History Monday: British South Africa Company Part 2

This History Monday will have Part 2 of history of the BSAC.

In 1889 the British government decided that the colony, which would six years later be called Rhodesia, was to be governed by the British South Africa Company. The Company was controlled by Cecil Rhodes until 1902, when he died, and they governed present-day Zambia and Zimbabwe until the establishment of the Colony of Southern Rhodesia (which later became Zimbabwe) in 1923.

The early years of company rule was tumultuous and marked by the Ndebele-Shona rising (or what is also known as the first Chimurenga) 1896-97. While much of the colonial forces were assisting the ill fated Jameson Raid in the Transvaal Republic, the Ndebele people rose up in rebellion against the colonial conquerors in March 1896 and the Shona people in June that same year. It is debated whether this was a coordinated effort or two separate rebellions. What is known is that the rebellion took the white settlers by surprise. Many of the major settlements, such as Bulawayo, were under siege by Ndebele or Shona forces, but a direct attack on fortified settlements were difficult because of the settlers use of machine guns. In late May 1896 the siege of Bulawayo was broken by colonial forces from as far away as Kimberley and Mafikeng in present-day South Africa. Despite the end of the siege the war with the Ndebele continued until July 1896 when they negotiated a separate peace treaty with Cecil Rhodes. The various Shona leaders would continue their fight until they were defeated one after the other, and by 1898 all the leaders of the rebellion had been either captured or exiled.

Rhodesia was set up, not as an indirect rule colony (such as Nigeria or Egypt), but rather as a settler-colony in the style of Australia or Canada. This meant that land seizures, segregated colonial governance and attracting settlers through special white privileges, were central policies. The weakness of the early colonial state, and the long distance between London and Salisbury (present-day Harare), meant that the colonial administration was dependant on alliances with local African leaders to effectively govern the territory and to stifle rebellion. Central Ndebele chiefs were for example given back some of the cattle looted during the 1890s in an effort to get their cooperation. A complex cast system of racial segregation and hierarchy was also created to effectively control the local people, and through the notion of “citizenship” civil rights and urban spaces were reserved for the white population. This allowed the colonial authorities to exclude the African population from direct rule and keep them away from civil power. After the wars of the 1890s Ndebele and Shona people were forced into reserves to dispossess them of their land. Around 1922 64% of all African people were forced to live in one of these reserves.

Settler violence was commonly and arbitrarily meted out against African people and particularly common was the rape of black women by white men. White police officers were most frequently accused of raping black women. In 1903 it was made illegal for a black man to have an extramarital sexual relationship with a white women, but no such law was made for white men. It is therefore clear that the colonial state quietly condoned (if not encouraged) the sexual violence against black women. Land was taken away from Africans and heavy taxes imposed as a way of forcing them into wage labour. As small scale farmers the African people in Rhodesia were self sufficient and had no need for seeking wage labour in the white cities. Yet the settlers needed cheap labour to work in mines, farms and factories around the colony. By taking away land and imposing what is called a “hut-tax” local people were forced to get jobs in the colonial economy. There were also put into place laws which forced Shona and Ndebele people to sign long-term contracts which forced them to stay in labour compounds. The result of these laws were that black people become slave labour in the white economy.

In 1922 the settler population of Southern Rhodesia voted for becoming a colony ruled directly by the British Empire rather than being incorporated into the Union of South Africa. This prompted the creation of the Colony of Southern Rhodesia in August 1923. The colony would be closer tied to the British Empire and would actively participate on the side of Britain in World War II. In 1953, for geopolitical and logistical purposes, the three colonies of Nyasaland, Northern Rhodesia and Southern Rhodesia was amalgamated into one federation. African people and African political representatives in the three colonies rejected the federation, but were completely ignored.

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