A history of land, agriculture and Zimbabwe: Part 15 …land seized behind facade of ‘civilisation mission’


THE growth of the British Empire was due in large part to the ongoing competition for resources and markets which existed over a period of centuries between England and her continental rivals: Spain, France and Holland.
Ultimately, after successful wars with the Dutch, French and Spanish, Britain acquired most of the eastern coast of North America, the St. Lawrence basin in Canada, territories in the Caribbean, stations in Africa for the acquisition of slaves, and important interests in India.
Until the early 19th Century, the primary purpose of imperialist policies was to facilitate the acquisition of as much foreign territory as possible, both as a source of raw materials and in order to provide real or potential markets for British manufactures; insuring through trade monopolies that Britain’s exports would exceed its imports.
It was believed a profitable balance of trade, would provide the wealth necessary to maintain and expand the Empire.
Towards the end of the 18th Century Britain was in a powerful, but complex position.
Her imperial position was unchallenged; England became the leading industrial nation of Europe, and more and more of the world came under the domination of British imperialist commercial, financial, and naval power.
By now her traditional rivals had been greatly diminished in size or lost; only Russia’s expansion both southward and eastward threatened her interests in India which needed to be protected equally by land and by sea.
In 1876 Queen Victoria was crowned Empress of India.
This was justified by invoking a paternalistic and racist theory erroneously based on Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, which saw imperialism as a manifestation of (Rudyard Kipling’s) ‘…the white man’s burden…’
The implication being that the Empire did not exist for the socio-economic, strategic and other benefits of (Britain) itself, but: “… in order that primitive peoples, incapable of self-government could with British guidance, eventually become Christians and thus civilised…” – thus colonisation was justified under a banner of ‘Commerce, Christianity and Civilisation’.
A doctrine which provided legitimacy to Britain’s civilising mission in Africa and its acquisition of vast areas of Central Africa including her domination of China held jointly with other European powers as the main justification for the colonial enterprise.
Additional territorial acquisitions and trading concessions continued during the Victorian Era, including the acquisition by Britain of ‘Dutch’ South Africa; promoted by strategic considerations – justified and supported by benevolent zeal.
Britain’s complex and vulnerable state of affairs was weakened during the late 18th and early 19th Centuries by a number of factors.
These included the abolition of slavery in 1807 in Britain itself and the freeing of slaves held elsewhere in the Empire a generation later; the adoption of ‘Free Trade’ lessening the influence of the old monopolistic trading corporations; and by the various growing nationalist movements in various colonies for greater political and commercial independence, which at the height of the Empire, presaged its dissolution.
Although the process for independence accelerated after First World War; the Empire in fact, increased in size in the immediate post-war period; Britain became the protectorate or ‘trustee’ of former German and Turkish territories. The British East Africa and German East Africa Protectorate are a case in point
This policy of ‘guardianship’ was summarised in the Privy Council’s decision in 1919, which stated that: “…some tribes are so low in the scale of social organisation that their usages and conceptions of rights and duties are not to be reconciled with institutions or the legal ideas of civilised society….”
Behind the facade of their ‘civilising mission’ European powers seized control of the lands in the hands of indigenous communities; introducing colonial laws to enforce a system of land control “…for the uncivilised people…” and establishing marginalised ‘reserved’ areas of lands, (or reservations in USA), for indigenous communities, granting them only a ‘right of usage’ to their own land, with restrictions on its use in order to ‘protect’ the said land.
Under the tenets of colonial law traditionally nomadic people such as the Berber people, wandering across territories, were considered to be at the bottom of ‘civilisation’, with no right to land and therefore no rights to occupation.
Not until 1975 was the assumption of terra nullius, partially challenged when the ICJ in its advisory opinion on the Western Sahara recognised that nomadic peoples could also exercise some form of social and political organisation, though it fell short of recognising the capacity of nomadic peoples to exercise territorial sovereignty.
Since one of the rules of territorial occupation under colonial law is the effective use of the land, the assumption was that nomadic peoples’ territories were not used productively; only agricultural societies were deemed to use lands effectively, and should therefore be regarded as terra nullius; empty and opens to colonisation.
The effective control of huge swathes of territories was deemed too expensive for the administrative systems of the colonial government, who granted rights to private companies, often referred to as Chartered Companies, who were under heavy political pressure to make their colonies immediately and continuously profitable.
Chartered companies not only had trading rights, as Lobengula believed when he signed the Rudd Concession, but also rights regarding the administration of the colonised territories, including territorial rights as in the case of the British South Africa Company and the Imperial British East Africa Company (IBEAC) under whose charter Britain placed the area corresponding to Uganda today, in 1888, and ruled as a protectorate from 1894, until it gained independence, and East India Company.
Chartered companies became important antagonist regarding land rights for local indigenous communities, often over huge areas of lands.
At one stage chartered companies were responsible for holding control over 75 percent of British territory in sub-Saharan Africa.
French, German, Portuguese and Dutch colonial administrations follow a similar practice; effectively allowing private trading companies to act as the colonial power with total rights over land and natural resources, and the power to enter into affiliations with communities; often with detrimental territorial consequences for the indigene.
Treaty-making with indigenous African leaders and communities usually involved a notion of peaceful relationship while providing for the cession of land ownership from indigenous communities.
In turn, these treaties were used by the colonial powers as proof to ensure the transfer of sovereignty in their favour.
Following the Berlin Conference towards the end of the 19th Century, Africa, especially West and Central Africa, witnessed a race between the main European colonising powers trying to gain as many treaties as possible with local chiefs, mainly through their chartered companies, to ensure the reassigning of indigenous land; no less than 40 percent of Zimbabwe’s most arable land area was under white commercial dominance.
Though Chartered Companies became the instrument used for the transition from informal leanings to Colonial Rule, they were under constant pressure from their home governments to make their colonies immediately and continuously profitable.
In almost all cases, this constraint led to a shortage of long-term investment from the mother countries for the economic development in their colonies.
While some major infrastructural projects were financed by the British government, primarily they were designed to facilitate trade and aid the immediate extraction of valuable resources; with little or no investment into local domestic business which would have reduced the colonies’ trade dependency on the major economies in Europe
Not until Britain lost to the Japanese in the Far East during World War II, was it clear to the Empire that it no longer possessed the resources to maintain the ‘old order’ of things.
Dr Michelina Rudo Andreucci is a Zimbabwean-Italian Researcher, Industrial Design Consultant Lecturer and Specialist Hospitality Interior Decorator. She is a published author in her field. For Comments E-mail: linamanucci@gmail.com


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