Nobbled or Not

Bernard Porter

  • British Documents on the End of Empire Series B Vol. 9: Central Africa: Part I: Closer Association 1945-58 by Philip Murphy
    Stationery Office, 448 pp, £150.00, November 2005, ISBN 0 11 290586 2
  • British Documents on the End of Empire Series B Vol. 9: Central Africa: Part II: Crisis and Dissolution 1959-65 by Philip Murphy
    Stationery Office, 602 pp, £150.00, November 2005, ISBN 0 11 290587 0

The Central African Federation was one of the most bizarre creations of late British imperialism. Formed controversially in 1953 out of the colonies of Northern and Southern Rhodesia and Nyasaland (today Zambia, Zimbabwe and Malawi), it never looked like succeeding, and spluttered to an ignominious death ten years later. Everything about it was wrong. It wasn’t even a federation in the accepted sense. ‘Normally the term implies a voluntary surrender, or merging, of separate powers and authorities by states which are broadly comparable,’ a senior civil servant wrote in 1959. There was nothing at all voluntary about this arrangement, however, and its constituent parts were described as being like oil and water. Southern Rhodesia was a white-settler-dominated colony that had enjoyed effective self-government (for the whites) for thirty years. In London it came (nominally) under the Commonwealth Relations Office, which otherwise looked after places like Australia and Canada. Nyasaland and Northern Rhodesia, on the other hand, were ruled by the more paternalistic Colonial Office. Nyasaland was obviously headed for black majority rule at some point in the future; Northern Rhodesia was supposed to be making for a form of ‘multiracial partnership’. (It all depended on how many whites lived there – that is, whether there were enough to keep the blacks down.) Philip Murphy, the excellent editor of these fascinating volumes of (mainly) official documents, confesses himself at a loss to explain why Nyasaland in particular was ever included, unless it was simply to justify the title of ‘federation’, for which three countries would seem to be the minimum requirement.

Everywhere else in the 1950s the British Empire was on the retreat: the Raj lost, ‘black’ Africa hurrying along the same route, the Commonwealth hardly providing the empire-substitute some old imperialists had hoped for. In Central Africa, however, it was still consolidating, developing, even contemplating growing bigger: one of the most extraordinary items here is a report from 1946, in which Roy Welensky, the larger-than-life leader of the white Rhodesians, is quoted as admitting that it was probably ‘impractical’ for Britain to take over the Congo, Angola and Mozambique ‘at this stage’. During the civil war in the Congo in 1961 several Rhodesian whites clearly had their eye on Katanga as a possible new province. Expansionary British imperialism wasn’t quite dead. Even less dead was the idea that white men were the only people who could rule black people properly. That was the main rationale behind the creation of the Federation. ‘Anachronism’ seems an understatement: ‘It is just not on, in this day and age,’ Noel Watson of the Central Africa Office wrote in 1962, ‘for an “imperial” power arbitrarily to partition an area of Africa, with the purpose of establishing a white-dominated dominion for all time.’ This was the reason the Federation failed, leaving only the most settler-intensive part of it, Southern Rhodesia, to fly the flag of white supremacy for a few years more.

The basic problem was that the Africans in Northern Rhodesia never approved of the Federation, and for one simple reason: their ‘deep-rooted distrust’, as a governor of Nyasaland put it, ‘of Southern Rhodesian native policy’. Dozens of documents in this collection attest to this hostility. Of course it was possible to deny it, and many Central African whites did. Articulate Africans – the ones whose opinions were being heard – were, they argued, ‘unrepresentative’. This applied especially to the nationalists, many of whom had been nobbled by Communists. The nationalists were ‘intimidating’ others, and nationalism was alien to African culture in any case: ‘genuine’ (or ‘tribal’) Africans felt differently. Any governor of a colony, Lord Swinton wrote, ‘probably has a much truer view of the opinion and interest of millions of non-vocal Africans’ than the agitators. One needed to go into the country areas. A native commissioner did just that, with excellent results; having explained the Federation in simple terms in Chipinga, he got this reply from the elders: ‘When we go hunting lion we go in large numbers. We must have large numbers. This is a good scheme.’ Another came back with a positive result from the chief and council of Barotseland; or at least, as he reported, ‘that was the corporate decision, though a majority of the councillors, numerically, were against.’ In his opinion this served to ‘smash the legend of the universal African opposition to federation’. (‘A “corporate decision” … when a majority of councillors were opposed,’ a Colonial Office man minuted, ‘does not cut much Parliamentary ice.’) There is an interesting memorandum here from 1955 by Sir Arthur Benson, the governor of Northern Rhodesia, which claims that most Africans would support Britain’s policy against the nationalists if Britain would only make their chiefs ‘divine’ again. Ian Smith took the same general line in 1965, just before the (Southern) Rhodesian UDI, when he recommended as a true test of African opinion on his regime ‘indabas’ of chiefs rather than a referendum. Hastings Banda, the Nyasaland nationalist leader, responded to this kind of argument by asking what the people of Britain would think if it were claimed that their ‘feelings, desires and aspirations’ were best represented by ‘dukes, earls and barons’. Later Harold Wilson used exactly the same analogy to Smith. Most Colonial Office personnel seem to have taken Banda’s and Wilson’s side. In March 1965 the British high commissioner in Southern Rhodesia attended some of Smith’s ‘indabas’, and found them to be ‘carefully manipulated set pieces’, with the chiefs all ‘carefully schooled’. Almost no one in Whitehall was under any illusion as to the breadth and depth of the African opposition both to the Federation and to Rhodesian independence on Smith’s terms.

