Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland

The Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland was a semi-independent state in southern Africa that existed from 1953 to the end of 1963, comprising the former British colony of Southern Rhodesia and the Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland protectorates. It was also known by the alternative title of Central African Federation (CAF).

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Flag of the Central African Federation

The Federation was established on 1 August 1953. The goal was to create a middle way between the newly independent and socialist black independent states and the white-dominated governments of South Africa, Angola, and Mozambique. Ultimately the Federation foundered because the black African nationalists wanted a greater share of power than the white-dominated settler population was willing to concede. Sir Godfrey Martin Huggins was prime minister from 1953 to 1956 followed by Sir Roy Welensky from 1956 to the Federation's dissolution.

The Federation collapsed (officially on 31 December 1963), when Northern Rhodesia gained independence from the United Kingdom as Zambia and Nyasaland gained independence as Malawi. The remaining territory, Southern Rhodesia, became known simply as Rhodesia and is now Zimbabwe. It became infamous in the world following its unilateral declaration of independence in 1965 under the Rhodesian Front.


Constitutional origins

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The dominant role played by the Southern Rhodesian European settler population within the CAF is well reflected in that played by its first leader, Sir Godfrey Martin Huggins, prime minister of the Federation for its first three years, and prior to that, prime minister of Southern Rhodesia for an uninterrupted 23 years. In an important sense, the CAFs federalism was a compromise, with the model for political unity favored by Huggins being amalgamation (a unitary state) rather than federation.

After WWII, Huggins was made to understand that British would not agree to amalgamation. A federation was intended to curtail the decisively larger European population of Southern Rhodesia's domination of the property and income-qualified franchise, one that excluded the vast majority of Africans.

It is noteworthy, then, that before it was even conceived, it was commonly understood that Southern Rhodesia was to be the dominant territory in the Federation, economically, electorally, and militarily (with how much so defining much of the lengthy constitutional negotiations and modifications that followed). African political opposition and nationalist aspirations, for the time, remained mute.

The significant contrasts between the size of the African and European populations of the Federation on the one hand, and the European population of Southern Rhodesia and that of the Northern Protectorates on the other, were decisive factors in both the creation and the dissolution of the Federation.

In 1927, the ratio of white to black was 38,200 to 922,000 in Southern Rhodesia, 4,000 to 1,000,000 in Northern Rhodesia, and 1,700 to 1,350,000 in Nyasaland. In 1946, Southern Rhodesia had 80,500 whites to 1,640,000 blacks, Northern Rhodesia 20,000 to 1,600,000, and Nyasaland showed the least European and most African population growth at 2,300 to 2,340,000 inhabitants.

Compounding this dynamic was the significant growth in Southern Rhodesia's European settler population (overwhelmingly British migrants), a growth not seen in the Northern Protectorates. This was to greatly shape future developments in the Federation. In 1939, there were approximately 60,000 Europeans residing in Southern Rhodesia; shortly before the Federation was established the number stood at 135,000; by the time the Federation was dissolved, the Southern Rhodesian settler population nearly doubled, reaching 223,000 (the newcomers, though, could only vote three years into their residency).

Within the British government, two principal schools of thought competed over the fate of the Federation. There was deep-rooted ideological as well as personal and professional rivalry between the Colonial Office (CO) and the Commonwealth Relations Office (CRO; and previously, with it, the Dominion Office, abolished in 1937).

The Colonial Office-ruled northern territories of Nyasaland and Northern Rhodesia were far less receptive toward what would have amounted to direct Southern Rhodesian hegemony, one that the CRO (formally, though hardly directly, in charge of Southern Rhodesia) promoted. Significantly, the CO tended to be more sympathetic toward African rights than the CRO, which tended to promote the interests of the Southern Rhodesian (and to a lesser extent, Northern Rhodesian) European settler populations.

Arduous negotiations

On 8 November, 1950, the first negotiations for a federal state for the Rhodesias and Nyasaland began. While many points of contention were worked out in the conferences that followed, several proved to be acute, and some, seemingly insurmountable. It is noteworthy, then, that an agreement would likely not have been reached at all had it not been for Sir Andrew Cohen, CO Assistant Undersecretary for African Affairs.

The Jewish Cohen, traumatized by the Holocaust, was an anti-racialist and an advocate of African rights. He, however, compromised his ideals to combat a threat that he perceived to be even more menacing: the risk that Southern Rhodesia, if it turned hostile, would fall into the orbit of the National Party government in South Africa.

