Some stories are too good to be true — and some are so fantastical that they can only be based on reality.
Such is the case with the true story of African prince Seretse Khama and English clerk Ruth Williams, the interracial couple whose simple wish to live together as man and wife in Seretse’s native Botswana led to a decades-long bitter fight between his family and the British Empire that ended in that African country’s independence from Britain.
Now, almost 70 years since Seretse and Ruth first met in the summer of 1947, their epic triumph over prejudice and injustice is finally getting the cinematic treatment it deserves in A United Kingdom.
But their story is so much more than a tale of forbidden love.
Seretse Khama — played by David Oyelowo — was an African prince studying in London who was set to inherit the throne of the Bechuanaland Protectorate from his uncle after his father, King Sekgoma Khama II, died when Seretse was just 3 years old. Ruth Williams — played by Rosamund Pike — was an English clerk working in London at an insurance market after spending time risking her life as an ambulance driver rescuing pilots in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force during World War II.
Their paths crossed at a dance in the British capital in June of 1947 when Ruth’s sister Muriel introduced them. According to book the movie is based on, Colour Bar: The Triumph of Seretse and His People, it wasn’t exactly love at first sight for Ruth, but Seretse was smitten. The two shared a love of jazz and a deep connection that saw them spend the next few months meeting at dances and talking all night before Seretse had the courage to ask her to attend an upcoming show with him as a date — and before he later asked her to marry him.
But although it was a relationship that would alter the course of history, the author of Colour Bar, Susan Williams, tells PEOPLE there were early omens of the struggle that lay ahead.
“There were real difficulties for Ruth right at the beginning because even though she hadn’t yet announced that she wanted to marry Seretse, her father made it very clear that he didn’t approve of her going out with a black man,” says Williams.
Marriage and Return
Once the couple set the date for the wedding and Seretse informed his uncle, Tshekedi Khama immediately tried to block the marriage and arranged for Seretse to return home instead. It was Botswanan custom for the chief to marry a woman of the tribe’s choosing, and Ruth, a white woman with no royal standing, did not fit the bill.
But the young couple continued with their plan even after the Bishop of London refused to give his blessing, and they opted instead for a civil ceremony in September 1948. The couple settled down in a small flat in London before Seretse had to face his people and convince them to accept his wife.
This sparked a series of kgotlas, or public meetings, where the tribe voices their opinion, and it established a bitter battle between Tshekedi and Seretse. After early meetings in the winter of 1948 ended unfavorably for Seretse and Ruth, the young barrister was able to convince his tribe to accept his marriage in June 1949. The triumphant couple reunited in Botswana when Ruth moved there two months later.
For more on Seretse Khama and Ruth Williams and the film A United Kingdom, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands now.
Exile and Independence
It was a short-lived victory, however, as the British government immediately felt pressure to forbid the marriage from South Africa — Botswana’s southern neighbor.
The British colony was in the early stages of implementing apartheid, a series of laws that instituted racial segregation, and Ruth and Seretse’s marriage was a direct threat to the new order. The British government, in financial straits from the aftermath of World War II and dependent on South Africa’s gold and uranium, couldn’t risk upsetting the southern nation and issued an inquiry into Seretse’s fitness to govern to delay his accession.
Once the inquiry was concluded in early 1950, and Ruth was pregnant with the couple’s first child, Seretse was tricked into traveling to London to discuss his future. Instead, the British government informed him that he was exiled from his land for five years due to the findings of the report, even though the inquiry had found Seretse fit to rule. Disapproval over his marriage lay at the center of it.
Apart in different continents, though briefly reunited in Botswana for the birth of their daughter Jacqueline, Ruth and Seretse continued to fight for his right to rule and were hopeful when a seemingly supportive Winston Churchill won reelection for prime minister in October 1951.
But the famous war hero didn’t help when his Conservative Party came back into power — he instead handed Seretse a life banishment from his country. “Churchill states explicitly that it’s ‘a very disreputable transaction.’ Understandably, not only Seretse but everyone in Botswana is horrified by his making the exile permanent,” Williams says.
The heartbreaking decision forced Seretse and Ruth to leave their home and settle in England. There, they welcomed their first son, Ian, in 1953.
Six years after his banishment, the Khamas were allowed to return to Botswana in 1956 once Seretse gave up his claim to the title. The former chief tried his hand at cattle farming while the family grew, with Ruth giving birth to twin sons, Anthony and Tshekedi, in 1958.
Seretse and Ruth with their eldest children Jacqueline and Ian in 1956 before their return to Botswana
But Seretse’s attempt at civilian life failed, choosing instead to return to politics by founding the Bechnualand Democratic Party in 1961. Seretse was elected Bechuanaland’s first prime minister in 1965 before bringing independence to the country and renaming it Botswana in 1966. He became the independent nation’s first democratically elected president that same year and was a successful and beloved ruler, transforming Botswana from one of the poorest countries in the world into a middle-income nation through the help of diamonds and rich minerals found in the land.
But while Seretse continued to win consecutive elections in the decade to come, his health deteriorated and he was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer in 1980. He died in July of that year at age 59 and was buried in the royal cemetery in Botswana. Twenty-two years later, Ruth once again reunited with her husband when she was buried alongside him after her death in 2002 at the age of 78.
In 2009, 43 years after his father brought independence to Botswana, their eldest son, Ian, was elected president in a landslide victory.
President Ian Khama visiting Oyelowo on location in Botswana
For David Oyelowo, playing the legendary Seretse was a privilege.
“I think that both of them are an incredible example of how love can overcome governmental and racial agendas,” he tells PEOPLE in this week’s issue. “They won in the face of very real opposition and very real desire to keep them apart because they were from different backgrounds.”
A United Kingdom is in theaters now.