Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland

Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland

The Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland, also known as Central African Federation (CAF), was a semi-independent state in southern Africa that existed from 1953 to the end of 1963, comprising the former Self-Governing (since 1923) Colony of Southern Rhodesia and the British protectorates of Northern Rhodesia, and Nyasaland. It was a federal realm of the British Crown — not a colony, and not a dominion although the British Sovereign was represented by a Governor-General, as usual for dominions. It was intended to eventually become a dominion in the Commonwealth of Nations.

The Federation was established on August 1, 1953, with goal 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. It was intended to be a perpetual entity, but ultimately crumbled because the black African nationalists wanted a greater share of power than the dominant minority white population was willing to concede.

Newly independent black African states were united in wanting to end all forms of colonialism in Africa. With most of the world moving away from colonialism during this time (late 1950s – early 1960s), the United Kingdom (UK) was subjected to much pressure from the United Nations and the Organization of African Unity, which supported the aspirations of the black African nationalists.

The Federation officially ended on 31 December 1963, when Northern Rhodesia gained independence from UK as the new nation of Zambia and Nyasaland gained independence as the new nation of Malawi. Southern Rhodesia became known as Rhodesia and is now Zimbabwe.

Constitutional origins

It was commonly understood that Southern Rhodesia would be the dominant territory in the federation — economically, electorally, and militarily. How much so defined much of the lengthy constitutional negotiations and modifications that followed. African political opposition and nationalist aspirations, for the time, were mute.

Decisive factors in both the creation and dissolution of the Federation were the significant difference between the number of Africans and Europeans in the Federation, and the difference between the number Europeans in S. Rhodesia compared to the Northern Protectorates.Compounding this was the significant growth in Southern Rhodesia's European settler population (overwhelmingly British migrants), unlike in the Northern Protectorates. This was to greatly shape future developments in the Federation. In 1939, approximately 60,000 Europeans resided in Southern Rhodesia; shortly before the Federation was established there were 135,000; by the time the Federation was dissolved they reached 223,000 (though newcomers could only vote after three years of residency). Nyasaland showed the least European and greatest African population growth.

The dominant role played by the Southern Rhodesian European population within the CAF is reflected in that played by its first leader, Godfrey Martin Huggins, 1st Viscount Malvern, prime minister of the Federation for its first three years, and prior to that, prime minister of Southern Rhodesia for an uninterrupted 23 years.

Rather than a federation, Huggins favoured an amalgamation, creating a single state. But after World War II, Britain opposed this because Southern Rhodesia would dominate the property and income franchise (which excluded the vast majority of Africans) due to its much larger European population. A federation was intended to curtail this.

The fate of the Federation was contested in the British government by two principal organisations in deep ideological, personal and professional rivalry — Colonial Office (CO) and the Commonwealth Relations Office (CRO; and previously with it the Dominion Office, abolished in 1947). The CO ruled the northern territories of Nyasaland and Northern Rhodesia, while the CRO was formally but indirectly in charge of Southern Rhodesia. The Northern Territories opposed a Southern Rhodesian hegemony, one that the CRO promoted. Significantly, the CO tended to be more sympathetic to 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.

It was convenient to have all three territories colonised by Cecil Rhodes under one constitution. But, for Huggins and the Rhodesian establishment, the central economic motive behind the CAF (or amalgamation) had always been the abundant copper deposits of Northern Rhodesia. Unlike the Rhodesias, Nyasaland had no sizeable deposits of minerals and its tiny community of Europeans, largely Scottish, was relatively sympathetic to African aspirations. Its inclusion in the Federation was always more a symbolic gesture than a practical necessity. Ironically, it was to be largely Nyasaland and its African population where the impetus for destabilization of the CAF arose, leading to its dissolution.

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. The negotiations and conferences were arduous. S. Rhodesia and the Northern Territories had very different traditions for the 'Native Question' (black Africans) and the roles they were designed to play in civil society.

An agreement would likely not have been reached without Sir Andrew Cohen, CO Assistant Undersecretary for African Affairs. He became one of the central architects and driving forces behind the creation of the Federation, often seemingly single-handedly untangling deadlocks and outright walkouts on the part of the respective parties.

