The Empire

ith considerable help from both Coillard and Dupont, the British imperialist Cecil John Rhodes’ British South African Company (BSAC) had been able to take over the whole of Zambia by the end of the 19th century: that Frenchmen should have served the British Empire so well is one of the quirks of history! In 1911 the territory was named Northern Rhodesia, its capital the Town of Livingstone, overlooking the Victoria Falls. (In 1935 the seat of government was moved to Lusaka).

Rhodes ambition was to make Africa British from Cape to Cairo (hence the name of Lusaka’s main street, Cairo Rd). Even in Zambia did not contain much mineral wealth – an important consideration for BSAC shareholders – the territory had to be occupied of only to prevent the Portuguese from winning their age-old claim to the area. It was now that the country’s borders came to be drawn, by agreement with other colonial powers.

The BSAC’s treaties of submission with Zambia rulers were often obtained by fraud and deceit and rulers who refused to capitulate willingly, like Mpezeni of the Ngoni or Mwata Kazembe were dealt with by force. The BSAC was not a benevolent Society. It was a business that had to make a profit and its rule was stamped with that motive, though it may be said that by putting an end to the tyrannical rule of cruel kings, to the slave trade, and to Ngoni raiding wars, it initially improved the lot of many people.

Any BSAC hopes for substantial revenue from mining were soon dashed and to obtain income it imposed the Hut Tax (payable in cash) on all African males who had reached puberty. Tax revolts were surpressed with bullets, defaulters has their houses burned down and were imprisoned if caught. Forced labour at a pittance by men trying to forestall these penalties became the order of the day – tens of thousands were sent to work in the South African or Southern Rhodesian mines: the railway between the Victoria Falls and Katanga (Zaire) was financed from the Hut Tax – which consistently turned a profit.

Some 20 000 Zambia forcibly recruited as porters for the British forces in East Africa during the First World War perished of disease or debilitation.

Parts of Zambia were virtually depopulated of able-bodies men, large tracts of land (including the fine area where Livingstone would have established his colony) were handed over to White settlers. Africans enjoyed little or no say in their destiny, but the basic education provided for them by missionaries was not long in producing a cadre of politically conscious individuals.

By 1923, Company rule had become an objectionable anachronism for the British government, and in that year, the Colonial Office took over the territory, proclaiming it a Protectorate where African interests would be paramount.

As far as Africans were concerned, Colonial Office rule may have been more benign, in a paternalistic way, than the Company’s, but it was a form of apartheid under which they were subject to racial discrimination including pass laws and restrictions on the occupation of land, their political aspirations expected to be fulfilled through a revamped tribal system. Whites meanwhile were a privileged elite with a protected economic position and the beginnings of representative government. Persons of mixed blood, and immigrants, mainly traders, from what are today India and Pakistan held an ambivalent place under this regime.