British Empire Article

by Buz Trevor (September 30th, 2016)
Fifty years ago, on September 30, 1966, a hot, arid country in southern Africa became independent. I was there.

I had arrived as a sixteen year old in what was still the Bechuanaland Protectorate in 1964. For several years, before this, I had been traveling from my home and birthplace in Northern Rhodesia to school in Johannesburg. This was a three day trip of which one day was spent traveling through Bechuanaland. Then I thought it was a joke of a country but it was to become entrenched in my heart far more than my birth country.

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Abercorn Boma
Our move happened because my Dad was let go from his position as government veterinary surgeon in Northern Rhodesia, just before that country gained independence and became Zambia.

My grandfather had left Wales in 1881 for the South African diamond fields. His second wife, my grandmother, was the descendent of people who emigrated from England in 1820.

My father was sent to boarding school in England, something that was not unusual in the British Empire. After the Second World War, which my father spent in India and Burma, all he wanted was to return to Africa. In late 1946 he took up the position of government veterinary officer in Abercorn, Northern Rhodesia.

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Chambeshi Monument
Now, it is difficult to understand the remoteness of Abercorn. Right in the north of the country, not far from the southern end of Lake Tanganyika, Abercorn was a tiny settlement accessible only by a terrible road. The hamlet was where the final surrender of German troops took place in late November 1918 at the conclusion of World War One. The surrender is commemorated with a monument.

When I was born in 1947, it was an event because most of the surrounding populace had never seen a white baby before! Wild animals were prevalent. Lions preyed on people and livestock at a level which is unimaginable now. One of my early recollections was being in a truck with the family when it broke down. We knew there was a man-eating lion around so my dad had fires built all around the truck and we "slept" in the cab and box of the truck. Next morning there were pug marks of the lion around the fires. Another time my mother locked herself out of the house only to find a leopard prowling around her.

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My father's work was primarily geared towards the health of the livestock of the local population. In African society cattle have an almost mystical value. They are a true measure of wealth. The African herds were subject to any number of terrible diseases and one of the real advantages that the western colonisation of Africa brought was the improvement in the health of the national herd. My dad spent months at a time patrolling an area half the size of Manitoba vaccinating and testing cattle. Frequently he took the family with him and much of my early childhood was passed in tents surrounded by large herds of cattle. Really, it was an idyllic life.

All this time, I was unaware of any racial tension. The nature of my dad's work meant that he was seen as a benefactor. The harsher side of colonialism was focussed on the areas where the potential for economic development existed.

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The Copperbelt
When I was five we moved to a much bigger town on what was known as the Copperbelt. Even as a small boy, I was aware of something different. When we travelled around Abercorn the local population would smile and wave to us but here, on the Copperbelt, nobody waved and smiles were absent. Rumbles of unrest throughout Africa swirled around us. Black nationalist movements were demanding Independence. Initially, white colonists scoffed at these demands but the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya added a dimension of fear to our safe lives.

When I was ten I was pulled off my bike and beaten up by a gang of teenagers. I was lucky. A Mrs Burton and her two children had their car stopped. The mother had gas poured over her and she was burnt to death. Fortunately, the two daughters escaped but the story was shocking nonetheless. Things like this bring out the worst in us and my views became racist. The neighbouring country of Belgian Congo achieved Independence in 1960 and quickly degenerated into a bloodbath. Fleeing settlers told tales of murder, rape and the complete breakdown of law and order. The bullet riddled vehicles they arrived in bore testimony to their tales.

In Northern Rhodesia the Independence movement inched forward and finally, Britain agreed to an Independence date in 1964 and so we moved to the Bechuanaland Protectorate. In the latter part of the Nineteenth Century, three wise African chiefs had made an incredibly arduous trip to England to request the protection of Britain from the territorial ambitions of the South African republics with their prevailing attitudes. For whatever reason, the government in Britain acceded to this request and set about administering the territory.

