The British Empire Library

The History Of The Northern Rhodesia Police

by Tim Wright

Courtesy of OSPA

Review by Andrew Willis (Senior Lecturer in Criminology Scarman Centre, University of Leicester)
In the Eoreword, Sir Robert Poster rightly calls this book a monumental work of scholarship. It traces the history of the Northern Rhodesia Police beginning with its late Nineteenth Century origins as part product of the activities of missionary societies, leading from the establishment of Livingstone's African Lakes Corporation through to the Royal Charter giving law-making and trading authority to Rhodes's British South Africa Company. The establishment of the Barotse Native Police in 1901 is well detailed, as is the amalgamation with the North-Eastern Rhodesia Constabulary to form the Northern Rhodesia Police in 1911. The role of the NRP during the 1914-18 war is also drawn in fine detail. In 1924 administration by the British South Africa Company ended and the Colonial Office took over responsibility for the government of Northern Rhodesia, to be followed in 1932 by the separation of the military and civil branches of the NRP. This period is the beginning of police expansion, increased training and professionalisation. By 1953 the ill-fated attempt to join the territories of Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland and the self-governing colony of Southern Rhodesia presaged the 1964 emergence of the Republic of Zambia and the end of the Northern Rhodesia Police.

The story is very well told. The scholarship is impressive and the book offers fantastic detail. Wright makes terrific use of archival sources. Unfortunately, at times the weight of the detail itself pushes analysis and understanding too far down the agenda. Throughout, there are painstakingly precise descriptions of emerging police uniforms (including details of smocks, shorts, helmets, badges, buckles and buttons) and there is equally exhaustive biographical information about NRP officers and colonial officials. So far as it goes, this is fine but not when the detail itself appears at the expense of analysis. For example, the study offers little analysis of why imperial interests were apparently best served by (in the modern idiom) contracting-out governance through Royal Charter to the British South Africa Company, or the role of policing as part of revenue collection in the interests of empire, or why the interests in social control were best served by the initial deployment of Indian, Jat Sikh and Zanzibari troops, seen by the author as the cadre from which the Northern Rhodesia Police sprang. These are important issues not least because they appear many times elsewhere in colonial history. The facts as such are well recorded here but their meaning is far less apparent. The lack of balance between description and analysis is a major and ongoing deficit through the volume.

There is also a less than reassuring naivety about levels of crime and police effectiveness. Simplistic statements such as 9,337 offences in 1932 with 8,744 convictions giving a clear up rate of 93.9 per cent (see pp.207-208) betray a lay person's understanding of what is known about defining crime, reporting crime, recording and police activity in response to crime. These are all problematic areas. It is a pity that Wright chooses to take official statistics at face value rather than explore the social and organisational realities that gave rise to them.

At one level the history of the NRP offers a major contribution to the important telling of an inaccessible part of imperial history. At another level it is something of a missed opportunity in that it fails to explore the reasons why the events described took the form that they did. There is an inverse relationship between description and understanding. This is a pity. As someone who is actively engaged in the training of senior police officers from all over the world, including many representing countries that have moved from colonial to independent status, this book nevertheless represents an important and useful factual resource in attempting to understand and theorise the transition from colonial to post-imperial policing.

British Empire Book
Tim Wright
British Empire and Commonwealth Museum Press
0 9530174 4 3


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