Insight: Book extract

The story of Ruth Williams & Seretse Khama is one of passion and prejudice

She was a middle-class Londoner who loved ballroom and ice skating. He was chief-designate of the most powerful tribe in Bechuanaland. The love affair between Ruth Williams and Seretse Khama sparked outrage and powerful forces used the reaction to force them into exile. In this excerpt from Your People Will Be My People, Sue Grant-Marshall tells how, against all odds, the couple met

02 December 2018 - 00:00 By SUE GRANT-MARSHALL

There have been many extraordinary stories of how Ruth met Seretse. Some have claimed it was at a sleazy dance hall where black men went to pick up white girls; others had Ruth working as some sort of ministering angel to seamen in British ports, although how a Londoner was supposed to meet an African chief studying law in a Liverpool or Bristol seaman's club is hard to imagine.
It is also incorrect. Ruth met Seretse through the church, a missionary society, the London Missionary Society to be exact.
Ruth had been demobbed about halfway through 1946 into a world that struggled to start anew. Refugees, displaced people and demobilised soldiers were trying to return to what had once been a home and was now often a pile of debris from which remnants of families had fled. Worldwide, more than sixty million people had died, and many more had been maimed, both physically and mentally. About 70,000 British civilians lost their lives. England had a massive deficit and rationing continued.
But life returned slowly to normal as museums reopened, concerts and especially the cinema became popular again. Britons and Europeans began to catch up on the entertainment they had missed, and they flocked to see Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart in To Have and Have Not, based on the novel by Hemingway. Charlie Chaplin's parody of Hitler, The Great Dictator, was a great success, and audiences were thrilled to see plays such as Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey into Night. They read Ernest Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls and listened to Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue. Musicals were a powerful attraction, particularly Oklahoma.
In 1946 a Labour government under Clement Attlee was in power, busy paving the way over the next few years for introducing the welfare state, the National Health Service, and the nationalisation of the railways and of the coke, gas and electricity industries. The Conservatives had gone into the election of July 1945 full of confidence, for led by Churchill they held 432 seats out of 615 in the House of Commons. In one of the most surprising upsets in modern political history, the Conservatives were lamentably defeated at the polls. It was the first time that Britain had elected a Labour government outright, and many people were stunned.
One of those shattered at the Conservative defeat was George Williams, for he was a staunch Tory, although he was never involved in party work. The Labour win upset his belief in the might of Britain and the British Empire. And the riots in India as that continent agitated for its independence must have shaken the stern traditionalist to the core.
Muriel, Ruth's sister, who was a committed socialist and who worked as the youth secretary for the local missionary society, was interested in, and could understand, the stirrings of revolt by the colonies against their masters. She had always argued politics and religion with her father, but as he grew older and more set in his ways and beliefs, she spoke with newfound knowledge. Their exchanges grew more heated, and Dorothy Williams came to dread them.
Ruth had never been particularly interested in politics, apart from being a Conservative because her father was one. She was far more interested in her ballroom dancing, ice skating and horse riding. At twenty-three years of age, she was a most attractive young woman. She wore her copper hair brushed off her face with a parting on the left, and it tumbled in curls on to her shoulders.
Muriel, meanwhile, was working in a predominantly male world, that of auditing, and she found life at Deloittes, the chartered accountants, stimulating.
Her Congregational church had always asked missionaries to address it during its missionary weekend, but the one Muriel attended departed from tradition. Two young men from Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia), Brian Nkonde and Sfile Thileshe, who were studying law, history, economics and social work, spoke instead.
Muriel was fascinated by their descriptions of life in Africa and learnt during the discussion groups that the two had come over on a ship from South Africa with other students, and that they were living in a hostel, Nutford House. It was situated near Marble Arch and sponsored by the Colonial Office. Students from all over the world, Africa, India and the West Indies, stayed there, and swapped stories about their peoples, customs, history, problems and political aspirations.
