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The Geopolitical Origins of the Central African Federation: Britain, Rhodesia and South Africa, 1948–1953*

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  11 February 2009

Ronald Hyam
Magdalene College, Cambridge


The Central African Federation (1953–63) was the most controversial large-scale imperial exercise in constructive state-building ever undertaken by the British government. It appears now as a quite extraordinary mistake, an aberration of history (‘like the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem’), a deviation from the inevitable historical trend of decolonization. Paradoxically, one of its principal architects, Andrew Cohen (head of the African department of the colonial office) is also credited with having set the course for planned African decolonization as a whole. There have already been several attempts to explain how an error so interesting and surprising, so large and portentous, came to be made. No one, however, has yet presented an analysis based on British government archives, and the authoritative evidence that they alone can provide.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1987

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1 Wood, J R T, The Welensky papers a history of the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland (Durban, 1983)Google Scholar, with an introduction by Blake, Lord (from which the quotation is taken), Blake, R, A history of Rhodesia (London, 1977), pp 243–69Google Scholar, Leys, C and Pratts, C (eds), A new deal in Central Africa (London, 1960), pp 158Google Scholar, Rotberg, R I, The rise of nationalism in Central Africa the making of Malawi and Zambia, 1873–1964 (Harvard, 1961), pp 214–52Google Scholar, Gann, L H and Gelfand, M, Huggins of Rhodesia the man and his country (London, 1964), pp 208–29Google Scholar, Gann, L H, A history of Northern Rhodesia early days to 1953 (London, 1964), pp 405–33Google Scholar, Palley, C, The constitutional history and law of Southern Rhodesia, 1888–1965, with special reference to imperial control (Oxford, 1966), pp 333–44Google Scholar, Gifford, P, ‘Misconceived dominion the creation and disintegration of the Federation of British Central Africa’, in Gifford, P and Louis, W R (eds), Transfer of power in Africa decolonisation, 1940–1960 (Yale, 1982), pp 387416Google Scholar For Cohen, Andrew see Robinson, R E, ‘Sir Andrew Cohen Proconsul of African nationalism (1909–68)’, in Gann, L H and Duignan, P (eds), African proconsuls European governors in Africa (Stanford, 1978), pp 353–64Google Scholar.

2 Martin, G. W., ‘Launching Canadian Confederation: means to ends, 1836–64’, Historical Journal, XXVII (1984), 575602CrossRefGoogle Scholar, and ‘An imperial idea and its friends’, in Martel, G. (ed.), Studies in British imperial history: essays in honour of A. P. Thornton (London, 1986), pp. 4994CrossRefGoogle Scholar, and Canadian analogy in South African Union’, South African Historical Journal, VIII (1976)Google Scholar; Watts, R. L., New federations: experiments in the Commonwealth (Oxford, 1966)Google Scholar.

3 P.R.O., FO 371/70191; PREM 8/1043.

4 Robinson, R. E., ‘The Trust in British Central African policy, 1889–1939’ (unpublished Cambridge Ph.D. thesis, 1950)Google Scholar, and The moral disarmament of African empire, 1919–47’, Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, VIII (1979)Google Scholar, reprinted in N. Hillmer and P. Wigley (eds.), The first British Commonwealth: essays in honour of Nicholas Mansergh (London, 1980), pp. 86–104; Hyam, R., ‘African interests and the South Africa Act, 1908–10’, Historical Journal, XIII (1970), 85105CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Wetherell, H. I., ‘The Rhodesias and amalgamation: settler sub-imperialism and the imperial response, 1914–48’ (unpublished Ph.D. thesis, university of Rhodesia, 1977)Google Scholar, and ‘British and Rhodesian expansionism: imperial collusion or empirical carelessness?’, Rhodesian History, VIII (Salisbury, 1977), 115–28Google Scholar, and Settler expansionism in Central Africa: the imperial response of 1931 and subsequent implications’, African Affairs, LXXVIII (1979)Google Scholar; Rotberg, R. I., ‘The federal movement in East and Central Africa, 1889–1953’, Journal of Commonwealth Political Studies, II (1964), 141–60Google Scholar. See also Robinson, K., The dilemmas of trusteeship: aspects of British colonial policy between the wars (Oxford, 1965)Google Scholar.

