The BaKhurutshe Anglicans of Tonota Religious Persecution in the Bechuanaland Protectorate

Article excerpt

The case of the BaKhurutshe of Tonota1 was a curious episode in the inter-war history of the Bechuanaland Protectorate, in which it was alleged that Tshekedi Khama, regent of the BaNgwato 1925-49,2 was persecuting a small group of people for practicing Anglicanism, thus violating the official monopoly of the London Missionary Society (L.M.S.). Although the colonial administration's response ostensibly started strongly with support for religious freedom, it did not, and (as we shall see) was never likely to, maintain this stance.

The sparsely populated Bechuanaland Protectorate had been acquired by Britain mainly for now-obsolete strategic reasons, and was seen as having little economic value. It was one of the three "High Commission Territories" under the high commissioner for South Africa but actually ruled mainly by its own resident commissioner. It was run on a minimalist basis, with most of the territory being administered as large 'Tribal Reserves." These chiefdoms were not the same as the precolonial kingdoms, but neither were they British creations; they were the outcome of a fusion between the traditional kingdoms and British overlordship, administered by the chiefs under the supervision of a few officials whose resources seldom stretched beyond tax collection and avoiding trouble. The Bamangwato Reserve (GammaNgwato) was the largest. As in other Tswana societies, different ethnic groups were incorporated in a hierarchy within it; at the top were the true BaNgwato3 whose totem was the phuti (duiker).

The general policy of the chiefs was to have only one missionary society- one church- in their reserve. In most cases, including the Bamangwato Reserve, this was the (Congregationalist) L.M.S. The classic case was GammaNgwato, where King Khama III, an early Christian convert and staunch believer, had used the Church as part of his statebuilding.4 The pattern of Tswana adoption of a neo-Erastian church as an institution of state-building emerges even more clearly if the Southern Tswana, who by the twentieth century had been absorbed into South Africa, are also considered.5 Such patterns were not unknown elsewhere6; what was unusual was the continuation of such arrangements into the colonial period.

In some other reserves, chiefs had allowed other missions to enter in order to provide services (notably, the Seventh Day Adventists established health services, an area where the L.M.S. was very weak) and inroads were made by rival churches in some places, including the Anglicans. Also, other chiefs, when in conflict with the L.M.S., did not have the position of strength Khama had built up over the years.

For most of the twentieth century, until the approach of independence, rival churches were considered a threat to the authority of the chief. An important early case occurred in 1901-1903 when an African preacher named Mothowagae, in the Bangwaketse Reserve, split from the L.M.S. and formed his own church. Initially he was allowed to do so, but when his church reached a critical mass it became an open challenge to the chief, with Mothowagae declaring that he (Mothowagae) had bewitched the rain. Only when this became clear did the colonial government decide that Mothowagae must be forced to submit to the chief's authority. He was still allowed to carry on his church, although it lost popularity.7 It has been noted that in this case the chief, churches and colonial authorities did not follow a consistent pattern of support, but leaned first one way then another. This episode may have been a significant learning experience, but if so the lessons learned were unfortunate. An alternative church had initially been allowed and it is clear that the resident commissioner, Ralph Williams, was opposed to any interference in religious activity as such.8 Nevertheless, the result was political trouble.

A possible parallel to the BaKhurutshe case had occurred shortly after this when the BaKgatla ba-ga-Mmanana, who were trying to assert independence from their BaNgwaketse overlords, broke from the L. …