Published On: Sun, Jul 28th, 2019

British Diplomacy in Rhodesia 1965-1980

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As the colonial power in Rhodesia, Britain bore the odium of an increasingly violent African nationalism whose primary target was the rising white population drawn mostly from Britain. In his article “Rhodesia and Western Strategy in Southern Africa,” Commonwealth scholar Sean Gervasi paints a picture of the white population in this region of Africa in the 1960s. “Out of 106,000 whites present in British Central Africa” he says, “82,000 were found in Southern Africa.”

African Nationalism, Threat to London’s Vital Interests in Rhodesia

The chimurenga or war of liberation entered its violent phase in 1965. Events preceding this period had proven to Africans that their destiny was in their own hands. Land expropriation, apartheid-style brutality, neglect of African interests and the infamous Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI) where among the countless abuses meted on Africans which drove them to take up arms against colonial brutality.

Under British rule, Rhodesia had been transformed into what Gervasi describes generally of Southern Africa as “… an enclave of several million whites who function as well paid overseers in a kind of world plantation system. The poor, the laborers and the vast mass of the people have no way of escaping the harshest kind of poverty.” This was the economic empire which Britain struggled to protect in Rhodesia, its “sphere of influence” at the expense of Rhodesian blacks.

The Search for Majority Rule in Rhodesia, London’s Role

British Diplomacy in Rhodesia 1965-1980

In 1964, Sir Alec Douglas-Home described British policy towards Rhodesia as aimed towards the search for majority rule. “The principle and intention of unimpeded progress to majority rule, already enshrined in the 1961 Constitution, would have to be maintained and guaranteed” he said. How Britain respected this highly publicized and noble objective, has become an issue of heated debate. “What reasoning has persuaded British governments to sacrifice even the most basic political rights of Africans?” asked Gervasi.

British diplomacy met its first major obstacle in Ian Smith’s Unilateral declaration of Independence in 1965. As Africans looked forward to London for firm action, Britain flagrantly refused to use force against Smith. Harold Wilson, then British Prime Minister, defended Britain’s position on grounds of avoiding “an explosive political row.” Mr. Wilson instead preferred dialogue with the illegal regime of Ian Smith.

As part of his dialogue diplomacy, Harold Wilson met with Smith on the British ship “Tiger” in December 1966 for talks which proved abortive. In October 1968, both men met again on another British ship “Fearless.” Again they did not reach any agreement. Three years later, the British-appointed Pearce Commission sounded the anger of Africans against British peace proposals in Rhodesia. The triumph of the Chimurenga is therefore explained largely by this consistent failure of British diplomacy in Rhodesia.

About the Author

- Paul Linus is an eminent online journalist who has been writing news, features and editorials on different websites from across the world for about a decade. He can be contacted at

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