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The Easy Sunday Read: Random facts (and myths) on Zimbabwean history

Alex T. Magaisa


I usually come across some fascinating and interesting facts (and myths) about Zimbabwe when I’m studying the country’s constitutional, political and economic history. Learning the early history of the country is quite an experience in itself as one comes across some humbling accounts from those early days. As a “trivia junkie”, I usually note them down under the “trivia” section and now I realise, it’s grown into quite a big collection. Here, I share some bits from the early years. As with much historical data, “facts” can often be subject to contestation, and I am almost certain that some readers will have different views of some of the things noted here. I would be grateful to hear the different versions or corrections – who knows, one day it might end up as a reference point for kids (and adults) wishing to know more about their country.

  1. The country has been known by various names: It was first referred to as Rhodesia from around 1895, in honour of Cecil John Rhodes, although it became official in 1897. Before then it was unofficially referred to as Zambesia or South Zambesia. It officially became Southern Rhodesia from 1898 following the passage of the Southern Rhodesia Order in Council of 20 October 1898, which is generally regarded as the full territory’s first constitution (There was a Matabeleland Order in Council in 1894 following the 1893 Ndebele war of resistance.) It became Rhodesia again after the end of the Federation of Rhodesia & Nyasaland in 1963. In 1979, it was known briefly as Zimbabwe-Rhodesia. It became Zimbabwe in 1980.

  2. The name Rhodesia was not officially adopted until 1 June 1897. Francis Joseph Dormer, the Managing Director of the Argus Company, a South African-based media business, is credited with bestowing the name Rhodesia on the colonised territory between the Limpopo and the Zambezi. Apparently, Dormer a friend and business associate of Cecil John Rhodes began using it in 1891. It was first used in the Cape Argus on 19 June 1891 – under the headline, “News from Rhodesia”. The newspaper in the new territory, owned by the Argus Company then known as the Mashonaland Herald became known as the Rhodesia Herald. Another name used at the time was Zambesia, and was apparently favoured by Rhodes himself. Another possible name was Charterland. The name Rhodesia was scoffed at by some but Dormer insisted that they “failed to recognise a really great man in their midst”. Rhodes himself initially scoffed at the idea and “positively forbade it” but later reconciled himself to its use as a lasting legacy. However the first proclamation in 1895 was invalid and it had to be officially proclaimed in 1897.

  3. The name Zimbabwe first came into use in the early 1960s. One of the early prominent nationalists, Michael Mawema is credited with first suggesting the name. The first political party to use the name the Zimbabwe National Party, headed by Mawema, which had broken away from the Joshua Nkomo-led National Democratic Party in 1960. Other names suggested for the country included Matshobana, Monomotapa, Matopos.

  4. Between 1890 and 1923, the country was administered by the British South Africa Company (BSAC), formed by Cecil John Rhodes. The police force, called the British South Africa Police (BSAP) became the Zimbabwe Republic Police upon independence in 1980.

  5. Zimbabwe could have been part of South Africa in 1923. It owes its separate status to a major decision in 1923 when the electorate of the Southern Rhodesia decided to have self-government, instead of joining the Union of South Africa at a referendum held on 23 October 1922. The electorate of around 13,000 was restricted to the white settler community. 59,43% of the voters chose self-government with 40,57% voting to join the Union of South Africa. If the majority had voted to join the Union, Zimbabwe might well be a province of South Africa today. (The irony is that today, due to political and economic challenges, the majority of Zimbabwean migrants choose to settle in South Africa and Zimbabwe has become a huge supermarket for South African businesses!)

  6. Cecil Square, the design of which is based on the British flag, was renamed Africa Unity Square in 1988 to celebrate the 25th Anniversary of the OAU. Although it is called a “square” it is actually not a square but a rectangle. It was initially reserved as a parade ground for the police but it also hosted the first cricket match in the city in 1891. It was the site of the first public execution – one Louis Andres had been convicted of murdering a fellow traveller and he was hung on 17 April 1893. The first parade and raising of the Union Jack took place at this site on 13th September 1890.

  7. Parliament building today is still the same building that housed the first Legislative Assembly in May 1899. It was originally constructed as a hotel, called Cecil Hotel. It was first built by businessmen Robert Snodgrass and David Mitchell, as a second hotel on the Causeway side of town after they had already established the Hatfield Hotel on the Kopje side in Pioneer Street. There were already “factions” in the city from the early days: the Causeway side of the settlement housed the civil servants while the Kopje side housed the traders. The Cecil Hotel was bought by the BSAC who then converted the dining room into a debating chamber of legislators.

