Great Britain Grants Self-Government to Southern Rhodesia

Southern Rhodesia had been administered by the British South Africa Company, founded by Cecil Rhodes, but by the early 1920’s this arrangement was no longer satisfactory to the company or the white settlers. An elected assembly chose internal self-government as the way forward, and the British parliament accepted this decision.

Summary of Event

The interior of southern Africa was not settled or developed until the late nineteenth century, when Cecil Rhodes pioneered the exploitation of the area’s resources by setting up the British South Africa Company. In 1889 the company received a charter that enabled it to administer large areas of land north of the Transvaal on behalf of the British crown and gave it rights over the use of land and exploitation of minerals. The company built railways and settled towns. Particularly notable were Bulawayo, the commercial center, and Salisbury, which later became the territory’s capital. In this process, however, the British expropriated large areas of land and significant numbers of cattle belonging the indigenous African population. Not surprisingly, this led to revolts, especially by the Ndebele (1896) and Shona (1897). In response to these insurrections and other factors, the British government established a direct presence in the area in the form of a resident commissioner who reported to the high commissioner in South Africa. Southern Rhodesia;self-government[self government]
British South Africa Company
[kw]Great Britain Grants Self-Government to Southern Rhodesia (Oct. 1, 1923)
[kw]Britain Grants Self-Government to Southern Rhodesia, Great (Oct. 1, 1923)
[kw]Self-Government to Southern Rhodesia, Great Britain Grants (Oct. 1, 1923)[Self Government to Southern Rhodesia, Great Britain Grants (Oct. 1, 1923)]
[kw]Government to Southern Rhodesia, Great Britain Grants Self- (Oct. 1, 1923)
[kw]Southern Rhodesia, Great Britain Grants Self-Government to (Oct. 1, 1923)
[kw]Rhodesia, Great Britain Grants Self-Government to Southern (Oct. 1, 1923)
Southern Rhodesia;self-government[self government]
British South Africa Company
[g]Africa;Oct. 1, 1923: Great Britain Grants Self-Government to Southern Rhodesia[05870]
[g]Rhodesia;Oct. 1, 1923: Great Britain Grants Self-Government to Southern Rhodesia[05870]
[g]Zimbabwe;Oct. 1, 1923: Great Britain Grants Self-Government to Southern Rhodesia[05870]
[c]Colonialism and occupation;Oct. 1, 1923: Great Britain Grants Self-Government to Southern Rhodesia[05870]
[c]Government and politics;Oct. 1, 1923: Great Britain Grants Self-Government to Southern Rhodesia[05870]
[c]Indigenous peoples’ rights;Oct. 1, 1923: Great Britain Grants Self-Government to Southern Rhodesia[05870]
Coghlan, Sir Charles Patrick John
Jollie, Ethel Tawse
Smuts, Jan Christian
Milner, Alfred
Churchill, Winston
Buxton, First Earl (Sydney Charles Buxton)
Rhodes, Cecil

The British-controlled area was at first called Rhodesia, but in 1898 a government order-in-council divided it into three sections: Southern Rhodesia, Northern Rhodesia, and Nyasaland. Today these regions are independent states: Zimbabwe, Zambia, and Malawi. At the time the order was issued, however, the Boer War (1899-1902) was beginning in South Africa. When the war ended, South Africa was unified under British rule, and the independent Boer (Dutch settler) states were made provinces under the South Africa Act (1909). South Africa Act (1909)

The company encouraged colonization by white farmers and miners. The climate in the highlands was pleasant, and some of the land could sustain cattle, tobacco, and corn. By 1901, the white population had reached approximately eleven thousand. In contrast, the indigenous African population numbered approximately eight hundred thousand. Local government established a ten-member legislative council, and though the majority of this group’s seats were initially appointed by the British South Africa Company, the addition of seats gave the elected members a small majority by 1907. The electoral role was officially color-blind, but so few Africans met the requirements for registration that it was effectively a white electorate. A separate Department of Native Affairs was set up to look after the tribal reserves and other native matters, but this department was always mindful of the British South Africa Company’s need for a steady source of African labor in its mines, which were primarily devoted to gold extraction.

