By Gary Oswald
Looking at a political Map of Africa in 1870 what is perhaps most striking is how little European control there is. Europeans had been travelling to Africa since antiquity, they had an overwhelming monopoly on African trade from the 15th century onward and yet politically there were still hundreds of independent African polities, which together ruled 90% of the continent, despite European domination of Asia and the Americas having been established centuries earlier. Over the next 40 years, the Europeans would conquer all but two of those polities, driven by a desire for prestige, resource extraction and, at least nominally, humanitarian concerns. These articles are interested primarily in the agency African people had during the time of this relentless conquest. And we will start with a look at Southern Africa.
To write a plausible AH in any time period, you need to understand both what happened due to individual choices that can be changed easily and what happened due to underlying forces that need more effort to change. The 19th century in Southern Africa can be defined by three general trends which are all difficult to remove entirely but whose details are very changeable.
First of all there was state building, migration and wars between Black Africans between 1815 and 1840 which led to the Sotho, Zulu and many others forming Kingdoms. This period of war and Chaos is often called the Mfecane (Zulu for crushing) but the term is controversial because it's based on historiography that inflated the death toll in order to justify white rule. The trends that drove this period of state building can be put down to new weapons, innovations and larger populations due to new crops making war easier on the one hand and more pressure from Europeans making centralisation more desired on the other. Thus various larger new states developed in areas which did not have them at the beginning of the century and displaced the surviving kingdoms of the old order.
Which states formed were largely defined by the individual qualities of the men who rose to the top, the Yeke Kingdom only ever had one leader while the first leaders of the Zulu, Ndebele and Gaza Kingdoms were born as relative nobodies, but that so many new states formed indicates that some new state building was inevitable. The cattle killing incident of 1856, wherein the Xhosa followed the words of a 15 year old girl who told them to destroy all their food supplies in order to summon spirits that would drive out the Europeans and suffered a terrible famine as a result, is an entirely avoidable tragedy but it speaks to the level of desperation of the Africans of the region. They were willing and able to try new things because the old ways had failed. Hence the new militarily innovations and also the new empires.
Secondly you had the movement of Dutch speaking settlers from British ruled cape colony to new areas where they could found new states between 1836 and 1870. These included the white Boers, but also the mixed race Basters and Griquas. This period of movement and war is known as the Great Treks and the arrival of the newcomers accelerated and complicated the state building already happening among Black Africans in these areas.
To an extent this trend also seems difficult to entirely alter once the British took control of the colony. Only 1/5th of the Boers actually made the trek and the church and civil powers were against it but they were enough different attempts that removing any individual does nothing to halt the trend. Some kind of conflict between the British and their new subjects, over slavery and taxes, was inevitable and as long as it was perceived that there was free land to take some treks would happen.
And lastly there was the extension of Colonial European power over the native and settler states created during the previously mentioned state building. This involved the British fighting the Zulu and Boer wars but also the Germans and Portuguese establishing their own control over Namibia and Angola/Mozambique and even King Leopold’s invasion of Katanga. This began around 1800 and continued until 1902 and the end of the second Boer war whereupon all of Southern Africa was under European control and the period of state building was over.
Again this trend seems pretty inevitable. Individuals, such as Leopold II and Cecil Rhodes could easily be removed from the board, and so different European powers advance into those areas but the era of new imperialism is difficult to avoid in 1800 and it’s difficult to see any native power in the region manage to fight and win a war against the Europeans in the 19th century.
But does that mean the interesting changes can’t be made to this region during this time period? Of course not, just because the end point is probably still European control doesn’t mean that the way that European control happened isn’t hugely significant. The result of all this statebuilding, turmoil and desperation was that nobodies could, and did, rise to positions of great influence and so their rise is easy to butterfly. Shaka and his ilk could easily have died young before forming their kingdoms. Rhodes, the great champion of British Imperialism, was the son of a county vicar sent to south Africa to cure his asthma who would never have left Europe had he been healthier. Piet Retief, the leader of the Voertrekkers, was a bankrupt wine seller who might have stayed put had his business taken off and Manuel de Sousa, who did more than anyone else to conquer Mozambique for the Portuguese, was a clerk from Goa, India who only came to Africa due to the early death of his uncle.