To Cohen, the risk of radical Afrikaner white supremacy posed a greater menace than the perpetuation of the less inflexible, paternalistic white ascendancy system of Southern Rhodesia. "In that sense," historian Robert Blake writes, "Apartheid can be regarded as the father of Federation." Having come to terms with this compromise, Cohen went on to become one the central architects and driving forces behind the creation of the Federation, often times seemingly single-handedly untangling deadlocks and outright walkouts on the part of the respective parties.

The negotiations and conferences were indeed arduous. Southern Rhodesia and the Northern Territories had very different traditions when it came to the 'Native Question' (Africans) and the roles they were designed to play in civil society. Thus, it took nearly three years for the CAF to be established. And, according to Blake, once it was established, it proved to be "one of the most elaborately governed countries in the world." This often translated into confusion and jurisdictional rivalry among various levels of government.

An elaborate structure

The semi-independent Federation had five branches of government: the Federal one, the three Territorial ones, and the British (with its insipid CO-CRO rivalry) one. Nearly 25,000 white Southern Rhodesians followed Huggins insistences and reassurances and voted in a referendum for Federation versus the nearly 15,000 white Rhodesians who voted against it. Africans in all three territories, however, were all resolutely against it.

Huggins resigned as Prime Minister of Southern Rhodesia to become Prime Minister of the Federation. The former position, now once again a reduced to a Premier (as was the case in Southern Rhodesia prior to Britain's Ministerial Titles Act of 1933), was to be filled with the soon-to-be controversial Sir Garfield Todd.

In Southern Rhodesia, few United Rhodesia Party (UP) cabinet members resisted the temptation of joining Huggins. The exodus to the more prestigious realm of Federal politics was a marked one, and at the time, it was considered that Todd's position and Territorial politics in general had become relatively unimportant, a place for the less ambitious politician. In fact, it was to prove decisive both to the future demise of the CAF, and to the rise of the Rhodesian Front.

Economic growth and a growing political crisis

Its labyrinthine, convoluted governmental structure notwithstanding, economically, the CAF proved to be a success story – though the average income of a European remained approximately tenfold that of an African (from amongst the third of Africans employed in the cash economy, that is). In the first year following the establishment of the CAF, its GDP amounted to an impressive 350 million. Two years later it stood at nearly 450 million.

In 1955, the creation of the Kariba hydro-electric power station was announced. It was to be a remarkable feat of engineering with a 78 million price tag – a construction which at the time included the largest human-built lake on the planet (though its location highlighted the rivalry among Southern and Northern Rhodesia, with the former succeeding in attaining its favoured location for the dam).

Unlike the Rhodesias, Nyasaland had no sizable deposits of minerals and the tiny, largely Scottish community of European settlers were relatively sympathetic to African aspirations. To Huggins and the Southern Rhodesia Establishment, the need to include Nyasaland in the Federation was always seen as more of a symbolic gesture rather than a practical necessity.

For Huggins, it was convenient to have all three existing territories brought into the orbit of the British empire by Cecil Rhodes under one constitutional roof. But, from his and the Rhodesian establishment's perspective, the central economic motive behind the CAF (or amalgamation) had always unquestionably been the abundant copper deposit of Northern Rhodesia.

It was, though, to be largely Nyasaland and its African population where the impetus for destabilization of the CAF leading to its dissolution arose. Nevertheless, the CAF spelled a decade of liberalism with respect to African rights. It was striking, in this sense, that there were African junior ministers in the Southern Rhodesian dominated CAF, considering that a decade earlier only seventy Africans qualified to vote in the Southern Rhodesian elections.

The property and income-qualified franchise of the CAF was, therefore, much more loose than these prior arrangements. While this troubled many Whites, they continued to follow Huggins with the CAFs current structure, in no small measure due to the economic strides achieved. To Africans, however, this increasingly proved dissatisfactory and demands for majority rule began to be echoed by their leaders in greater force.

Much of the future developments leading to the end of the CAF and to the independence of Zambia and Malawi, involves an account of Southern Rhodesian settler-dominated territorial politics which is beyond the scope of this article. Suffice to say though, that Southern Rhodesias Europeans were unwilling to accord Africans the same rights they enjoyed Federally (and rather theoretically), territorially (and in-practice). This was to soon lead to political crises which eventually spelled the rise of African nationalism and the end of Federation.

