History of land and agriculture in Africa: Part 13 …land belongs to the dead, living and unborn


INDIGENOUS communities in pre-colonial Africa were never entirely isolated from one another that may have provided the notion of ‘terra nullius’.
Most societies tended to develop in areas conducive to agriculture or trade, with interaction between neighbours, across regions and even beyond the continent taking place; initially through agrarian trade, marriage, migration, diplomacy and often times, even warfare.
Africa’s fertile land, rich resources, trade routes, and cattle forced interaction with other communities.
First across the Sahara Desert and along the Swahili coastline of East Africa; later extending down to MaDzimbahwe where vast trading networks were developed with Chinese, Middle Eastern and Indian traders.
Agriculture and commerce were instrumental in the formation of states.
As a result, world-renowned market places and huge cities emerged at trading centres such as Zanzibar, Timbuktu, and Kumbi, a large city in Western Sudan, said to have a population of 15 000-20 000, unlike MaDzimbahwe, by the 11th Century.
Trade enabled the exchange of local produce and products for rare foods and goods.
Areas with mineral wealth, such as MaDzimbahwe, developed mining capabilities (the beginnings of industrial design), and traded these manufactured goods with Arab traders from North Africa, as well as traders from Asia and the Middle-East, at a time when most of Europe became resource poor as a result of the Industrial Revolution.
Consequently, European industries were desperate for raw materials from Asia, the Americas, and Africa (as much as they are today).
By the end of the 19th Century, European powers had colonised all of Africa, with the exception of Liberia and Ethiopia
The growth of the British Empire was mainly as the result of the ongoing competition for resources and markets between England and her Continental rivals: Spain, France and Holland (the Dutch); later became for land.
In 1773 the British government assumed control of the financially troubled East India Company, which had been in India since 1600.
By the 1880s Britain had invested £270 million in India and by the end of the Century, Britain’s control over India (that included Pakistan today), extended into neighbouring Afghanistan and Burma (now Myanmar).
In India, as elsewhere, the British, as other colonial occupiers, destroyed indigenous traditional ways of living by breaking up India’s indigenous crop patterns. This resulted in severe economic ruin for the subcontinent.
The British forced Indian farmers to produce jute, cotton, tea and oil seeds, which they needed as raw materials for their home industries; replacing staple food crops such as rice and wheat; causing severe food shortages that resulted in cataclysmic famines 25 million Indians died of famine in 100 years of British Raj!
According to British records, one million Indians died of famine between 1800 and 1825, four million between 1825 and 1850, five million between 1850 and 1875 and 15 million between 1875 and 1900; as a result of the indigenous agricultural disruption.
At the same time, in Zimbabwe, King Mzilikazi established a powerful Ndebele kingdom and proclaimed himself ‘king’.
As warriors and cattle-rustlers, the Ndebele easily subdued the long-established pastoral/agricultural Shona people of the region.
They were unable, however, to resist the onslaught of white settlers who arrived in the 1880s, led by the Pioneer Column, who overran the territory; bringing with them their Euro-centric perception of land as a commodity to be purchased and sold, using English Common and Roman-Dutch laws as the legal justification to legitimise the commoditisation of appropriated land.
Land in Western Europe exemplifies one’s wealth, status, socio- economic position and class and is therefore of great value.
Not surprising therefore, when colonialists arrived in search of gold, and discovered vast swathes of unoccupied lush, green land, a haven of rich farmland and rolling hills, they viewed it not only ‘terra incognita’, but a stroke of luck! Land provided the opportunity for accumulation of wealth and prosperity; especially for those who came from deprived backgrounds.
Whereas for indigenous people, especially in Zimbabwe, land evokes deep emotions, and extends beyond economic and its productive use, but is part of the, socio-political, spiritual cosmological and the philosophical.
There is an inseparable interface between land, soil, earth and the cosmology.
Land in Zimbabwe, is recognised as embracing the ecological, cultural, cosmological, social and the spiritual; ingrained in social systems that result in values, norms and observances that protect the natural resources, the environment and wildlife.