For seventy five years the British governed the Bechuanaland Protectorate with benign apathy. The lack of obvious mineral wealth or arable land meant that there had been minimal exploitation of the local people, but education, although rudimentary, was widespread and a network of clinics dotted the country. The railway, Cecil Rhodes' legacy, provided the focus for settlement and development. Above all the existence of the British protectorate had prevented the country being absorbed into South Africa's racial hallucination.

But by 1966, Rhodes' dream of empire was as lifeless as the winds that blow out of the Kalahari Desert in August and the British were divesting themselves of their colonial responsibilities with a haste that belied the current of daily life in Bechuanaland.

Radio Bechuanaland/Botswana
Sprawled beneath a blanket of dust, the result of perennial drought, Gaberones comprised three stores, a garage and a scattered collection of galvanized roofed buildings where the government officials lived and worked. A hotel, of few pretensions, at the railway station provided shelter for the traveller. It was enough that the beer was always cold.

A short distance away lay a sizable African village called Tlokweng, whose pronunciation presented newcomers with an immediate challenge!

Roads ranged from bad to impassable. In the entire country there were less than five kilometres of paved road. Four graders served a land the size of Manitoba. Without fail, passenger trains appeared in the middle of the night. Light aircraft landed on a clearing in the thorny scrub which doubled as a golf course. On the rare occasions when good rains fell, the country squelched to a halt.

European powers had dealings with Africa for hundreds of years but with the exception of South Africa, most of these dealings were confined to trade in coastal regions. Europeans who ventured into the African interior could count on a hostile reception, either from the inhabitants but, more particularly, from a variety of lethal diseases. All along it was known that the interior of Africa was home to desirable commodities and by the late Nineteenth Century, with improved medicine, the scramble for Africa began and very quickly much of the continent was colonised by various colonial powers.

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Bechuanaland Stamp
There is a soft view that colonialism was designed to bring civilization to the ignorant masses. In most of the colonised countries European medicine dramatically improved life quality for humans and their livestock and the introduction of western education was generally welcomed. The hard fact is that colonialism was driven by economics. Mineral wealth and agricultural opportunities were exploited in a manner that benefited primarily the settlers and sowed the seeds for much of hardship that Africa has undergone in the last decades.

I think it is fair to say that divestment of African colonial possessions took place once the colonial power deemed it no longer economically advantageous to maintain the colony. The colonial period was marked by exploitation which created bitterness and unrealistic expectations. As an example: The Northern Rhodesian Copperbelt is one of the world's great mineral areas. During the colonial period the profits of the mining companies were huge.

These profits were enhanced by cheap labour. African wages were kept artificially low and advancement for Africans was very difficult. Virtually all facilities were segregated and the ability of Africans to organise unions was severely restricted.

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Morale Research Station
It was a period when capitalists rode the gravy train but by the time Independence arrived, the gravy was off the train. This happened elsewhere and led to the widespread perception that once Independence arrived everything went downhill and there definitely are examples of countries where this was the case. This never happened in Botswana.

By 1964 plans were afoot which would grant independence to the Protectorate. Here the British were not succumbing to a long colonial struggle or to a deep seated antiwhite feeling. Rather, like a tired old tree, casting off leaves, they were shedding their last possessions. It was not important that the Protectorate was one of the world's most impoverished nations or that the prognosis for prosperity was not good. The politically correct thought was that the time for independence was now and that was all there was to it.

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Veterinary Fence
The British had established a formula for ridding themselves of their colonial responsibility. Expediency rather than efficiency being the keyword.

According to the blueprint, full independence was preceded by a short period of Africanisation during which local people were trained to fill the positions which would be vacated by departing whites. Elections on the basis of one man, one vote would be held. Sadly, for many emerging nations this has proved to be the only experience of the democratic experience. Shortly afterwards the formal celebration of independence would complete the process. Ready or not, a new nation would take its place on the world stage.

