By Takasununguka Ziki
THE grandeur of Meikles Hotel in Harare, a five-star establishment renowned for its regal ambiance, stands as testament to the incredible journey of the Meikles family and their involvement in the Rhodesia Loot Committee of 1894.
This committee, established by the British South Africa Company (BSAC), was tasked with overseeing the distribution of spoils and proceeds stolen from indegens of the newly colonised nation.
At the centre of this controversial chapter in history was Thomas Meikles, a key figure whose actions would shape the destiny of the Meikles business empire.
The Meikles family’s African adventure began when they departed Scotland in search of a new life. After trying their hand at farming and gold prospecting in Natal, brothers John, Thomas and Stewart Meikles decided to venture northwards.
Their journey led them to Fort Victoria, now Masvingo, where they established a humble store —a makeshift shack with cases of alcohol serving as walls.
According to John Meikle’s account, as recorded in the Rhodesian Genesis, they arrived in Fort Victoria on May 7 1891.
The nascent settlement consisted of rudimentary structures and a makeshift fort made of sand-filled sacks. The Meikles’ arrival marked the first shipment of fresh general merchandise to reach the region since its occupation.
During this period, Cecil John Rhodes, the mastermind behind the BSAC, sought to fund his operations in Rhodesia.
To achieve this, he devised a plan to exploit the local resources and enlist cheap labour, even including women and children.
Thus, the Loot Committee was established, with members primarily motivated by financial gain.
Rhodes’ scheme involved granting each participant in the conflict a farm, 20 gold claims and a share of the spoils, particularly the personal cattle of King Lobengula.
John Meikle played a crucial role in the Loot Committee, entrusted by Rhodes himself. In his diary, he referred to it as the ‘Looting Committee.’
According to John Meikle, farm rights were being sold for 10 Sterling pounds each, while loot rights fetched 12 pounds Sterling.
Meikles diary reveals that Rhodes instructed him to lead a group of 70 men and provided them with ammunition, ordering them to kill as many cattle as required for sustenance. Meikles recounts how he and Alan Wilson embarked on a journey southwards with the looted cattle, describing the chaotic scene of bellowing oxen, cows and calves.
At the conclusion of their operations, the Loot Committee accounted for an astounding 300 and 62 000 head of cattle.
John Meikles received a substantial payment from Rhodes, along with a sizable portion of stolen cattle. Fortunately, Meikles avoided the loss of any animals to lung sickness, thanks to his brother Thomas, who brought him some of the looted cattle.
With this newfound capital, the Meikles were able to expand their business ventures. In 1915, they established the Meikles Hotel, a landmark that has since become an icon in Harare. The success of Meikles Hotel marked the beginning of the Meikles’ rise to prominence in the business world.
As we reflect upon the Rhodesia Loot Committee and the role played by John Meikles, it is essential to acknowledge the complex nature of this historical period.
While the Meikles’ entrepreneurial achievements are undeniable, it is important to recognsze that their initial wealth was built upon the dubious spoils of war and the controversial actions of the Loot Committee.
The Meikles’ journey from a modest store in Fort Victoria to the pinnacle of the hospitality industry underscores the enduring legacy of the Rhodesia Loot Committee.
It serves as a reminder of the intricate web of history, where triumphs and controversies intertwine, leaving an indelible mark on the social, economic and cultural fabric of a nation.