Land is collective and universal.
It belongs to the living, the dead and the unborn, making it inalienable.
By 1897 the occupying settlers had conquered the terrigenous Shona and Ndebele people.
Thus began the British colony of Rhodesia and a century-long land grab in which a handful of privileged whites controlled much of the valuable land while systematically oppressing millions of blacks.
Before freehold land ownership was introduced and large tracts of land were obtained by the British South Africa Company (BSAC), to allocate to white settlers, 100 million acres of land was estimated to be held by indigenous people in what became Southern Rhodesia.
After the arrival of the Pioneer Column into Southern Rhodesia, the provision of land for European settlers was one of the first issues to be taken up by the BSAC, that had dishonestly obtain vast expanses of land, until the BSAC’s extensive landholding rights were nullified in 1918.
With the disbandment of the Pioneer Corps on September 30 1890, in Fort Salisbury (now Harare), its members were allotted land grants.
By 1893, the BSAC was settling pioneers on large tracts of virgin land of 1 284 hectares ‘farms’; for the annual payment of £1 ‘quit rent’ per farm, and with no strict requirement for its use.
Since most of the men were gripped by gold fever, they shunned agriculture and dispersed to the ‘goldfields’ of ancient mine workings searching for gold.
With gold mining the main activity, there had been a few attempts at small-scale market gardening.
The settlers depended on indigenous farmers for their produce with maize and other cereals being the main food crop.
Rhodes and the white settlers attracted to the territory increasingly set their sights for more mineral rights and more territorial concessions from the indigenous peoples – mainly Lobengula; establishing their own governments, and introducing laws with little concern or respect for African laws traditions and customs.
Leander Starr Jameson, Rhodes’ appointee, once he became Administrator of Mashonaland (1891-1893), personally made very large land grants, entirely at his discretion, for little return until he was stopped by other BSAC directors.
Up to 1896, Rhodes personally also approved several large land grants.
In less than 20 years of settlement in Zimbabwe, it was clear to both the settlers and the BSAC this was not the land of Ophir, they dreamt, filled with gold.
When the large gold deposits and other precious minerals were unlikely to be found, the company and settlers became anxious to find alternative sources of wealth.
The most logical alternative was agricultural production and began to parcel out vast tracts of the best arable land to themselves for commercial agriculture.
Large farming activities gradually developed around Sinoia (Chinhoyi) area.
In a few years, the major mines in the area attracted large amounts of finance and many more settlers.
Roads, railway lines and community services were established for the increasing number of settlers, with farming activities gradually developing on the land.
Significant farming began by settler-farmers in the area around 1900, concentrating mainly on cattle and maize production.
The district soon became one of the most productive areas of the country.
There was a growing market for these food commodities in the rapidly expanding urban areas in neighbouring South Africa and the Copperbelt mining towns of Northern Rhodesia (Zambia), between 1910 and 1920.
In the 1930s and 1940s, these farmers expanded into tobacco production.
By mid-20th Century, tobacco was the largest and most important export from Rhodesia.
These farmers met their need for low-cost labour through a system of taxation.
As early as 1896 the BSAC began to demand a tax, referred to as a ‘hut’ tax, on each house in every village.
The tax was collected by the village chief or headman from the families occupying the houses in their respective areas. Thus, many men were forced to ‘sell’ their labour, to the earn money with which to pay their taxes.
In time, various other pieces of colonial legislation came into operation as part of colonial strategy to recruit ‘cheap labour’ for white settler-farms and mines.
Since the pre-colonial Shona economy was mainly based on land and cattle, the alienation of the indigenous people from their land (and cattle), economically paralysed them, and fractured the stability and dignity that existed prior to colonial settlements, as it had done in India, and elsewhere.
Dr Michelina Andreucci is a Zimbabwean-Italian researcher, industrial design consultant lecturer and specialist hospitality interior decorator. She is a published author in her field.
For views and comments, email: linamanucci@gmail.com


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