Named after Cecil Rhodes, Southern Rhodesia was to be formed as part of the scramble for Africa and in particular the competition between the Boers and British for domination in Southern Africa. However the lands were under the control of the powerful Matabele tribe and their chief Lobengula. They had also subjugated a smaller tribe known as the Mashona. The land was very high quality for Africa. Despite being so far north and in the tropical zone, it was on a high plateau. This meant that the temperature was more comfortable and that it would support the growing of western style crops.
The discovery of gold on the Witwatersrand in the Transvaal in 1886 was to draw the attention of the world to Southern Africa. It had been known that black African tribes had had access to gold of their own in trading with Arab traders on the East African Coast. What was not known was where this gold came from and how much, or little, was located in the interior. Stories of 'King Solomon's Mines' mixed with the theory of the Witwatersrand gold seam running further north to attract speculators and adventurers from around the world.
Lobengula was besieged by requests for land grants. In 1887, the Transvaal attempted to secure their own northern border by getting Lobengula to sign a treaty giving Transvaalers special privileges north of the River Limpopo under a resident Boer consul. Word of this deal got back to Cecil Rhodes in the Cape Colony. He had his own ambitions for spreading British control northwards. Indeed, he would frequently site his ambition was to build a Cape to Cairo railway passing through British controlled territory for the entire length of the line. Although a powerful diamond magnate, he had missed out on the gold rush on the Rand and hoped to gain control of them politically for Britain at the very least. His expansion north would thus achieve several strategic aims.
Rhodes encouraged the Cape's High Commissioner, Sir Hercules Robinson, to proclaim that Matabeleland and Mashonaland were within the British sphere of influence. Robinson was not allowed to do this without permission from London, but as time was short he rushed Rev Moffat, the assistant commissioner in Bechuanaland, to travel to Bulawayo to protect British interests there. Moffat easily persuaded Lobengula to repudiate the Transvaal treaty which was claimed was extorted by fraud. Instead, Lobengula entered an agreement with the British whereby he would enter into no foreign correspondence nor cede any territory without the permission of the British High Commissioner. In effect, Moffat had turned Lobengula's kingdom into a British protectorate.
Cecil Rhodes despatched his own agents to Lobengula to encourage him to sell the mineral rights of his kingdom for: twelve hundred pounds a year, one thousand rifles, one hundred thousands rounds of ammunition and a steamboat for the Zambesi River. Armed with this concession, Rhodes rushed back to London to seek permission to charter a company to exploit this huge concession. He got permission for the creation of the British South Africa Company but only with firm conditions. The company was to be directly responsible to the Colonial Office for the handling of Native Affairs, it had to accept some government appointed directors, it was obliged to pay off all previous concessionnaires, it was to exercise governmental powers only with the consent of the native ruler, and it could have its charter revoked at any time. These stiff conditions were to try and mitigate the exploitation of Africans along the lines of what had happened to Africans in the Transvaal Republic.
In 1890, an armed British South Africa Company Pioneer Column advanced into the Matabele and Mashona lands. They set up a headquarters in Salisbury on 12th Sept 1890 and started selling off claims to land. The miners were to be frustrated in their search for gold. There was no golden seam running north of the Witwatersrand. They discovered that there had been gold mined by Africans from the ancient site of 'Great Zimbabwe' but the gold had been exhausted many years before. King Solomon's Mines did not exist.
However, although the miners were disappointed with their mineral claims, they were more pleasantly surprised by the quality of the agricultural land and the climate. Southern Rhodesia was to have some of the best quality land on the continent. Unfortunately, their concessions did not run to ownership of the land - they were for mining rights only. The BSAC had shareholders who needed to see a return on their investment. No gold meant that they would lose everything. Therefore the BSAC officials on the ground looked for an excuse to extend their rights to land ownership. They found the excuse in 1893 when the Mashona felt emboldened to withhold tribute to Lobengula's Matabele. Incensed, Lobengula sent a punitive expedition to get what he regarded as his tribute. This was the excuse the BSAC were looking for. They sold their intervention on the humanitarian grounds of fighting for the Mashona, hoping to mitigate the criticism back in London.
The BSAC had armed themselves with the latest military equipment including Maxim machine guns and modern artillery. The brave Matabele warriors were no match for the well armed forces of the BSAC although a small patrol under Maj. Alan Wilson, which had been sent to find the Matabele King Lobengula, was overwhelmed by the Matabele and all were killed. But the technological advantage was too great for the Matabele to withstand. Lobengula died in mysterious circumstances in 1894 which effectively ended central resistance to the British, although isolated skirmishes would continue for another year at least.
By 1896, Matabele religious leaders had come to form a new kind of leadership for the Matabele. They organised a rebellion taking advantage of the absence of most of the BSAC troops who had been withdrawn for the Jameson Raid. They had learned lessons from the first war and avoided full scale assaults. They murdered isolated farmers and cut off communications to Bulawayo. They enticed many of the native police to help them. The BSAC maxim guns were little use against a dispersed enemy. Rhodes personally travelled north with a relief column for the settlers wholed up in Bulawayo.
The real turning point came when two scouts learned of the hideout of the religious leader directing the campaign. They sneaked in to his cave and shot him. Rhodes would use this as an opportunity to negotiate an end to the war. He was mindful of the expenses that were accruing to his company and the bad press that was being created for the colony. He was willing to give generous terms in return for an immediate peace.