5 Chanock, M., Unconsummated union: Britain, Rhodesia and South Africa, 1900–1945 (Manchester, 1977)Google Scholar; Hyam, R., The failure of South African expansion, 1908–1948 (London, 1972)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; P.R.O, CO 847/23/47173. For Amery's, L. S. view see Mansergh, N. et al. (eds.), Transfer of power in India, v (London, 1974), 591Google Scholar (Amery to Wavell, 28 Feb. 1945).

6 Thus far I accept the argument of Wood, , Welensky papers, p. 35Google Scholar.

7 Throup, D. W., ‘The origins of Mau-Mau’, African Affairs, LXXXIV (1985), 410Google Scholar; Anderson, D. M. and Throup, D. W., ‘Africans and agricultural production in colonial Kenya’, Journal of African History, XXVI (1985), 344Google Scholar; Ovendale, R., ‘The South African policy of the British Labour government, 1947–51’, International Affairs, LIX (1983), 4158Google Scholar.

8 CO 537/3608/24 and minutes by Cohen, 16 and 21 July and 12 Oct. 1948. It seems that Col. Stanley, the former Conservative secretary of state for the colonies, suggested to Welensky that he should substitute federation for amalgamation, though Welensky subsequently seems to have muddled him up with Creech Jones: see Welensky, R., Welensky's 4000 days: the life and death of the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland (London, 1964), pp. 24 and 43Google Scholar, and Wood, , Welensky papers, pp. 122–3Google Scholar.

9 CO 537/3608, minutes by Creech Jones, 8, 21 and 28 Oct. 1948.

10 CO 537/4687, minutes by Cohen, 7 and 23 Mar. 1949.

11 DO 35/3585, minutes by Liesching, 28 Jan. and Gordon Walker, 28 Jan. and Noel-Baker, 10 Feb. 1949; DO 35/3586, minute by Gordon Walker, 3 Oct. 1949.

12 DO 35/3586/3 and 8, Creech Jones to prime minister, 19 Apr. and May 1949.

13 DO 3586, minutes by Liesching, 29 Sept. and Noel-Baker, 11 July, 12 Nov. and 9 Dec. 1949.

14 DO 35/3586/51 and minute by Baxter, 4 Nov. 1949.

15 DO 35/3587/26; CO 537/5884/34. For Attlee's opinion of his ministers, see Churchill College archives centre: Attlee papers, ATLE 1/17.

16 DO 35/3588, minute by Baxter, 22 Apr. and memo by Cohen, 9 May 1950 (no. 58).

17 DO 35/3588, minutes by Gordon Walker, 27 Apr., 11 and 21 May 1950, and Baxter, 10 May; CO 537/5884, minute by C. E. Lambert, 28 Apr. 1950.

18 DO 35/3588/70.

19 DO 35/3588/85 and minute by Gordon Walker, 16 Sept. 1950; no. 91, minute to the prime minister, 5 Oct. 1950; PREM 8/1307; CO 537/5885, minute by Griffiths, 20 Oct. 1950.

20 Blake, , History of Rhodesia, p. 249Google Scholar; Wood, , Welensky papers, p. 149Google Scholar; Goldsworthy, D., Colonial issues in British politics, 1945–1961 (Oxford, 1971), p. 48Google Scholar; Holland, R. F., European decolonisation, 1918–1981: an introductory survey (London, 1985), p. 141CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Hanna, A. J., The story of the Rhodesias and Nyasaland (London, 1960), pp. 252–3Google Scholar. The initiative for the officials' conference has been variously ascribed: to G. H. Baxter (Gann, , History of Northern Rhodesia, p. 410Google Scholar; Palley, , Constitutional history and law of Southern Rhodesia, p. 335Google Scholar), to Cohen (Rotberg, , Rise of nationalism, p. 231, n. 37Google Scholar; Goldsworthy, , Colonial issues, p. 216Google Scholar), and, rather naïvely, to Huggins (Blake, p. 249; Wood, p. 168). Clearly the idea did not originate with Huggins: he merely put forward the formal request, which had been suggested to him. Liesching reminded Huggins that the ‘first initiative’ came from the C.R.O. (DO 35/3609/39 A, 17 June 1952). In all probability both Baxter and Cohen had the same idea independently. What is certain is that they consulted closely at every stage, and thought along similar lines. It is equally clear that Baxter's influence in promoting federation was just as significant as Cohen's, perhaps more so. Baxter recalled in 1956: ‘It suddenly came to me, almost with the force of a conversion, that the change had to be brought about…The politicians had had their whack, and I worked to see whether the officials from both sides could put their heads together and achieve something. Rather surprisingly, we were allowed to have a try.’ He later became secretary of the Rhodesia and Nyasaland Committee and a leading publicist for the federal government in London. (Leys, and Pratt, , New deal in Central Africa, pp. 20 and 47, n.3.)Google Scholar

