The British Empire Library

The Africa House: The True Story of an English Gentleman and His African Dream

by Christina Lamb

Courtesy of OSPA

Review by A H M Kirk-Greene (Nigeria 1950-65 Emeritus Fellow, St Antony's College Oxford)
In an ideal essay situation, I would invite undergraduates to “compare and contrast Robert Rotberg’s Black Heart: Gore-Browne and the Politics of Multi-Racial Zambia with Christina Lamb’s The Africa House”. The aim would be to establish the better portrait of Sir Stewart Gore-Browne, aristocratic neo-feudalistic owner of a 25,000 acre estate at Shiwa Ngandu, beside Livingstone’s Lake of the Royal Crocodiles, and a longtime major force in Northern Rhodesian politics. If the subject of both books is the same, the style is anything but: an eminent academic’s biography and an award-winning journalist’s presentation, one book for reading studiously to learn from and the other to learn effortlessly from what is undeniably ‘a very good read’.

For Northern Rhodesians, Gore-Browne requires no introduction: a proponent of Zambian independence and a close friend of Harry Nkumbula and of Kenneth Kaunda, though Gore-Browne’s refusal to accept that Africans could ever manage a country as industrialised as Northern Rhodesia meant that Kaunda kept him out of the political spoils of independence. For those less intimately acquainted with or interested in the political history of Northern Rhodesia, Gore-Browne was the creator, architect, builder and owner of the remarkable - indeed, the virtually unbelievable in the heart of Rhodesian bush - Shiwa House, “like coming across a mud hut or a herd of buffalo in Piccadilly Circus”, to quote the first impression of one visitor.

Civil servants were not Gore-Brown’s favourite characters, and DC’s even less so - this despite the fact that his own first choice of career had been the ICS. The tariff for his spoof guest-house for civil servants which he sent to Welensky is arguably an amusing mockery too far. There are few references to the Colonial Service in Christina Lamb’s narrative, and governors - other than his friend Sir John Maybin - are mentioned merely en passant. Either Lamb or Gore-Browne, on whose diaries and Zanzibari chestful of letters she has meticulously and skilfully based her account (with copious verbatim quotations effectively set in low profile italics), has made a bit of a booboo by mixing up Douglas Hall the DC with Richard Hall the journalist. Gore-Browne, like many a selfconscious diarist, may not have been averse to embroidering some of his entries so as to strengthen his point of view: the invention of white sergeants in the Northern Rhodesian police in the ugly racist incident described in Chapter 16 must be an invention by one of them.

Steady nerves (or at least strong concentration) may be required to follow the story of the successive Lomas, so inseparable from the unease of Shiwa House. It was his aunt Ethel Locke King, the first woman in Britain to drive a car, whom Gore-Browne first had in mind to come out as chatelaine of Shiwa. His second choice, Lorna I, married someone else, while his third choice (and his wife), Loma II, turned out to be Loma I’s orphaned daughter, half his age. Her unsurprising disenchantment with Gore-Brown’s own enchanted palace ended in divorce in 1950, but not before two daughters had been born, the senior sibling being called (naturally) Loma Mark III. Loma II was the subject of a rather inferior poem by Thomas Hardy. Gore-Browne left each of his grandchildren £500, the same amount as he left to his faithful manservant Henry, along with the request in his will that Henry in the fullness of time be buried in the same grave “in accordance with Bemba custom” (in the event, he was not).

But it is the house, almost tangibly described in its present derelict state by Christina Lamb in her introduction in imaginative prose that instantly recalls the description of the shuttered-up Manderley in Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, that is the heart of the matter. While Christina Lamb’s arresting story is somewhat novelistic, from time to time tacking between the light romantic and the irresistibly attractive, it is the house and not its owner that is the hero.

Given Gore-Brown’s upbringing on Rider Haggard, I feel that somewhere in the megalomaniac dream that was Shiwa he must have thought of that palace in Central Africa which is the setting for John Buchan’s curious and untypical novel A Lodge in the Wilderness (1906). If, among Shiwa’s many astonishments, I am half intrigued by the heavy consumption of port from the Gore-Brown cellar in entertaining Kaunda to dinner in 1960, I was half ready for Gore-Browne’s reply to a visiting professor who asked whether Africans like port, “Do you know, I’ve never asked them’’. He himself certainly did.

After Gore-Browne’s death in 1967, when the entire funeral at Shiwa was broadcast on TV, the looming sense of Greek tragedy which had seemingly haunted the house over the years culminated in the murder in 1992 of its new occupant, Gore-Brown’s daughter (Lorna III) and her husband John, gunned down on the estate. Today there is nothing to remind Zambia’s youth of who Sir Stewart Gore-Browne was, beyond a peculiarly uncommunicative hat and stick in the Lusaka National Museum. His grandchildren have it in mind to reconstruct Shiwa House as a museum, “a little piece of British history in what even today is remotest Africa”, as Christina Lamb puts it. In the end, Gore- Browne’s famous African dream was shattered by Loma II’s parting shot as she slammed the door in his face, “Africa will always defeat you”.

The photographs are hugely informative, but with Gore-Brown’s love for guests and dinner-parties and Lamb’s exemplary focus on people, the absence of an index (even if just to prove this is history, not a novel) may be a handicap to the serious reader. Nevertheless The Africa House is a valuable and extremely readable contribution towards understanding the part-maverick, part-visionary of one of whom Kenneth Kaunda once said “He was born an English gentleman and he died a Zambian gentleman”.

British Empire Book
Christina Lamb
Viking (Penguin Group)


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