King Lewanika of Barotseland (1842-1916) was the ruler of a nation with footprints over modern Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Zambia and Angola. He was responsible for making Barotseland a British protectorate in an agreement brokered with Cecil Rhodes’s British South African Company. His obituary in the Journal des Missions said of the king and French missionary Jacques Coillard ‘between them a land of cruelty and bloodshed was entirely transfigured within the space of less than fifteen years. Lewanika stood for civilisation’.
When Dr David Livingstone discovered Barotseland in 1853, Lewanika (or Robosi as he was then named) was ten-years old and the Barotse tribe were tributaries to the Makalolo who led Livingstone to the Victoria Falls. Robosi’s uncle Sepopa was the principal chief of the tribe from 1864 having re-established the territories belonging to the Losi. His cruelty towards his people led to an uprising in 1876 that saw Sepopa murdered by his own people and Robosi crowned as King Lewanika.
As king of the Losi or Barotse tribes, Lewanika sought to educate his people, guard his borders against hostile colonial powers and suppress insurgencies within his family and government. Christian missionaries gathered around his throne including Dr James Johnson who observed ‘he longs for light and knowledge and wonders why more missionaries do not come to teach him and his people. It must not be imagined by this, however, that he yearns for the knowledge of the gospel. He wants teachers to instruct his people to read and write, especially to train themselves as carpenters, cabinetmakers, blacksmiths and for other trades’.
But civilisation in Barotseland only went so far. The Banosha family, who had led the revolt against Sepopa, fired several shots into Lewanika’s hut in his capital Li-a-Liue forcing the king to run for his life. He was deposed in 1884 and replaced by puppet king Tayela (Sepopa’s nephew). When Lewanika regained power the following year, he was merciless. As George Weslbeech writes in Trade and Travels in Early Barotseland, ‘The King now, I am sorry to say, began to show his capacity in the killing line, for all who were caught or came to surrender themselves, trusting to his former clemency, were immediately killed. Even the women, wives of rebels, were ripped open by the assegai and thus left to die’.
Weslbeech goes on to describe rebels being thrown to the wolves after their arms and legs had been broken and ‘boys and girls of any tender age carried off to the nearest lagoons and thrown to the crocodiles’. It was to this bloodthirsty monarch who had sired forty-four children than Paris Evangelical Missionary Francois Coillard came in 1889 to preach the gospel. It was under Coillard’s influence that the king applied to Queen Victoria via Cecil Rhodes and the British South African Company to make Barotseland a British protectorate in 1890.
The King was given a £2000 annual income, British protection, guns and a 3% royalty on mineral concessions given to Rhodes. He was incensed to learn that elephant tusks intended for Queen Victoria had found their way into the BSAC boardroom and was forced to appeal to Rhodes to ‘show some interest in the welfare of the people’. In a letter to Queen Victoria King Lewanika wrote ‘I do not wish my country to be divided into two parts between Portugal and Germany …. The government must carry me as a woman carries a child upon her back’.
In 1902 King Lewanika set sail for England where he was invited to attend the coronation of King Edward VII. He was given an audience with the king and held informal talks with the Prince of Wales (King George V). When asked by the Times correspondent what he would discuss with King Edward, Lewanika said ‘when we kings meet, we always have plenty to talk about’. King Lewanika also visited his sons who were being educated in England and was photographed with the entire royal family wearing Western dress. We know from King Lewanika’s ledger page in the Henry Poole archive that he visited the firm in 1902 and ordered the frock coat and striped trousers he wears in the portraits.
Under the influence of Coillard, King Lewanika abolished the slave trade in Barotseland in 1906 and kept his promise to his people establishing schools and workshops to encourage practical trades. He did not convert to Christianity but on his death left a country with secure borders and the protection of the British empire. The king was succeeded by four of his sons.