Wednesday's book: King Khama, Emperor Joe, and the Great White Queen by Neil Parsons (University of Chicago Press, pounds 15.25)

On 6 September 1895, Paddington station witnessed the arrival of a "trinity of dusky kings". Their names were Khama, Sebele and Bathoen and they had travelled from Bechuanaland. They did not come bearing gifts but to obtain a boon from the imperious

colonial secretary, Joseph Chamberlain, and to see Queen Victoria, known in their language as "Mrs Little Old Lady". Cecil Rhodes's Chartered Company proposed to "privatise" their country and they wanted it to remain a British protectorate. This book gives a richly detailed account of their three-month mission.

It is based largely on the press cuttings the chiefs shrewdly commissioned from Durrant's agency. So Professor Parsons' subtitle - "Victorian Britain through African Eyes" - is misleading. Certainly we observe the Africans' reactions to green landscapes and smoky cities. We learn of their fear of crossing the Clifton suspension bridge and their wonder at Madame Tussauds. We also hear Bathoen's gnomic comment: "England takes good care of all her things, but throws away her people." However, much more is revealed about British responses to the "ebonised" visitors.

They were appraised according to racial stereotypes. Bathoen was described as having "the flat spreading nose, the large open eyes, and the heavy lips of the true child of Ham". But they seemed reassuringly "civilised": top-hatted, frock-coated, natural gentlemen. So they were welcomed. Dinners and receptions were given in their honour. Ladies shook their hands "with something bordering on ecstatic fervour", a spectacle white South Africans deemed "nauseating". Bristol and Liverpool feted the chiefs, acknowledging that not long before they would have tried to secure them as slaves. The powerful provincial press did them proud.

This was mainly because the Africans, assisted by the London Missionary Society, appealed so skilfully to audiences. Khama, whose father had been converted by Livingstone, deployed Evangelical idiom to particular effect. The chiefs trumpeted their loyalty to the crown. They claimed that the Chartered Company would not only take their land but also corrupt their people with strong drink.

Temperance interests rallied to their cause. Soon Rhodes was mocked as "the Pooh Bah of Africa" and Chamberlain was forced to compromise, giving him only a slice of Bechuanaland. Rhodes expostulated, "It is humiliating to be utterly beaten by those niggers." Parsons agrees that he was beaten, and regards Khama, Sebele and Bathoen as the grandfathers of independent Botswana. Yet Rhodes's expansionist plans really went awry with the failure of the Jameson Raid, which strengthened the protectorate.

Parsons deserves credit for retracing so vividly the odyssey of the African kings. But he writes awkwardly. His introduction is elementary and sometimes inaccurate. And he refers without irony to Colonel Lugardt's African "pacification", an enterprise (as Winston Churchill later wrote) "liable to be misrepresented by persons unacquainted with imperial terminology as the murdering of natives and stealing of their lands". There could hardly be a better definition of imperialism.

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