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Meat and Monopolies: Beef Cattle in Southern Rhodesia, 1890–1938

  • I.R. Phimister (a1)


This paper discusses the history of the beef cattle industry in Southern Rhodesia between 1890 and 1938, but does so within the context of the world meat trade in order to examine the relationship between local and international capital. While certain entrepreneurs early recognized Southern Rhodesia as a potentially valuable beef cattle country, full realization of this hinged on breaking into the world meat market dominated by a few large cold storage companies, drawing on production based mainly in Argentina. Throughout these years, Southern Rhodesia faced at best indifference or at worst occasional outright hostility from such companies in its attempts to secure a place in the world market. Only Liebigs, who were primarily involved in meat extract requiring low-grade cattle, could be induced to operate in Southern Rhodesia.

The meat industry in Southern Rhodesia enjoyed certain advantages: land was extensive and cheap, labour power was produced and reproduced outside the capitalist sector, and there were stocks of indigenous cattle which were seized or purchased cheaply. But the industry also suffered from lack of capital, inadequate transport, the poor beef qualities of indigenous cattle, and disease. Despite state assistance from an early date, most Rhodesian ranchers proved incapable of rearing quality cattle for the world market. Once co-operative attempts by local capital had failed to secure markets for Southern Rhodesian cattle, further state involvement was necessary. Its limited resources obliged the state to try and attract, or seek partnerships with, international capital. However, the big companies remained uninterested, and Southern Rhodesia was obliged to settle for the Imperial Cold Storage Company which, although of overwhelming importance in southern Africa, was insignificant on a world scale. Contradictions in the state–I.C.S. Company relationship surfaced fairly quickly and in 1938 the local Cold Storage Commission was established.



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1 Gilchrist, R. D., Southern Rhodesia Legislative Council Debates, 30 05 1923, col. 40.

2 An expanded version of the present article will appear in Roberts, R. S. (ed.), Cattle in Central Africa (forthcoming); this will include discussion of such topics as fencing and disease control.

3 ‘Report on the cattle cost investigation carried out by the Economics and Markets Branch’, Rhodesia Agricultural Journal, XLVIII (1951), 519, 533.

4 See, e.g., Baldwin, R. E., Economic Development and Export Growth: a study of Northern Rhodesia, 1920–1960 (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1966); Wrigley, C. C., ‘Kenya: the patterns of Economic Life, 1902–1945’, in Harlow, V. and Chilver, E. M. (eds.), History of East Africa, II (Oxford, 1965); Brett, E. A., Colonialism and Underdevelopment in East Africa; the politics of economic change, 1919–1939 (London, 1973).

5 See also Murray, D. J., The Governmental System in Southern Rhodesia (Oxford, 1970), ch. 4, ‘The European Agricultural Sector’.

6 See, e.g., Fielder, R. J., ‘The role of cattle in the Ila economy’, African Social Research, XV (1973), 327–61; de Carvalho, E. C., ‘“Traditional” and “Modern” patterns of cattle raising in Southwestern Angola: a critical evaluation of change from pastoralism to ranching’, J. Developing Areas, VIII (1974), 199225.

7 Rhod. Agr. J. xxvi (1929), 764–5.

8 B[ritish] S[outh] A[frica] C[ompany], Memorandum by Mr. H. Wilson Fox concerning the Development of Estates and Industries by the Company (London, 1914), 109.

9 This was the estimated time in 1912, but it remained substantially the same throughout the period considered.

10 B.S.A.C., Memorandum…concerning the Development of Estates and Industries, 109.

11 This and the next paragraph are drawn from S1215/1325/19, ‘Report on the cattle and chilled beef industries in South America’, by C. A. Murray. All file references are to the National Archives of Rhodesia, Salisbury.

