On the construction of settler identity: David Kenrick, ‘The Past is Our Country: History and the Rhodesiana Society c. 1953-1970’


Abstract: This paper uses the work of an amateur historical society – the Rhodesiana Society – as a lens to explore the racialised nature of attempts to define a white Rhodesian identity in the crucial post-war period of 1953-1970. It builds upon the existing corpus of work on history and national identity, moving beyond the more traditional sites in which historical discourse is produced – academia and the state – looking instead at how individuals in private organisations sought to use the past to shore up identities in the present. It does so using the particularly interesting example of a British settler colony in the late twentieth century, where minority rule was being upheld even as the rest of the continent entered the first stages of its post – colonial life.

The paper focuses in particular on discourses of imperial legitimation which stemmed from the earliest history of white British/South African settlement in the colony. Historical work and narratives exploring early conflicts with Africans, specifically the 1896 Mashona and Matabele rebellions, served to legitimate the continued white presence by having shown that they had ‘won’ the country with their own blood. These histories also used techniques of historical silencing, culturally reinforcing the social, legal, and economic segregation which ascribed to Rhodesia’s Africans a state of permanent subservience and anonymity.

The paper also suggests how these sanitised narratives of Victorian (white) heroism may have resonated with white Rhodesians in the 1960s, embroiled as they were in their own slowly escalating guerrilla war. Constant reminders of the narratives of triumph in the past offered whites both an historical anchor in the past, despite the majority of the settler community’s origins outside Rhodesia, and also hope that the triumph over the adver sity of the late nineteenth century might be replicated in the contemporary conflict.

%d bloggers like this: