The White Man’s Burden

Your new-caught sullen peoples, Half-devil and half-childRudyard Kipling

(…yes I know that is Hattie McDaniel & Vivien Leigh  in Gone With The Wind on the left)

This is an excerpt of Rhodesia: last Outpost of the British Empire by Peter Baxter. The article it relates to is here

Much closer to home was the complex relationship that whites had with their domestic servants. An almost obsessive determination on the part of white immigrants to make use of this most colonial of facilities, was born out of two factors.

The first was that in the Victorian and post–Victorian period the goal of reaching the upper middle classes was best defined by the maintenance of domestic service. This ideal was imported to the colonies, where the facility became available to just about anyone with a white skin. In Rhodesia, this was profoundly felt due to the large number of British working class folk who brought with them their particularly well-developed class-consciousness. All of them were able on some level to look down on another social group, most for the first time in their lives. By 1904 the trend had taken such firm root that each European household employed on average more than two domestic servants. Some families would have more than this but there were very few that had none.

The second factor was that – in time – the prestige of keeping domestic servants became inverted to imply that, if a white family did not have servants, then they were living in a state of poverty. Therefore, even when the direst economic circumstances prevailed, at least one servant would be retained in a white household for no better reason than to keep up appearances.

By the 1930s, domestic service had come to define a large part of the celebrated Rhodesian way of life. White women were liberated from basic housework which made the isolation of their frontier lives a great deal more bearable. The colonial lifestyle also meant suburban living on a grand scale, characterised by large houses and extensive holdings. In time Rhodesian flower gardens came to be celebrated throughout the Empire. Expansive properties, spacious homes and extensive sporting facilities – these were but a few of the many luxuries that could never have been possible without cheap and willing domestic labour.

However, domestic service was governed by the strictest rules of propriety. In the 1950s a set of Federal guidelines for new immigrants was careful to include instructions to housewives without experience of employing male servants. They were cautioned never to allow their female children to exhibit any degree of nakedness, and for themselves to make their own beds, wash their own underwear and avoid appearing in a state of casual undress. This implied that women and female children were at some sort of risk at the hands of male servants. In theory this should have been so, for according to the census of 1911 there were over 6000 African men living in Salisbury, but only 300 women. It was not inconceivable, then, that a lonely black man far from his home might be tempted by this most forbidden fruit. However statistics do not bear this out, and incidents of rape or indecent conduct, although they occurred, were very rare.

Nonetheless, under the Immorality Suppression Ordinance Acts of 1903 and 1916, an act of indecency – as applied to a black man –  included raising or opening any window, blind, screen or the fly of a privy in order to observe any woman nude or semi-nude. This was later expanded to include voyeurism, flirtation and even friendships.

Whatever the mutual complicity, suspicion or risks that might have characterised the relationships between master and servant, it was in this quarter that the only real contact between the races took place. Social convention forbade any shared interaction and, even those men who married or cohabitated with black women, tended to do so with overtones of concubinage and chattel rather than in monogamy. The general view that each race held of the other was formed primarily at this point of contact.

Gertrude Page, who authored such Rhodesian classics as The Rhodesian and Winding Paths, wrote of a black house servant being beaten for wiping his nose on a tea towel. It is probable that incidents like this did occur, but they were certainly rare and never institutionalised. Doris Lessing in her novel The Grass is Singing went to some length to portray the unlikely tyranny of an unschooled white mistresses against her black servant. Hylda Richards in her portrayal of early farm life in Rhodesia draws more on the humour of mutual misunderstanding, than the usual attempts to depict the blacks as nose picking, belly rubbing incompetents, or the white housewife as a monster.

‘In this way I came upon darkest Africa,’ Hylda Richards writes, (which was characterised by)  the ignorance, natural and acquired, of the African native.1 Richards admits that she did not like blacks at all, but having emigrated from lower middle class England, she apparently never contemplated living without them.

My hope of being the beloved mistress of devoted slaves received a nasty shock. Like all newcomers I tried to spoil them so they would love me, but they just took advantage of my kindness and made incredible demands …

Far from ruling with an iron fist, Richards found it impossible to make any impact on her servants at all. A black male’s disinclination to be bossed around by a woman of any colour found expression in many ways. Theft, indifference, lies, evasions and dumb insolence, were all weapons in a domestic servant’s arsenal. To deliberately lay sauce and pickles for breakfast and marmalade for dinner, to sweep around things and spot no cobwebs, to give notice the moment he realises he cannot adequately train his mistress – all these drove the inexperienced Richards to distraction.

Only the years show one how to cope with a native servant, so that during the first day of office one knows which brand they are; the intelligent quick boy who will later on use that intelligence for evading work, or the apparent idiot who may, with patience, become a strict routiner.

Most labour – be it domestic, industrial or agricultural – was migrant. A kaleidoscope of different languages and cultures merged in the workplace. Sir Granville Orde-Brown, who was at the turn of the century the undisputed Empire expert on race and race relations, remarked on the subject:

 … it is easy to hear a camp-fire conversation in the Congo during which conditions in the Union, Rhodesia, Tanganyika and Angola are all discussed and commented upon; brothers from Nyasaland may go one to the north and the other to the south, and may be trusted to compare their experiences on their return home.

