Between 1897 and 1899,  Uncle William went out to East Africa for what was to be the turning point of his life. He spent 20 months in the field, walked over 6,000 miles,  and returned an African expert.  There is however a bit of a mystery about his East African trip: what was the purpose of the trip, and for whom was he working?

In his ‘autobiography’ he says that he went out to East Africa in 1897 to search for gold – the ‘Horizon’ obituary says this was for Rhodesia Concessions Ltd. However I have an offprint of a magazine called Lords and Commoners describing his trip to Northern Rhodesia as being the surveyor for the proposed Cape to Cairo railway. The Cape to Cairo railway was a grand idea of Cecil Rhodes, to build a railway the whole length of Africa, from Cairo to the Cape: had it come off it would surely have transformed Africa. Sadly, it failed. Nevertheless Uncle William clearly did some surveying on its possible route in Northern Rhodesia – today Zambia.

However this was only part – perhaps only a small part – of his journey. It appears that he joined what is known as the Frank Smitheman Expedition which was set up to search for gold in Rhodesia. Whether the railway exploration was part of the official exploration or was a private add-on venture by WS is not at all clear; ironically however his report on the railway appears to be the main source of evidence for the work of the expedition. Certainly the travelling recorded in the account does not seem to be sufficient to cover the whole 20-month long expedition. Perhaps the real explanation is that the expedition failed in its primary object of discovering gold – there is little gold in Zambia (Northern Rhodesia) though there is a lot in Southern Rhodesia; however Zambia is one of the world’s major sources of copper and no doubt WS  became very aware of this

Were there perhaps political problems?  This was the time of the so-called ‘Fashoda incident’ when Britain and France nearly went to war in central Africa. The British or at least Cecil Rhodes wanted to build a railway from North to South. The French wanted to build a railway from East to West and the two would have met in in the middle in the Sudan. Luckily Lord Kitchener, fresh from his triumph over the Mahdi’s followers at the battle of Omdurman, succeeded in diplomatically avoiding any serious clash. Perhaps Uncle William did not want to become embroiled in politics.

However when, 25 years later, Selection Trust was looking for an expert on copper with a knowledge of Northern Rhodesia, WS was able to put himself forward as an obvious choice, and he returned to the area he had surveyed previously and used his mining skills to open up first the Roan Antelope mines, and then the Mufilira mines. Thus it was copper rather than gold that formed the foundation of his success.

(I have transcribed the Lords and Commoners article in full,  and I have carefully improved the photos by Photoshopping; it is worth double clicking on some of them  to see the detail).

On to the Lords and Commoners article

On to the Frank Smitheman expedition


9th March 2014