Making Botswana: Woodcarving

This series of blog posts is inspired by objects from Botswana which have been researched as part of the Making African Connections project. Many of these were collected by Reverend William Charles Willoughby, a missionary who lived and worked in what was then Bechuanaland in the 1890s. 

This was a significant period in the history of Botswana, and of the British Empire. The British imperialist Cecil Rhodes was seeking to expand the territory held by his British South Africa Company, with the aims of securing the land to build a railway line from ‘Cape to Cairo’ which would ensure the British Empire held influence and power across the length of the African continent. 

blue and white 100 pula bank note from the Bank of Botswana, with portrait of three Tswana chiefs wearing formal suits.
Sebele I, Bathoen I and Khama III on a contemporary 100 Pula bank note

Several Tswana diKgosi (chiefs) resisted Rhodes. They met and agreed that three diKgosi, Sebele I, Bathoen I and Khama III, would act as representatives for the region. Willoughby facilitated their visit to England and accompanied the chiefs to petition Queen Victoria to protect their territory from Rhodes. 

Each blog in this series will explore connections between the objects in the collection and the history and contemporary culture of Botswana.

Carving for cooking and craft

Museum Accession number R4007/78

Objects carved from wood have long been a feature of Tswana domestic life, with large spoons and vessels carved from the wood of a variety of local trees. This large spoon (R4007/78) is almost a metre long and would have been used for communal cooking in large pots. This example was collected in the 1890s.

Museum Accession number AF109

 

European missionaries brought with them metal tablespoons with elaborate designs on the handles. Tswana carvers interpreted these with their own designs, such as incorporating carvings of local animals into the spoon handles.

 

Museum Accession number R4007/85

Woodcarving was used to create utilitarian objects, but also to demonstrate skill. These interlinked spoons carved from one piece of wood are an example of this. 

By the time Willoughby was collecting, there were other European and American missionaries and anthropologists keen to collect examples of Tswana objects. Along with carved objects, they collected the tools used for carving, and sometimes examples of the raw materials. 

This created a market for carvers to make things for sale to collectors. If you look closely at the spoons Willoughby collected you will see that they have not been used for cooking, as Scobie Lekhutile explains:

Details like this are important because it makes us think about the relationships between the people who made the objects and the people who collected them. Willoughby did not record the name of the carver(s) who made these spoons, but it would likely have been someone who was savvy to the new opportunities for selling carvings to Europeans. This was the start of a thriving tourist trade.

Carving for tourists

Wooden carving of a man with a feather headdress holding a club
Museum Accession number R4789/1

This carved wooden figure is also from Bechuanaland, from the 1950s. At the beginning of the project the Royal Pavilion & Museums team thought that this object was less interesting than the older collections. This is partly because this type of object is more obviously made for tourists and was therefore seen as less authentic. 

The museum also had less information about this figure than the objects collected by Rev. Willoughby. It was donated in the 1950s by a Brighton couple, Mr and Mrs Sneyd, but we don’t know who they were or what they were doing in Bechuanaland when they bought the carving.

The figure is marked on the base with the words ‘Shatsi B.P.’ At first we did not know what this meant. 

With the help of Botswana history expert Neil Parsons we realised that this is probably a mix up of the names of the Tati concession, a strip of land that bordered modern day Botswana, Zimbabwe and South Africa, and the Shashe (or Shashi) River that flows there. From the 1890s there was a railway station at Shashe.

Carving out territory

How does this relate to the older collections? The railway line is significant. It was built in the 1890s, the same time Willoughby was in Bechuanaland. This photograph shows the railway being built through Palapye, the capital of the Bamangwato people. Willoughby captioned the image ‘Making the Cape to Cairo Line’. 

black and white photograph showing railway being laid on flat ground, with white tents in the background. Handwritten caption reads: Making the Cape to Cairo Line, Palapye Rlwy Station, 1897
Building of Palapye railway station, 1897. Photograph taken by Rev. William Charles Willoughby. Image courtesy of Neil Parsons and National Archives Botswana.

‘Cape to Cairo’ was the name given to Cecil Rhodes’ plan to create an extended British Empire which would have control over territory stretching from Cape Town, at the southern tip of the African continent, all the way north to Cairo. Bechuanaland was one of the territories which Rhodes wanted for this project. 

the bottom of the feet of a wooden figure. handwritten markings read: R4789/1 22 January 57 Shatsi B.P.Khama III, the Kgosi of the Bamangwato, and several neighbouring chiefs, opposed Rhodes’ encroachment onto their territory. In 1895, Khama III, Sebele I and Bathoen I, travelled to England with Reverend Willoughby to ask the British government for protection from Rhodes. Partly as a result of their visit, the northern part of Bechuanaland became a British Protectorate. The B.P. on the bottom of the carved figure’s foot stands for ‘Bechuanaland Protectorate’.

The Three Chiefs visit to England

A large stone monument featuring statues of three men
Three diKgosi Monument, Gaborone, Botswana. From left: Khama III, Sebele I, Bathoen I

 

The leaders are honoured at the Three DiKgosi monument in Gaborone. During the project members of the RPMT team visited the monument. In the following clip Tshepo Skwambane talks to monument guide Samuel  Sebari about the visit to England.

The three diKgosi were successful in protecting their territories from Rhodes, and Bechuanaland had the status of a protectorate rather than a colony. The border of the Bechuanaland Protectorate ended at the Shashe river, creating a sort of no-man’s land at the edge of Khama’s territory. Although there was to be no Cape to Cairo line, Khama did eventually grant permission for Rhodesia Railways to build there.

Because of Shashe’s borderland position, people from Botswana and neighbouring countries would congregate at the station to sell food to passengers and trade their crafts with tourists passing through the station. 

black and white photograph taken from a train window of women and boys selling wares to passengers
Children and traders at Shashi River Railway Station, taken from a train carriage, c 1920s. Photographer unknown. Image courtesy of Neil Parsons.

This photograph, taken from a train carriage in the 1920s, shows people gathered to sell ‘curios’ and food to passengers. Although the wooden figure was purchased 30 years after this photograph was taken, the trade in carvings for tourists was still going strong. Tourism still has an impact on woodcarving in Botswana today.

 

 

Carving today

Wooden carving of a giraffe with burnt decoration
Museum Entry number WAENT000147/3

 

 

This giraffe was carved in 2019 by Otwaetse Tona, a woodcarver based in Serowe, Botswana. Today Botswana’s tourism is centred around its wildlife, and this is reflected in the pieces that Otwaetse carves for tourists. He also makes use of tourist publications for his reference material, as he explains in the following clip.

Otwaetse also carves domestic objects for local people. Today his customers buy large wooden spoons, similar to the ones collected by Willoughby, for use at weddings and other large gatherings. The RPMT team purchased one of his spoons, below, along with the giraffe above, to complement the historic collections. 

Wooden spoon with a twisted decorative handle
Museum Entry number WAENT000147/2

Khama III Memorial Museum curator Scobie Lekhutile interviewed Otwaetse Tona about his craft. The film shows Otwaetse working on the giraffe sculpture which Brighton Museum bought for the collection. 

Watch the video, ‘Meeting Makers’:

Rachel Heminway Hurst, Kathleen Lawther and Tshepo Skwambane, Making African Connections Project

Leave a Reply