The British Empire Library

Britain, Northern Rhodesia and the First World War: Forgotten Colonial Crisis

by Edmund James Yorke

Review by Roland A. Hill, MBE (Northern Rhodesia Colonial Administration & Zambia Govt 1948 - 1975)
The author has filled a gap in the early years of Northern Rhodesia dominated by WWI. No-one before has brought together so much relevant material in such a concentrated form. It explains in detail the trials and tribulations of a struggling Chartered Company (the BSA Co) and its involvement with the War, run by a handful of officials who were already fully stretched in running this young country on a shoestring. They had to cope with the increased demands and disruptions which the War was to cause both internally and externally and its effect on the northern border tribes. It deals with the effects of intensive guerrilla warfare engendered by Col. von Lettow-Vorbeck on our northern borders, the tentacles of which slowly permeated then quickened through the northern parts of the territory. Although immediate demands for porters and food were met, the position got worse year by year so that by 1916 onwards the demand for more food and more porters became so excessive as to cause considerable disruption and resentment by the local communities. Increased recruitment to the Military wing of the BSA Police and the K.A.R. at this time added further pressure on local resources and manpower.

What the author has done is to penetrate all the nooks and crannies and to interweave all this fragmentation. The rise in membership of the Watchtower movement did not help and one must mention The White Fathers' missions (and all the others) who played a role as a counter balance. But even they had to abandon some of their mission stations towards the end of the war as fear and panic caused by the advance of German troops entering the territory in 1918 led to a breakdown in law and order in a wide area around Kasama and beyond. The strains on the Chiefs and headmen with the never-ending demand on their resources which had reached a breaking point was only saved by the Armistice.

The book emphasizes that although certain parts of the territory were affected more than others, its overall effect continued to tax the authorities. The death blow to the Company in the North of Rhodesia was its inability to cope with the multitude of problems, primarily financial involving who was to pay for what to meet the overall costs of the war. Correspondence between the War Office and the Colonial Office was too much for the Company to deal with. The ending of this frightful conflict brought home to many the demands of what total war meant and brought out aspects of brutality alien to the British character and its sense of fair play.

This book is a wonderful contribution to yet another aspect of WW I which now recognizes how much is owed to the many Askari and Porters who laid down their lives for a cause not of their making. Both are commemorated by bronze statues in Dar es Salaam, Mombasa and Nairobi. White supremacy was badly dented in the years after the Armistice. Protectorate status was established then and Independence came 40 years later.

A certain Donald Siwale is mentioned in the book (page 130) as a clerk at Fife whose suggestions were accepted in resolving a chieftainship problem. The same Siwale became an ardent nationalist who years later, as a retired teacher in the 1950's, played a prominent part in the cause of greater African representation in the government. It was his son who succeeded me as Director of Manpower & Training for the Zambian Civil Service in 1971, who was also an ardent nationalist.

One must congratulate the author and his family for the excellent detail rarely seen to illustrate the old Provincial boundaries and also the areas where the main crops were grown to feed the war effort. The only criticism I have of this excellent book is that whilst these maps are some of the best I have seen, one needs a magnifying glass or enlarger to fully appreciate them and each one is worthy of its own page.

The author is to be warmly congratulated for his contribution to such an important part of Northern Rhodesia's social, imperial and military history and on the painstaking research entailed.

British Empire Book
Edmund James Yorke
Palgrave Macmillan


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