The Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland

The Commonwealth Group sitting in chairs in a garden.
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Also known as the Central African Federation, the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland was created between August 1st and October 23, 1953, and lasted until December 31, 1963. The federation joined the British protectorate of Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia), the colony of Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), and the protectorate of Nyasaland (now Malawi).

Origins of the Federation

White European settlers in the region were perturbed about the increasing Black African population but had been stopped during the first half of the twentieth century from introducing more draconian rules and laws by the British Colonial Office. The end of World War II led to increased white immigration, especially in Southern Rhodesia, and there was a worldwide need for copper which existed in quantity in Northern Rhodesia. White settler leaders and industrialists once again called for a union of the three colonies to increase their potential and harness the Black workforce.

The election of the National Party in South Africa in 1948 worried the British government, which began to see federation as a potential counter to the Apartheid policies being introduced in SA. It was also seen as a potential sop to Black nationalists in the region who were starting to ask for independence. Black nationalists in Nyasaland and Northern Rhodesia were worried that the white settlers of Southern Rhodesia would come to dominate any authority created for the new federation; this proved to be true, as the Federation's first appointed prime minister was Godfrey Huggins, Viscount Malvern, who had already served as PM of Southern Rhodesia for 23 years.

Operation of the Federation

The British government planned for the Federation to eventually become a British dominion, and it was overseen from the start by a British assigned governor-general. The federation was an economic success, at least at the start, and there was an investment in a few expensive engineering projects, such as the Kariba hydro-electric dam on the Zambezi. In addition, in comparison to South Africa, the political landscape was more liberal.

Black Africans worked as junior ministers and there was an income/property-owning basis to the franchise which allowed some Black Africans to vote. There was still, however, an effective white minority rule to the government of the federation, and just as the rest of Africa was expressing a desire for majority rule, nationalist movements in the federation were growing.

Break up of the Federation

In 1959 Nyasaland nationalists called for action, and the resultant disturbances led to the authorities declaring a state of emergency. Nationalist leaders, including Dr. Hastings Kamuzu Banda, were detained, many without a trial. After his release in 1960, Banda decamped to London, where with Kenneth Kaunda and Joshua Nkomo he continued to campaign for an end to the federation.

The early sixties saw independence come to a number of French African colonies, and the British prime minister, Harold Macmillan, gave his famous 'wind of change' speech in South Africa.

The British had already decided in 1962 that Nyasaland should be allowed to secede from the federation. A conference held in early '63 at Victoria Falls was seen as a last-ditch attempt to maintain the federation. It failed. It was announced on February 1, 1963, that the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland would be broken up. Nyasaland achieved independence, within the Commonwealth, as Malawi on July 6, 1964. Northern Rhodesia became independent as Zambia on October 24th that year. White settlers in Southern Rhodesia announced a Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI) on November 11, 1965.

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Boddy-Evans, Alistair. "The Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland." ThoughtCo, Feb. 6, 2021, Boddy-Evans, Alistair. (2021, February 6). The Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland. Retrieved from Boddy-Evans, Alistair. "The Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 30, 2023).