A United Kingdom enters cinemas today, telling the true story of how the King of Bechaunaland in Africa (aka the chieftain of the Bamangwato tribe) Seretse Khama married British office worker Ruth Williams, with the couple played by David Oyelowo and Rosamund Pike.
As seen in the movie, the marriage caused shockwaves throughout Africa and the UK, with a lot of political pressure on the pair to have their marriage annulled – but as you might expect, not everything in the film is completely accurate…
Rosamund Pike as Ruth and David Oyelowo as Seretse Khama
The film version of Ruth and Seretse’s relationship sees them feel an attraction almost instantly, though apparently in real life that wasn’t the case. After meeting at a Missionary Society Dance in June 1947 they didn’t initially get along, though after bonding over a love of jazz music their relationship got off to a better start.
The film slightly condenses their courtship, but after a year of dating Seretse proposed to Ruth.
The marriage caused ripples amongst the couple’s friends, families and even governments, with Ruth’s father disowning her and Seretse’s Uncle Tshekedi (serving as Regent on the Bechaunaland throne) trying to get the local missionary society to talk his nephew out of it. Undeterred, the couple married anyway in a registry office (as they needed the permission of the British Government to get married in a church).
Not seen in the film is the fact that Ruth was also fired from her job over the engagement, while Tshekedi threatened to fight Seretse to the death if he brought Ruth to his native home of Bechaunaland (now Botswana).
Upon Seretse’s return to Bechaunaland, a series of public meetings (called kgotlas) were called to evaluate his suitably as chieftain. The film compresses these speeches a great deal, but the outcome was the same – Seretse was reaffirmed as King by the village elders.
However, the film then has Seretse’s Uncle Tshekedi Khama act in a somewhat rebellious role, setting up his own village elsewhere in Bechaunaland. In real life, he actually left the country in disgrace after his nephew’s ascension to the throne.
Seretse and Ruth in 1950
Seretse and Ruth’s marriage caused huge political problems for the British Government, who at that point controlled Bechaunaland as a Protectorate. British ally South Africa was at the time instituting apartheid (where black and white citizens were kept completely separate, including a ban on interracial marriage), and so didn’t want an interracial couple ruling across the border. Britain’s Labour Government were struggling after World War Two and rather dependent on South Africa for cheap gold and uranium supplies, so called an enquiry into Khama’s fitness for chieftainship.
The report concluded: “We have no hesitation in finding that, but for his unfortunate marriage, his prospects as Chief are as bright as those of any native in Africa with whom we have come into contact,” but the British Government suppressed it and exiled both Seretse and Ruth from Bechaunaland in 1951. As seen in the film, this was achieved by inviting Khama to London and then denying him the right to return.
As he telegrammed to Ruth at the time: “Tribe and myself tricked by British government. Am banned from whole protectorate. Love. Seretse.”
The film expands on this exile to include a forced separation between the pair, though in real life Ruth followed Seretse within the year and the pair lived together in London from 1951.
Tony Benn in 1970
The film shows various politicians attempt to undo the injustice of Seretse’s exile, with popular late Labour MP Tony Benn (played by Jack Lowden) leading the charge. Interestingly, in real life Benn’s closeness to the family was even greater, resulting in the Khamas naming one of their sons Anthony after him.
However, some of the more nefarious politicians in the film are fictional. Jack Davenport’s civil servant Sir Alastair Canning, who is more or less the villainous face of the British Government in the film, never really existed, and neither did his sidekick, district commissioner Rufus Lancaster (Tom Felton). Colonial Secretary Patrick Gordon Walker was roughly equivalent to Davenport’s character in real life.
Return from Exile
Seretse Khama as President of Botswana in 1977
Seretse and Ruth’s exile caused a bit of a scandal, with Tory leader Winston Churchill (then in opposition) describing it as “a very disreputable transaction” and many people calling for the resignation of Lord Salisbury (the minister actually responsible). The British High Commission ordered the Bechaunaland people to select a new chief, but they refused, while Churchill’s government (once he won the election) changed the terms of Seretse’s banishment from “not less than five years” to “indefinitely”.
However, in 1956 Seretse learned he was being allowed back into Bechaunaland after his people had cabled the queen. “The Bamangwato are sad,” they said.
“Over our land there is a great shadow blotting out the sun. Please put an end to our troubles. Send us our real Chief – the man born our Chief – Seretse”.
Seretse was allowed to return after renouncing the tribal throne, and initially set to work on an unsuccessful cattle ranch venture, before founding the nationalist Bechaunaland Democratic Party in 1961 and becoming the protectorate’s Prime Minister. He then successfully campaigned for independence from Great Britain, which the newly-named Botswana received in 1966. Seretse acted as the first President, and was appointed Knight Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II.
In later life, Khama also played a role in negotiating the end of the Rhodesian civil war and the founding of Zimbabwe. He died in 1980 aged just 59, with Ruth (known as Lady Ruth Khama by that point) passing in 2002.
A United Kingdom is released in UK cinemas now