Opposition could always be overruled, of course. ‘We must, I suggest, not simply take the line which is likely to be most popular with Africans,’ the influential colonial civil servant Andrew Cohen wrote in 1951. ‘It is also our business to do what we believe is in the genuine interests of Africans.’ It went almost without saying that Africans were incapable of working this out for themselves. The charitable way of putting it was to say they were politically ‘immature’. The 1951 Conservative government would certainly have liked to override the Africans on these grounds. Lord Home, for example, thought it could be done quite safely because ‘the Nyasas were a docile people and respected firmness.’ There was a problem, however: past British governments had repeatedly and unambiguously promised not to impose federation, or Rhodesian independence, on them against their express wishes, nobbled or not. Not only the Africans, but left and centre opinion in Britain and most of the world, would be outraged if these pledges were broken. So there were only two alternatives. One was to try to bring the Africans on board. The other was to scrap the whole idea.

‘Education’ might have done something to reconcile the Africans, though it is remarkable how many officials thought this was a lost cause from the start. Any campaign would be ‘useless’, the governor (no less) of Nyasaland wrote in 1951; ‘the chance of converting Africans,’ a civil servant confirmed, ‘does not any longer exist.’ The problem was the inflexibility of the settlers. Several representatives of the Colonial Office pointed out that if there was to be any hope at all of the scheme succeeding, the Southern Rhodesian whites would have to give a little too. But that was the last thing they intended to do. There are as many despairing reports in these volumes of European as of African intransigence; often attributed to particular groups of settlers, especially Afrikaners and the working classes, the latter reminding one governor of ‘a people used to travelling third class now finding itself travelling first class, and not knowing quite how to behave towards porters’. The aristocracy, however used to dealing with porters, were certainly not unproblematic themselves. The Duke of Montrose – and you couldn’t get much more aristocratic than that – suggested solving the Southern Rhodesian labour shortage by forcing all unemployed blacks into labour camps, ‘which, to please the British, we shall call “hostels”’.[*] ‘Pleasing the British’ was always a problem for such people. ‘Loyal’ as they professed to be to their land of origin, they tended to despise its inhabitants, especially, as one would expect, the bleeding hearts and socialists, who simply didn’t understand ‘their’ Africans. The worst you could say of any Southern Rhodesian politician was that he had been infected by this metropolitan feeling. Edgar Whitehead was supposed to have lost an election in 1958 because of rumours that he was ‘rather “long-haired”’ and had ‘studied at the London School of Economics’, according to a British high commissioner. (He hadn’t.) ‘There is really no measuring the bottomless stupidity’ of many of these people, Iain Macleod, the colonial secretary, wrote to Macmillan in 1960.

The settlers’ greatest antipathy – one under-secretary called it ‘pathological’ – was directed at the Colonial Office, which didn’t understand their Africans either, and was doing appalling things in other parts of the continent, like granting self-government to black countries ‘at a fatally breakneck speed’. Indeed, it was the prospect of the Gold Coast achieving dominion status before them that really riled the whites in Southern Rhodesia, and began the wild talk about ‘a Boston tea party’ that culminated in UDI. Their main fear was that Colonial Office’s concern for the natives of the two northern colonies would lead to the south being ‘swallowed up by the “black north”’. That of course was the mirror-image of the Northern Rhodesian Africans’ fear. A common analogy was with the United States. The Southern Rhodesian whites ‘feel about Africa’, their governor reported in January 1950,

just as the early settlers in America might have felt if the Colonial Office of those days had insisted on North America developing into a Red Indian state, or as the first settlers in Australia, if the policy of the home government had been to set up an aboriginal government there. They would not argue that it was right to have eliminated the Red Indians and the aboriginals, but would urge that their own liberal policy to the native was a great advance on that, and a more correct policy than that of the British Government.