Cohen, who was Jewish and traumatized by the Holocaust, was an anti-racialist and an advocate of African rights. But he compromised his ideals to avoid what he saw as an even greater risk than the continuation of the paternalistic white ascendancy system of S. Rhodesia — its becoming an even less flexible, radical white supremacy, like the National Party government in South Africa. Historian Robert Blake writes, "In that sense, Apartheid can be regarded as the father of Federation."

It took nearly three years for the CAF to be established.

Elaborate structure

Following the insistences and reassurances of S. Rhodesian Prime Minister, Sir Godfrey Martin Huggins, nearly 25,000 white S. Rhodesians voted in a referendum for federation, versus nearly 15,000 against. Africans in all three territories were resolutely against it.

The semi-independent Federation was finally established, with five branches of government: one Federal, three Territorial, and one British (with its insipid CO-CRO rivalry). This often translated into confusion and jurisdictional rivalry among various levels of government. According to Blake, it proved to be "one of the most elaborately governed countries in the world."

Huggins became the first Prime Minister (PM) from 1953 to 1956, followed by Sir Roy Welensky from 1956 to the Federation's dissolution in 1963.

Huggins resigned as S. Rhodesia's PM to become PM of the Federation. The position of S. Rhodesian PM was one again, as prior to Britain's Ministerial Titles Act of 1933, reduced to a Premier and taken by the soon-to-be controversial Sir Garfield Todd.

In S. Rhodesia, most United Rhodesia Party (UP) cabinet members joined Huggins. There was a marked exodus to the more prestigious realm of Federal politics, and 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 political liberalism

Despite its convoluted government structure, the CAF economy was a success. In the first year of the federation, its GDP was an impressive £350 million; two years later it was nearly £450 million. Yet the average income of a European remained approximately ten times that of an African employed in the cash economy, and only one third of Africans were.

In 1955, the creation of the Kariba hydro-electric power station was announced. It was a remarkable feat of engineering creating the largest human-built dam on the planet at the time and costing £78 million. Its location highlighted the rivalry among Southern and Northern Rhodesia, with the former attaining its favoured location for the dam.

The CAF brought a decade of liberalism with respect to African rights. There were African junior ministers in the S. Rhodesia-dominated CAF, while a decade earlier only 70 Africans qualified to vote in the S. Rhodesian elections.

The property and income-qualified franchise of the CAF was, therefore, now much more loose. While this troubled many whites, they continued to follow Huggins with the CAF’s current structure, in largely due to the economic growth. But to Africans, this increasingly proved unsatisfactory and their leaders began to voice demands for majority rule.

Rise of African nationalism

African dissent in the CAF grew, and at the same time British circles expressed objections to its structure and purpose — full Commonwealth membership leading to independence.

In June 1956, Southern Rhodesia’s 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. Nearly two years later, Huggins (now Lord Malvern) somehow obtained a copy of it and 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 apparently he did not fully comprehend the gravity of the situation, attributing the row to the old CO-CRO rivalry and to Welensky taking personal offence to the letter’s contents.

The issues of this specific row 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, in the Northern Territories, Africans protested the white minority rule of CAF. In July 1958, Dr. Hastings Banda, the leader of African National Congress (ANC) of Nyasaland (later Malawi Congress Party) returned to Nyasaland, while in October the militant Kenneth Kaunda became the leader of the Zambian African National Congress (ZANC), a faction from the Northern Rhodesian ANC. The increasingly-rattled CAF authorities banned ZANC in March 1959, and imprisoned Kaunda for nine months in June. While Kaunda was in jail, his loyal lieutenant Mainza Chona worked with other African nationalists to create the United National Independence Party (UNIP), a successor to ZANC. In early 1959, unrest broke out in Nyasaland, which, according to historian Robert Blake, was "economically the poorest, politically the most advanced and numerically the least Europeanized of the three Territories."