12 Kay, G., Development and Underdevelopment (London, 1975), 167.

13 Smith, P., Politics and Beef in Argentina (New York, 1969), 3940.

14 Mss, H.. LE 3/1/1, ‘Marketing of Chilled Beef in the United Kingdom’, 11 Feb. 1932.

15 To some extent the quota system was also related to the limited availability of refrigerated hulls for shipment to Britain; see Smith, , Politics and Beef, 41.

16 For examples and discussion, see Smith, , Politics and Beef, 40, 60–1, 112–13; Hanson, S. G., Argentine Meat and the British Market (Stanford, 1938), 172–83, 243–9.

17 L 2/1/201, ‘Notes of interview with Mr. William Vestey of Vestey Bros., 12 Mar. 1913’. See also Perren, R., The Meat Trade in Britain, 1840–1914 (London, 1978).

18 Cripps, L., Southern Rhodesia Legislative Council Debates, 25 06 1923, cols. 281–2. By 1925, Vesteys were the world's largest retailers of meat; see Hanson, , Argentine Meat, 246.

19 Mss, H.. DO 1/1/6, Downie to Moffat, 14 05 1931.

20 Cripps, L., Southern Rhodesia Legislative Council Debates, 25 06 1923, col. 281.

21 British South Africa Company, Ranching in Rhodesia (London, 1919), 5.

22 Palmer, R. H., Aspects of Rhodesian Land Policy 1890–1936 (Salisbury, 1968), 9, 43.

23 Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland, An Agricultural Survey of Southern Rhodesia, Part II, Agro-Economic Survey (1955), 87; Memorandum on the Cattle Industry of Southern Rhodesia, 1921’, Rhod. Agr. J. XVIII (1921), 249; Ministry of Agriculture, Beef Cattle Production Costs on some European farms in Northern and Southern Rhodesia, 1959 to 1962 (Salisbury, 1964), 10.

24 Clark, D. G., ‘The Political Economy of Discrimination and Underdevelopment in Rhodesia with special reference to African Workers 1940–1973’ (Ph.D. thesis, University of St Andrews, 1975), 304.

25 Beef Cattle Production Costs, 10.

26 For elaboration, see Phimister, I. R., ‘A note on labour relations in Southern Rhodesian agriculture before 1939’, South African Labour Bulletin, III (1977), 94104.

27 See variously, Cobbing, J. R., ‘The Ndebele under the Khumalos, 1820–1896’ (Ph.D., University of Lancaster, 1976), 372–82; Stigger, P., ‘Volunteers and the profit motive in the Anglo—Ndebele War, 1893’, Rhodesian History, II (1971), 22; and Palmer, R. H., Land and Racial Domination in Rhodesia (London, 1977), 94.

28 Arrighi, G., ‘Labour supplies in historical perspective: a study of the proletarianization of the African peasantry in Rhodesia’, J. Development Studies, VI (1970), 216.

29 Murray, , Governmental System in Southern Rhodesia, 107. African cattle owners also suffered substantial losses under the various cattle levies which were passed in the early 1930s to help subsidize the export trade.

30 Major Chomley, G. G. F. (Asst. Gen. Manager, B.S.A. Company), cited in ‘Cattle Industry of Southern Rhodesia’, Rhod. Agr. J. XXI (1924), 706.

31 See Bray, J. O., ‘Beef productivity increases in the Southeastern United States since 1920’, Food Research Institute Studies, VI (1966), 72. See also Jarvis, L. S., ‘Cattle as capital goods and ranchers as portfolio managers: an application to the Argentine cattle sector’, J. Political Economy, VII (1974), 491: ‘The Cattle sector presents an interesting feature in so far as the slaughter of animals responds negatively to a price increase in the short run. This behaviour contrasts with the supply response of most other agricultural products… Although actual output for these crops is expected to adjust only gradually to the long-run desired output, there is never reason to expect output to fall when its price increases. But, because cattle production can be increased only by increasing the size of the breeding herd and/or withholding animals for further fattening, producers must bid animals away from consumers to increase the capital stock which is the source of higher future beef production. And the slow rate of biological reproduction causes the negative supply response to persist for some time’.

