King's College London
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Representing the unfamiliar: Photography in the British Empire 1866-1938

The hierarchy of British formal rule

Photograph of Chief Mathibi of the Batawana, in western dress carrying a cane and holding a hatPhotograph of Chief Mathibi of the BatawanaBritish rule throughout the Empire was multi-faceted and developed in different ways in the varying political and cultural circumstances of each territory. Indeed, it is difficult to describe the British Empire as a unified body of territories over which the British ruled.

Worldwide British influence was felt in nations that retained a great deal, if not all of their own formal sovereignty, such as in Argentina and China, whereas in certain British territories such as Kenya and Fiji, this formal sovereignty was lost.

The FCO Historical Collection contains, understandably, a greater wealth of material on formal territorial acquisitions of the British state, particularly through the former holdings of the Colonial Office Library.

British controlled territories throughout the Empire were of such size that they demanded an indigenous ruling elite, working in collaboration with a British administration. Yet the collection provides frequent reminders that ultimate power rested with British officials.

Sir Bede Clifford (1890-1964) was imperial secretary to the South African High Commission in 1928 when he became the first white man to cross the Kalahari. He later became Governor of Trinidad during World War II.

During this journey, Bede removed Chief Mathibi of the Batawana tribe from power. It was known that Mathibi was an alcoholic. Clifford commented that his meeting took place before 11am, after which the Chief was said to become ‘incapable of transacting business.’ Despite his willingness to co-operate, he forgot to pass on orders or he was ignored.

Clifford created two further Chief positions to ‘assist him to govern the tribe,’ despite Chief Mathibi’s protestations. Ultimate power thus lay with the British, despite Mathibi’s own authority.

From Clifford’s account, his interaction with Chief Mathibi was amicable, albeit unequal. Clifford enquired as to the wellbeing of the tribe and promised sending means to address the tsetse fly issue. The meeting was heavily influenced by unmentioned power relations but comes across as friendly and positive. However, Erik Linstrum’s work on psychology in Empire has suggested that British agents could provoke torment for indigenous chiefs in their dreams, in spite of outwardly friendly relations.

The photograph reproduced here and taken by one of Bede’s party highlights the strange exoticism of the Chief. For instance, the image demonstrates how the Chief had mimicked Western fashions, adding respectability (perhaps in vain) to his status.

Link to King's College London catalogue record:

Sir Bede Clifford. Report on a journey by motor transport from Mahalapye through the Kalahari desert. [Pretoria: Government Printing and Stationery Office], 1928

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