Although both the gold and tobacco markets were unpredictable, the two sectors generally brought prosperity to the province. By 1899, 15.8 million acres of land were controlled by whites, although much of it was still unused. White farmers began to move north from South Africa, and by 1904 there were some 545 farmers. Seven years later, this number had increased to 1,324. In that year, 1911, these farmers began to exercise their political influence by refusing to pay a labor tax imposed by the company. In 1908, Charles Patrick John Coghlan, a Bulawayo lawyer of Irish extraction, was elected to the legislative council. His political and rhetorical skills soon made him a leader in the growing movement concerned with maintaining white settler privileges and opposed to the British South Africa Company’s hold on power.

In 1908 and 1909, Southern Rhodesia sent delegates to a national convention was held in South Africa. At the convention, part of the discussion concerned the future of the province, since the leaders of the British South Africa Company had realized that serving as the area’s administrator was beyond both their ability and their desire. Several possibilities were considered: Southern Rhodesia could become South Africa’s fifth province some time after 1910, it could become a Crown Colony and be administered from London, it could remain part of the company under a modified charter, or it could become its own self-governing area. The option of becoming a Crown Colony was sometimes tied in with the concept of a Central African Federation, which would reunite the three provinces.

In 1917, a new political party, the Responsible Government Association Responsible Government Association (RGA), was formed out of the Rhodesia Agricultural Union. Its cofounder was Ethel Tawse Jollie, the wife of a white farmer, and its first president was John McChlery. In 1919, Coghlan joined the party, which wanted Southern Rhodesia to retain its connection to Great Britain and opposed both the Afrikaaners (as the Dutch-speaking South Africans were called) and the British South Africa Company.

In the meantime, the company had lost a significant legal battle in the British Privy Council, the highest court in the British Empire. The court ruled that the company did not have rights to any “unalienated” land—land not already assigned to blacks or whites—and that all such land belonged to the British crown. The company’s possession of the area’s railways and mines was affirmed, however. After the Privy Council’s decision, the British government established a commission to look into the cost of purchasing the company’s administrative role in Southern Rhodesia, but the commission’s report was not released until February of 1921, after elections in Southern Rhodesia had already taken place.

The 1920 election in Southern Rhodesia proved crucial. Coghlan led the RGA’s efforts, and the party won a resounding majority over the Rhodesia Unionist Association, which had just been founded on a platform promoting unity with South Africa. The unionists were supported by many businesses, while the RGA was primarily supported by the farmers and clerks. By this time, the white population had grown to 33,000, approximately 20 percent of whom were ethnic Afrikaners (South Africans of European, usually Dutch, descent). In the 1920 election, there were 11,000 electors, 6,765 of whom actually voted. The legislative council felt it had a mandate to request of Alfred Milner, head of the Colonial Office in London and a former high commissioner to South Africa, that the country become self-governing. Milner agreed to follow the British practice of allowing self-government in parts of southern Africa in which whites were capable of defending themselves, and he promised self-government by October, 1924.

Although Milner resigned in February of 1921, his successor, Winston Churchill, felt obliged to continue the process. He appointed a committee to advise him on the establishment of self-government in Northern Rhodesia and Southern Rhodesia, although the committee was not given the option of unifying the two areas. The First Earl Buxton, another former high commissioner of South Africa (1916-1920), was appointed its chairman. The Buxton Committee, set up March 7, 1922, had reported on Southern Rhodesia by April 12, and on Northern Rhodesia by April 29. It advised that a referendum be held on a constitution, which would be drafted by the Colonial Office on the model created by the constitution of South Africa. This constitution, the committee said, should be shown first to the Southern Rhodesian delegates in London.

However, Jan Christian Smuts, prime minister of South Africa, and the British South Africa Company both wanted Rhodesia to be unified with South Africa. Smuts and the company pressured the British government to include this option in the referendum, which the British refused to hold until Smuts issued his terms for joining the regions. A petition signed by more than eight thousand Rhodesian voters who supported the union helped promote Smuts’s goal, and his terms, issued on July 30, 1922, were generous to both the Rhodesians and the company. Among other rules, Smuts required that the South African policy of bilingualism be imposed and that white labor have freedom of movement.