But oh! Embarrassment! Before Botswana could be borne out of the Bechuanaland Protectorate a capital city had to be found. As things stood, the British had administered from Mafeking in South Africa. This unique instance of a country's capital being in another country was yet another manifestation of the level of importance that the world attached to the Bechuanaland Protectorate! This clearly was an anathema and after some debate it was decided, for no discernible reason, that Gaberones should become the new capital

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Gaberones Development
This was an amazing experience. Magically, overnight it seemed, a model town was laid out and carved out of the African bush. The new town had a parliamentary building, a shopping centre and schools and hospitals. In early 1965 the caravan of bureaucracy trailed from Mafeking to Gaberones and the final steps towards independence began.

The hand-over of power was to take place at the end of September 1966. The planning and coordination of the ceremony was largely in the hands of a British career officer. No doubt he was following some master plan originating in England. For instance, there must, within the recesses of the British bureaucracy, have been some gnome who decided that because the American ex-colonies celebrated the fourth of July with pyrotechnics, newly independent countries elsewhere would share the same flamboyant desire.

The scale of the proposed celebrations was a measure of the importance that Britain attached to the fledgling state. It quickly became apparent that Bechuanaland's transition to Botswana ranked somewhere near the bottom of the prestige ladder. This was confirmed when it was announced that the Royal Personage to officiate at the ceremony would be Princess Marina. There were sighs of disappointment, although as one of my mother's friends pointed out, "At least it's not Princess Margaret and her ghastly husband!"

When a small, impoverished nation was scheduled for independence there were numerous logistical problems, the most pressing of which was where visitors would stay. Everybody had visiting dignitaries billeted with them and residents were dragooned into all sorts of duties. Whether they wished to participate or had the requisite training appeared to be a secondary consideration. So it was my father who was delegated to be in charge of the fireworks.

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Seretse and Ruth
Perhaps it was his military background but a veterinary surgeon does not normally include firework management among his attributes. Goodness knows, he didn't even like fireworks! The same could not be said for me. Fireworks fulfilled some destructive urge within me. My heart soared with rockets and the louder the explosions the happier I felt. So when my dad pressed my friend Alain and I into service as "powder monkeys" I was only too happy.

South Africa, as an anti-black state, did very well out of the Independence celebrations throughout Africa. It was a South African company that offered three different Independence packages. Poor Bechuanaland. We were getting the cheapest but even so to the uninitiated they looked splendid and for the firework fanatic that I was, they were a dream come true.

The Independence ceremony was to be the culmination of a week of festivities at the end of September in 1966. This is not prime tourist season in Gaberones. The start of summer is heralded by furnace blasts of dry, sand laden wind from the Kalahari desert. The surrounding country presents a drab, desiccated aspect to the visitor who, enveloped in a cloak of heat and dust, is likely to crave air conditioning above anything immediately available.

However the week passed in a harmonious mixture of order and chaos. Gossip of international intrigue replaced the temperature as prime conversation. For the first time, South Africa was sending a representative to an African state's independence celebration and the presence of a high level Soviet diplomat whetted everyone's interest. It was rumoured that the Russian was much more liberal with tips and vodka than the South African. Power politics of the most insidious form!

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Botswana Map
At the last minute it was decided that Princess Marina would visit the base of the Police Mobile Unit. This lay at the end of five kilometres of dirt road. Consternation. So on the day before the visit, without any surface preparation, a skin of asphalt was poured and the road closed until the visit was past. Inevitably, the surface broke up almost immediately, but at least the Princess was able to travel free of dust!

A succession of functions led up to the flag raising ceremony. Hierarchy determined which ones you were invited to. As a lowly bank clerk I was invited to none.

The fireworks came in large crates with detailed instructions on how to set them. My father, my friend Alain and I took charge on one side of the stadium and two friends took the other.

The eve of Independence we set up giant rockets and cascading fireballs which were to illuminate the southern sky while the explosions of mortars saluted the birth of the new nation.

