Three Generations of Khamas and Netteltons in Botswana
Written by Beverley Eikli [nee Nettelton] in discussion with her father Spencer [Ted] Nettelton
My sister and I are the fourth generation of Netteltons to have spent time living in the Okavango Delta (and the third generation to have fallen in love there).
In 1899, my great-grandfather Clement Nettelton left his home in Basutoland (now Lesotho) and arrived in Botswana (then the Bechuanaland Protectorate), at the behest of Chief Khama III.
Chief Khama had requested Bechuanaland’s Colonial Administration to appoint, as head of the embryonic Bechuanaland Police Force, someone fluent in Sesotho. Sesotho, the language of the Basotho, is similar to Sechuana, the main language spoken in Bechuanaland and there was a preference for appointing Basotho police due to their lack of family connections in Bechuanaland. An outsider was also preferred for the role of Head of the Police force and my grandfather Clement, who was fluent in Sesotho and the head telegraphist in Maseru—an important means of communication between Southern Africa and London—was chosen.
The Boer War was in progress so travel was difficult. Clement took up his post as head of the Bechuanaland Police Force in Gaberone, at that time a small village on the railway line. My great-grandmother, Rose, (my dad’s grandmother) followed a few months later. With four children aged under ten, the three-day train journey was arduous and dangerous. There was no dining car and several bridges had recently been blown up by Boer commandos.
As Rose and Clement’s house was not yet ready, my great-grandparents took up residence with Colonel Ellenberger who later became Bechuanaland Resident Commissioner and whose son, Vivian, married one of their four children, my Great-Aunt Bimbi. I remember her as a very formidable old lady when I met her in London in the 1980s.
Another of their four children was, obviously, my grandfather, Gerald Nettelton, who became a District Officer (and, later, Serowe District Commissioner, then Bechuanaland Resident Commissioner).
As a young man, Grandpa Gerald went on many long and lonely treks of up to three months into the interior, mapping the tsetse fly belt, collecting hut tax and, on one occasion in 1917 while WWI was in progress, hunting suspected German dissidents who were believed to have crossed from North West Africa (now Namibia) into Botswana.
Usually he travelled with a dozen or so carriers and a Scotch Cart, or rode his detested mule since horses were susceptible to being bitten by the tsetse fly and therefore succumbing to sleeping sickness. Gerald travelled by night through tsetse fly country as the flies were not active then, and slept during the day.
He shot for the pot, the game being a welcome supplement to the meat supplies of his carriers and the villagers along his route.
My grandfather kept a pictorial diary between 1916 and 1922 (detailed in Volume V which is due to be published in 2021). It’s a rambunctious account by a very young man pouring out his loneliness and frustration but also his jubilation at his hunting exploits. It’s this diary, which I discovered in my early 20s, that inspired me to make my first trip from my home in Australia to the country where Grandpa spent his life and where my dad was born and brought up in the 1930s and 40s.
And it was in Botswana that I met my husband-to-be in the 1992, a handsome Norwegian bush pilot, while I was managing Mombo Safari Lodge, on the northern tip of Chief’s Island, in the beautiful Okavango.
But back to the Nettelton and Khama families three generations earlier.
My great-grandfather was a great friend of Chief Khama III and in the last three years that Great-Grandpa Nettelton was working for the government at the request of Chief Khama, he was promoted to District Commissioner in Serowe (he was still a police officer at the time), serving in this position until he died.
Dad remembers his grandmother telling him how Chief Khama would arrive in his horse-drawn buggy and lock himself in Great-grampa's study for hours. In those days the London Missionary Society was very strong in Bechuanaland and had strict rules about drinking, as did Chief Khama who didn't drink and who’d abolished Lebola (bride price) and banned alcohol.
On the basis of what his Granny Rose used to say, dad wondered if Chief Khama and grandpa enjoyed a little nip of the brandy bottle when they locked themselves away.
Anyway, the relationship between my great-grandfather, Clement Nettelton, and Chief Khama III, was an amicable one.
The Banishment of Seretse Khama
However, there would be constitutional upheaval when Clement’s son, my grandfather Gerald Nettelton, was one of three men appointed to the Harrigan Inquiry that ultimately recommended the banishment of Chief Khama’s grandson, Seretse Khama.
That’s all documented in my dad’s diaries, The Memoirs of Spencer “Ted” Nettelton.