White settlement in Rhodesia

Here is an excerpt from my unpublished Honours Dissertation. It is called

When “Back Home” isn’t England: making visible the memories, lives and experiences of some white women in Rhodesia (Venables 1997).

Rhodesia was, from 1890 until 1924, under the rule of the British South Africa Company.

The history of white settlement in Rhodesia begins with the arrival of Cecil Rhodes’ Pioneer Column in Mashonaland, in 1890. The raising of the Union Jack in Salisbury took place in September of that year. These men were by no means the first white people to venture into the area, but it was the first white claim to the region. The Pioneer Column was dispatched from South Africa by Rhodes’ British South Africa Company. The group of 196 Pioneers, and some 800 other men, were led by Dr Leander Starr Jameson, and guided by the hunter Frederick Selous. The historian Robert Blake suggests that the men in the Pioneer Column were mainly drawn by the lure of gold (1977). Earlier, in 1867, the gold seekers in Matabeleland were warned by *Moselikatse ‘on no account to bring with them a woman, a cow, a ewe or a she goat, because the permission is to carry away stones (gold), not to build houses and towns in my country’ (quoted by John Mackenzie in Kirkwood 1984). Clearly, the presence of women implied a different purpose for the land to the Matabele king.

The women who came into Rhodesia in the early days of white settlement were generally missionaries and the wives of missionaries. ‘They were the earliest white women to settle in Rhodesia, arriving during the 1850s’ (Kirkwood 1984). Their relative position is indicated by Neville Jones who writes that ‘While it is hardly correct to describe these worthy missionaries as settlers, I should be sorry to miss this opportunity to do honour to brave men’ (1953). No mention of honour to the few (three) brave women with them?

However, between 1890 and 1896, the white population was predominantly men seeking gold. In 1895 Mashonaland and Matabeleland were united under the name of Rhodesia (Caute 1983). After being crushed in the Mashona and Matabele rebellions in 1896 and 1897, the indigenous people were effectively silenced politically. Whoever was going to determine the political future of Rhodesia, Blake observes, ‘… they would not be black. With remarkable speed after the rebellions the Africans ceased to count politically … [they] became literally a silent majority for more than half a century (1977).

By 1907, a programme encouraging European farmers was introduced, to reduce the country’s dependence on imports and raise the value of the Company’s own assets. It was in this programme that my grandfather was recruited from Bulgaria by the British South Africa Company, to work in establishing tobacco farming in the colony.

This programme also had the effect of significant demographic change. The white population rose from 14,000 in 1907 to 20,000 in 1910 (Blake 1977). Kosmin gives statistics for 1911 showing 23,606 white settlers, of whom 15,580 were men (1973). Throughout white settlement of Rhodesia the disproportionate amount of power held by the small number of whites is remarkable. This is commented on by Barry Schutz who observes ‘Perhaps of all the British colonies with established settler populations, Rhodesia has had the fewest in numbers both absolutely and relative to the indigenous population (1973). The white population, at its peak in 1960, was 223,000, under 8 per cent of the African population (Blake 1977).

Rhodesia was a white-male-dominated society and, more particularly, a British-male-dominated society. I found that the historical literature, which is predominantly written by Englishmen, is not dismissive of minor ethnic groups and women. Rather, there is a total lack of recognition, a void, no reflection in the mirror of history. Deborah Kirkwood, when researching her essay ‘Settler Wives in Southern Rhodesia: A Case Study’ had similar problems finding references to women settlers. She writes ‘As I read these old books I noted all references to women; these were scant and were in themselves revealing’ (1984). For example she quotes Hugh Marshall Hole, an eminent early Rhodesian: ‘There was said to be a white woman somewhere in the camp, but she must have remained in purdah for we never saw her’ (in Kirkwood 1984). Paradoxically, I find Deborah Kirkwood’s writing also omits any mention of settler’s wives who were not English or of British extraction. In Rhodesia during the Second World War, Doris Lessing mentions in passing ‘… the local girls, and girls from Britain and South Africa or who were refugees from somewhere or other’’ (1992). This is the void into which I am researching. This is the void into which I write. This is the mirror with no reflection.

*Also spelt Mzilikazi, the founder of the Matabele nation and father of Lobengula.

If you would like to read some more of this, I can add another page one of these days. If you are interested in the Bibliography, I can put that up too.

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White settlement in Rhodesia

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