The British Empire Library

Remnants of Empire. Memory and Northern Rhodesia's White Diaspora

by Pamela Shurmer-Smith

Review by Hugh Macmillan (Historian and Research Associate, African Studies Centre, Oxford University)
The author of Remnants of Empire, Dr Pamela Shurmer-Smith, is a social anthropologist who reached Northern Rhodesia as a child of thirteen in 1957, lived in Broken Hill (now Kabwe, where her father worked for the municipality), Mazabuka and Lusaka, and left the country in 1966, two years after independence, to study at London University. Her parents returned to Scotland in 1973.

After her retirement in 2004 she decided to do a tracer survey of white people who had lived in colonial Northern Rhodesia before independence and left the country then or soon afterwards. The project would have been very difficult without the internet and email. In 2007 she attempted to contact about 1000 people whom she identified through a website run for the benefit of old Northern Rhodesians, The Great North Road, and had about 400 responses. She was not interested in people who arrived after independence or who stayed on after 1964 and she excluded 3,000 subscribers who were less than ten years old at independence in 1964 or who reached Zambia after that date. She has also traced people in other ways, making contact with about 600, and used published memoirs, such as those of the Reverend Colin Morris and Grace Keith, mother of Zambia's recently acting president, Guy Scott.

The book is divided into thirteen chapters of which about half deal with life in colonial Northern Rhodesia and half deal with reasons for leaving and life in the post-colonial diaspora. The chapters are thematic with titles like 'Arrival', 'What was it like?', 'A Man's Country?', 'Why did you leave if you liked it so much?', and 'Where did they all go?'. Each chapter is made up of often lengthy quotations from emails, interviews or published memoirs, with a linking commentary by the author. She sees the book as an exercise in 'collective memory' and and tries to avoid 'colonial apology', on the one hand, or 'postcolonial nostalgia' on the other hand. She quotes Doris Lessing as saying that 'All white-African literature is the literature of exile: not from Europe but from Africa.' She also quotes an email from Colin Morris: 'I have a theory that one can go out to Africa for a limited number of years and settle back into another society, but there is a kind of cultural watershed; if you stay on past it you will always have a sense of exile.'

The author has tapped into the memories of a wide range of informants who demonstrate the varieties of culture and class that made up Northern Rhodesia's always shifting settler population. A number of her informants are people of Afrikaans origins who worked on the mines or were involved in commercial farming. Residents of British origin were quite sharply stratified between the relatively privileged members of the Provincial Administration (PA) and senior mine management, on the one hand, and locally recruited civil servants, commercial farmers, traders and artisans on the other hand. By the author's account working women got a raw deal in government service and the number of them in employment was always underestimated. Among her most interesting informants are some who stayed on beyond her allotted time-span, including the famous Dr James Cairns of Katete who stayed until 1996 and Joe Behrens who arrived as a German Jewish refugee teenager and founded an electrical business and stayed on until 1973. She also has informants, such as Phil Edmonds and Neville Isdell, who went on to do exceptionally well in the diaspora, the former as a cricketer and mining magnate, and the latter as the chief executive of the Coca-Cola Corporation - both were products of Gilbert Rennie School in Lusaka. Generally speaking, white residents who stayed on in Zambia after independence did quite well, so it is sad to read the recollections of people who felt that they had to leave and then had difficulty in settling elsewhere.

Additional Review by Mondoro
Unlike Zimbabwe (Southern Rhodesia) and South Africa, Zambia (Northern Rhodesia) lacked its Doris Lessing and Nadine Gordimer to provide an image of its colonial society. Pamela Shurmer-Smith's collection of oral evidence from the relatively small number of white people who settled there prior to independence in 1964 will thus fill a gap, and appears just in time to capture the very varied testimonies of the 'white Diaspora'. Her book is particularly valuable for putting to rest the common stereotype of the white settler sitting on his veranda enjoying his sundowner while his labourers toil in the fields. Her informants varied tremendously in background, from the Afrikaner miner who brought his racist ideas to the Copperbelt to the paternalistic civil servants sent out by the Colonial Office, and those who fled the austerity of post-war Britain to find a new life in the sun.

'Remnants of Empire' reviews these experiences, moving through the rapid changes of the late 50s that completely transformed what had been a very quiet and seemingly permanent political system. The year 1964 saw the independence of Zambia in what in retrospect was a fairly peaceful transition, in contrast to what happened elsewhere in southern Africa in the 1970s onwards. The diaspora, the emigration of whites from Northern Rhodesia, was similarly a smooth process. The later chapters of her book discuss the experiences of the Diaspora in some detail, ranging from the anger of those who felt betrayed by British policy to those who left bidding Zambia all the best, but leaving with a slight twinge. Indeed, it is surprising how many renewed their acquaintance with Africa later.

As a historian I was particularly interested in her initial chapter about memory: what we remember, what we don't want to remember, what we should remember, and what we choose to forget. It is all too human to distance ourselves from views we had in the past which are no longer acceptable. Colonial rule and the race prejudice that unfortunately flourished under its wings was one such.

