that southern portion was absorbed by the Cape Colony, then  joined the Union of South Africa in 1910. As the years passed, pressure continued to turn over the protectorate to fullsizeoutput_23f1South Africa or Rhodesia. But Khama and his colonial protectors would have none of it. Thus it was that Bechuanaland Protectorate was spared the blight of apartheid that settled on South Africa after 1948. Those living in the southern portion of the Tswana ancestral lands eventually were consigned to the hollow South African “homeland” of Bophutatswana, one of the last concoctions of the apartheid state in the years before Nelson Mandela ushered in the new South Africa in 1994.



Bechuanaland changed its shape over the years before becoming Botswana, as you can see by comparisons with the current map, above.

In its early years, Bechuanaland Protectorate was largely self-governed; the British ruled with a light hand. In the 1890s, however, local sovereignty was curtailed as colonial officials took over administration of the territory. The protectorate did not escape the racial discrimination and economic exploitation endemic to colonialism.

(Text continues after illustrations and captions.)



Above left is the real stamp of 1897, from my collection. On the right is the image on a stamp from Botswana, issued in 1985 to commemorate a century of postage stamps in the region. Below are images of a British Bechuanaland stamp. I think it’s fun to compare the real thing and the image, don’t you? Early issues from both regions were overprinted stamps from Great Britain and the Cape of Good Hope (a/k/a the Cape Colony). Bechuanaland Protectorate issued stamps from 1888 until Botswana’s independence in 1966. Stamps from British Bechuanaland first appeared in 1886, according to the Scott catalogue. British Bechuanaland was annexed by the Cape Colony in 1897.



The first original stamps of Bechuanaland Protectorate, in 1932, feature a charming engraving of grazing cattle. British King George V, in a three-quarters portrait, gazes out regally and benignly. He is near the end of his reign. It seems the set was such a hit that postal authorities kept the vignette and design for the next two monarchs, simply substituting portraits of George VI and Elizabeth II (see below — does it strike you, as it does me, that the stamp featuring Elizabeth looks more modern than the one with either George?).



I checked in my collection and discovered that the 1965 stamp (top) has eluded me so far. (It’s not expensive.) Issued a year before independence, it commemorates “internal self-government.” The name has been shortened, dropping “Protectorate.” The portrait of the queen is there. So philatelically speaking, the nation of British Bechuanaland came back to life in 1965, from its demise in 1897. Of course, that’s just a stamp story. Months later, the independent nation of Botswana was born. The other stamp illustrated here depicts the “National Assembly Building” in Gaborone. It looks like quite a 1960s-modern monstrosity, but that’s just one critic’s opinion. I was curious, however, to see how the National Assembly Building has held up over the  past 50 years. Is it still standing? Has it been replaced? Expanded? Thanks to the web and Google Earth, I got some answers (see photos below).


Above is a view of the columns, courtesy of the Internet. Below  is a Google Earth image of the National Assembly Building, seen from a brick plaza. It looks well-maintained and accessible — but not quite like the rendering on the stamp! The stamp doesn’t show a tower, or a large central arch. Was that image in 1966 just an architect’s rendering? If so, shouldn’t it have been labeled as such? Tut! tut!


The protectorate’s economic dependence on South Africa was underscored by the fact that its governing institutions were located in Mafikeng, south of the border. (The capital is now Gaborene, within Botswana.) King Khama died in 1923, and was succeeded by kinsmen. After achieving independence in 1966, Botswana’s voters have elected and re-elected Khama’s descendants. Its first president, Seretse Khama, was a legitimate Ngwato heir; his son, Ian Khama, was elected in 2008.

This is a remarkable, inspiring tale — how more than a century ago, a strong African leader forged a nation that survived decades of colonial interference to  emerge as a rare success story in Africa. There is no denying the skill with which King Khama in the 1880s maneuvered among the likes of Queen Victoria and Whitehall, Cecil Rhodes, Boer squatters, rival tribesmen and hostile Ndebele. Also impressive was the record of independent Botswana’s first rulers — Seretse Khama, then Quett Masire — who had to maneuver among the quarreling factions of Rhodesia, South Africa, Angola and other troubled neighbors. That Botswana’s fairly elected leaders kept their nation at peace, with a sound and growing economy and a minimum of corruption, seems nearly a miracle.

fullsizeoutput_23e8There is a fairy tale quality to the story as well — how in 1948 Seretse Khama, then a dashing young law student and tribal prince in London, met Ruth Williams, a white English girl. The couple fell in love. After several months Khama proposed and Ruth accepted. There was a predictable uproar over this fullsizeoutput_23ebinterracial courtship — from the church, from the colony, from the tribe. Just about everyone was against the marriage — except Ruth and Khama. The butt-inskis even persuaded the vicar to cancel the ceremony on the morning of the wedding — but the good cleric reportedly found a way to sneak it in after an ordination ceremony at the cathedral later the same day. Khama then faced the combined wrath of peers and mentors.  “I still want to be your chief,” he told his people. He also declared: “I cannot leave her.” The couple was compelled to live in exile for six years (in England, naturally). Eventually Khama and his bride were allowed home — after he renounced his throne. He arrived to a hero’s welcome in 1956. Kwama was elected Botswana’s first president in 1966, and served with distinction for more than three terms. The couple had four children. Sir Seretse Khama died in 1980, Dame Khama in 2002. Their romantic saga unfolds n the movie, “A United Kingdom,” released in 2016.