These people might have ridden the overall trends but they still had huge influence. A Zimbabwe without Mzilikazi and Rhodes would probably still see new Kingdoms form and then be conquered by Europeans but it would have an entirely different identity if that Kingdom had been a Shona one and that conquest had been a Portuguese one.
The subject of this Article is Sechele I, ruler of the Kwena people of Botswana, who the BBC have called Africa’s Greatest Missionary. His story in OTL is an interesting one and the possible effects of removing him would be profound and should illustrate the agency and influence African rulers had even in circumstances where European rule was inevitable.
Sechele was a minor chief of the Kwena, themselves a minor Tswana speaking tribe, and he had recently returned from exile and so only ruled around 300 people when the first British missionaries arrived into modern day Botswana. The missionaries were heading into the lands of the Tswana specifically to find people who hadn’t been at war with the Cape Colonists and so weren’t already prejudiced against Christianity. The most famous of the missionaries, the man who would become a hugely important influence to Sechele, was David Livingstone. Livingstone and his fellows had hope of converting the Kwena people because their religion was relatively unorganised, with no firm answers on life after death and based largely on rain making and healing ceremonies. They hoped that by providing, for free, irrigation and medicine, they could replace the practical aspects of their Faith with science and then replace the spiritual side with Christianity.
To an extent the missionaries were popular. The various Tswana tribes were in dire trouble at the time, poor and under pressure from raids by Mzilikazi that triggered a domino effect of inter-tribal raids as those who lost cattle attempted to claim more from others who had not. Mzililkazi’s defeat by the Boers only made the problems worse as many of the Tswana were then subdued and enslaved by the new Boer state. Under these conditions, everyone wanted the advantage that the missionaries’ medicine and irrigation could bring them and several chiefs made public statements of interest in Christianity albeit with little sincerity. But they found Livingstone frustrating and his dour serious bible readings attracted little fans. They wanted witchcraft and magic, not endless scripture, one told Livingstone that “I wish you would lie to me” another that “we would like you much better if you traded with us and then went away without forever boring us with preaching”.
Sechele however listened seriously to Livingstone’s parables and questioned him incisively on how the Tswana could be condemned for not believing in Christ when nobody had told them about Christ previously. He was not yet a believer but he set out to acquire enough knowledge to judge this new religion fairly. He was delighted by literacy, learning to read and write quickly and received a copy of the bible, the only book printed in a Tswana language, for him to read. It seems that in this book Sechele found the argument that convinced him the way Livingstone could not. He became a genuine believer, though somewhat to Livingstone’s horror very much an old testament sort, promising to convert by the sword and put all witches to death.
Sechele’s route to Christianity had major obstacles though. His role as chief demanded that he carried out rainmaking ceremonies, married multiple women to secure alliances and practised war against other tribes. Livingstone demanded monogamy, pacifism and a protestant lack of ceremony. To a certain extent, Sechele attempted to play ball, he sent gifts of peace to his enemies (though in one case, it worked for his benefit when a rival chief set his gift of gunpowder on fire and died) and divorced all but one of his wives. But this had severe political consequences for him and when his tribe was accused of cowardice, he led them to war and soundly thrashed his enemies, much to Livingstone’s disapproval, which he attempted to mollify by building a great stone church in his village.
Eventually Sechele was baptised and confirmed a Christian but at this point he and his tribe was struck by what was either a run of bad luck or a strong sign of the anger from his old gods for abandoning them. Those who had been Sechele’s staunchest allies died of diseases and the worst drought the Tswana could ever remember took hold in his lands and would not leave. In response his female workers went on strike, his male workers verbally attacked him and the other Tswana leaders considered Sechele cursed and avoided him and his new faith studiously. In this time of crisis, Sechele sinned. He committed adultery and impregnated one of his ex-wives. Livingstone was outraged, he punished Sechele harshly, which the man accepted humbly and then, heartbroken that the only African he would ever convert to Christianity had backslidden, left to pursue his quixotic crusade against the Portuguese and Arab slave trade.
Sechele begged Livingstone not to lose faith in him, saying that the two of them would meet again, in front of Jesus, and could be judged then but the other man did not listen. At this point, Sechele was at as a low point as he had been since returning from exile as a young man. The smart political move would have been to abandon his new faith as Livingstone had abandoned him and return to the old ways but Sechele didn’t. He had a true faith and his luck was about to turn around.