21 CO 537/5885, minutes by Cohen, 14 and 19 Sept. 1950; DO 35/3588/100, Gordon Walker, 20 Sept. 1950. For the East African High Commission see Leys, C. and Robson, P. (eds.), Federation in East Africa: opportunities and problems (Nairobi, 1965)Google Scholar.

22 CO 537/7201, minute by Cohen, 12 Jan. 1951; DO 35/3591, minute by Baxter, 26 Jan. 1951; DO 35/3592, minute by Baxter, 6 Feb. 1951; Wood, , Welensky papers, pp. 180–1Google Scholar.

23 DO 35/3591/51; P.R.O., CAB 129/45/CP(51) 109; Ovendale, , ‘South African policy’, International Affairs, LIX (1983), 51–4Google Scholar. For Churchill's 1906 memoranda see Hyam, R., Elgin and Churchill at the colonial office, 1905–1908 (London, 1968), pp. 115–17CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

24 CAB 129/42/CP(50)214, memo 25 Sept. 1950; CAB 128/18/CM(50)62, conclusions, 28 Sept. 1950.

25 CAB 129/45/CP (51) 122, annex I, confidential minute on the conference on closer association in central Africa, by G. H. Baxter and A. B. Cohen, 31 Mar. 1951; see also Wood, , Welensky papers, 193–4Google Scholar.

26 DO 35/3594/II, briefs by Baxter, 21 Apr. 1951; CAB 129/45/CP(51) 122, memo 3 May 1951.

27 CO 537/7203/7; CO 537/5896.

28 CO 537/7203/7, note by Cohen, 18 Apr. 1951.

29 CAB 129/45/CP(51) 122; DO 35/3598/16; DO 35/3594/9: the Indian constitution of 1937 provided a precedent for the Minister for African Interests, it was claimed. See also Wood, p. 185.

30 CO 537/7203, minute by Lloyd, 9 Apr. 1951; DO 35/3594/3, and minute by Gordon Walker, 25 Apr. 1951.

31 CAB 128/19/CM(51)34/4, conclusions 7 May 1951, and CM (51) 39/3, conclusions 31 May 1951.

32 DO 35/3598/4, 7 A and 9; DO 35/3599.

33 P.R.O., DO 121/140; CO 1015/51, minute by Griffiths, 9 Aug. 1951; CO 1015/52/151; DO 35/3598/12.

34 DO 35/3598/24, minutes by Baxter, 4, 5 and 13 Oct. 1951; DO 35/3600/51; CO 1015/202/4. See also Wood, pp. 216–22.

35 CAB 129/47/CP(51)265, memo 12 Oct. 1951; DO 35/3600/2.

36 Hyam, R., ‘The political consequences of Seretse Khama: Britain, the Bangwato and South Africa, 1948–1952’, Historical Journal, XXIX (1986), 921–47CrossRefGoogle Scholar; see also Seldon, A., Churchill's Indian summer: the Conservative government, 1951–1955 (London, 1981), p. 432Google Scholar.

37 DO 35/3600, minutes by Baxter, 30 Oct. and 7 Nov. 1951, and no. 5, Baxter to I. Maclennan, 23 Oct. 1951; CO 1015/65/115; CAB 129/48/ (51) 11, memo 9 Nov. 1951; see also Seldon, , Churchill's Indian summer, p. 361Google Scholar.

