The Central African Federation was one of the most bizarre creations of late British imperialism. Formed controversially in 1953 out of the colonies of Northern and Southern Rhodesia and Nyasaland (today Zambia, Zimbabwe and Malawi), it never looked like succeeding, and spluttered to an ignominious death ten years later. Everything about it was wrong. It wasn't even a federation in the accepted sense. 'Normally the term implies a voluntary surrender, or merging, of separate powers and authorities by states which are broadly comparable,' a senior civil servant wrote in 1959. There was nothing at all voluntary about this arrangement, however, and its constituent parts were described as being like oil and water. Southern Rhodesia was a white-settler-dominated colony that had enjoyed effective self-government (for the whites) for thirty years. In London it came (nominally) under the Commonwealth Relations Office, which otherwise looked after places like Australia and Canada. Nyasaland and Northern Rhodesia, on the other hand, were ruled by the more paternalistic Colonial Office. Nyasaland was obviously headed for black majority rule at some point in the future; Northern Rhodesia was supposed to be making for a form of 'multiracial partnership'. (It all depended on how many whites lived there - that is, whether there were enough to keep the blacks down.) Philip Murphy, the excellent editor of these fascinating volumes of (mainly) official documents, confesses himself at a loss to explain why Nyasaland in particular was ever included, unless it was simply to justify the title of 'federation', for which three countries would seem to be the minimum requirement.
LRB 25 May 2006 | PDF Download