Post-script to this anecdote: Seretse and Ruth Khama’s son, Khama Ian Khama, was elected president of Botswana in 2008 and had a successful 10-year presidency. Some day this biracial president-son may be known as Africa’s Obama; or will the former fullsizeoutput_23eeU.S. president — also the son of an interracial couple — be remembered as America’s Khama?

For more than a half-century, the Republic of Botswana has been a model government in Africa, successfully blending democratic practice with respect for tribal ways. It has not seen coups or civil war, and enjoys a relatively robust tourism industry. Per capita yearly income of more than $18,000 is near the top for the continent. Granted, there are only two million people in a nation the size of France; a nation, moreover,  blessed with rich deposits of diamonds.  Botswana has the lowest corruption ranking in Africa, and the highest rating in human development indices.  Botswana’s leaders have broken ranks with their peers in speaking out against corruption and abuses in Zimbabwe, Sudan and elsewhere. While Botswana benefits from certain anomalies, its achievements are real. Indeed, Marvel enthusiasts may wonder if Botswana is linked to the  Black Panther’s mythical kingdom of Wakanda.

In 2017, when former president Ketumile (Quett) Masire died, New York Times obituary writer Amisha Padnani described how he “for nearly two decades helped transform his arid and destitute country into the envy of other African nations.”  In “The Fate of Africa,” author Martin Meredith applauded Botswana’s “enduring multiparty democracy” and “sound economic management,” noting that the government “has used its diamond riches for national advancement and maintained an administration free from corruption.”

And yet, more must be said before we end this African fairy tale.  Consider these qualifying factors (oboy, here cometh the lecture):

  1. The discovery of diamonds soon after independence considerably eased Botswana’s economic difficulties — though responsible stewardship of this new wealth by Botswana’s leaders has been a key to prosperity.
  2. Other than benefiting from this good fortune, Botswana, like the Bechuanaland Protectorate before it, has depended economically and otherwise on its giant neighbor, the Republic of South Africa.  To give a philatelic example of this dependency: In 1961, when South Africa introduced decimal currency, then-Bechuanaland Protectorate had to scramble to surcharge its sterling-currency stamps with decimals, then print its own. Botswana played a nuanced role  before South Africa emerged as a multi-ethnic democracy  in 1994. In the 1970s and ‘80s, Botswana yielded to South African pressures, but also harbored anti-apartheid fighters from the banned African National Congress.
  3. Not to be too cynical, but Bechuanaland is a backwater — nearly as large as Texas, most of it arid plains, with a population of 2.1 million (the Bronx?).
  4. Most telling in my view is that 79 percent of Motswana come from the same tribe — the Tswana ethnic group.  The overlap between voter, tribe and government is commanding.  I don’t want these factors to undermine my respect and admiration for Seretse Khama, Quett Masire and the other honest leaders and civil servants. In that respect, Botswana is a model state. It should be a model for neighboring Zimbabwe (population: 15.6 million), where the Shona tribe has a similarly lopsided majority, and  corruption and political violence are epidemic. If tribal compatibility can foster good civil government, it clearly is not sufficient. And what about Kenya, where five major tribes vie for influence? Or the vast Congo, with hundreds of rival groups? Must an African state be ruled by one tribe to succeed? I hope not. I believe the most successful states are like my own, the USA. Our civic foundation is respect for individuals and their rights,  regardless of tribe. I believe a  diverse society is more dynamic and vital than a mono-cultural one. A diverse society does not countenance a member of one tribe killing another, and outlaws discrimination. This practice contradicts a social system in Kenya that pits Kikuyu against Luo, even as it has little use for a civic culture like Botswana’s, where one tribe runs everything. To rearrange Africa’s national boundaries so that they incorporate, as best as anyone can calculate, the sphere of one tribe’s influence — eek, what a chore! Is it even possible? What next? Alert members of each tribe that henceforth, “their” nation will be over there. So they’d better move if they don’t live there already. And if they don’t move? Will their fate  be like that of the Hutu and Tutsi in Rwanda and Burundi? What about folks who  intermarry? What about their children, and grandchildren? In the  multiparty, multiethnic, tolerant model, all struggle together to find a way forward, making what contributions they can to a better life. (Here endeth the lecture.)

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