British South Africa Company

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The British South Africa Company (BSAC) was founded in 1889 following the amalgamation of Cecil Rhodes' Central Search Association and the London-based Exploring Company Ltd, which had originally competed to capitalize on any mineral wealth expected to be found in Mashonaland, but united because of common economic interests and to secure British government backing. The company received a Royal Charter modelled on that of the British East India Company. Its first directors included James Hamilton, 2nd Duke of Abercorn, Cecil Rhodes himself, and the South African financier Alfred Beit.

Southern Rhodesia

Rhodes hoped BSAC would promote colonisation and subsequent economic exploitation across the undeveloped lands in south-central Africa. However, his main focus was south of the Zambezi, in Mashonaland and the coastal areas to its east, from which he believed the Portuguese could be removed by payment or force, and in the Transvaal, which he hoped would come under British control.[1]

The company had considerable success in what became known as Southern Rhodesia. Since 1890 in the native Shona countryside and from 1893 in the Ndebele parts of the country the company had built up an administrative and exonomic infrastructure based on several towns and villages. The company also had undeveloped interests north of the Zambezi river and at one point was on the verge of annexing Bechuanaland.

By late 1895 the company controlled the Rhodesian goldfields, although these were not a success for the company, which resulted in the ill-fated Jameson Raid when the company attempted to take control of the Transvaal. The British Government now stepped in and company forces were brought under the control of a Deputy to the High Commissioner, Sir Richard Martin, who was expected to watch company activities. Rhodes replaced Jameson, as Administrator, by Earl Grey, a man whose loyalty to Rhodes was matched by his public reputation for honesty.


But the most serious consequence of the Jameson Raid in Rhodesia resulted from the actions of the African natives who believed that the establishment of the Europeans in the country was against their wishes. In withdrawing almost all the police force (the company's British South Africa Police Force), Jameson had given the Ndebele people the chance they had awaited since 1893. In March 1896 they and many of the Shone subjects of the company rose against the Europeans. In June, a great number of the Shona, independent of the Ndebele, followed suit. 265 Europeans were killed at the outbreak of these risings, and in the fighting that followed the company was forced to spend considerable amounts, including the humiliating cost of paying for the Imperial troops that were now required.

A series of enquiries and reports were prepared for the company and The Martin report was prepared for the British Government. The company's reports give the most basic information on the reasons for the defeat of the Ndebele and Shona rebels and the company retaining control. These reports were put together in facsimile volumes in early 1975.[2]


The British South Africa Company was responsible for building the Rhodesian railway network in the period of primary construction which ended in 1911, when the main line through Northern Rhodesia reached the Belgian Congo border and the Katanga copper mines. Rhodes' original intention was for a railway extending across the Zambesi river to Lake Tanganyika, considered as part of a great "Cape to Cairo" railway linking all the British colonies of Africa. Rhodes was as much a capitalist in his motivation as a visionary, and when little gold was found in Mashonaland, he accepted that even the scheme to reach Lake Tanganyika had no economic justification. Railways built by private companies without government subsidies need enough of the type of traffic that can pay high freight rates to recover their construction costs. The agricultural products that fuelled much of Rhodesia's early economic growth could not provide this traffic; large quantities of minerals could. Most early railways in Africa were built by the British government rather than Chartered Companies. The need to raise capital and produce dividends prevented most Chartered Companies from undertaking such infrastructure investments. However, in the early period of railway construction, the BSAC obtained finance from South African companies including Consolidated Gold Fields and De Beers in which Rhodes was a dominant force. BSAC also benefitted from the large, but not unlimited personal fortunes of Rhodes and Beit before their deaths.[3][4]

Northern Rhodesia

North of the Zambezi river became Northern Rhodesia. The BSAC claimed ownership of all the unalienated land in the territory, and the right to alienate it. Europeans occupied land along the line of the railway and near the towns, but generally there was no land shortage, as the population density was lower than in Southern Rhodesia, and the European population was much lower. In 1913, BSAC drew up plans for Native Reserves along Southern Rhodesian lines, outside which Africans would have no right to own or occupy land, but these plans were not implemented until 1928, after company administration ended.[5]

The UK Privy Council decision on Southern Rhodesia raised questions about the BSAC claim to the unalienated lands north of the Zambezi. However, the company's claim in Northern Rhodesia was based on concessions granted rather than conquest and, although a parliamentary Committee in 1921 recommended that these claims also should be referred to the Privy Council, the British government preferred to negotiate an overall settlement for the end of BSAC administration in Northern Rhodesia. This effectively acknowledged the company's claim. Under an Agreement of 29 September 1923, the Northern Rhodesian colonial government took over the entire control of lands previously controlled by BSAC from 1 April 1924, paying the company half the net rents and the proceeds of certain land sales.[6]

The End

In 1922 the company entered negotiations with the Union of South Africa government for the incorporation of Southern Rhodesia into the Union. However, as the BSAC Royal Charter was due to expire in 1924, a referendum was held in 1922 in which the electorate was given a choice between responsible government and entry into the Union of South Africa. Those in favour of responsible government won a significant, but not overwhelming, majority. In 1923, on advice from the Privy Council, the British government chose not to renew the company's charter, and instead awarded self-governing colony status to Southern Rhodesia and protectorate status to Northern Rhodesia.[7]


  1. Crown and Charter: The early Years of the British South Africa Company by J.S. Galbraith, 1974, pp:88,90.
  2. The '96 Rebellions, Bulawayo, Rhodesia, 1975.
  3. The Political Economy of Primary Railway Construction in the Rhodesias, 1890–1911 by J. Lunn, 1992, pps:239, 244.
  4. Zambia and Rhodesia: Prisoners of the Past: A Note on the History of Railway Politics in Central Africa by S Katzenellenbogen, 1974, pps:63–4.
  5. The Rise of Nationalism in Central Africa : The Making of Malawi and Zambia, 1873–1964 by R. I. Rotberg, 1965, p. 37.
  6. The Constitutional Changes in Northern Rhodesia and Matters Incidental to the Transition by G.D. Clough, 1924, p.281.
  7. The Cambridge History of the British Empire - "South Africa, Rhodesia and the High Commission Territories" by E.A. Walker, Cambridge University Press, 1963.