The Colonial Office didn’t give the settlers credit for ‘adding’ Southern Rhodesia ‘to the empire and developing it so quickly and successfully by the sweat of their brows’: something of which every Briton ought to (but clearly didn’t) feel proud. One of the ‘principal features’ of this story, as Murphy tells it, is the ‘fierce suspicion’ not only between races, but between British settlers and British ‘officials’. There was a curious reversal of roles: the white colonists were, in one sense at least, the ‘anti-imperialists’, while the African nationalists were the colonial ‘collaborators’. ‘Africans,’ Banda told the Colonial Office in July 1951, ‘felt that they must remain directly under the imperial government’: until, that is, they had been sufficiently trained to rule themselves, and to resist the whites. (He was particularly keen for Britain to educate more Nyasas; especially girls, whose education should be identical to that of boys, because of the importance of women in Nyasaland’s ‘matrilineal tribes’.) The Colonial Office broadly agreed. That is why the settlers went ahead with their ‘Boston tea party’, at last.

In view of all this, and with hindsight, it’s hard to understand why the Federation wasn’t scrapped much sooner. Not that there weren’t some points in its favour. It’s a simple matter to find economic reasons for almost any union. (The problem is reconciling these with democracy.) One can see why many (not all) of the Rhodesian settlers wanted federation, on their terms. Southern Rhodesia had its greedy eyes on Northern Rhodesian copper. Benson claimed that Godfrey Huggins, its charismatic early prime minister, needed copper revenues to bail his colony out of the bankruptcy he had brought it to. The northern territories were also a useful source of cheap labour. A white-dominated Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland would keep the black nationalists – and Communists – safely away from the south. Several documents here emphasise how blinkered the Central African settlers were; for them, as Lord Alport put it in 1961, ‘the real horizon of politics stretches not much further than the Equator to the north and the Cape of Good Hope to the south.’ The British authorities had less interest in indulging this fantasy, especially in view of the harm it was bound to do to Britain’s reputation outside southern Africa and the fact that their policy in most of the rest of the dependent empire was turning towards independence and genuine majority rule.

Two of the arguments which were often deployed in Britain in defence of the Federation appear, from these documents, to be more flimsy than they seemed at the time. One was that it would prevent Southern Rhodesia being sucked into the Union of South Africa, which was thought to be gunning for it. This was given some credence by immigration into the Rhodesias by Afrikaners, who were suspected of acting as a fifth column. That played two ways, Murphy explains: geopolitically, by threatening Britain’s influence in Central Africa; but also morally, in view of South Africa’s more overtly racist policies. Conservatives presented Afrikaner immigration as a threat to the ‘British way of life’ in Central Africa, though how truly ‘British’ this was is questionable. Most observers saw it as much closer to the South African way of life. With regard to ‘native policy’, for example, one British high commissioner claimed in 1958 that the only difference between the two countries was that ‘whereas in the Union apartheid is the declared policy of the government with the force of law behind it all the way, in Southern Rhodesia it is … much more a matter of custom and habit.’ Settler politicians banked on the anti-apartheid argument striking a chord with Labour in particular. Whitehall, however, was more sceptical. ‘I suspect that Sir Godfrey Huggins is not averse to “making our flesh creep” over this possible danger,’ minuted one under-secretary in 1951. After Verwoerd became prime minister in South Africa, Southern Rhodesia’s absorption was thought to be absolutely out of the question, because of its relatively multiracial franchise: Verwoerd wouldn’t want to swallow that. To give in to the settlers, one official wrote, ‘allegedly’ to safeguard the Africans ‘from the tentacles of an imaginary octopus genus Afrikaner, would be madness’. Banda argued that a better way of keeping South Africa at bay would be to Africanise the British territories.

A second argument, that federation would stem the spread of Communism in Africa, appears similarly disingenuous. Considering how much was made of it publicly, and the Cold War atmosphere of the time, there is surprisingly little about this ‘danger’ in these documents. The Rhodesian leaders were always talking about it, of course (especially Smith), but Whitehall seems not to have taken them seriously. Welensky asked Roger Hollis, the head of MI5, to brief him on it in 1962, and must have felt very let down to hear that in the latter’s opinion Communist ‘influence was still comparatively small’ in Africa, and that ‘the greater part of the activities … which embarrassed the federal authorities sprang from African nationalism and not from Communism.’ A little later the Foreign Office agreed that there was little evidence of either Soviet or Chinese subversion in Africa, and suggested that there was ‘a danger of our crying wolf too often’ about it.