The deepening crisis: the rise of African nationalism

At the same time as African discontent and dissent in the CAF was becoming increasingly noticeable, objections to its structure and purpose (this being, full Commonwealth membership leading to independence) were being expressed from British circles. In June 1956, Southern Rhodesias Governor, Sir Arthur Benson, wrote a highly confidential letter heavily criticizing the Federation in general (and the new constitution planned for it) and Federal Prime Minister, Sir Roy Welensky, in particular. Somehow, a copy ended up in the possession of Huggins (now Lord Malvern) nearly two years later and he, in turn, disclosed its contents to Welensky.

Relations between Whitehall and the CAF cabinet were never to recover. These events, for the first time, brought the attention of British Tory Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, to a crisis emerging in the CAF but he seems to have failed to fully comprehend the gravity of the situation, attributing the row to the old CO-CRO rivalry as well as to Welensky taking personal offence to the letters contents.

With respect to this specific row, the issues were in the immediate sense resolved quietly with some constitutional amendments, but it is now known that Welensky was seriously considering contingencies for a Unilateral Declaration of Independence for the CAF, though he ended up opting against it. Meanwhile, towards the end of the decade, important developments began taking shape in the Northern Territories where Africans were protesting the white minority rule nature of the CAF.

In July, 1958, Dr. Hastings Banda, the leader of African National Congress (ANC) of Nyasaland (later Malawi Congress Party) returned to Nyasaland while Kenneth Kaunda became the leader of a break-away faction from the Northern Rhodesian ANC (later United National Independence Party). In early 1959, unrest broke in Nyasaland, who, according to historian Robert Blake, was "economically the poorest, politically the most advanced and numerically the least Europeanized of the three Territories."

A state of emergency was declared by the government of the CAF. Banda and the rest of Nyasalands ANC leadership were arrested and their party outlawed. Territorial troops from Southern Rhodesia were deployed to bring order. Additionally, Labour MP, John Stonehouse, was expelled from Southern Rhodesia shortly before the state of emergency was proclaimed in Nyasaland to the outrage of the British Labour Party.

The affair drew the whole concept of the CAF into question and even Macmillan was now beginning to express misgivings as to its political viability (though economically he felt the concept was sound). For the time being, a Royal Commission to advise Macmillan on the future of the CAF, to be led by Walter Monckton, was in the works. Commonwealth Secretary, Sir Alec Douglas-Home (later Lord Home) was sent to prepare Welensky, who was distinctly displeased about the arrival of the Commission.

In Douglas-Home, though, Welensky at least found a supporter to the existence of the CAF. This was in contrast to Douglas-Homes rival, Colonial Secretary Ian Macleod who was in favour of African rights and dissolving the CAF. But, while Macmillan at the time supported Douglas-Home, the changes were already on the horizon. In Britain, noting electoral developments and especially the rise of the Liberal Party, Macmillan noted that it was essential "to keep the Tory party on modern and progressive lines."

The dissolution of the CAF

By the early 1960s, Macmillan went on his famous African tour leading to his 'Winds of Change' speech in the parliament of the Cape. The winds of change were, in fact, well underway. By 1960, independence had already been granted to the French African colonies. Belgium more hastily vacated their colony, and thousands of European refugees fled the Belgian Congo (later Zaire, later the Democratic Republic of Congo) from the brutalities of the civil war and into Southern Rhodesia.

During the Congolese crisis, CAF Prime Minister, Sir Roy Welensky, was increasingly viewed by Africans as an arch-reactionary and his support for Katanga separatism added further fuel to the fire. It is ironic that a few years later, in his by-election campaign against Ian Smiths Rhodesian Front, the comparatively moderate Welensky was heckled with cries of 'bloody Jew,' 'Communist,' and 'traitor' by RF supporters.

By 1962, both the British and the CAF cabinet had agreed that Nyasaland should be allowed to secede, though Southern Rhodesian Premier, Sir Edgar Whitehead, committed the British to secrecy on this development until after the 1962 election in the territory. A year later, the same status was unofficially accorded to Northern Rhodesia thus spelling an unquestionable end to Federation in the immediate future.

This was notwithstanding the fact that very shortly before, the new Commonwealth Secretary, Duncan Sandys had negotiated a document, to be known as the '1961 Constitution,' as new constitution for the CAF, which greatly reduced Britains powers over decision-making in the Federation.

By 5 July, 1963, the Victoria Falls conference (in part, a last ditch effort to save the CAF, and in part, a forum to dissolve it) after nearly collapsing several times, was over and the Federation was virtually dissolved with it. Only the appropriation of its remaining assets remained as a final formality.