38 CAB 128/23/CC(51)7/5, conclusions 15 Nov. 1951; DO 121/138, notes for cabinet discussion; see also Seldon, p. 361.

39 DO 35/3601/153, 158, 162 and 172, and minutes by Baxter, 27 Nov. 1951; DO 35/3605/74, Ismay to Kennedy, 12 Mar. 1952; DO 35/3607 and 3608; CO 1015/59, minute by Cohen, 31 Oct. 1951. In February 1952 Ismay wrote: ‘I would still lay a shade of odds on bringing off Closer Association, but we are going to have an awful lot of trouble from the failure of many people of all parties to realise that the average Northern Rhodesian African is of the mental calibre of a British child of ten, and that if we are to do our job of Nannie and Governess properly, we have got to give him better food, and better education before we even think of full political emancipation’. (DO 121/146, to Kennedy, 9 Feb. 1952).

40 DO 35/3601/104, telegram from Cohen to G. Colby, 3 Dec. 1951; DO 35/3604/33; DO 35/3613/39 A, Liesching to Huggins, 17 June 1952; P.R.O., CO 866/77, minutes by Lambert, 24 Mar., and Lloyd, 28 Mar. 1952; CO 1015/120, minute by Gorell-Barnes, 18 July 1952.

41 DO 121 /146, ‘Bobbety’ Salisbury to Kennedy, 24 Sept. 1952, and Kennedy to Ismay, 30 Nov. 1951; CO 1015/65/178.

42 DO 35/3613, minutes, and nos. 81 and 101; DO 35/3597/13; CO 537/5886.

43 CO 1015/144/33 (Hopkinson's report, 23 Sept. 1952) and 34; CO 1015/120/14, 17 and 25 (Hudson's reports), and 48; see also Gann, , History of Northern Rhodesia, p. 428Google Scholar. As in east Africa, the field administration was reluctant to face up to the long-term necessity of abandoning the settlers: see Anderson, and Throup, , ‘Africans and agricultural production’, p. 344Google Scholar.

44 CO 1015/770, especially no. 43, and minute by Gorell-Barnes, 26 Aug. 1952. The colonial office paid Attlee the compliment of having no qualms about his visit to central Africa at Welensky's invitation: ‘Mr Attlee is surely far too statesmanlike to cause any difficulty intentionally, and too shrewd to do so inadvertently’. But he did discomfit some of the African leaders: he lectured Harry Nkumbula (president of the Northern Rhodesian African congress) on ‘no short cuts to political maturity’: politics ‘could not all be learned from a textbook’. (CO 1015/107, minute by J. E. Marnham, 5 June 1952. See also House of Commons debates, 5th series, vol. 515/425 (6 May 1953).

45 Lesotho government archives (Maseru): Basutoland National Council proceedings, 49th session (1953), speech by councillor Nchocho Seaja: Nyasaland and Northern Rhodesia, countries in a similar situation to themselves, ‘are no longer under protection’: this was a warning to their own much smaller country, because it showed promises could be broken, and ‘what can stop the British government transferring us’ to South Africa? (S.3/20/1/46/56–9); DO 35/3602/185, minute by W. A. W. Clark, 14 Jan. 1952.

46 CAB 129/57/C(52)445, memo 16Dec. 1952; see also CO 1015/787, which shows how little impressed the colonial office was by British opposition. A deputation in March 1953 was said to consist of some ‘very respectable university names’ (e.g. Margery Perham), but also some of the bitterest opponents of federation (Professors W. A. Lewis and K. Little); there were the ‘usual ecclesiastical cranks’ (? Canon Raven), the Left Book Club, and the ‘hardy annuals of medicine’ (Alex Comfort).

47 P.R.O., CAB 133/97; Griffiths, James, Pages from memory (London, 1969), pp. 113–18Google Scholar; Churchill College archives centre: Noel-Baker papers, NBKR 4/9 (cuttings on Central African Federation).

