Formation of the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland

After three years of arduous negotiations, the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland was declared a semi-independent state, composed of the former British colony of Southern Rhodesia and the protectorates of Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland. The delicately balanced and complicated government structure of the Federation collapsed in 1963 owing to differences between the white minority population and black African nationalist aspirations, eventually giving rise to three separate countries: Rhodesia (later Zimbabwe), Zambia, and Malawi.

Summary of Event

The British advance into Central Africa took place at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century. It was largely led by commercial interests, particularly those inspired by the vision of British diamond magnate and prime minister of the Cape South African dominion Cecil Rhodes Rhodes, Cecil (1853-1902) for a line of British influence from the Cape Colony, at the southern tip of Africa, to Egypt, in the north. Rhodes’s British South Africa Company British South Africa Company was chartered by the British government to open up the areas north of Transvaal. This he did by encouraging European settlers and prospectors to move into territories later known as Southern Rhodesia (named after Rhodes). They appropriated African lands either by negotiation or by conquest. In 1923, the British government recognized the country as a self-governing colony. Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland
Southern Rhodesia
Northern Rhodesia
[kw]Formation of the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland (Aug. 1, 1953-Dec. 31, 1963)
[kw]Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland, Formation of the (Aug. 1, 1953-Dec. 31, 1963)
[kw]Rhodesia and Nyasaland, Formation of the Federation of (Aug. 1, 1953-Dec. 31, 1963)
[kw]Nyasaland, Formation of the Federation of Rhodesia and (Aug. 1, 1953-Dec. 31, 1963)
Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland
Southern Rhodesia
Northern Rhodesia
[g]Africa;Aug. 1, 1953-Dec. 31, 1963: Formation of the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland[04200]
[g]Malawi;Aug. 1, 1953-Dec. 31, 1963: Formation of the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland[04200]
[g]Rhodesia;Aug. 1, 1953-Dec. 31, 1963: Formation of the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland[04200]
[g]Nyasaland;Aug. 1, 1953-Dec. 31, 1963: Formation of the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland[04200]
[g]Zambia;Aug. 1, 1953-Dec. 31, 1963: Formation of the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland[04200]
[g]Zimbabwe;Aug. 1, 1953-Dec. 31, 1963: Formation of the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland[04200]
[c]Government and politics;Aug. 1, 1953-Dec. 31, 1963: Formation of the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland[04200]
[c]Colonialism and occupation;Aug. 1, 1953-Dec. 31, 1963: Formation of the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland[04200]
[c]Independence movements;Aug. 1, 1953-Dec. 31, 1963: Formation of the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland[04200]
Huggins, Sir Godfrey
Welensky, Sir Roy
Todd, Garfield
Llewellyn, Lord
Banda, Hastings Kamuzu

Kaunda, Kenneth

Advance across the Zambezi River led to the formation of North-East Rhodesia, declared a British protectorate in 1893 under the rule of the British South Africa Company, and North-West Rhodesia, joined in 1911 as Northern Rhodesia and declared a protectorate in 1924, henceforth ruled from the Colonial Office in London.

The formation of Nyasaland was also as a protectorate—the British Central Africa Protectorate (1893-1907)—partly under pressure from Scottish missionaries to stop the extensive Arab slave trading and partly to prevent other European powers from gaining further access to the interior. There was much less European emigration to these countries, and from the 1920’s the British policy was to give African development precedence over European colonization.

Plans to join Southern and Northern Rhodesia came and went, largely depending on Northern Rhodesian fortunes. The opening of the copper mines in the Katanga area known as the Copper Belt became the bedrock of the Northern Rhodesian economy. European settlement was largely confined to the railway line connecting the Copper Belt to Southern Rhodesia. In the 1930’s, the governing United Party, United Party, Southern Rhodesian led by Sir Godfrey Huggins, made union with Northern Rhodesia part of its policy.

In 1938, the British government set up a commission under Lord Bledisloe (Charles Bathurst) Bledisloe, Lord (Charles Bathurst) to look into the possibility of a union. The commission reported in 1939, generally in favor, but noting African opposition in the north because of fears that the Southern Rhodesian model of white supremacy would be applied. On the electoral roll of Southern Rhodesia were fifty-four thousand whites and only four hundred Africans. The outbreak of World War II put any further discussion on hold.

In the 1930’s in both Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland, the African workforce had organized welfare and self-help groups, out of which political movements grew after the war in the shape of the Northern Rhodesian African Congress, Northern Rhodesian African Congress
African National Congress, Northern Rhodesian led by Harry Nkumbula from 1951, and the Nyasaland African Congress. Nyasaland African Congress In these two countries, National African Councils had also been set up to voice African concerns. African trade unions were also formed in the Rhodesias and sought more equality with their European counterparts.

In 1949, Sir Roy Welensky, one of the leading white politicians in Northern Rhodesia, and Godfrey Huggins, whose United Party had won twenty-four of the thirty seats at the 1948 election, called a conference at Victoria Falls, Victoria Falls Conferences (1949) on the Zambezi River, to discuss union. No Africans were invited, nor was the British Colonial Office informed. At the meeting, the idea of a union was dropped, but the conference agreed to some form of a looser federation. However, Britain’s newly elected Labour government was firmly against any scheme that did not allow the African majority’s wishes to be paramount.