  8. Salisbury was named after Robert Talbot Gascoyne-Cecil, the British Prime Minister at the time of colonisation in 1890: Lord Salisbury, the Third Marquess of Salisbury. It remained Salisbury until 1982 when it was changed to Harare, derived from the name of a local chief. The high-density suburb of Harari became Mbare.

  9. Masvingo was formerly known as Fort Victoria, the first European settlement as the Pioneer Column trekked from South Africa. The first name change in 1982 was controversial, leading to an immediate change. It was first called Nyanda, before controversy and unpopularity led to another change to Masvingo.

  10. Major Frank Johnson, who was only 23 years old, was contracted by Cecil John Rhodes in 1890 to “organise and equip the Pioneer Column and deliver it to Salisbury” for a price of £89,285 10s. After the Column was disbanded in October 1890, Frank Johnson established a thriving business supplying basic necessities to the settler community. A school in Harare still bears his name.

  11. Cecil John Rhodes did not visit the new settlement of Fort Salisbury until October 1891.

  12. The first Administrator appointed by the BSAC to administer the territory in 1890 was Archibald Colquhoun. Colquhoun is said to have exercised restraint and caution in the land grabs that took place in 1890, preferring instead to have more regard for the land rights of the local chiefs and their people. This cautious approach did not endear him to the settlers or Rhodes, who promoted Leander Starr Jameson, who according to former Federation Chief Justice Robert Tredgold, proceeded “dispense rough justice”. (There is a road called Colquhoun Avenue in the Avenues area if Harare, though I have not been able to verify if it is named after him)

  13. Knight-Bruce was the Anglican Bishop of Mashonaland. An assistant complained that he had acquired over 40 farms, all over 3,000 acres. Knight-Bruce and other Missionaries at the time argued that they were taking more farms in the church’s name in order to “reserve” it for black Africans and protect them from European farmers in the future. (There is a road in Harare called Knight-Bruce, though I have not been able to verify if it is named after the Bishop)

  14. A man called Dunbar Moodie is said to have grabbed so much land in the Melsetter district in the eastern areas that he was regarded as a feudal lord. He carved out a farm of more than 60,000 acres, indiscriminately displacing the local Ndau people and grabbing thousands of their cattle. They nicknamed him “Dabuyazizwe” apparently meaning the one who divides land. He was so brutal that an official report in 1895 revealed “the natives are running away from G.BD. Moodie’s farms as fast as they can”

  15. Joseph Vintcent was the first Chief Justice of territory. He served until 1901.

  16. Herman Heyman was a military man who in 1894 chaired the Loot Committee which was created to control the division and sharing of King Lobengula’s cattle. He was sacked by Rhodes in 1896 after numerous complaints by the Ndebele people over his behaviour. He later became the Managing Director of Willoughby’s Consolidated, which became one of the biggest landowners in the Matabeleland region. He was granted a Knighthood in 1920.

  17. There is a narrative which suggests that Salisbury was not the intended destination of the Pioneer Column when it arrived on 12 September 1890. Rather, the narrative goes, the intended destination was Mount Hampden, which had been identified and named by Frederick Courtney Selous, the hunter and explorer who was guiding the Pioneer Column. Mt Hampden is also a hill with a nearby stream, the Gwebi, and was considered ideal for the settlement. However, three days before the Pioneer Column was due to reach Mt Hampden, Jameson decided to visit Chief Mutasa and he took Selous with him. The main party were advised to look for a hill and a stream, so the narrative goes. When the leader of the Column saw the kopje and the Mukuvisi stream nearby, they thought they had arrived. When Selous returned, he advised that this was not the correct site. However, when they examined the area, they decided there was not much difference, so Salisbury remained where it is today. The current Malborough area would have been the site of the new settlement. However, there is a counter-narrative which suggests that all this is a myth: that in fact the travelling party was not lost but that they had considered all options and found the site they had chosen to be more appropriate. Whatever the case may be, it is interesting that the current Government plans to build the new Parliament building at Mt Hampden, completing it seems, the original trek of the Pioneer Column!

  18. There was a lot of commercial trade between the local people and the settlers in the early days. The locals were agriculturalists and sold their produce to the new settlers. In the early years of colonialism, the African farmers accounted for most of the agricultural production in the colony. To promote the European farmers the Government introduced a raft measures which also had the effect of diluting competition from the African farmers. One of them was the Maize Control Act of 1931 (and a 1934 amendment) which meant African farmers were now selling their maize produce at prices that were significantly lower than those offered to their white counterparts. “Why should we grow crops and sell them at less than we used to?” they asked.