Coghlan campaigned against Smuts and his supporters under the slogan “Rhodesia for the Rhodesians, Rhodesia for the Empire.” Although the region’s most powerful groups were against the RGA, the party was still able to secure a majority. The white population had increased slightly, to 35,000, some 20,000 of whom were entitled to vote. By contrast, the native African population now numbered near 900,000, but only 60 were entitled to vote.

The election’s results were announced November 6, 1922, at the Bulawayo courthouse: The RGA received 8,774 votes, while the unionists received 5,989. The union vote was higher than might have been expected, especially in the light of political upheavals caused by the trades unions in South Africa. The British South Africa Company accepted the terms offered by the Colonial Office, and they ceased rule on October 1, 1923. In the 1923 elections, the RGA, which had since been renamed the Rhodesia Party, was opposed by only four independent candidates in a thirty-seat legislature. The party’s new hold on power made Coghlan the first premier of Southern Rhodesia, and he held this post (with the help of five cabinet ministers) until his death in 1927.


Southern Rhodesia’s successful bid for self-government brought Cecil Rhodes’s and Jan Smuts’s dream for a greater South Africa to an end. Although the new legislature in Southern Rhodesia could only legislate for white affairs and the British government was allowed a veto over many areas, in practice the new council, its cabinet, and the new governor were allowed as much independence as any of the dominions. The adoption of self-government entrenched white minority rule in the country and kept both land and capital firmly in white hands. The British South Africa Company continued to operate, although it gradually sold its railways and mineral rights.

For nearly a half century, self-government appeared to have been a successful solution. The country’s tobacco, cattle, and corn industries prospered, white settlers continued to emigrate to Southern Rhodesia, and the region was able to avoid the harsh apartheid system that was to disfigure South African politics. The desire for white supremacy, however, pushed politicians toward total independence from Britain, and then the weight of the inequality between the races led to a bitter civil war and a shaky transition to power by a black-led government unused to democracy. Later, an insatiable desire for the reapportionment of land from the white farmers led to economic collapse. Southern Rhodesia;self-government[self government]
British South Africa Company

Further Reading

  • Banana, Canaan S., ed. Turmoil and Tenacity: Zimbabwe, 1890-1990. Harare, Zimbabwe: College Press, 1989. A collection of essays by modern African scholars, edited by a noted academic.
  • Birmingham, D., and P. M. Martin, eds. History of Central Africa. 1983. Rev. ed. 2 vols. London: Longman, 1998. One of the most recent British contributions to Rhodesian history. A series of separate essays.
  • Blake, Robert. A History of Rhodesia. London: Eyre Methuen, 1977. Part 2 deals with Rhodesia as a self-governing colony. A sound if somewhat dated history.
  • Kennedy, Dane. Islands of White: Settler Society and Culture in Kenya and Southern Rhodesia. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1987. A detailed study from the Duke University Center for International Studies. Compares two white minority cultures and governments in Africa.
  • Mazrui, Ali, ed. Africa Since 1935. Vol. 8 in The UNESCO General History of Africa. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993. This volume deals with the 1920’s and sets the Rhodesian question in a wider context.
  • Mutambirwa, James A. Chamunorwa. The Rise of Settler Power in Southern Rhodesia, 1898-1923. Madison, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1981. An account from the perspective of an African historian.
  • Summers, Carol. From Civilisation to Segregation and Social Control in Southern Rhodesia, 1890-1934. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1994. A critical study of the growth of white minority rule, focusing on the interaction of the settlers, company officials, missionaries, societies in the United Kingdom, and the most vocal of the African groups.
  • Wallis, J. P. R. One Man’s Hand: The Story of Sir Charles Coghlan and the Liberation of Southern Rhodesia. New York: Longmans, Green, 1950. The only biography of the main figure in the self-government of the country.
  • Willis, A. J. An Introduction to the History of Central Africa: Zambia, Malawi, and Zimbabwe. 4th ed. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1985. Sets the history of Southern Rhodesia in the context of British Central Africa and the British South Africa Company.

Completion of the Mombasa-Lake Victoria Railway

Herero and Nama Revolts

Belgium Annexes the Congo

Formation of the Union of South Africa

Baro-Kano Railroad Begins Operation in Nigeria

Lever Acquires Land Concession in the Belgian Congo

South African Native National Congress Meets

Britain Represses Somali Rebellion