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The Mark of the Pioneer Column

Monica and Kavitha shared a train ride from South Africa to Zimbabwe. More than one hundred years ago, another group of travelers journeyed from South Africa before it was even called that, but for VERY different reasons.

The Central Africa 1890s map
This group was the "Pioneer Column," led by Cecil Rhodes, diamond magnate and fervent imperialist. Following reports of gold in the fertile land above the Limpopo River (which marks the border between Zimbabwe and South Africa today), the Pioneers organized, eager to get rich quick. Through tricks and force, they worked their way north and made claims to the mines is certain areas. However, they discovered there really wasn't that much gold, so they tried to make up for it by taking the fertile land and cattle of the local people. The indigenous Shona and Ndebele tribes were no match for the settlers and Rhodes' British South Africa Company (BASC), who brought with them 500 soldiers just in case the Africans didn't want to give up their land. Soon enough, the Union Jack was flying above their Fort Salisbury (present-day Harare), and almost all of what is today Zimbabwe and even more land to the north was under their control. While this land was under British control, it was known as Rhodesia.

Rhodes had other reasons for pushing northwards as well. He had a master plan of Africa as a vast English colony stretching "from Cape Town to Cairo," an Africa "civilized" by European culture with a long railroad extending the length of the continent. He saw Rhodesia as an important step in building towards the British-controlled Kenya. Adding to British possessions in southern Africa also helped Britan protect the all-important route to India, the crown jewel in the British Empire.

Not everyone shared his dream.

Cecil Rhodes' work as both a nation-builder and a philanthropist (he established the prestigious Rhodes Scholarship) is well known, and the history books have been kind to him. What might the Africans say about Rhodes though? What might Lobengula, chief of the Ndebele, tricked out of his land and then attacked by British forces, have to say about this nation builder? That Rhodes built these nations on the backs of the Africans, probably.

Consider this: The Pioneer Column arrived in Ndebele and Shona land in 1890. By 1899, over 15.7 million acres had been granted to the invading Europeans, with only about four million left for the Ndebele. As was the pattern throughout the rest of colonial Africa, these four million acres were remote and waterless, while the Europeans took the best land for themselves. The Ndebele considered them cemeteries, not homes, and refused to move so they ended up living on land controlled by Europeans and working for next to nothing.

And this: Before Cecil Rhodes and the British South Africa Company took over, conquering Lobengula and the Ndebele owned at least 200,000 head of cattle. Of these, over 160,000 were stolen by the Company or looted by its soldiers.

And this: Initially, a Company-maintained white police force ruled over the Ndebele. These "policemen" were brutal and lawless, and often sexually abused the Ndebele women. In 1894, the Company set up a "Native Department," but this didn't really help much since its only real duty was to collect a "hut tax" on all of the Ndebele! (All natives who couldn't pay the sizable "hut tax," and many of them couldn't, were required to work their debt off on the white farms.)

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A poem by Rudyard Kipling in honor of Rhodes' life
Rudyard Kipling, the poet of British Imperialism, had this to say of Cecil Rhodes:

There, 'til the vision he foresaw
Splendid and whole arise,
And unimagined Empires draw
To council 'neath his skies,
The immense and brooding spirit still
Shall quicken and control.
Living he was the land, and dead,
His soul shall be her soul.

If you were an African, what kind of poem would you write for Cecil Rhodes?

The Team

Monica - Cecil Rhodes: Lowdown Thief or Hero for the Nation?
Kavitha - Fables of the Falls
Kevin - The Creature Within
Monica - Tall Tales from the Train

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