By March of 1951, the Labour government’s opposition had lessened, and it called a conference in London, leading, in September, to a second Victora Falls Conference, this time including representatives from Nyasaland. The latter’s future had recently been discussed in terms of federating with either the British East African colonies or the Central African ones, and the Central African option had been preferred. The report that emerged from this conference, published in November, reasserted the general wish to maintain a British tradition of political freedom and values in Central Africa, as opposed to the increasingly illiberal South African government’s policy of apartheid. A partnership had to be maintained between European and African. Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland should maintain their protectorate status under the British crown, thus hoping to alleviate the strongly expressed African fears.

The Labour government fell soon after, and a new Conservative government took over under Winston Churchill. The new colonial secretary, Lord Chandos (Oliver Lyttleton) Chandos, Lord (Oliver Lyttelton) , was less concerned about African interests and determined to push on with the scheme, setting up another conference in London in April, 1952. The African representatives from Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland refused to attend. By June a plan had been drawn up as to how federation would work. In August, the British secretary of state toured the three countries, minimizing African opposition in his report.

A final conference was held in London in 1953. This time, no Africans attended. The new constitution was to consist of a governor-general, an executive council or cabinet, and a thirty-six-member parliament or legislature with eighteen representatives from Southern Rhodesia, eleven from Northern Rhodesia, and seven from Nyasaland. The federal government was empowered to deal with defense, trade, communications, industry, and finance. All other matters were to be dealt with by the separate territorial governments. An African Affairs Board was to be set up to veto any legislation inimical to Africans. The two protectorates would remain as such “so long as their respective peoples desire.” The constitution would be subject to review in seven to nine years.

The queen’s assent to the “Federation [Constitution] Order in Council” was received on August 1, 1953, with Lord Llewellyn as the first governor-general. In the first election, the Federal Party, pledged to partnership and a liberal program, won all but one of the seats. No violent African opposition immediately occurred, despite almost no representation, and it was hoped fears had been allayed.


The Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland had largely been a European idea, to preserve white economic and political interests. The new federation seemed unable to meet African opposition in its early years, apart from some enlargement of the legislature to include Africans, and with the rising tide of African nationalism Nationalism;Africa
Nationalism;Southern Rhodesia
Nationalism;Northern Rhodesia
Nationalism;Zambia throughout the continent in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, the opportunity was soon lost. Prime minister of Southern Rhodesia and leader of the United Party Garfield Todd was ousted in 1958, and Southern Rhodesia seemed set on segregationist policies. Dr. Hastings Kamuzu Banda returned from a thirty-year exile in London in July, 1958, to lead the antifederation movement in Nyasaland. In the same month in Northern Rhodesia, Kenneth Kaunda formed the Zambian African National Congress, Zambian African National Congress
African National Congress, Zambian a more extreme group than the Northern Rhodesian African National Congress of Nkumbula. Even in Southern Rhodesia, an African National Congress Party African National Congress, Southern Rhodesian was formed in 1957 under Joshua Nkomo.

A combined African resolve to break the federation led to violence in 1959 with states of emergency being declared. In 1960, a commission from London under Walter Turner Monckton Monckton, Walter Turner (First Viscount Monckton of Brenchley) set out to review the constitution and, while recommending the continuation of the federation for economic reasons, realized the need for advances in African representation and the right to secede by any of the three territories. New constitutions in Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland brought African majorities. In 1962, Nyasaland’s right to secede was granted by the British government. Northern Rhodesia followed in 1963, despite the fierce opposition of the federation premier, Sir Roy Welensky. A final meeting was scheduled for June, 1963, at Victoria Falls to discuss how the federation could be disassembled, especially in the light of a huge building program that included the Kariba Dam on the Zambezi River. The federation was slated to end on December 31, 1963.

Kaunda and Banda emerged as strong leaders in their respective countries and firmly established both countries as independent African nations. The dissolution of the federation, however, led directly to the Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI) in Southern Rhodesia and consequently to that country’s political isolation for the next ten years. Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland
Southern Rhodesia
Northern Rhodesia

Further Reading

  • Birmingham, D., and P. M. Martin, eds. History of Central Africa. 2 vols. 1983. Rev. ed. London: Longmans, 1998. An authoritative account of the whole region.
  • Mazrui, Ali, ed. Africa Under Colonial Domination. Vol. 7 in UNESCO General History of Africa. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985. One volume in a series of authoritative works on the African continent and its history. Outlines the tides of African nationalism that ran throughout Central Africa during this period.
  • Wills, A. J. An Introduction to the History of Central Africa. 1964. 4th ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985. Written at the time of the Federation, this was the first detailed account of the history of the countries making up the Federation, written by someone on the ground with firsthand experience of the countries involved, later updated.

Africans Return Home After World War II

Nyasaland Independence Leader Banda Is Arrested by British Colonials

Africa’s Year of Independence

Sharpeville Massacre Focuses Global Awareness on Apartheid

Organization of African Unity Is Founded

Kaunda Becomes Zambia’s First President

Southern Rhodesian Freedom Fighters Begin Toppling White Supremacist Government