The British Empire Library

A Central African Odyssey

by William W. Cowen

Courtesy of OSPA

Review by J.A.C. Girdlestone (Southern Rhodesia 1952-1957, Central African Federation 1957-1964, Northern Rhodesia/Zambia)
The area which, as Dr. Cowen notes, was inaccurately designated 'Central Africa' provides the main backdrop to this autobiography embracing his 32 years in the countries now known as Zambia and Zimbabwe. The author's medical career coincided with radical political change.

It might surprise Zimbabwe's 'indigenisation' lobby to learn how well within living memory whites did almost all skilled and semi-skilled jobs. Cowen also recalls the exemplary manner in which colonial administrators performed their duties and the virtual absence of corruption despite civil servants' lowly pay. Here too significant change has occurred, regrettably for the worse. Also disappointing are his conclusions on how little racial prejudices appear to have altered. The reflections aside, however, the uninitiated reader will end up as confused over 'Central Africa' as Cowen himself confesses to being.

His 'treatise' is 'completely unresearched'. The only "leading personalities" with whom he was "closely involved" were Roy Welensky, before Federation, and Kenneth Kaunda, after it. Errors of historical fact abound.

Amalgamation of Northern and Southern Rhodesia was not dreamt up by Sir Godfrey Huggins and Roy Welensky. The idea, first mooted in 1894 - by the Colonial Office - was regularly reconsidered thereafter. Nor did the Rhodesians "foist Federation upon gullible British politicians". The 1951 officials' conference and the then Colonial Secretary were won over to Federation by Sir Andrew Cohen, his Under-Secretary for African Affairs, and not principally on economic grounds but to create a strong and viable state to counter the growing influence of South Africa's apartheid policies.

While protesting he is not 'anti-European' Cowen offers scant evidence to explain why local white attitudes changed from being 'more English than the English' to outright hostility to Britain. The inherent inconsistency between the perceived requirements for permanent white settlement and the 'paramountcy' principle strongly espoused by another set of Europeans in Whitehall and Westminster is virtually disregarded. With the Eederal Government British Ministers were, according to British sources, "evasive, postponing confrontation, blurring issues and professing support for those they were moving against." Such tactics served to dissolve Federation. But they undermined Welensky and his party, destroyed trust between the two white camps, comforted the Rhodesian Front and led inexorably to Ian Smith's rebellion.

Rhodesian demands for 'independence' and the 'maintenance of civilised standards' are dismissed by Cowen as mere emotional cliches. But he weakens his argument that Rhodesia had actually been independent since 1923 by citing his belief that British military force would be used against its mutinous colony. Zambians, whose standards of living and governance plunged under Dr Kaunda's leadership, will hardly be mollified by Cowen's unqualified praise of their erstwhile president.

While noting how Europeans laboured on the roads in the 1920s, Cowen omits mention of the hardships white farmers endured and how whites walked from farm to farm begging for any kind of work. The myth of white affluence is perpetuated by presenting the whole Rhodesian conflict solely as an attempt to preserve 'the good colonial life'. Cowen contends that revolt arose from pure prejudice, a conclusion he supports by opining how little things have in fact changed for the whites.

Final judgement on this latter point is impossible. Over two-thirds of the mid-1970s 275,000 white Rhodesians emigrated. But some, including many former civil servants Cowen so fulsomely commends, certainly struggle to exist in their adopted countries on pensions whose drastically reduced purchasing power is all but ignored by the responsible authorities.

This Odyssey warily skirts such a.spects. Those wishing to avoid being led astray on 'Central Africa' should consult less priggishly self-opinionated, more historically accurate and less obviously partisan guides to the area.

British Empire Book
William W. Cowen
The Radcliffe Press


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