32 Wise, C. D., ‘Report on Land Settlement in Southern Rhodesia’, Rhod. Agr. J., IV (1906), 135; B.S.A. Co., Ranching in Rhodesia, 9; Report of the Commission of Inquiry into the Cost of Living on Cattle and Beef Prices (1955) 17.

33 Rushmore, E., Beef Production in Southern Rhodesia (Cape Town, 1950), 55.

34 Rhod. Agr. J., ix (1911), 195.

35 SC 20/132/402, Summary of Messrs Gishford and Sambrook's report, 8 Oct. 1935.

36 Romyn, A. E. and Murray, C. A., ‘Cost of fattening bullocks of various ages in Matabeleland’, Rhod. Agr. J., XXXV (1938), 850.

37 Tracey, L. T., Beef on Ranch and Farm (Salisbury, 1963), 3.

38 H. Mss. DO 1/1/6, Moffat to Downie, 24 Apr. 1932.

39 Romyn, A. E., ‘Cattle improvements and a cattle breeding policy in Southern Rhodesia’, Rhod. Agr. J. XXXII (1935), 100.

40 S1801/2523, ‘Kirkley Mission to Southern Rhodesia: Development of the Cattle Industry in Southern Rhodesia’, 19 Mar. 1931.

41 H. Mss. LE 3/1/1, ‘Marketing of Chilled Beef in the United Kingdom’.

42 Mss, H.. DO 1/1/6, Moffat to Downie, 28 Jan. 1931.

43 ‘Memorandum on the Cattle Industry’, 250; Cross, E. G., ‘An economic appraisal of the production and marketing of Rhodesian beef’, Rhod. J. Economics, V (1971), 19.

44 Rawson, O. C., ‘Proposed Canning Factory’, Rhod. Agr. J. XII (1915), 487–8.

45 Rhodesia Advertiser, 10 Feb. 1916.

46 Independent, 27 Aug. 1920. Farmers' disinterest was attributed to the high cattle prices then prevailing.

47 Ibid.; Weinmann, H., Agricultural Research and Development in Southern Rhodesia under the rule of the British South Africa Company 1890–1923 (Salisbury, 1972), 113–14.

48 Meeting of the Representatives of the Cattle Industry of the Union of South Africa, Rhodesia, Swaziland, Bechuanaland and South-West Protectorates, Johannesburg, 24 March 1921 (Johannesburg, 1921), 2, 3, 6, 19; Independent, 22 June 1923.

49 Independent, 2 Sept. 1921.

50 Ibid. 10 Mar. 1922; ibid. 16 Feb. 1923. In fact, less than one-third of the Exchange's cattle came from Southern Rhodesia in 1922.

51 Meeting of Representatives of the Cattle Industry…, 6.

52 Independent, 22 June 1923.

53 Second and Final Report of the Committee of Enquiry in respect of the Cattle Industry of Southern Rhodesia, dealing with its Investigations in the Union of South Africa, 1923 (1924), 4; Hanson, , Argentine Meat, 125–6, 129–30.

54 Independent, 22 June 1923.

55 Arrighi, G., The Political Economy of Rhodesia (The Hague, 1967), 25.

56 Ibid., 30.

57 L2/1/134/1, B.S.A.C., Memorandum, 17 July 1909.

58 Ibid., ‘An Agreement Made the 2nd day of February 1911, between the British South Africa Company…and Liebig's Extract of Meat Company’.

59 L2/1/134/4. ‘The Liebig's Extract of Meat Company's Properties’, 17 Nov. 1913.

60 L2/1/201, ‘Notes of Interview with Mr. William Vestey of Vestey Bros’.

61 L2/1/134/4, Secretary, Liebig's Extract of Meat Company to Directors, British South Africa Company, 12 June 1913; ibid., Commercial Representative, B.S.A.C., to Secretary, B.S.A.C., 19 July 1913.

