‘THE African Chiefs in Bradford’.

This headline appeared in the Bradford Daily Telegraph on Tuesday, October 15, 1895. It was an event lost to history until a couple of weeks ago when Mpho Dintwa, a visitor to Bradford Mechanics Institute, asked us to confirm that the event had actually happened.

“The large Lecture Hall at the Mechanics’ Institute was crowded to the doors” began the lengthy press report.

In the chair was Edward Priestman, a member of the prominent Quaker family, and on the platform were leading citizens such as Alfred Illingworth and James Wales with many ministers of the non-conformist churches who supported Total Abstinence.

Master-minding the visitors’ tour was Revd WE Willoughby, a prominent member of the London Missionary Society who had spent 10 years in Bechuanaland.

The three African visitors were Khama III, Sebele I and Bathoen I, the Kgosi (kings) of various provinces in Bechuanaland. All of them had converted to Christianity, even though some elements of their tribal customs continued to be practised.

In their speeches, the three Kgosi praised their missionary friends (including David Livingstone) who had helped abolish slave trading in East Africa, shown respect for their Tswana people and traditions and even won the agreement of village elders to end the exchanging of wives for cattle.

The purpose of their visit to England was to petition Queen Victoria for four assurances:

* Bechuanaland should remain a Protectorate directly under the Queen;

* Their independence should be preserved;

* Their lands should not be sold;

* Liquor drinking should be prohibited in their areas.

The threat to their land came from the ambition of Cecil Rhodes. It was Rhodes’ dream that the Cape of Africa should be linked to Cairo by telegraph and by a railway line.

He assumed that any land crossed would become absorbed into his domain, the British South African Company.

Prime Minister Chamberlain had previously made an agreement with Cecil Rhodes but now he promised his visitors that he would abide by the decision of the Queen. To avoid further confrontation, Chamberlain took a short holiday.

Their tour of England added 150,000 signatures to their petition and Protectorate status was confirmed by Parliament - although the prohibition of liquor was less successful.

The resistance to Cecil Rhodes, led by Khama, Sebele and Bathoen was much helped by a sympathetic British press, aided by support from humanitarian groups and the Temperance Movement.

Business leaders also feared the effect of a costly war if the transfer of Bechuanaland and its reserves of precious minerals to Cecil Rhodes went ahead.

A few weeks after the Bradford visit, Khama, Sebele and Bathoen experienced snow for the first time when they appeared at the Halifax Mechanics Institute. Having experienced the worst of Britain’s weather, they now said their best experience was the warmth with which British people had greeted them.

After they were successful in preserving self-government as a Protectorate, the three Kgosi remained politically active. In 1908 they led the protests against the incorporation of their country into the Union of South Africa.

Bradford Telegraph and Argus: King Khama III with his fourth wife, Sefakwana, in 1896 King Khama III with his fourth wife, Sefakwana, in 1896 (Image: Tricia Restorick)

Khama III, the most charismatic of the three, came to be regarded as the founder of the Christian state of Bechuanaland; in effect the father of present-day Botswana.

His grandson, Seretse Khama was to become Prime Minister and then President when Botswana gained independence in the 1960s and was admitted to the Commonwealth.

The 2016 film A United Kingdom tells the story of King Seretse Khama of Botswana and his happy but controversial marriage to British woman Ruth Williams. The couple met in London, where Seretse studied law after the Second World War, and they married in 1948, despite protests of their families and opposition from the British government.

Bradford Telegraph and Argus: Seretse Khama with his wife, Ruth Williams Seretse Khama with his wife, Ruth Williams (Image: Tricia Restorick)

Bathoen and Sebele died in 1910 and 1911 but Khama lived on to 1923, when he was almost 90.

In Gaborone today is a magnificent memorial to these three African Chiefs.

Edward Priestman told his audience that Bradford had welcomed many distinguished strangers in the past, but none of them “were of deeper or more thrilling interest - or had a stronger claim to their sympathy, respect and consideration - than these noble sons of Africa”.

* Images: Tricia Restorick