The CAF government declared a state of emergency. Banda and the rest of Nyasaland’s ANC leadership were arrested and their party outlawed. Southern Rhodesian troops were deployed to bring order. British Labour MP John Stonehouse was expelled from Southern Rhodesia shortly before the state of emergency was proclaimed in Nyasaland, which outraged the British Labour Party.

The affair drew the whole concept of the CAF into question and even Macmillan began to express misgivings about its political viability (though, economically, he felt it was sound). 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.

Welensky at least found Douglas-Home in support to the existence of the CAF. By contrast, Douglas-Home’s rival, Colonial Secretary Ian Macleod favoured African rights and dissolving the CAF. Although Macmillan at the time supported Douglas-Home, the changes were already on the horizon. In Britain, Macmillan said that it was essential "to keep the Tory party on modern and progressive lines", noting electoral developments and especially the rise of the Liberal Party.


By the early 1960s, Macmillan went on his famous African tour leading to his "Wind of Change" speech in the parliament of the Cape. Change was well underway. By 1960, French African colonies had already become independent. Belgium more hastily vacated its colony and thousands of European refugees fled the Belgian Congo (later called Zaire, later the Democratic Republic of Congo) from the brutalities of the civil war and into S. Rhodesia.

During the Congolese crisis, Africans increasingly viewed CAF Prime Minister, Sir Roy Welensky, as an arch-reactionary and his support for Katanga separatism added to this. Ironically, a few years later, in his by-election campaign against Ian Smith’s Rhodesian Front, RF supporters heckled the comparatively moderate Welensky with cries of 'bloody Jew,' 'Communist,' and 'traitor'.

The new Commonwealth Secretary, Duncan Sandys, negotiated the '1961 Constitution', a new constitution for the CAF which greatly reduced Britain's powers over it. But by 1962, the British and the CAF cabinet had agreed that Nyasaland should be allowed to secede, though S. Rhodesian Premier, Sir Edgar Whitehead, committed the British to keep this secret until after the 1962 election in the territory. A year later, the same status was given to N. Rhodesia, decisively ending the Federation in the immediate future.

In 1963, the Victoria Falls conference was held, partly as a last effort to save the CAF, and partly as a forum to dissolve it. After nearly collapsing several times, it ended by 5 July 1963, and the Federation was virtually dissolved. Only the appropriation of its assets remained as a formality.

By 31 December, the CAF was formally dissolved and its assets distributed among the Territorial governments. S. Rhodesia obtained the vast majority of these including the assets of the Federal army, to which it had overwhelmingly contributed. Soon N. Rhodesia gained independence as Zambia under majority rule, led by Kenneth Kaunda, and Nyasaland as Malawi led by Hastings Banda.

On November 11, 1965 S. Rhodesia made a unilateral declaration of independence (UDI) from Britain, while under the Rhodesian Front government led by Prime Minister Ian Smith. This attracted the world's attention. In time, Zambia and Malawi became single-party states.

Historical legacy

Although CAF lasted only 10 years, it had an important impact on Central Africa.

Its white minority-rule, having several hundred thousand Europeans (in S. Rhodesia) versus millions of Africans, was largely driven by anachronistic reformism. It was a paternalistic, mild racialism as exhibited by Huggins, which had more in common with the late 19th than the mid-20th century.

At the same time, the British influenced and affiliated CAF, contrasted with the only other regional power, the Republic of South Africa. The dissolution of the CAF highlighted the independent African-led nations of Zambia and Malawi, while S. Rhodesia remained ruled by a white minority government until Zimbabwean independence in 1980. Much of that period was marked by civil war.

Following S. Rhodesia's unilateral declaration of independence, a growing conflict emerged between two of the former CAF territories — Zambia (supporting African nationalists) and S. Rhodesia (supported by South Africa) — with much heated diplomatic rhetoric, and at times, outright military hostility.

Postage stamps from the Federation

The Federation issued its first postage stamps in 1954, all with a portrait of Queen Elizabeth II. See main article at Postage stamps of the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland.

See also

* Governor-General of the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland
* Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland election, 1953
* Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland election, 1958
* Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland election, 1962
* Flag of the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland
* Government of the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland
* Unilateral Declaration of Independence (Rhodesia)


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