A valuable historical record of a relatively unknown former colonial territory.

Additional Review by Mark Henwick
The story of Northern Rhodesia becoming Zambia is like a patchwork quilt, and that is exactly how this book portrays it, relying on the words and phrases of the people who lived it to tell the tale. It is the only way such a diverse experience could be given a balanced exposition.

My father was District Commissioner at Broken Hill (now Kabwe) at the time of independence. He stayed until the end of 1969, working initially in the Zambian government's 'Youth Development' ministry. I was born in Kasempa Mission Hospital, and at school in Broken Hill's Parker Primary and then Lusaka Boys School before being sent south to Springvale in Southern Rhodesia. When I moved to the UK, I went to a school where the bursar was another DC from Northern Rhodesia. With that background, of course many of the names and almost all of the stories are familiar to me.

We were in no way refugees, and I have been lucky all my life, but I find my memory of the shock of being uprooted from Africa and replanted in the UK is echoed and re-echoed in these stories.

It was never one of the glamorous countries of Africa, but NR/Z put a marker in all our souls - witness the associations that still meet all over the world.

Anyone who was there, or anyone who has the slightest interest in a balanced view of this part of history should read this book.

Additional Review by D. Grewar
The story of the diaspora of Northern Rhodesians is a difficult subject to record in a fair and balanced manner because of the many diverse views of Northern Rhodesians. I think Pamela Shurmer-Smith done an excellent job in weaving together the personal stories of so many people with an unbiased view of the history of our country.

I thought that maybe I was alone in being unable to settle back in England the land of my birth after 21 years in Africa, but I find that the majority of returnees had the same difficulty and many of them have moved on. They either returned to Africa or went to other parts of the world or some even became eternal 'men in a suitcase' moving like gypsies from one location to another.

This book brings alive the trauma of having to uproot oneself from one's long time friends and neighbours when or shortly after Northern Rhodesia became Zambia in 1964. The cruelty was compounded by the restrictions on taking one's honest and hard earned life savings with one. This was made even worse when currency restrictions were expanded to include personal and household effects. Yes, there were reasons for it but for the average Northern Rhodesian who had no option but to leave; for him to have to leave his own life savings behind was just pure theft on the part of the new regime.

The expatriates who came to Zambia after Independence are a different story from NR's. They knew they were just hired on a short contract basis and had no illusions about the country becoming their home. Even so many if them feel a strange nostalgia for their years in Zambia that is only too evident in the social media pages.

The residents of Northern Rhodesia were roughly divided into the Government or PA types and the rest. The PA community (the British Colonial Civil Servants) were deliberately transferred from station to station and given 6 months home leave every 3 years to prevent them forming any attachment to their host countries. Despite this many did form strong attachments to Northern Rhodesia (especially those who served in the Northern Rhodesia Police).

The non-PA community was divided into the commercial / trading, the mining and the farming communities. Most of the miners came from South Africa and SR and would work a few years on the mines before returning to their farms down south. After a few bad seasons on the farms they would return to the Copperbelt to save up another grubstake. They had little interest in NR or its peoples and were only there to make money. In a way one could call these temporary sojourners the forerunners of the 'expatriates' who came after independence. Even so many of them did form an attachment for the affluent and relaxed Copperbelt lifestyle.

Among the non-PA group and mainly in the trading and farming communities were the 'settlers', the real Northern Rhodesians, who actually thought that they were going to live in NRZ for ever and who were prepared to adapt to changing conditions and live under an African dominated government. I identify myself with this group. I think these settlers or at least the ones who had to leave NRZ were the ones who felt the loss most poignantly because they lost not only a comfortable lifestyle and their properties and assets and in some cases their families, but most importantly they lost their dreams. They suffered something like what the Yanks call post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in their troops returning from battle fronts. Time eases the pain but many of us will take the mental scars with us to our graves.

The emigrants had a wide variety of success in their new lives after leaving NRZ from Neville Isdell who became head of the giant Coca-Cola organization to the chap who ended up penniless sleeping in a New Zealand garden shed. Most however returned to the western humdrum life of wage slavery as university bursars, teachers, policemen or lawyers with only their memories of a life in the sun to brighten their dull lives.

The book is generally sad and nostalgic but I found the saddest story was that of Heather Hunt who was born in Broken Hill hospital in 1939. She married Des and they built up a farm near Broken Hill from scratch, even making the bricks themselves. After Des' death Heather stayed on until July 2014 when she moved to the UK at 75 years old. She had no children left in Zambia to take over the farm and look after her in her old age so she had to sell the farm. I really feel for Heather. I hope she finds some happiness in the years that remain for her. What a crying shame after sticking it out through thick and thin in Northern Rhodesia and Zambia that she has had to leave.

British Empire Book
Pamela Shurmer-Smith
Gadsden Publishers
Remnants of Empire Website



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