48 CAB 128/17/CM (50) 28/3, conclusions 2 May 1950.

49 Lyttelton, O., The memoirs of Lord Chandos (London, 1962), pp. 385–7Google Scholar; Churchill College archives centre: Chandos papers, CHAN II/4/15/i/52–53, Lyttelton to R.A. Butler, 6 Dec. 1971, and 4/16/iii/28–30, interview with MaxBeloff, 22 Feb. 1970 (Oxford colonial/development records project); see also Butler, R. A., The art of the possible: the memoirs of Lord Butler (London, 1971), p. 208Google Scholar: ‘The arguments for the Federation were primarily economic’.

50 CO 1015/65/137; DO 35/3594/11; see also Hazlewood, A., ‘Economics of federation and dissolution in Central Africa’, in Hazlewood, A. (ed.) African integration and disintegration: case studies in economic and political union (Oxford, 1967), pp. 188–95Google Scholar. The ‘economic case’ as discussed in Whitehall rested mainly on the following propositions: the present units were too small for the vast water-control and hydro-electric schemes required (‘the Zambesi should be a centre, not a frontier’), and common action to develop the river system might result; transport improvements might be better planned; industry would develop better if it had a large area to serve; pooled resources would iron out shortages of food; more revenue would be generated for social and economic services (especially for Africans); the flow of Southern Rhodesian coal to the Copper Belt would be improved (to the benefit of Northern Rhodesia generally and of British defence requirements); a federation would face a world recession more strongly, and prevent Barotseland and Nyasaland degenerating into bankrupt isolated backwaters. (See CAB 120,/47/CP(51)265 and 48/C (51) 11/appendix 11; CO 1015/786; DP 35/3592/45; DO 121/138, minute by Baxter, 13 Nov. 1951.)

51 The accounts in Gupta, P. S., Imperialism and the British labour movement, 1914–1964 (London, 1975), p. 340CrossRefGoogle Scholar, Holland, , European decolonisation, p. 141Google Scholar, and Gifford, , ‘Misconceived dominion’, p. 399Google Scholar, all seem to need qualification. For discussion of the Federation in a wide framework of reference, see Gupta's, fine essay, ‘Imperialism and the Labour government of 1945–1951’, Winter, J. (ed.), The working class in modern British history: essays in honour of Henry Felling (Cambridge, 1983), pp. 115–20Google Scholar. For Swinton's commitment to ‘partnership’, see Churchill College archives centre: Swinton papers, SWIN II/6/19 (speeches, 1953).

52 Boucher, M., review of Wood, Welensky papers, in South African Historical Journal, XVII (1985), 131Google Scholar.

53 CO 537/4691; CO 537/7203, minute by Lloyd, 9 Apr. 1951; DO 35/4019; DO 35/3605/96.

54 DO 121/146, Kennedy to ‘Bobbety’ Salisbury, 14 Sept. 1952; DO 35/3586/21 (16 July 1949).

55 CO 537/5884/26 (Colby to Cohen, 10 Feb. 1950); CO 537/7201/52 (Colby to Cohen, 24 Feb. 1951); CO 1015/65/165 (memo by Colby, 19 Mar. 1952).

56 CO 537/4689/158; CO 537/5885.

57 DO 35/3587/28, notes 6 Mar. 1950.

58 DO 121/138; DO 35/3591/51; DO 35/3594/7; DO 35/3598/1; Wood, pp. 150–1; Hyam, , Failure of South African expansion, p. 187Google Scholar; Fortune, C., M.C.C. in South Africa, 1964–65 (London, 1965), p. 31Google Scholar; Leys, C., European politics in Southern Rhodesia (Oxford, 1959), p. 94Google Scholar.

59 CAB 129/45/CP (51) 122, appendix to annex 1, memo 3 May 1951; Griffiths, , Pages from memory, p. 113Google Scholar; Griffiths, , speech in House of Commons debates, 5th series, vol. 497/211 (4 03 1952)Google Scholar.

60 DO 35/3602/185; CO 537/4691. For South African immigration policies see Geldenhuys, D., ‘The effects of South Africa's racial policy on Anglo-South African relations, 1945–61’ (unpublished Cambridge Ph.D. thesis, 1977), pp. 146–7Google Scholar.

61 CO 537/5896/25, Griffiths to G. Rennie, 7 Nov. 1950.