A more genuine reason for Britain’s persistence with the Federation may have been the colour of the government at the time. Central African union was not initially a party issue in Britain – ‘multiracialism’ appealed to a broad swathe of opinion – but the Federation’s whole sad life was completed under Conservative administrations, and it lost the support of Labour early on, when the new Conservative government of 1951 dropped a proposal for a federal ‘minister for African interests’ in deference to settler opposition. One cannot necessarily infer from this that Labour politicians would have acted very differently; but that, of course, is not for them to prove. Julian Amery thought the ‘natural jingoism of the country’ would make the socialists rue their ‘anti-colonialist’ stand eventually, but there must be doubt about this. It was Macleod who pointed out to Macmillan in 1960 that in a recent opinion poll on Banda’s release from detention, ‘overwhelmingly the largest vote was “Don’t know”’ – which indicated, he thought, ‘how little people really know or care about these matters’.

Tory MPs were a different matter. Macmillan reckoned in 1963 that two hundred of his backbenchers were on the side of the white supremacists. So were most of the Conservative ministers who dealt with the matter. There were some notable exceptions, among them Macleod, whose contribution to the government’s change of tack on decolonisation is justly celebrated, although it predictably provoked much anger – and some very ‘dirty tricks’ – from the Central African settlers. When Macleod was removed in October 1961 – Murphy isn’t sure whether the dirty tricks were responsible for this or not – Reginald Maudling disappointed the settlers by turning out to be ‘plus noir que les nègres’, as Macmillan charmingly put it. And latterly there was Macmillan himself. Before and after, however, most of the Tories responsible for Central African policy were pretty ‘backwoods’: Lord Home, Lord Salisbury (‘Bobbety’ to his friends), Lord Swinton and Alan Lennox-Boyd, Macleod’s predecessor. Murphy describes Home as ‘instinctively sympathetic towards the plight of the Rhodesian settlers’, and the same is true of most of the others. There can be no doubting their underlying racism, though it was felt necessary to deny it. The ‘kith and kin’ argument was well rehearsed, sometimes accompanied by reference to the white Rhodesians’ support for Britain in the last war. Banda’s reminder that Africans, too, had ‘twice in less than fifty years … contributed to the defence of the empire with their blood, labour and treasure’ did not seem to resonate so much. Later a great deal was made of the war as a reason British troops might not be willing to be deployed against a white rebellion in Rhodesia; but the hypothesis was never properly examined or tested and there must have been more to it than this.

One factor was simple impotence, or, rather, the sense of it. In Southern Rhodesia, for example, Britain had no effective presence on the ground, bar the ‘governor’, and his dispatches back to London, as Murphy remarks, read like ‘the detached musings’ of a ‘relatively well-informed newspaper correspondent’. Britain technically still had ‘reserve’ powers, designed to safeguard the Africans against even more discriminatory legislation; but Westminster almost never displayed the ‘courage’, as Banda put it, to use them. (This was why Banda didn’t trust any talk of ‘safeguards’ in respect of the Federation.) The main reason for this was that any such interference always had the European settlers flexing their muscles: threatening to pull out of this or that committee, dissolve their legislature, join South Africa, or hold their Boston tea party. ‘Government by blackmail’, Lord Stanley called it. Of course, Britain – or those ministers who were not ‘instinctively sympathetic’ to the settlers – might have responded with force. Morally, that would probably have been the right course. As African leaders point out, the British Empire had never had any compunction about using force against them. Successive governments, considering how to react to a threatened federal or Southern Rhodesian UDI, had looked into the possibility and their conclusions are presented in a number of reports here. It’s difficult to know how objective they were, or how much coloured by the ‘distaste’ that many civil servants and military men admitted to feeling at the prospect of ‘having to take arms against our countrymen in Central Africa because (and I think this is what it comes to) we felt that we had a duty to the Africans’. Even leaving aside the fear of mutiny by like-minded British soldiers, and the ‘difficult psychological problem’ that would attach to the use of African troops, it was also claimed that a Rhodesian campaign would be hard, and not assured of military success. The Rhodesian air force was particularly feared. This got ministers off the hook: even if they had wanted to crush a rebellion, they couldn’t. Harold Wilson was undoubtedly persuaded by these arguments, and renounced the use of force even before UDI. (Murphy suggests that another motive for this may have been to encourage the Africans to make concessions, which they might not have done if they thought they had the backing of the British army.) Sanctions, similarly, were presented as ineffective and double-edged. In other words, the Southern Rhodesians (apparently) had Britain over a barrel.