Muriel also discovered that some of the students were living in her home suburb of Lewisham. She invited them to her church, which raised some congregants' eyebrows for they weren't sure about socialising with black people.
Muriel had no doubts on that score, and it wasn't long before she was being invited regularly to dinner at Nutford House, where her friendly and approachable manner was much appreciated.
Seretse arrived at the hostel about midway through 1947. He had been lonely in England, for when he first went to Oxford, away from the warmth and love of his extended family circle and from people who knew all about his illustrious background, he felt isolated.
Muriel met Seretse on one of her visits to Nutford House, and she was struck immediately by his lively intelligence, his tremendous sense of humour and his presence, for although he never told people he was soon to be chief, and in fact disliked it intensely when mention was made of this in conversation, he nonetheless had the bearing and dignity of a chief.
At twenty-six years of age, Seretse was striking, with his broad shoulders and strong rugby thighs, his humorous, sloe-shaped eyes and his broad smile.
Muriel asked Seretse and his friends to tea one afternoon, for Ruth could bake marvellous cakes, but he stayed behind in London, saying it was too hot to move in the trying English heatwave. And so it happened that his friends met Ruth before he did, and returned with glowing accounts of her, pointing out how much the two of them had in common, and when they next met Ruth, they expounded on Seretse's finer points. It was a few months after Muriel had met him that she was invited to a dinner dance at Nutford House, and she asked Ruth to accompany her.
By then Seretse had heard about Ruth's many admirers, and she had been told of his popularity. His friends kept saying, "You must meet Ruth, you have so much in common." Ruth said later, "When you are continually told you really should meet so and so, your immediate inclination is not to do so."
The first meeting with Seretse was inauspicious. Both had heard too much of the attributes of the other, and being of such independent natures, this had given rise to a certain antagonism and tension. Ruth puts it more strongly, "He was the rudest man I had met, not bothering to rise when I entered the room, something I was not accustomed to." This was totally uncharacteristic of the extremely polite and courteous Seretse, but she did not know that, and he found her dance card filled, and no opportunity to talk to her after their initial greeting. They thought each other most conceited. "I was not charmed. I didn't know what it was that we were supposed to have in common," said an indignant Ruth later.
Nonetheless, she thoroughly enjoyed the evening, finding the other students great fun to meet. She was naturally vivacious, witty and amusing, and she loved a party.
After that initial meeting, the couple met each other again, at social functions at Nutford House, on outings to the theatre, to jazz clubs, for they both loved jazz, and to restaurants. These were group outings, and then one evening Seretse invited Muriel and Ruth to accompany him to the London Palladium to see his favourite group, The Inkspots. Three or four months after their first meeting, Seretse took Ruth out to dinner alone, and a mutual attraction became apparent. "I liked him at that stage, I wouldn't have gone out with him otherwise," said Ruth. She wasn't quite so appreciative of his culinary tastes, for he was partial to curry, and had discovered a little restaurant off Shaftesbury Avenue famous for it. Ruth, too polite to say anything then, picked her way through the dishes, eating little. Sometimes Charles Njonjo, who became a lifelong friend of Seretse's and who was later also to marry a white woman and to become Kenya's attorney-general, accompanied them to dinner or the theatre.
At that stage, Ruth had no idea what a chief was, she was bewildered when his friends jokingly addressed him as one. But she wouldn't admit this to Seretse, and his friends later explained his background to her.
Seretse, in the first few months of meeting Ruth, gradually conveyed to her a picture of his harsh, but fascinating country. The contrast between the rainy, fog-ridden, densely populated British Isles, and the dry, sparsely populated Bechuanaland Protectorate could not have been greater, and it intrigued Ruth. Her interest could not be shared by her father, for neither she nor Muriel dared tell him that she was seeing a black man. Mr Williams, whose views on mixed marriages and people with dark skins were commonplace in the 1920s - in fact the reverse was regarded as eccentric - had not changed his outlook in the 1940s.
He was horrified when Muriel joined the missionary wing of the local Congregational church, for in Ruth's words, "He was one hundred percent anti the London Missionary Society."