By 31 December, the CAF was formally dissolved with the division of its assets distributed amongst the Territorial governments (division being, perhaps, a misleading word as Southern Rhodesia obtained the vast majority of these including the assets of the Federal army, to which it had overwhelmingly contributed to). Soon thereafter, Northern Rhodesia gained its independence as Zambia and Nyasaland as Malawi, while Southern Rhodesia unilaterally declared independence from Britain in 1965 under Ian Smith's-led Rhodesian Front.

The historical legacy of the CAF

The decade-long CAF remains, perhaps, a minor footnote in 20th Century historiography, but its impact on Central Africa was far from insignificant. While the white minority-ruled CAF, with its several hundreds of thousands of Europeans (in Southern Rhodesia) and its millions of Africans, was largely driven by reformism, this reformism in itself stands as an anachronism. A paternalistic, mild racialism as exhibited by Huggins which had more in common with the late 19th than the mid-Twentieth Century.

At the same time, the British influenced and affiliated CAF contrasted with the only other regional power, the explicitly racialist Republic of South Africa. The dissolution of the CAF brought to the fore the independent African-led nations of Zambia and Malawi, whereas Southern Rhodesia remained under the rule of a white minority government until Zimbabwean independence in 1980 (with much of that period marked by civil war). Following UDI, a deepening conflict emerged between two of the former territories of the CAF; Zambia, (supporting African nationalists), and Southern Rhodesia (supported by South Africa), with much heated diplomatic rhetoric, and at times, outright military hostilities.

Postage stamps from the Federation

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CAF issued stamp

The Federation issued its first postage stamps in 1954, all with a portrait of Queen Elizabeth II in three kinds of designs, and inscribed "RHODESIA & NYASALAND". The first to appear was the 2 1/2 pence, on 15 February, with the remainder, 15 values ranging from a halfpenny to one pound, coming out on 1 July.

A pair of commemorative stamps in 1955 signaled the 100th anniversary of David Livingstone's discovery of Victoria Falls, and a definitive series in 1959 consisted of 15 stamps depicting local scenery and industries.

Six additional special issues appeared in subsequent years, the last being issued 11 September 1963 to mark the World Council of the Young Men's Service Clubs that was held at the University College of Rhodesia and Nyasaland.

Nearly all of the stamps of Rhodesia and Nyasaland are cheaply available today, with the exception of the highest values of the 1954 and 1959 series, which go for US$10-$20.


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  • Mason, Phillip Year of Decision: Rhodesia and Nyasaland in 1960 (Oxford University Press, 1961).
  • Phillips, C. E. Lucas. The vision splendid: the future of the Central African Federation (Heinemann, London, 1960).
  • Leys, Colin and Pratt Cranford (eds.). A new deal in Central Africa (Heinemann, London, 1960).
  • Clegg, Edward Marshall. Race and politics: partnership in the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland. (Oxford University Press, 1960).
  • Gray, Richard. The two nations: aspects of the development of race relations in the Rhodesias and Nyasaland (Greenwood Press, Westport, Conn., 1960).
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  • Dorien, Ray. Venturing to the Rhodesias and Nyasaland (Johnson, London, 1962)
  • Hanna, Alexander John. The story of the Rhodesias and Nyasaland. (Faber and Faber, 1965).
  • Black, Colin. The lands and peoples of Rhodesia and Nyasaland (Macmillan, NY, 1961).
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  • Gann, Lewis H. Huggins of Rhodesia: the man and his country (Allen & Unwin, London, 1964).
  • Gann, Lewis H. Central Africa: the former British states (Englewood Cliffs, N. J., Prentice-Hall, 1971).
  • Haw, Richard C. (fwd. by Sir Godfrey Huggins) No other home: Co-existence in Africa (S. Manning, Bulawayo, Southern Rhodesia, 1960?).
  • Taylor, Don. The Rhodesian: the life of Sir Roy Welensky. (Museum Press, London 1965).
  • Wood, J.R.T. The Welensky papers: a history of the federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland (Graham Pub., Durban, 1983).
  • Welensky, Roy, Sir. Welensky's 4000 days: the life and death of the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland (Collins, London, 1964).
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  • Alport, Cuthbert James McCall, Lord. The sudden assignment: being a record of service in central Africa during the last controversial years of the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland, 1961-1963. (Hodder and Stoughton, London, 1965).
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