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Pre 20th Century History of Zimbabwe

Great Zimbabwe and the settlement, generally regarded as the nascent Shona society, became the trading capital of the wealthiest and most powerful society in southeastern Africa. The hilltop acropolis at Great Zimbabwe came to serve not only as a fortress but as a shrine for the worship of Mwari, the pre-eminent Shona deity as early as in the 11th century.


The Shona dynasties fractured into autonomous states, many of which later formed the Rozwi state, which encompassed over half of present-day Zimbabwe well into the 19th century.

By the 15th century, Great Zimbabwe's influence had begun to decline, due to a heady cocktail of overpopulation, overgrazing, popular uprisings and political fragmentation.

As with the founding fathers of early American colonies, the first European settlers in Rhodesia feel from the start that government should be in their hands. They insist on having a voice in the colony's legislative assembly, which by 1903 consists of seven officials of the British South Africa Company and seven elected settlers.

In the last quarter of the 19th century the driving force behind British colonial expansion in Africa is Cecil Rhodes. He arrives in Kimberley at the age of eighteen in 1871, the very year in which rich diamond-bearing lodes are discovered there. He makes his first successful career as an entrepreneur, buying out the claims of other prospectors in the region.

In the late 1880s he applies these same techniques to the gold fields discovered in the Transvaal. By the end of the decade his two companies, De Beers Consolidated Mines and Gold Fields of South Africa, dominate the already immensely valuable South African export of diamonds and gold.

Rhodes is now rich beyond the reach of everyday imagination, but he wants this wealth for a very specific purpose. It is needed to fulfil his dream of establishing British colonies north of the Transvaal, as the first step towards his ultimate grand vision - a continuous strip of British empire from the Cape to the mouth of the Nile.

Although Portuguese missionaries and traders occasionally make their way inland from the coast, they have little effect on the African tribes living in the region of modern Zimbabwe. It is Europeans from southern Africa who later exert a profound influence.

North of the river the Ndebele chief, Mzilikazi, establishes a powerful kingdom. As warriors and cattle-breeders the Ndebele easily subdue the agricultural Shona, long resident in the region. But in the 1880s the Ndebele are unable to resist a new onslaught from the south, this time led by the British community of south Africa.

Lobengula is the son of Mzilikazi, the leader of the Ndebele who established a new kingdom (in present-day Zimbabwe) after being driven north by the Boers in 1837. Fifty years later, in 1888, Lobengula grants Rhodes the mining rights in part of his territory (there are reports of gold) in return for 1000 rifles, an armed steamship for use on the Zambezi and a monthly rent of £100.

In 1888, Cecil Rhodes obtained a concession for mineral rights from local chiefs. The British South Africa Company was chartered in 1889, and the settlement of Salisbury (now Harare, the capital) was established in 1890.

With these arrangements satisfactorily achieved, Rhodes sends the first party of colonists north from Bechuanaland in 1890. In September they settle on the site which today is Harare and begin prospecting for gold. During the early 1890s the company has considerable difficulty in maintaining its presence in these new territories. Lobengula himself tries to maintain peace with the British, but many of his tribe are eager to expel the intruders.

The issue comes to a head when Leander Jameson, administering the region for Rhodes, finds a pretext in 1893 for war against Lobengula. With five Maxim machine guns, Jameson easily fights his way into Lobengula's kraal at Bulawayo. Lobengula flees, bringing to an end the Ndebele kingdom established by his father.

The population of settlers rapidly increases in the territory adminstered by Rhodes's British South Africa Company. There are as many as 1500 Europeans in the region by 1892. More soon follow, thanks partly to developments in transport.

In 1895, the territory was formally named Rhodesia after Cecil Rhodes under the British South Africa Company's administration. There is a strong tribal uprising against the British in 1896-7, but thereafter Rhodes's company brings the entire region up to the Zambezi under full control.

The terms of incorporation of both Rhodes's mining companies include clauses allowing them to invest in northern expansion, and in 1889 he forms the British South Africa Company to fulfil this precise purpose. Established with a royal charter, its brief is to extend British rule into central Africa without involving the British government in new responsibility or expense.

And in 1914, when the company's 25-year-charter is due to expire, it is their wishes which prevail. Self-government is their ambition. So their immediate concern is not to accept the embrace of their large neighbour, South Africa, which is eager to absorb this rich territory. They persuade the British government to extend the company's charter for another ten years.

Following the abrogation of the company's charter in 1923, Southern Rhodesia's white settlements were given the choice of being incorporated into the Union of South Africa or becoming a separate entity within the British Empire. The settlers rejected incorporation, and Southern Rhodesia was formally annexed by the United Kingdom that year. Until 1980, Rhodesia was an internally self-governing colony with its own legislature, civil service, armed forces, and police. Although Rhodesia was never administered directly from London, the United Kingdom always retained the right to intervene in the affairs of the colony, particularly in matters affecting Africans.

On 12 September 1923 (thirty-three years to the day after the arrival of the first settlers at Harare) Rhodesia becomes a self-governing crown colony. It proves prosperous and successful, with the European population rising from 34,000 at the time of the referendum to 222,000 thirty years later.

Last Updated on Monday 4th August 2008