In the next few years, Sechele would expand his power and influence among the Tswana. In 1852, an opportunity would come to prove what that was worth. A group of slaves had escaped from the Boers and took refuge with Sechele, and a Boer commando troop set out to reclaim them, attacking Tswana villages throughout Bostwana. Sechele, in his letters to the British Missionaries, framed the attack as yet another tragedy, as many of his people had been killed and many of his new buildings burnt down and looted. But for the Boers, who were driven away by Sechelle’s alliance, it was a defeat and they angrily condemned the missionaries for supposedly arming and training this force who fought far better than natives ‘should’. And the other tribes, who had been scattered and abused by the Boers, began to look to Sechele for leadership. By both diplomacy and war, Sechele would increase the size of his tribe from 300 to 30,000.
In the aftermath of the attack by the Boers, Sechele attempted to obtain the protection of the British by swearing fealty to them, though the British were not yet interested in expanding and refused him, even when Sechele demanded to travel to London and put his case before the Queen personally. This was not unusual, the British weren’t inclined to expand too much in South Africa in this time as they had yet to discover the gold and diamonds that made it worth it and amid the chaos many were more eager for their protection than the British were to give it. Even the Boers of the Orange Free State who fought so ferociously for their independence in later decades would have stayed as part of the British Empire had the British allowed them to in the Sand River convention.
Having secured at least some type of political stability Sechele set about his job as a missionary, preaching the gospels of Christianity and Literacy to thousands of Africans, converting not just the Tswana but tribes in Zimbabwe and Angola who Europeans had never encountered. He did more to spread Christianity in Southern Africa than any other single person. But his version of Christianity, self-taught as he was, was a frustration to the new European Missionaries sent to replace Livingstone. He adapted the faith for his African audience, including rainmaking, polygamy and charms among his teaching but he knew the Bible back to front and was able to justify his changes by Scripture to the point that few wanted to argue with him. Livingstone was the only man whose opinions on scripture he ever bowed to.
Sechele’s leadership was vital in uniting the Tswana and preventing them from being conquered by the Boers. Likewise his decision to stick with Christianity when many others would have abandoned it was vital in keeping the Tswana in touch with British Missionaries and so in their influence. Arguably the single most important Sechele ever did, however, was intervening in the succession of the Bamagwato Tswana kingship so that the Christian son, Khama, inherited rather than a pagan son. Khama was vital to ensuring both that a British protectorate over the Tswana was established in 1885 and that this relationship was maintained. In a trip to England in 1895 he successfully presented the Tswana as a civilised Christian people who deserved to keep their autonomy at a time when Cecil Rhodes was arguing for them to be annexed into either South Africa or Rhodesia.
I don’t wish to whitewash the relationships between protectorates and their protectors. The Sotho, having also joined the British Empire willingly, had to then fight and win a war in order to actually not be treat as if they’d been conquered and from 1891 onwards the British High commissioner had far more power over the Tswana than their Kings. Moreover, once the Tswana had tied their fate to London, London could decide what to do with them and ultimately ceded the southern areas of the Tswana lands which had been occupied by the Boers to the South African Union rather than to the Tswana Kings. But, despite plans to that effect, the Northern Tswana were never annexed to either South Africa or Rhodesia, largely thanks to their ability to offer their own input, and so emerged as a black majority country in 1966 rather than enduring Apartheid beyond that. Sechele and Khama ensured that.
If Sechele had either died young or abandoned Christianity prior to 1852, it is entirely possible for that country to be conquered by Cecil Rhodes’ Company or by the Boers or for that matter by the Germans. Part of modern Botswana was in German South West Africa and it is not impossible for it to be the Germans who conquered much of that land. Given that the surviving Herero escaped the genocide by fleeing to Botswana, this could have had incredibly dark implications if that border was a few hundred miles further away.
Which brings us back to the beginning of this article. There is a temptation to assume there are only two choices for Africans in the 19th century. They either crush European attempts at colonisation or they don’t and are conquered. But even when the latter was inevitable, there were different types of colonisation, and the precise type was hugely important and affected so much of how the post-colonial countries looked. So if the Christianisation of the Tswana prevented their annexation to South Africa and they could have become another Zulu or Xhosa, their lands added to the Cape Colony, could it have also gone the other way? Could the Zulu have become another Tswana? That's what we'll look at in the next article.