Britain, however, felt just as vulnerable to African pressure from the northern territories. Publicly this was denied, especially to the African nationalists, to whom Westminster repeatedly spun the tale that rebellion and violence were ineffective, even counter-productive. This was largely, I suspect, in order to cling onto the illusion that Britain was still in control of decolonisation: that it was a choice, the aim of empire, perhaps, all along. But it’s quite obvious from these documents that this wasn’t so. There is a revealing account here of a meeting in March 1962, during which Welensky chided Macmillan with having given in to ‘violence from the African extremists’, and Macmillan more or less admitted it, though he called it something else.

The prime minister said that the whole point of democratic government lay in deciding how fast to proceed in yielding to public opinion. One could not turn the tide. The French had tried this in Algiers and had failed. The British could have held Cyprus if they had been prepared to adopt certain measures but it was unlikely that British troops would have been prepared to carry out the orders necessary to execute these measures. One could not really solve political problems by the simple exercise of power.

This is interesting, because it refers to the moral pressure that was felt to inhibit Britain. British troops didn’t like having to use excessive violence. When they did, and the atrocities were discovered – as with the Hola camp massacre in Nyasaland in 1959 – public opinion at home resiled. The British people, it seemed, didn’t have the stomach for it; nor did they have the commitment to empire that would have seen Britain through crises like this.

There is a deep-seated historical reason for this, and for the mess, therefore, that Britain made of Central Africa in the 1950s and 1960s. The British Empire was always a cheapskate affair. Governments had never wanted to spend money on it, or commit more than the minimum of personnel to it, or trouble the British people with it too much. The best way to manage things was to devolve the ruling of colonial possessions (and the expense) to others: most often settlers, as in the Rhodesias; or local ‘traditional’ rulers (chiefs). This had its advantages, but it also diluted Britain’s power. In Southern Rhodesia this was obvious, but it was no less the case in Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland. Generally the Colonial Office’s position on the Africans in these territories was pretty enlightened (if usually patronising), which is why the white settlers loathed the CO so much. It was prepared to see African political ‘advancement’. The problem, however, was that so little advancement had been achieved. Nyasaland in particular was years behind many other African colonies in this respect, mostly because of the interwar assumption that Britain still had decades left to bring the Africans on, so there was no hurry, but also because of the hope, in some minds, that the settlers might take over eventually, as in Southern Rhodesia, which would mean there was no need. When Geoffrey Colby arrived in Nyasaland as its new governor in 1948 – from West Africa, which he said might have ‘coloured’ his reaction – he found himself ‘very surprised at the backward state of development of Africans in general’, and their political progress in particular. That was why Banda wanted Britain to hang on. In one way this flattered Britain; in another, it exposed decades of neglect. When Northern Rhodesia became self-governing as Zambia in 1964, Britain’s deputy high commissioner said that ‘no British colony had previously been given its independence with such a deficit of locally trained manpower.’

These events should give pause to those who miss the British Empire, or want to see America taking lessons from it: ‘Afghanistan and other troubled lands today cry out for the sort of enlightened foreign administration once provided by self-confident Englishmen in jodhpurs and pith-helmets,’ the columnist Max Boot wrote in 2001. Central Africa shows Britain up rather badly, not as a particularly malevolent colonial power but as a pathetically ineffective, often duplicitous and not very brave one. No wonder so many of the relevant records, as Murphy reports, were ‘closed’ to public access much longer than is usual; some still are, in fact. (The publication of these volumes is not an official undertaking, so Murphy was not given unrestricted access, though he has managed to ferret out some ‘closed’ papers.) In a previous review in the LRB I chaffed Niall Ferguson’s revisionist Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World for leaving out the Kenya Emergency; looking through that book again, I see it omits all these Central African events too.[†] That’s a shame, because they illustrate not only the downside of British imperialism, but also – and much more importantly – the limitations of the empire’s power. That must affect one’s judgment about whether it can really be said to have ‘made the modern world’.

Yet it could be argued that the problem with the Rhodesias and Nyasaland was not that they had too much imperialism, but too little: not enough control by the metropole (especially in Southern Rhodesia), too feeble a commitment, not enough dedicated ‘nation-building’, too few ‘Englishmen in jodhpurs and pith-helmets’. Hence Banda’s plea for more. First rule of empires: don’t take them on unless you’re prepared to run them properly. Certainly not through settlers; that’s the worst way. Best not to take them on at all.

[*] In one report, Montrose is quoted as saying that, ‘as a gesture to democracy in a democratic colony’, he ‘declines to call himself anything other than Lord Angus Graham’.

[†] LRB, 3 March 2005.