By Sibeta Mundia, Barotseland Post.
It is not uncommon to hear this question asked with many, devoid of knowledge about Barotse history, wrongly alleging the practice is an overtone of “colonialism” and ‘un-African’ or that it can’t possibly be a part of the Lozi culture, or even some lately mocking that perhaps the Litunga is a “Michael Jackson wannabe”.
Not very long ago, then Zambian head of state Mr Michael Sata was publicly quoted mocking the Litunga’s attire as a “fake” British colonial uniform – amazingly as he made these remarks he himself was clad in a western style ‘colonial’ suit and tie!
Every Litunga, King of Barotseland, since the turn of the 20th Century has adorned what looks like a British admiral or military uniform, especially when at ceremonial functions such as the Kuomboka water pageantry, often sparking the question why!
To provide some answers to this question, let us first clear some misconceptions.
Firstly, it is not a “fake” but an original admiral’s uniform, although not in today’s British military fatigue. However, to this day, every successive Litunga gets his own uniform tailor-made from the United Kingdom, and I will explain why it is from the United Kingdom later in the article.
So no, it is not one century-old uniform fitting all Litungas.
It could also not be an imitation or an inspiration from Michael Jackson because this tradition is more than a century old, much older than Michael Jackson or his parents.
Secondly, this was and is indeed Royal regalia reserved for the Royals and not a mere British ‘security guard’s uniform’ as has often been alleged by some mockers in Zambia. The picture above does, in fact, show that even King Edward VII of the United Kingdom wore the same or similar uniform as the one successive Kings of Barotseland wear at ceremonial occasions such as the Kuomboka.
Thirdly and most importantly, this is now without any doubt, a part of the Lozi culture as it is over a century old. It is as much a part of Barotse culture as is the Musisi and Siziba, inspired by the Scottish ‘quilt’, or indeed the European suit and tie.
It is important to note that all earthly cultures are a mixture of other cultures. Even languages, such as English, are a mixture of German, French and many other languages the English interacted with at some point in history. Zambia, as another example, uses English as the national language. Therefore, it is now a part of the Zambian culture because language, like clothing and food, is one of the main components of any culture.
Similarly, the Litunga’s ceremonial uniform is now a part of Barotse culture!
One could not call English as French simply because some English words are borrowed from French in their exact way. The fact that the King of Barotseland wears a British inspired uniform should merely point to the fact that the Barotse people did interact with the British in a way that impacted them greatly.
Fourthly, this practice is not and has never been an overtone of “colonialism” because those familiar with the history of the Barotse will agree that Barotseland was never actually conquered or colonized, in the strict sense, but voluntarily acquired a “protectorate” status of the United Kingdom by mutual negotiation and through “Treaties”, meaning the two agreed and signed to further each other’s interests as partners or mutual friends.
HOW DID THE ADMIRAL’S UNIFORM COME ABOUT?
The first Litunga to have worn the Admiral’s uniform is King Lubosi Lewanika I, whose 1848 – 1916 rule was interrupted by a coup d’état in 1884, which he reclaimed in 1885. He is the King who first set up the Barotse Native Police in 1893.
In his reign, he was accorded the honour of attending the coronation Ceremonies of King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra at Westminster Abbey in London in 1902.
In fact, according to the New York Times Newspaper edition of May 25th 1902, while quoting the Associated Press Feature of MAY 25, 1902, King Lewanika I was the only Royal Guest at the coronation of King Edward VII.
“LONDON, May 24. — Lewanika, King of Barotseland, (or Northwestern Rhodesia,) the only King who will be present at the coronation of King Edward, arrived from his vast territory in South Africa today… His appearance is one of many signs of the approaching completion of the coronation arrangements.” New York Times, May 25, 1902.
Lewanika I, King of Barotseland, was also decorated with the medals of King Edward VII in 1902, and King George V in 1911.
The ‘Admiral Uniform’ may have been given to him as an honour and recognition of his Royalty or Kingly status as Lewanika I was certainly acknowledged worldwide even by the major foreign press at the time in the United Kingdom as well as the USA as having been a “Great African King” – a subject for another time.
Some scornful people in Zambia have alleged that the King of England gave the uniform to Lewanika for lack of proper clothing, assuming further that Lewanika must have looked primitive and uncivilized, prompting Edward VII to give him the Admiral’s Uniform!
To the contrary, by 1899 King Lewanika I of Barotseland already had plenty European style suits, several of which he wore on this famous trip to Europe in 1902, as can be seen in the picture taken at Salisbury, now Harare, on his way to England for the King Edward VII coronation.
Even while he was the distinguished royal guest of Edward VII, Lewanika is reported to have charmed his hosts with pleasant humour and ‘refined’ mannerisms! According to Sir Harry Johnston, G.C.M.G, K.C.B, at one time H.M Commissioner &c., for Northern Zambezia, King Lewanika I was a very smart gentleman and an immaculately dressed King who freely mingled with British Royalty as contemporaries, as he had already embraced European civilization, having befriended European missionaries like François Coillard way before he attended the King Edward VII Coronation.
(François Coillard had arrived in Lealui, the Capital of Barotseland, on 17 July 1834 and ministered there until 27 May 1904.)
