Thursday, July 18, 2024

Builders of Botswana: “The wedding of inconvenience”

Last week’s instalment of our mini-series on Lady Ruth Khama ended with her father’s reconciliation to her marriage with Seretse. Thereafter, George Williams became a model father-in-law and grandfather.

 The support of her entire family was a source of solace to Ruth who, along with Seretse, showed immense resolve in the face of hostility during their early years together.

 Brought up to practice what she perceived to be honest English values of justice, fair play, tolerance and respect, as well as the wartime promise of a new era of equality, it was deeply disappointing for her to see the same ideals institutionally betrayed in her home country.
 As a devout and lifelong Anglican, she was especially disappointed by the refusal of her Church to marry her. She and Seretse had originally arranged to be married on the 2nd of October 1948 by an Anglican Vicar, the Rev. Dr. Leonard Patterson, who was personally quite sympathetic to their plans.

┬áThe marriage date was moved up to the 25th of September when it became clear that, at the urging of Lord Baring, the High Commissioner in Pretoria then responsible for the administration of the Bechuanaland Protectorate, as well as Seretse’s uncle Tshekedi, a coalition of Colonial Office officials and members of the London Missionary Society (LMS) were working to block the event from ever taking place.

The marriage would almost certainly have occurred on the new date had Seretse not sent an invitation to Dr. Rodger Pilkington, an Oxford don and LMS Director who had supported him in settling into Britain. As a result on the morning of the 25th the LMS leadership in London met in emergency session to stop the wedding, which was scheduled for 1:00 pm.

Just after noon, Pilkington finally got through by phone to Patterson, demanding that he tell Seretse and Ruth that the wedding could not take place. The LMS then dispatched a delegation including Pilkington to Patterson’s church with the intent to raise objections at the service.

In the face of the couple’s determination to proceed, the vicar hesitated. While Patterson was in no way answerable to the LMS, which belonged to a different denomination, as a representative of the established Church of England suggestions of Government interest in the matter weighed on his mind.

Knowing the Bishop of London, Dr. Ward, was at a nearby service he decided to consult with him. For their part, Seretse and Ruth insisted on accompanying the vicar to St. Mary Abbot’s Church to wait on the bishop.

But, to the entire party’s surprise, the bishop refused to even meet with them. Having himself just received an urgent communication, he instead had an archdeacon deliver the terse message: “Get in touch with the Colonial Office, when they agree to the wedding I will.”

A distraught Ruth asked ÔÇô “Does the Church want to force me to live in sin.” True to her values, being unable to either return home or stay with her fianc├®e, she checked into a hotel.

Three days later, on the 29th of September 1948, Seretse and Ruth were finally married in a civil ceremony, to the frustration of the Colonial Office who had run out of legal options to further block the event. 

By then Ruth had also lost her job. To her surprise, her employers at Lloyds’ of London had some days earlier insisted that she be transferred to the firm’s New York offices. She instead served notice.

The newlyweds never had a honeymoon. Instead, on the 21st of October 1948 Seretse left for Bechuanaland to face the hostility of his uncle and others who demanded in vain that he abandon his marriage. Meanwhile, back in London Ruth rejected with contempt continued official pressure on her to annul their marriage.
Endnote ÔÇô Eugenics
On hindsight, Seretse’s invitation to Pilkington was naive given that the latter had already expressed his opposition to the marriage. Indeed, Ruth had sharply turned down his efforts to approach her on the matter. If Seretse failed to fully appreciate the strength of Pilkington’s views it may be that he was unaware of the latter’s devotion to eugenics, a pseudo-scientific movement that advocates the need to improve the genetic composition of humans.

 During the 1940s eugenics was closely associated with Nazi (and Apartheid) beliefs on the need to maintain master-race hierarchy and purity. That a LMS Director should have been a eugenicist in 1948, after its association with the atrocities of the Third Reich, is telling of how far at least some within the Society had by then drifted from the non-racial principals of the likes of Moffat and Livingstone.

┬áRegular readers may recall that the 19th century founder of eugenics, Sir Francis Galton, was also a pioneer European explorer of Ngamiland and Namibia. A true polymath, Galton’s subsequent “nature versus nurture” research into behavioural science, sociology and social statistics, as well as proto-genetics led him to also contribute to posterity, among other things, psychometric testing, forensic fingerprinting, modern survey polling and quantitative models of biological mutation that he originally presented as proof of his cousin Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution through natural selection.


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