Warwickshire and Empire: Part One

The 'local' and the 'global'

"The Rhodes Colossus", cartoon picturing Cecil Rhodes spanning the continent of Africa (a reference to his desire for a Cape to Cairo railway) in Punch, 1902.
Image sourced from Wikimedia Commons, originally uploaded by William Avery

One of the things I find interesting as a historian lies beyond looking at simply what happened in the past, but the practice of history itself – how history is ‘done’ in different places by different people. Since I began working here I have been thinking a lot about the relationship between the largely locally-focused history we see in the Warwickshire County Record Office and wider regional, national and global trends. How might we use the documents held here at Priory Park to explore other phenomena, which form the focus of so much academic research (not to mention popular history books and television shows)? To that end, I tried to find out if we held some documents relating to my PhD topic – the history of the central African nation of Zimbabwe (or Southern Rhodesia as it was historically known).

The search

A cursory search in our catalogue revealed two results: one was a clipping from The Times about a company called Rhodesia Goldfields being folded up. This is not surprising, the area that became Rhodesia was settled by a private concern, Cecil Rhodes’ British South Africa Company (BSAC), in the name of the British Empire. The hope was that Rhodesia would prove to be a second Rand (the fabulously wealthy gold-producing region centred around Johannesburg in South Africa). Unfortunately this proved not to be the case and the BSAC had to swiftly refocus white settlement around agriculture. Like much of Southern Africa, the technological advancement of white settlers made it easy to dispossess indigenous Africans of their land – and after conflicts with black Africans in 1893 and 1896-7 there was no shortage of it available to whites in Rhodesia.

Colonial settlement

The other was a letter to F.A. Newdigate, MP for Nuneaton and later a colonial governor in Australia and Tasmania, from the Joint Manager & Secretary of the BSAC, which concerned a proposal for a settlement of ‘Miners, Agriculturalists, etc.’ in the country1. It provides an interesting window on the processes of colonial settlement in Southern Africa in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Not just anyone could move to the colonies, particularly in ‘settler colonies’ like South Africa and Rhodesia. Local administrations were keen to attract the ‘right sort’ of people. Individuals (usually men – women were initially prohibited from settling in Rhodesia and the first European woman in the country had to sneak in disguised as a boy) with capital were considered ideal. Importantly, it was considered vital to prevent lower class whites from settling, as it was feared they would undermine the purity and authority of the white race in the colonies. As the Secretary of the BSAC notes in rejecting the proposal: ‘Rhodesia offers far greater facilities and advantages to individuals who are prepared to go out independently’ rather than settle en bloc. Furthermore, the Secretary argues: ‘it is essential that Emigrants to South Africa at the present time should have some capital when they arrive out there’.

Finally, the Secretary argues that unskilled immigrants were undesirable: ‘I may mention that men with no trade or profession would not find employment in Rhodesia, and on no account should any encouragement be given to such men to Emigrate [my emphasis].

Part two will explore why Newdigate had written to the BSAC.

1 Warwickshire County Record Office reference CR0136/B5866.

More from Arbury