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Rhodesia

21 March 2009

Someone asked in the South African genealogy mailing list how one could find out more about children who were listed in the 1911 UK census as having been born in “Rhodesia” in the 1880s.

Earlier in the week I handed in to the publishers a book on Christian healing ministry in Zimbabwe, which I had edited and to which I had contributed some chapters, including a historical introduction, so I thought I could help with her query. Normally I’d post this kind of stuff on my family history blog, but I thought some of might be of wider interest.

I reommended E.C. Tabler’s book Pioneers of Rhodesia, published in 1966 by Struik, Cape Town. It has biographies of adult male foreigners who visited Zimbabwe before the establishment of company rule in the 1890s.

The name “Rhodesia” for what is now Zimbabwe only came into general use in the 1890s, after Rhodes’s pioneer column entered the territory, but in the 1911 UK censuses it would not be surprising that people who had been born there even before that would refer to it as “Rhodesia, since that was what it was called in the UK in 1911.

Before 1890 what is now called Zimbabwe was known to outsiders as Matabeleland and Mashonaland. Matabeleland, in the south west, was ruled by the Ndebele King Lobengula, whose father Mzilikazi (alias Moselikatse) had invaded and conquered it in the 1840s after being driven out of the Transvaal by a combined force of Voortrekkers, Griquas and others.

Before 1840 the country was inhabited by people known to outsiders as Shona or Mashona, who spoke related languages and dialects that have since been standardised in written form.

Foreigners who visited the area before 1890 were mostly hunters and traders. There were a few Christian missionaries at the court of
Lobengula. Lobengula was not interested in their religious message, but found them useful as diplomatic agents and sources of firearms. Some missionaries (like David Livingstone) passed through on their way to
other places. These missionaries were mostly from the London Missionary Society, which was originally interdenominational, but later largely Congregational. Its successor is the Council for World Mission, so if you have missionary ancestors, ask about their archives.

The hunters and traders mostly sold European manufactured goods to the local people — knives, axes, firearms, cooking utensils, clothing and
blankets and sometimes alcoholic liquor etc in exchange for ivory, cattle and the like. They also hunted elephants on their own account.

It was their reports of gold mines that excited the interest of Cecil Rhodes and his mining magnate friends. The hunters and traders generally knew little of mining, however, and did not realise that the mines they saw were largely worked out. They had supported the prosperity of the Mwene Mutapa state a few centuries earlier, and the exhaustion of the gold mines probably contributed to its decline.

The hunters and traders lived a wandering life, like gipsies, travelling from place to place in ox wagons, and occasionally going to towns in what is now South Africa to sell their ivory and replenish their stocks of
imported goods. The more literate and literary among them contributed articles  papers to geographical societies and journals (it was mostly these that Tabler used as sources), for example the Cape Monthly Magazine. If they were married, their children were home schooled, and were sometimes baptised en masse on visits to towns in South Africa, or to mission stations such as those at the court of Lobengula. If the children got sick, or suffered accidents, there were only home remedies. There was no “Rescue 911” on call. Some survived childhood accidents and illnesses (falling off wagons, snakebite, being gored by oxen, being burnt in fires etc) and others did not. If they were baptised it may have been recorded at a mission station, or in a church hundreds of miles from where they were born. If they died, they were buried on the spot, and the only record might be in a family Bible, if any, or in family letters and other papers, which could also be destroyed by fire, insects, rodents and other accidents, or by theft or war.

The hunters and traders came from a variety of backgrounds. Some were shady characters, on the run from the law in their own countries. Some were in search of adventure or outdoor life. A few came from wealthy families and had independent means. They were the “sportsmen” — those who enjoyed shooting wild animals, not so much to make a living, but because they regarded it as entertainment.

Most probably fell into it as a way of making a living and carried on doing it because they managed to survive that way and there was no other means of livelihood available.

My wife Val’s great great grandfather Frederick Thomas Green lived such a life, though mostly in what is now Botswana and Namibia. He was mostly interested in trading from Lake Ngami, and explored trading routes to the east coast (via Matabeleland and Mashonaland) and the west coast (via Damaraland), and eventually opted for the west coast route, and spend most of his life in what is now Namibia. He married twice, first to a Herero princess, Betsey Kaipukiro, and secondly to Kate Stewardson. He had one child by his first wife, and seven by the second. But Kate Stewardson’s history (not really told by Tabler, since he concentrated on males) illustrates something of their life. After Fred Green died in 1876 Kate married George Robb, and she had altogether 16 children, only five of whom survived to adulthood. One was killed accidentally as a teenager, the rest died in infancy. Fred Green at one point wrote despairingly to his friend and business partner Charles John Andersson that he sometimes wished he had never married and had children, because of the helplessness he felt when they were ill, and all he could do was watch them die.

So children listed in a UK census in 1911 as having been born in “Rhodesia” in the 1880s were most probably born to parents who lived that kind of life.

One of the better-known of the “sportsman” variety with independent means and wealthy families is Frederick Selous. Tabler’s book also, however, documents those of humbler origins, about whom less is known.

Anyone interested in African genealogy and family history should join the African genealogy discussion forum. It is a good place to ask questions, and exchange knowledge.

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