Zambia: Early British colonialism (1899-1945)

Updated January 2006

The accounts of David Livingstone's travels in the interior of Southern Africa (until his death in 1873) stimulated renewed interest in the area that was eventually to become Zambia. First he was followed by other missionaries, then by adventurers and traders bent on quick wealth or long-term commercial exploitation. Portuguese ambitions to link Angola in the west to Mozambique in the east overland stimulated preemptive land grabbing activities by Cecil John Rhodes' British South African Company (BSAC). The BSAC followed up its occupation of what is now Zimbabwe with missions to Zambia to lock the indigenous people into treaties giving the BSAC mineral exploitation and trading rights, followed by agreements effectively placing them under the BSAC's suzerainty. Treaties such as these, extracted by fraud, deceit and force, were signed with the Lozi in the southwest in 1890 and 1900, as well as the Tabwa, Lungu and the Mambe. By 1899 BSAC control over the Bemba and the Ngoni in the west had been established (Holmes 2004, Columbia Encyclopedia 2005, Spitulnik & Kashoki 1996, Swanson undated, Lambert, T Undated).

Apart from furthering Rhodes' ambitions to extend British imperial sway from the Cape to Egypt, the purpose of the occupation was to extract raw materials to feed the manufacturing industries of Britain, while developing new markets for British manufactures. In particular the focus was on mineral prospecting and on land alienation for commercial farming by settlers. Initially the territory was used as a source of cheap labour for the mines and nascent industries of the southern colonies, South Africa and Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) (Andreasson 2001, Mtembu-Salter 2002). Such social services as were made available to the population were provided by the missionaries who were encouraged to settle and open schools and hospitals. They pioneered linguistic studies, published grammars and translated religious material for indigenous usage by converts and so encouraged the development of literacy in the vernacular (Manchisi 2004).

To facilitate the quest for labour, farmland and minerals a railway was begun in Livingston which reached Ndola in 1909; it was along this access that the major land seizures took place for white settlement and "surplus populations" were moved to reserves. Expectations of attracting large numbers of white settlers did not materialize and only about 1 500 arrived, swelling to a meagre 3 000 in 1914. In 1911 the Western (Barotseland) and Eastern parts of the territory were joined together to form the protectorate of Northern Rhodesia with its capital at Livingston, though Barotseland was permitted a high degree of autonomy (Columbia Encyclopedia 2005, Holmes 2004, Hansungule et al 1998, Lambert Undated).

To raise revenue and to push Africans out of subsistence farming and into wage labour activities, a Hut Tax was imposed which was payable only in cash; the revolts that followed were ruthlessly suppressed and defaulters faced destruction of property and imprisonment. Soon the railways were shipping men to the mines of the south to earn the wherewithal to pay the taxes. This labour coercion turned to outright conscription during the First World War as 20 000 (Lambert, Undated says 50 000-100 000) men were forced to act as porters for British soldiers fighting in East Africa and a great deal of grain and many cattle was impounded for the war effort. The death rate was sufficiently high to strip entire areas of male labour and the land was earmarked for white settlement (Holmes 2004).

The ruthless government of Northern Rhodesia by the BSAC came to an end in 1924, when the administration of the territory was taken over by the Colonial Office. The ideology of the colonial administration was paternalistic, stressing the civilizing activities of administrators, missionaries and settlers in meeting the needs of the Africans of the territory. The practice, on the other hand, was frankly racist and exploitative. The territory was not developed to become an integrated, balanced economy serving the needs of the population, but rather to serve the interests of the British economy as a supplier of raw materials and labour and as a site of profit extraction. The best land was reserved for whites and no efforts were made to develop indigenous agriculture or manufacturing, or to share the profits of mining with the colonized.

Valued only as units of cheap labour, the local population was the object of control through measures such as pass laws and through residential segregation. Between the privileged elite and the hewers of wood and drawers of water lay a small intermediate class of South Asian traders and craftsmen and those of mixed race parentage (Holmes 2004, Hansungule et al 1998, Lambert Undated). In 1925 a Legislative Council was established to represent the interest of white settlers and the franchise was so qualified as to exclude Africans (Lambert Undated)

Though mining of copper and lead had begun early in the century the situation was transformed by the discovery of extensive copper and cobalt deposits in the central northern areas which drew some 4 000 skilled settlers (mainly from South Africa) and 20 000 indigenous unskilled labourers into its extraction. As in South Africa, both wage and job discrimination on the basis of race was practiced. Whites doing the same jobs as blacks earned more, while the more lucrative skilled work was reserved for whites. Blacks were prohibited from forming trade unions to level the bargaining playing field through collective action. Little of the non-wage income that was generated remained in the economy; mining tax rates were very low (13-14%) and profits were not reinvested in new enterprises but expatriated as royalties to the BSAC which owned the mineral rights and as dividends to shareholders outside the country (Columbia Encyclopedia 2005, Andreasson 2001, Holmes 2004, Lambert Undated).

Nevertheless the mining activity did stimulate commercial farming to supply food to the labour of the emerging urban centres; According to Lambert (Undated), "By 1936 it was estimated that 60% of able bodied men in Zambia were working away from home". Auxiliary industries to supply goods and services to the mining operations flourished (Hansungule et al 1998). The growing economic importance of the Copperbelt to the economy was reflected in the moving of the capital in 1935 from Livingston on the southern border to the more central and accessible Lusaka. Settled populations in the towns grew rapidly as the industries around mining expanded and tribal affiliations were overlaid with the solidarity created by the development of a common urban life style and the shared experiences of economic exploitation, social discrimination and political marginalization. This solidarity expressed itself in the formation of mutual support ("welfare") societies, under the leadership of Africans who had been educated at mission school, which became the training grounds for future nationalist movements and trade unions (Holmes 2004).

In the 1930's the Colonial Government introduced the system of indirect rule through traditional rulers that the British used elsewhere in Africa. This meant, as a rule, that traditional rulers became state officials with their authority and exercise of power underpinned by the colonial government. As functionaries of the state the traditional rulers were subject to pressure to implement British policies and enforce unpopular colonial measures, while the British meddled continually in matters of office and succession, removing and replacing incompliant rulers with more obedient ones. This had the effect of driving a wedge between rulers and ruled and undermining the legitimacy of the former (Lambert Undated).

While the wealthy white firms paid little in the way of taxes the low earning Africans were heavily taxed. On the other hand colonial government expenditure was focused on providing infrastructure for white commercial enterprises and facilities for white settlers while little was spent on the needs of the indigenous people. According to Andreasson (2001, 190) in the mid-1930s there was not one secondary school, "as the territory, according to colonial authorities, was too poor to afford one". In 1935 popular dissatisfaction with the inequities of the tax regime erupted in a widespread miners' strike and rioting that was suppressed by military action; some six people were killed and 22 injured. The suppression of the 1940 strike for higher wages left 13 dead. Though no wage increases were forth coming some improvements to living conditions were made. This pre-war labour unrest prepared the way for more successful labour actions after the war and stimulated the development of a trans-tribal African nationalism (Holmes 2004, Columbia Encyclopedia 2005a, Lambert Undated).

Recognising the need for better communication with the indigenous population in the wake of the events of 1935, efforts were made to introduce African voices into urban government. Advisory councils were formed in towns and, in 1943, African councils on a provincial were formed. These councils were comprised primarily of traditional rulers, but included some elected members (Lambert Undated).


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