And in Muriel's, "He was, I regret to say, a racist." It was a great surprise to both of them that he had kept his strong views to himself, until Muriel began to talk about missionaries and the students she was meeting. The upshot of that was Mr Williams's stern warning that social mixing with the students was not allowed, although he could not very well stop Muriel's work with them.
"You can belong to the London Missionary Society," he said to her, "but don't ask me for a penny for them." Mrs Williams, on the other hand, with her tolerant attitude, became the confidante of both girls, and she was soon told about Seretse, a secret the three kept from George.
In retrospect, they both felt that maybe they should have brazened it out and told their father, but in the early days Ruth and Seretse's relationship was a casual one. True, Seretse did drop the odd remark that an outsider might have construed as being serious, for example, at their second meeting he jokingly introduced Ruth to a friend as his future wife.
Ruth and Seretse realised the depth of their feelings for each other when Seretse, on returning from a holiday, found that Ruth had been seeing other men. He was unhappy about this and told her so. She had never made a secret of her admirers, and for a while they stopped meeting. It is possible that this would have been the end of their friendship, if they hadn't bumped into each other again on the street one day and realised as their eyes met how deeply they did care for each other. Thereafter the relationship became serious, and about fourteen months after their first meeting, Seretse, who beneath the jocular exterior was deep thinking and sensitive, told Ruth that he would like to marry her.
The match between Ruth and Seretse seemed a most unlikely one. He was an African chief. It is true that he was sophisticated, Westernised, far more highly educated than the average Briton, but nonetheless, he was a man destined to rule a tribe living in the heart of Africa. He proposed to take a sophisticated, highly independent woman, who loved skating, dancing and the theatre, and integrate her into his tribe. How would the Bamangwato, who had in the past beaten a white man who made advances to a black woman, accept Ruth? What would they feel about having a white woman as a chieftainess?
The proposal, made in Seretse's deceptively casual manner during a meal at Nutford House, made Ruth's heart pound with its implications. She would have to give up her parents, her way of life, her friends and her country to live with the man she loved, for he made it quite clear to her that he did not intend returning to England. She had already by that stage given up a great deal in order to see Seretse regularly, for as their relationship grew in intensity, so her ballroom dancing, then her horse riding and finally her skating were thrown over for him.
She knew to a certain extent what lay in store for her in this unusual union.
She didn't answer him immediately, and he did not expect her to, knowing how seriously she would have to consider her reply. She went home to steak and kidney pie, for it was a Saturday (on Sunday there was the roast, on Monday bubble and squeak, rice pudding and custard), and she looked around her cosy home and wondered what on earth to do. She felt so overwhelmed by it all that she put the whole matter out of her mind, shelving it for a while.
Muriel warned her that she should realise what an extremely difficult time she was in for, and as Ruth couldn't tell anyone else besides a close girlfriend, it must have been a fairly lonely decision.
They set the wedding date for 2nd October 1948. Fifteen months after they had met, and three weeks before their wedding, Ruth told her parents about it. Her father's reaction was much worse than she had anticipated.
Muriel and Mrs Williams waited nervously in the kitchen while Ruth and her father sat in the lounge. If they had expected a violent scene with shouting, none was forthcoming. In a sense it was worse, for Mr Williams, who was absolutely shattered by the news of which he did not have the faintest inkling, responded with a cold, icy anger.
His deeply ingrained prejudice, so well hidden over the years, was spelt out painfully clear for Ruth. He was so opposed to mixed marriages, he said, that he would not talk to her again until she changed her mind.
"You can stay at home until you get married. After that you may not enter this home again as long as you are married to that man," he ordered. He did not throw her out immediately, no doubt hoping that his shock, silence and terrible anger would induce her to change her mind before the marriage took place. Ruth, whose face was as white as her father's, realised that the painful encounter was over. She tried to persuade her father once more to meet Seretse, but he sat, face in hand, staring blankly down at the carpet, and shook his head...

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