62 H. Mss. NE/1/1/2, Downie to Newton, 8 Sept. 1925.

63 S1193/M5, Director of Agriculture to Treasurer, 20 Dec. 1921.

64 Ibid., Treasurer to Director of Agriculture, 19 June 1922.

65 This section on the early history of the I.C.S. Company is taken from Hanson, , Argentine Meat, 122–30.

66 S1193/M5, Memo. by Rawson, O. C., attached to ‘Cold Storage Works in Rhodesia’, 23 05 1924.

67 Ibid., Rhodesia Ranching Co. Ltd. to Chairman, Rhodesia Cattle Commission, 1 Feb. 1924.

68 Ibid., ‘Cold Storage Works in Rhodesia’.

69 H. Mss. NE 1/1/1, Newton to Coghlan, 2 Oct. 1924.

70 Agreement with Imperial Cold Storage’, Rhod. Agr. J., XXI (1924), 633–6; Southern Rhodesia Legislative Assembly Debates, 25–28 Nov. 1924, col. 13 onwards.

71 ‘Agreement with Imperial Cold Storage’.

72 H. Mss. NE 1/1/1, Coghlan to Newton, 9 Feb. 1925.

73 See, for example, Rhodesian Beef on Smithfield Market’, Rhod. Agr. J., XIV (1917), 196201.

74 For the lengthy correspondence on this subject see H. Mss. LE 3/1/1, Haddon, T. to Minister of Agriculture, 20 Mar. 1930, and attached reports.

75 H. Mss. DO 1/1/6, Moffat to Downie, 14 10. 1930.

76 H. Mss. DO 1/1/1, Downie to Fletcher, 1 Apr. 1931.

77 H. Mss. DO 1/1/6, Downie to Moffat, 14 May 1931.

78 Ibid., Moffat to Downie, 23 Jan. 1931; ‘Vesteys and the Anglo American Companies which practically control the South American trade, have come to an arrangement and in quoting…[the I.C.S. Co.] has also to fight them. They refuse to go in with him’.

79 H. Mss. DO 1/1/6, Moffat to Downie, 14 Apr. 1932.

80 H. Mss. LE 3/1/1, Downie to Leggate, 7 Sept. 1932.

81 H. Mss. DO 1/1/5, Downie to Mitchell, 15 Dec. 1932.

82 Ibid., Mitchell to Downie, 4 May 1933.

83 Romyn, A. E., ‘The export of chilled beef from Southern Rhodesia in 1933’, Rhod. Agr. J., XXXI (1934), 172–3, 176. The greatest losses, of course, were borne by African cattle owners under the levy system. See esp. Interim Report on Livestock and Meat, with special reference to Cattle and Beef (1936); and for the 1940s and 1950s, Yudelman, M., Africans on the Land (Cambridge, 1964), 190–1.

84 Report of the Committee of Enquiry into the Economic Development of the Colony (1939), 21, 23.

85 Murray, , Governmental System in Southern Rhodesia, 84.

86 Romyn, , ‘Export of chilled beef’, 173.

87 H. Mss. DO 1/1/5, Mitchell to Downie, 25 Feb. 1933.

88 S1216/SC20/132/402, G. M. Huggins to Minister of Agriculture, 31 May 1935; SC 20/132/402, Summary of Messrs Gishford and Sambrook's report.

89 H. Mss. SM 4/1/1, D. Burnett to Acting Minister of Agriculture, 13 Jan. 1938.

90 Details of the arbitration are contained in S 1217/11, ‘In the matter of an Arbitration between the Rhodesian Export and Cold Storage Company Limited and the Government of the Colony of Southern Rhodesia’, 30 June 1938.

91 Editorial, Rhod. Agr. J., VI (1908), I.

92 Bulawayo Chronicle, 15 Sept. 1923.

93 H. Mss. DO 1/1/5, Downie to Mitchell, 20 June 1933.

94 Bulawayo Chronicle, 15 Oct. 1938.


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