The "Unfortunate Marriage" of Seretse Khama

by Clare Rider, IT Archivist 1998-2009

'A difficult problem, to which some prominence has been given in the Press recently, has arisen from the marriage to an English girl of Seretse Khama, the Chief Designate of the Bamangwato Tribe in the Bechuanaland Protectorate.' So begins the initial memorandum to the British Cabinet on the subject of the Bamangwato chieftainship by Patrick Gordon Walker, Secretary of State for Commonwealth Relations, dated 19th July 1949. It was to be the first of many such memoranda, since the marriage of a black African Chief to a white English girl in London was to cause a diplomatic storm in the British Commonwealth which was to last almost a decade. In a year that has witnessed the death of Lady Khama, as Ruth Williams was to become, it is appropriate to re-tell the story of her romance with the late Seretse Khama, a member of the Inner Temple, and the 'difficult problem' to which it gave rise.

Seretse Khama was born on 1st July 1921, the son of Sekgoma, Chief of the Bamangwato (or Bangwato) Tribe and ruler of the Bamangwato Reserve in the British Protectorate of Bechuanaland, now known as Botswana. The Bamangwato Reserve, which had been established in 1899 in the time of Serestse's grandfather, Khama III, comprised an area of approximately 40,000 square miles in Southern Africa. In 1946 it had an African population of about 10,000 (divided into several tribes including the Bangwato) and a European population of around 500. When Sekgoma died in 1925, Seretse was still in infancy and a regency was established, with his uncle, Tshekedi Khama, assuming the roles of Seretse's guardian and Acting Chief of the Bamangwato Tribe. Tshekedi sent his ward to England to continue his education, studying law at Balliol College, Oxford, and then at the Inner Temple in London, to which he was admitted on 14th October 1946. It was while he was in London, living near Marble Arch and studying for his bar examinations that Seretse met Ruth Williams, a clerk in the claims department of Lloyd's underwriters, Cuthbert Heath. Born in Blackheath, south London, the daughter of a retired Indian army officer, she had served in the Women's Auxiliary Air Force during the Second World War, and was apparently 'an independent-minded girl in her early twenties' when she met Seretse at a London Missionary Society dance. Although their initial meeting was not a success, their shared enthusiasm for jazz resulted in a blossoming romance and in September 1948 Seretse sent an air-mail letter to his uncle, Tshekedi, announcing that he planned to marry Ruth on 2nd October.

When Tshekedi expressed his outrage at the proposal and pressed the London Missionary Society to intervene to prevent the marriage, Seretse defied him and brought the planned wedding date forward to 24th September. However, the Vicar of St. George's, Campden Hill, who had agreed to conduct the marriage ceremony, lost his nerve in the face of mounting opposition and referred them to the Bishop of London, who was officiating at an ordination ceremony at St. Mary Abbot's, Kensington. The couple sat through the ordination service only to be told that the Bishop was not prepared to allow the marriage to take place in church without the approval of the British government. Both knew that this was unlikely to be forthcoming. Meanwhile Ruth had become estranged from her father, who thoroughly disapproved of the relationship, and was informed by her employers that, in the event of her marriage, she must choose between a transfer to their New York office or redundancy. Nevertheless, on 29th September 1948, in the face of all opposition, Seretse Khama married Ruth Williams at Kensington Registry Office.

The diplomatic storm was just beginning. Seretse was summoned back to Bechuanaland by Tshedeki, arriving there on 22nd October 1948, and faced a four day grilling at the full tribal assembly or kgotla, from 15th to 19th November, for breaking tribal custom and disregarding the regent's command. 'The tribe at this first meeting, with almost one voice, condemned the marriage and resolved that all steps should be taken to prevent Seretse's white wife from entering the Bamangwato Reserve'.

However, Seretse was adamant that he would not return to the Reserve without his wife, and suspicions began to arise among the people that Tshedeki was aiming to banish Seretse and to claim the Chieftainship for himself. Therefore at a second meeting of the kgotla in December, a significant number of tribesmen withdrew their objection to the marriage and demanded a guarantee that Seretse would be allowed to return freely to his tribal lands if he went back to England to pursue his legal studies. When Seretse did return from London to the Protectorate in June 1949 and made it clear that he would leave permanently if his wife were not allowed to join him, a third kgotla meeting agreed to accept him as their Chief on any terms and, on 20th August, Ruth Khama arrived at Serowe. In this unexpected turn of events, Tshekedi found his authority overthrown by the vast majority of the tribe which he had ruled with a firm hand for over twenty years. In a bid to regain support, he threatened to leave his people and settle in voluntary exile in the Bakwena Reserve. His bluff called, Tshekedi left his homeland unopposed, accompanied by a small band of loyal followers. However, Seretse's future as Chief was far from secure. The British government had not yet recognised him and, at the end of October 1949, the Union of South Africa declared him and his wife as prohibited immigrants. If they set foot in Mafeking, the headquarters of the Bechuanaland Protectorate, which was situated over the border in South Africa, they would be arrested. How could Serestse effectively rule his people, if he could not negotiate with his powerful neighbours, South Africa and Southern Rhodesia, who both refused to recognise his authority, and could not even enter the headquarters of his own British Protectorate?