A language unique to migrant labour evolved which came to be known as eChilapalapa, or more commonly ‘kitchen kaffir’. Chilapalapa was a pidgin language combining the common elements of a number of native dialects with occasional flourishes of English and Afrikaans. It developed initially on the Witwatersrand mines under the name Fanagalo, and it gave whites the sense that they could speak a native language and blacks the sense that they could speak English. In time it became the lingua franca of the workplace and was widely spoken throughout the Rhodesias and beyond.

Hylda Richards recorded an amusing conversation in eChilapalapa as she tried to explain to her boss boy the causes of World War II:

Manjie’ (now) lo Germeni tells lo Austria, Mina bamba wena! (I catch you) and lo Austria say, Aikona! (No you won’t) And lo English tells lo Germeni aikona enza so! (Don’t do that!) Manjie lo Germeni bambele (Beat up) lo Austria.’ …and so the conversation continued until it ended with the boss boy gaining the gist of the story and concluding. ‘Uh, uh! Lo Germeni meninge (very) cheeky!’

Migrant labour was yet another of the strange anomalies of Southern Rhodesian race relations. While the Carter Commission and the subsequent Land Apportionment Act institutionalised a strictly separate system of development, all kinds of efforts were made to improve conditions in the reserves, to make it less attractive for young males to leave in search of work. However the counteractive imposition of hut taxes and the increasing demands for labour conspired to ensure that they did just that. Migrant labour had many different levels depending on its source, but since cities and towns were to remain white areas, all labour to some degree could be considered migratory.

There was internal labour migration from the reserves to the cities and a more regional movement that often saw labour originating in Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland. These workers flooded into the Copperbelt, into Southern Rhodesia and in vast numbers further south to the mining areas of the Witwatersrand. The 1930s brought large-scale industrial development not only in Southern Rhodesia but in the north as well, creating a huge demand for labour. An entire industry developed around the movement of labour, involving private recruiting agents and modern transport networks, as well as comfortable rest stations along the most travelled routes.

The social cost to men and their families of long-distance migration was immense. In the early days tribesmen were torn away from their traditional life to work for enough money to pay their hut taxes, after which they would return to their lands and their families. By the 1930s, however, such attitudes had changed. The miniature industrial revolution, that was underway in both Rhodesias, rapidly undermined traditional structures of life by depopulating tribal areas of young and productive males. The wearisome journeys home and the material demands of kinfolk when they arrived, caused many to abandon their home areas for more modern lives in labour compounds and other fringe urban settlements. Many took wives or concubines from tribes different from their own and in due course discarded old tribal attachments for the new, integrated industrial generation of working blacks.

Rates of pay in Southern Rhodesia were higher than those in the north, and then, with a great deal more freedom of movement than now, many would travel huge distances to find suitable work. Large numbers of Nyasas moved south from the Shire Highlands and the ‘dead north’ of Nyasaland to find work in the cities and settlements of Southern Rhodesia. A labour caste system evolved with certain groups preferring – or being preferred for – certain types of work.

The removal of night soil from privies throughout Salisbury was the preserve of Tongas from the Zambezi Valley. Lawyer Hardwicke Holderness relates in his memoirs a story of an amateur Shakespearean practising her lines in the privy that backed up against a sanitary lane in Salisbury. ‘Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?’ she keened, whereupon a crisp reply emerged from behind her. ‘Mina aikona Romeo, Madam, mina Zambezi boy!’6

Kingsley Fairbridge recorded the sight of gangs of Mozambican migrant workers slaving on the preparatory work for the new township of Umtali.

Great gangs of boys from Nyungwe (Tete) and Senna were working on the streets that were to be. Mabandawi and Magorongoza dug side by side, trenching the two streams that flanked the township; the deadly mud, packed with germs of malaria, was cast up beside the trenches.

Before World War I, Mozambican and Nyasa farm workers often followed white farmers down from Nyasaland to settle in Southern Rhodesia. This practice served to introduce local white farmers to the superior work ethic of the Nyasa, after which they tended to select Nyasas and northern Mozambicans for farm work in preference to whatever local labour was available.

The bewildering crosscurrents of labour movement and the rapid merging of communities were a feature of the postwar period. These activities, however, tended to diminish as the global depression of the 1930s made itself felt. The labour recruitment industry and its infrastructure fell away and was never quite revived. Migrant labour, of course, continued to flow, but it became victim to tighter political controls and covetous practices of governments jealous of their labour reserves.

Migrant labour also formed the bedrock of much black political opinion in the period between the wars. The main detractors of political amalgamation (Northern and Southern Rhodesia) tended to be black, with many of their concerns bound up in the fear of competition with labour from distant areas. As Nyasaland pioneered the migrant labour movement, so Nyasas brought back and disseminated the early breezes of revolution. Political consciousness travelled along a system of verbal arteries that ran from the Witwatersrand to Katanga and beyond.

Howard Moffat was the uncomfortable heir to a government charged with the task of regulating this disordered race-landscape. While this was not all that contributed to the aura of failure that tends to hang over his term, it represents much of what ultimately overwhelmed him. He was of missionary heritage and in his blood was the titanic social conscience of his forbears. It must then have been particularly difficult to be the hand that consigned the black man to a social and political wasteland. In many ways it was Godfrey Huggins who seemed born to the tasks of this time. From the backbenches, he contributed much of the weight that was used to push the country along the road that it must ultimately follow. Moffat went through the motions and completed his term, but was not dismayed when the day came for him to hand over power to Huggins.