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.

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[*] 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.