From the outset, the white governments of the Union of South Africa and Southern Rhodesian had expressed grave concerns about the marriage and the consequences of British recognition of Seretse as Chief. Indeed, the Prime Minister of Southern Rhodesia warned the British High Commissioner, Sir Evelyn Baring, that the more extreme nationalists would not be willing to remain associated with a country which officially recognised an African Chief married to a white woman, 'and that they would make Seretse's recognition the occasion of an appeal to the country for the establishment of a Republic; and not only a Republic, but of a Republic outside the Commonwealth' . The Prime Minister of the Union of South Africa confirmed that he would not oppose such a move, whilst keeping a watchful eye on the situation in Bechuanaland. Under the provisions of the South Africa Act of 1909, the Union laid claim to the neighbouring tribal territories and, as the Secretary of State for Commonwealth Relations pointed out to the Cabinet in 1949, the 'demand for this transfer might become more insistent if we disregard the Union government's views'. He went on, 'indeed, we cannot exclude the possibility of an armed incursion into the Bechuanaland Protectorate from the Union if Serestse were to be recognised forthwith, while feeling on the subject is inflamed'.

Was the Secretary of State overreacting? Probably not when one considers that the Prime Minister of South Africa, Dr D F Malan, had led the National Party to its first victory in 1948 specifically on a platform of apartheid. The British government was in a dilemma. Should it summon Seretse to London 'so that an attempt might be made to persuade him to relinquish voluntarily his claim to the chieftainship?' At a Cabinet meeting on 21st July 1949 the Secretary of State for the Colonies violently disagreed. He saw that the government would be widely criticised for attempting to influence Seretse in this way to pander to white opinion in South Africa and pointed out the danger of appearing to be racist. The Cabinet agreed. 'The issue was not one of the merits of demerits of mixed marriages and the Government should vigorously rebut any suggestion that their attitude to this question was in any way determined by purely racial considerations'. Their prime object must be to safeguard the future well-being of the Bamangwato themselves. A judicial enquiry would give everyone time for reflection and for tempers to cool. Accordingly an enquiry was arranged in Bechuanaland to examine the suitability of Seretse Khama for the Chieftainship of the Bamangwato Tribe. It reported in December 1949.

The outcome of the enquiry was not entirely predictable. For example, it concluded that if the tribe had forgiven Serestse for failing to follow native custom over his marriage, 'who are we to insist on his punishment ?' That particular issue was closed and did not in itself render Seretse unfitted to rule. Also, 'though a typical African in build and features', the enquirers found Seretse an intelligent, well-spoken, educated man 'who has assimilated, to a great extent, the manners and thoughts of an Oxford undergraduate'. However, the results of the marriage in souring relations with neighbouring Commonwealth countries could not be ignored. Since, in their opinion, friendly and co-operative relations with South Africa and Rhodesia were essential to the well-being of the Bamangwato Tribe and the whole of the Protectorate, Serestse, who enjoyed neither, could not be deemed fit to rule. They concluded: 'We have no hesitation in finding that, but for his unfortunate marriage, his prospects as Chief are as bright as those of any native in Africa with whom we have come into contact'.

Seretse could not be recognised as Chief and was recalled to London in 1950. He cabled his wife from the British capital, 'Tribe and myself tricked by British Government. Am banned from whole protectorate. Love Seretse'. Ruth remained in Bechuanaland for a while afterwards, and Serestse was permitted to join her there for the birth of their first child. They both returned to London and Ruth became reconciled to her father. In 1952 Serestse was excluded permanently from the Chieftainship and was required to live outside his native country. Ironically, Serestse's uncle Tshekedi, who was still living in the Bakwena Reserve, was also banned from the Bamangwato reserve, whilst the British arranged for a caretaker government, incorporating a Native Authority. It must have seemed to Seretse that he would never return to his native land.

However, his cause was not forgotten either in London or in Africa, and a number of politicians kept the issue alive in the British Parliament, including Winston Churchill and Anthony Wedgwood Benn. In 1956 the Bamangwato cabled the Queen to ask for the return of their Chief, and after both Seretse and Tshekedi had signed undertakings renouncing the Chieftainship for themselves and their heirs and agreeing to live in harmony with each other, they were allowed to return home as private citizens.

After a few years living as a cattle rancher and dabbling in local politics, Seretse was motivated to enter national politics. He founded the Bechuanaland Democratic Party, which won the 1965 elections, the prelude to his country's gaining independence as Botswana in 1966. He was knighted that year and became Botswana's first president, serving a total of four presidential terms before his untimely death in 1980 at the age of 59. He left Botswana an increasingly democratic and prosperous country with a significant role in the politics of Southern Africa. He remained a popular figure in his native country, and is remembered by G J Phipps Jones, Headmaster of Moeding College in Botswana during Seretse's presidency who has since returned to Britain, as 'very caring and considerate…a softly spoken, gentle man.' Ruth, a keen charity worker, continued live in Botswana and to undertake a wide range of charitable duties, including acting as president of the Botswana Red Cross. Known to the population as 'Lady K', she was a familiar figure in her adopted country, considering herself a Motswana, or native citizen of Botswana, until her death on 22 May 2002. She is survived by their daughter and three sons, one of whom, Ian, is now Vice-President of Botswana.

The story of Seretse and Ruth is one that should not be forgotten. It has many of the elements of a Shakespearean drama or Disney feature film with star-crossed lovers, ambitious uncle, hypocritical advisors, powerful enemies and, above all, a happy ending. However, government papers and contemporary accounts of their treatment at the hands of the British government do not make comfortable reading.

Published in The Inner Temple Yearbook 2002/2003

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Celia Pilkington


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Celia Pilkington