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Gaberones Police
All day the wind had been building from the desert to the west. By sunset the sky was filled with stinging, breathclogging sand colouring the sky dark red. A stifling oppression lay over the town. But nothing could stand in the way of the celebrations and good natured crowds thronged the streets. The stadium filled rapidly with happy anticipation in the air, despite the naysayers who disparaged the white man's strange arrangements and were envious of people in outlying centres where beer and barbecues were the order of the day. But the overall sense was that it meant something to be in Gaberones on this night when Botswana was born.

The ceremonies moved through parades of scout troops and traditional dancers and performances by brass bands while the wind ebbed and swirled effortlessly meddling with the public address system. By the time we assumed our positions behind the grandstands just before midnight we could only hear fragmentary phrases from the loudspeakers above us.

Our instructions were to light the fireworks as the new national anthem ended. Just in time, a lull in the wind allowed us to hear the closing bars and my father, Alain and I applied tapers to a salvo of rockets and stood back. Over on the far side our partners lit a stationary display prior to launching a salvo of their own.

As our rockets roared into the sky, clearing the stands the wind freshened. Losing thrust, the rockets lost way and careened towards the crowded stands. Another salvo from the other side of the stadium veered into the V.I.P. stands and pandemonium broke loose.

Hidden by the stand and shielded from the worst of the wind, we were unaware of the havoc that was being created but suddenly through gaps in the stand we saw figures rushing across the darkened stadium, illuminated by the haphazard flash of erratic rockets.

What were they thinking? Could this be the ultimate treachery on the part of the British or perhaps a coup in the newborn state?

A private from the officiating Irish regiment appeared and ordered us to stop the fireworks, and my father, the kindest of men, acted totally out of character.

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Independence Ceremony
As a lieutenant-colonel, he was never one for pulling rank or using his past military station. He actively discouraged it apart from this one time I never saw him do it but some spot within him must have been touched by the order from this young private.

"Bugger off!" he shouted. "We're busy and I don't take orders from privates! Light the rockets!" Further chaos. But soon afterwards a senior officer appeared and my Dad ordered the cease fire. We left our positions. The entire fiasco had taken no more than a few minutes and the stadium was virtually deserted.

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Independence Day Programme
Outside, the official cars were unable to move because of the churning sea of people. Under the presidential limousine a dying rocket spluttered and went out.

But the Batswana are a cheerful people. Quickly the crowd regained their composure and headed off for other parties. Crestfallen, we quietly packed up the fireworks and took them home.

What does one do with a partially used package of Independence Fireworks? The whole episode was viewed as an embarrassment by the authorities who did not wish to be reminded of it. My father was grateful that nobody had been hurt. He rarely spoke of it afterwards. For a long time, unbeknown to my parents' insurance company, the "bloody fireworks" sat in a box on our front porch until finally we gave them to the local sports club for some celebration.

For me, fireworks lost their appeal. Even though, after all these years, when Alain and I meet, we say "Man, remember those fireworks!"

For the superstitious, it might seem an inauspicious start to nationhood. However, that is not the way it has turned out for Botswana.

In 1965, just before Independence, a huge diamond deposit was discovered. The new black government stuck to their guns and demanded that the country and not the shareholders take precedence in the benefits. Shortly afterwards a large copper and nickel deposit was discovered and a substantial coalfield. So, the economic footing of the country shifted and something really interesting happened.

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National Assembly
Botswana was fortunate that mineral wealth came subsequent to independence. The country has become an African success story giving the lie to the white myth that skin colour is the sole criterion for competence. Elections are held on a regular basis. Official corruption has not been the norm. Very soon after independence improvements in the welfare of the population became apparent. There is no doubt that Botswana is a far better place as an independent country than it was as a colonial protectorate.

Having been there at ground zero of the new nation's birth, it is an empowering feeling to see how well the country and its people have done.

Lonely Planet has named Botswana as the Number one tourist destination for 2016. It is a great accolade for a wonderful country.

Happy birthday, Botswana

Colonial Map
1955 Map of SE Bechuanaland
Colony Profile
Bechuanaland Colony Profile


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