  19. The first telegraph line arrived in the territory in 1892. The first bank Standard Bank of South Africa) opened in the same year on 20 July and in 1895 it issued the first bank notes. Bank notes were issued by private banks until the early 1930s when a Currency Board was established. The first Bulawayo-Salisbury railway line opened in 1902. However, the first train had arrived in 1899, from Umtali (now Mutare).

  20. William Earnest Fairbridge was the founder of the newspaper industry in the territory. He established the first newspaper, called The Mashonaland Herald and Zambesian Times, the forerunner to the current Herald newspaper. It later became the Rhodesia Herald. Its first issue was on 27 June 1891. Fairbridge also became the first mayor of the new municipality of Salisbury in 1897.

  21. The Rhodesian Herald had a formidable competitor in the Rhodesian Times and Financial News, established in July 1896 by a syndicate of private citizens. The Rhodesian Times was critical of the Rhodesian Herald for what it thought was a cosy relationship with the Government: it had a contract to print the Government Gazette, among other things.

  22. The first issue of the Bulawayo Chronicle appeared on 12th October 1894. However, the first newspaper to be published in Matabeleland was The Matabele Times and Mining Journal which began on 23 March 1894. The second was The Matabeleland News and Mining Record which first appeared on 31 March 1894. It later changed its name to the Rhodesia’s Weekly Review of Men, Mines and Money.

  23. Nigeria was one of the donor countries that helped the new state of Zimbabwe at independence in 1980. The Nigerian government of General Olusegun Obasanjo provided funds (a $US5 million grant) which the new Zimbabwean government used to buy out the South African owners of the main newspaper company (Argus Group) which became known as Zimpapers, publishers of The Herald, The Sunday Mail, The Chronicle and other state papers.

  24. In 1979, Nigeria also nationalised the operations of BP, a British multinational, as a way of exerting pressure on the British Government’s foreign policy towards Rhodesia. At the time, there were concerns among African countries that the new Conservative Government of Margaret Thatcher was inclined towards recognising the discredited Muzorewa administration and lifting sanctions against it.

  25. Of the three countries in the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland, between 1953 and 1963, it was Southern Rhodesia which was the biggest beneficiary. It provided the capital, Salisbury and being seat of power brought advantages. A number of big projects, including the establishment of the university college took place in this period. The Air Force was also well equipped in this era. The division of assets, including military facilities also favoured Southern Rhodesia.

  26. Kariba Dam was built in three years between 1956 and 1959 by the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland. The engineer who designed it was Andre Coyne, a Frenchman. In 2013 Zimbabwe was still paying debts for the construction of the dam. In August 2013 it paid $US40 million towards fulfilment of a $US70,8 million owed to Zambia. Kariba was not the only choice – the other option was to build the dam at Kafue, but Kariba got the nod.

  27. Between 1969 and 1970, when Mugabe was in detention, he pleaded with the British Government to grant asylum to his then wife, Sally Mugabe. Sally was in the UK where she had been studying on a scholarship, but with her visa expiring she wanted more time to stay in Britain. Mugabe wrote to Harold Wilson, the British Prime Minister and the Home Office Secretary, pleading on behalf of his wife, to no avail. Officially, the application for extension was rejected on the basis that as she was a Ghanaian passport-holder she was free to return to Ghana, her homeland.

  28. Herbert Chitepo became the first black advocate of the High Court of Rhodesia When he qualified, the Land Apportionment Act had to be amended to allow him to set up his law chambers near the rest of the members of the bar. Without the amendment, the legislation which segregated people on grounds of race would have prevented him from setting up his chambers in the same area as the rest of the advocates, who were all white.

  29. The racism and segregation that Chitepo experienced in his professional career gradually hardened him into one of the most radical African nationalists. It was reported that some Native Commissioners made him to defend his clients while he was sat down cross-legged in a court of law. A radicalised Chitepo eventually became one of the most militant nationalists, advocating the armed struggle as the best means to secure liberation.