However, Lewanika’s son after him, King Yeta III (CBE), who ruled from 1916 to 1945, had the Admiral Uniform not only because he was the King of Barotseland but also because he “earned” it through his military service on the side of the British in the world wars (before he ascended to the throne in 1916). He was officially bestowed with the title of the Commander of the British Empire (CBE), c. on 1st January 1946. He also was accorded the honour of attending the Coronation Ceremony of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth at Westminster Abbey in London in 1937.
From then on, every Litunga to this day has adorned the Admiral’s Uniform especially made for them. Because of space and time, we can’t show you all the pictures.
WHY WEAR THE CEREMONIAL ADMIRAL’S UNIFORM?
Like stated above, the admiral’s uniform is now part of the Lozi culture, fused in through interaction with other cultures, in this case, the culture of the United Kingdom.
In Barotseland, the Litunga (King) is the Head of State and head of the monarchy, and Commander in Chief of Barotseland’s armed forces! So, it is not strange that he occasionally wears the Admiral uniform just like Heads of state elsewhere in the world will ceremonially wear their military outfits even when they are not military in the practical sense!
Hopefully, the readers will appreciate that every culture is dynamic and that usually, it is a collection of that culture’s interaction with nature, itself and other cultures. A further example is that Zambia has a culture of Nshima (maize meal) as a staple food and yet there is nothing “African” about Maize because as a crop it was introduced on the continent by the Portuguese!
So, to understand the meaning of the Admiral’s Uniform, let us refer to the meaning the people who “Dressed” the Litunga must have attached to the uniform. What does the ceremonial uniform symbolize in Britain when worn by the royals?
WHY DO BRITISH ROYALS WEAR MILITARY UNIFORMS?
To explain this, I would like to borrow from some work done by Julie Bosman on the subject in an article she wrote in April 11, 2002 to the Explainer by Slate Magazine, answering a similar question which became very popular after it was noticed that during the Queen Mother’s funeral all the British Royals were clad in the Admiral or military uniforms.
Prince Charles wore the dress uniform of a Rear admiral, Prince Andrew the uniform of a royal naval commander, and even Princess Anne the trousers of a Rear admiral.
SO WHY DO BRITISH ROYALS WEAR MILITARY UNIFORMS?
According to Julie, frequently, the Royals earn their uniforms the hard way. Both Prince Charles and Prince Andrew, for example, had long careers in the military. Prince Andrew retired from active service in 2001 after serving as an officer in the royal navy for over 20 years, earning the title of Commander in the process – this is like Barotseland’s King Yeta III (CBE) who earned his through the wars he fought on the side of the British as Prince Litia.
Prince Charles served as an Air Vice Marshal in the royal air force and rear admiral in the Navy, retiring in 1976 after seven years of active service.
Other times, royals collect military ranks and uniforms as honorifics. For example, Princess Anne didn’t serve in the military, but she can wear military trousers because she is an honorary rear admiral. In addition to his earned military ranks, Prince Charles is the honorary colonel in chief of 17 regiments of the armed services.
British Custom holds that those royals who don’t hold a military rank wear standard mourning garb at state funerals.
Prince Edward, who served only briefly in the military and who holds no important, earned or honorary rank, wore a long black mourning coat to his grandmother’s funeral.
British Royals have donned military dress at state occasions since the 19th century.
Princess Anne’s military trousers, for example, were a departure from the norm, however. Though the queen mother’s funeral marked the second time Princess Anne had made the feminist gesture, she reportedly was the first royal woman to wear military attire in public since Queen Elizabeth I – in 1588.
For that occasion, in which the queen rallied British troops at Tilbury to battle the Spanish, she wore a suit of armour.
(The foregoing was derived from a posting by Julie Bosman to the Explainer by Slate Magazine, published in April of 2002, and therefore, the actual accolades of the Royals mentioned may have since changed.)
From the foregoing, it is clear that when the British honoured or gave the Litunga of Barotseland the admiral or military uniform, they actually meant it as a royal honour – an acknowledgement of His royalty. As a Royal, they may have considered that Lewanika I should befittingly be given the Royal attire in accordance with their tradition.
This, I believe, is the very reason people like Michael Jackson felt they should also wear similar Uniforms to look like “Royalty” since he crowned himself as the ‘King’ of ‘POP’ Music. Elvis Presley, the ‘King’ of ‘Rock’ music, had similar attire.
So, whether we appreciate it or not, this Lozi culture will and must continue because it speaks of the journeys and interaction of the Barotse people and their past kings.
This history is so rich that it is even taught in curricula of the best of academic institutions such as Cambridge, Oxford, Harvard, etc.
Therefore, Zambians and Barotse people, in particular, must appreciate and value this history, so rich that the world could see the value of teaching their people about it!
Barotse should not feel any pressure, whether through scorn or otherwise, to try and deny their heritage. Like all cultures, they should embrace their uniqueness and teach it to their offspring so that through knowledge we can all become better.
Those who feel the need to mock other people’s cultures must be encouraged to focus on their own cultures and make them better. Sometimes, focusing on speaking badly about others is a sign that one does not feel good about themselves in the first place, and so they seek to boost their own self-esteem by making others feel bad about themselves.
We also appeal to all our traditional authorities to be more revealing and educate us of our centuries-old traditions so that we don’t feel lost or be swallowed up by other cultures, but that we will know how to assert ourselves in the global world, without necessarily being pressured to abandon our cultures for the sake of ‘fitting’ in with what others seek to prescribe for us.
This article was first written and published on Barotsepost (Barotseland Post) on 21 April 2013, by Sibeta Mundia.