In 1899, the BSAC created a Legislative Council was created with a small number of directly elected seats. The electorate was almost exclusively comprised of white settlers, and the proportion of elected seats increased steadily over time. Before 1918, most settlers were content with company rule. But as more white settlers arrived, company rule seemed more and more anachronistic. Besides, many of the settlers were unhappy at the stipulations that protected the Black Africans. In 1920, the Legislative Council election returned a large majority of candidates from the Responsible Government Association. It was clear that the BSAC was losing the support of its customers.
Originally, opinion in Britain and South Africa favoured incorporation of Southern Rhodesia into the Union of South Africa, but this was rejected by the Rhodesians themselves in a 1922 referendum. In 1923, the BSAC handed control over to the settlers.
With control of the executive, the settlers were free to abandon any pretences of protection for the black African subjects and passed punitive and restrictive laws. Most of these laws concerned the distribution of land, in particular reserving 50 percent of the land for the small white settler community. Needless to say, it was the best 50 percent.
Rhodesia was badly effected by the depression of the 1930s but was to resurrect its economy in World War Two by providing much needed supplies of food to the allies. This would help pay for improvements to the land and machinery and would see that the good times continued into the 1950s and 60s. For the white settler community, life was to be very good in Rhodesia.
A federation of sorts was attempted in the 1950s between Rhodesia, Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland. It was hoped that the relative wealth of Rhodesia could help fund infrastructure and reforms for the other two poorer colonies. This Central African Federation was to be very short lived as the black colonies of Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland considered it a way of continuing white privilege and rule over them, whilst the white dominated administration of Rhodesia resented subsidising its poorer neighbours. The federation was dissolved in 1964.
The election of the Nationalist Party in South Africa in 1948 seemed to confirm a possible future for Rhodesia but in reality it would prove to be a double edged sword for the white settlers of Rhodesia. Despite deep sympathies of the white settlers for the racist policies of South Africa, the withdrawal of South Africa from the Commonwealth in 1961 would leave the humanitarian spotlight uncomfortably on the racist policies of Rhodesia. Previously, they could hide behind the even worse policies of their neighbour to the south. Now, they had nobody to hide behind. African nations who had recently received their independence from the British demanded that something be done about the racism of Rhodesia. The British felt morally compelled to back these claims and edged towards its 'No Independence Before Majority African Rule' (NIBMAR) policy. They had been embarrassed by what happened in South Africa and did not want a repeat of that performance in Rhodesia.
The Rhodesian white population however took the initiative hoping to prevent the sharing of power with its black population. In 1962 a Rhodesian Front was formed with the view of maintaining the existing settler rights that had been granted to them since 1923. Many of the settlers were concerned at the violence and difficulty of the post-independence process taking place throughout much of Africa at this time. In particular, they were horrified at the unfolding tragedy in Congo after the Belgians had left in a hurry in 1960. The thought of the same kind of violence disrupting their way of life and economic prosperity in Rhodesia was a deeply disturbing thought.
However, a newly elected Labour government back in Britain seemed even more determined to promote handing over power to black majority rule on a one person one vote basis. The Rhodesian Front won a clean sweep in elections in the following year. It was clear that the negotiating positions of Britain and of the Rhodesian settlers were polarising and seemed to be irreconcilable. Therefore, on remembrance day, 1965, the white administration in Rhodesia declared its Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI).
International condemnation was swift, backed principally by Britain. Britain organised the first ever United Nations use of sanctions against its renegade colony. The relatively rich colony could survive these sanctions for a while, as long as the racist South African government was able to provide support. However, over time, the sanctions did have an impact. It was possible for the Rhodesians to get around them most of the time, but usually at a very high premium. Not a single member of the UN was willing to recognise Rhodesia. Not even South Africa which did not want to heap yet more opprobrium on itself. Besides, it made a change for South Africa to not be regarded as the ultimate pariah state in Africa.
The black Africans appreciated the international support for their plight and started an insurrection of their own. This insurrection did get complicated by the politics of the Cold War when Communists vied with Nationalists to fight against the white government. Surrounding black African countries also gave military and logistical support to those fighting the regime. Although there were no large pitched battles, the constant guerilla hit and run tactics steadily wore down the resolve of at least some of the white settlers. When going to the shops became a dangerous chore, many Rhodesian whites called it quits. Some Rhodesian whites emigrated south to the more secure South Africa, others returned to Britain or went on to Australia or Canada. Many settlers remained behind but usually it was the menfolk. It was becoming a difficult place to raise a family.
The South Africans began withdrawing their support for the regime in the mid to late 1970s. The South African Boers had never completely reconciled themselves to helping the English speaking Rhodesians. Although probably it was more likely that the war in Rhodesia was destabilising the entire region and was leading to black Africans in South Africa to look to the struggle in Rhodesia for inspiration. The South African whites hoped that by abandoning Rhodesia to its fate, it would be left alone to pursue its own racist policies in a more peaceful Southern Africa. This withdrawal of economic and military support from South Africa was to make life even more difficult for the renegade province.
The end of Portuguese rule in neighbouring Mozambique in 1975 increased the isolation of Rhodesia and further restricted its communication routes. It was becoming a lonely world for Ian Smith's regime. The shooting down of two commercial airliners by guerilla surface to air missiles and the destruction of the oil reserves in Salisbury in 1978 rammed home the hopelessness of UDI. The British Government issued invitations to all parties to attend a peace conference at Lancaster House. UDI had been a long running embarrassment to the British government and had undermined their credibility with much of black Africa. The negotiations took place in London in late 1979. The three-month-long conference almost failed to reach a conclusion, due to disagreements on Land reform, but ultimately resulted in the Lancaster House Agreement. UDI ended, and Rhodesia reverted to the status of a British colony. A year later, the British handed independence to a black majority government.