  30. Edson Sithole, one of the early African nationalists, was the second African (after Chitepo) to be admitted as an advocate to the Rhodesian Bar. In 1974, he earned a degree of Doctor of Laws from the University of South Africa, and became the first African to hold such a degree in Southern Africa and the only person with such a degree in Rhodesia. His thesis was: “A comparative study of the republican constitutions of Zambia and Malawi”. A copy was kept in a secure glass panel at the University of Zimbabwe’s Law Library. In 1975, Sithole disappeared in the then Salisbury and was never seen again. His secretary who was with him, Miriam Mhlanga, also disappeared. It remains one of the biggest whodunit mysteries in Zimbabwean history.

  31. Sarah Kachingwe (nee Chavhunduka) was the first black woman to enrol as a student at the University College of Rhodesia and Nyasaland in 1957. Later, after independence she rose in the civil service to become a Permanent Secretary in for Ministry if Information. One of her brothers Gordon Chavhunduka became the second Vice Chancellor of the University of Zimbabwe. Another brother, Dexter Chavhunduka, was the first black veterinary doctor in Zimbabwe.

  32. Parirenyatwa Group of Hospitals used to be called Andrew Fleming Hospital. Building started in 1972 and it opened its doors to the public in 1974 with completion scheduled for 1981. It was named after the first medical director to the Rhodesian Health Service. It was renamed Parirenyatwa in honour of Dr Samuel Tichafa Parirenyatwa, the first black medical doctor. His son, Dr David Parirenyatwa is the current Minister of Health.

  33. Chancellor Avenue is to Zimbabwe what Downing Street is to the UK or 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is to the US – a famous address that signifies the seat of power. Well, it should be, if President Mugabe lived there but he prefers his Blue Roof residence now! What perhaps is less known is that Chancellor Avenue, where State House is to be found, is named after the first British Governor of Southern Rhodesia, Sir John Chancellor who took office in 1923.

  34. Lady Chancellor Maternity Hospital named after the wife of the first British Governor of Southern Rhodesia, was renamed Mbuya Nehanda Hospital while Lady Margaret Hospital named after Queen Elizabeth II’s younger sister was renamed Sekuru Kaguvi Hospital. Nehanda and Kaguvi led the 1896-7 rebellions against colonial occupation of Mashonaland.

  35. Bishop Abel Muzorewa was Prime Minister of Zimbabwe-Rhodesia for less than 6 months in 1979. He took office on 1 June and was forced to step down on 11 December by the conclusion of the Lancaster House constitution.

  36. The President of Zimbabwe-Rhodesia, which was a ceremonial position, was Josiah Zion Gumede. He died in 1989. Natalie Gumede, a British television actress is the grandchild of Gumede.

  37. At independence, key roads were renamed to honour leaders of the Frontline States who had played a key role in the struggle for Zimbabwe’s independence: Jameson Avenue, became Samora Machel Avenue; Kingsway became Julius Nyerere Way while Railway Avenue became Kenneth Kaunda Avenue.

  38. Julius Nyerere Way was actually a second name change because Kingsway used to be known as Broadway, and it ran on either side of a stream, dividing the Kopje and Causeway areas. It was named Kingsway in honour of Prince George, the Prince of Wales upon his intended visit in 1910. The stream was turned into a canal in 1911 but was later covered in parts. It is now a storm-water drain which appears at the junction of Julius Nyerere Way and Charter Road.

  39. Rhodes Avenue lost its name plaques in 1980 to souvenir hunters. The name posts were never replaced until years later when the road was renamed Herbert Chitepo Avenue.

  40. The palm trees in the middle of Julius Nyerere Way are native to Mexico and were donated by a Mr H. E. V. Pickstone in November 1920. They will soon be celebrating 100 years in the city.

  41. A number of early streets in Salisbury were named after explorers – Stanley, Baker, Cameron, Gordon, Speke, etc. The designer was Ross, an American who was a nephew of Colquhoun, the first Administrator. His initial proposition was to use numbers as names for the streets but the suggestion to use explorers’ names won the day.

  42. And finally, for drinkers … the first brewery in Salisbury on Cameron Street at the corner with Charter Road was opened in April 1899 and the first lagers were sold in stores on 1 May 1899. Ware was drawn from wells sunk at what is now Market Square. The business proved to be very profitable. It was acquired by what is now SABMiller in 1910. As operations grew the business moved to a new and bigger site in Southerton, where it remains to this day.

I hope you have found a few interesting things that you might not have known – something for the pub quiz, probably! If you have any interesting “facts” or “myths” about Zimbabwe or its cities, please do share. It would be lovely to build a whole library of them for posterity. And if there is anything that you think needs to be corrected in this piece, please do share.




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