Salutary failure of an African Utopia
Friday 30 July 1999
Empire builders do not get a very good press these days. British colonial officers tend to be depicted as Blimpish characters who were transported through the bush in hammocks, beat the natives, and for whom everything stopped for tea or sundowners at the club. Young men barely out of public school found themselves as magistrates and assistant commissioners ruling over tens of thousands of people in remote corners of Africa and Asia.
Stewart Gore-Browne shared many of these characteristics. The young army lieutenant and ex-Harrovian had not even known where Northern Rhodesia was when in 1911 he was approached on a Surrey golf course by his former army instructor and invited to join the Commission marking the border with the Belgian Congo. Like most of his contemporaries in the early part of this century, his idea of interior Africa was that of a "vast thrilling unknown", shaped by reading David Livingstone and Rider Haggard.
Gore-Browne quickly took to the life. He made his servants dress in uniforms sent out from the Army & Navy and serve him tea and biscuits from Fortnum and Mason hampers. Like many colonials, he fell in love with Africa's wide skies and hunting for supper.
But Gore-Browne was different. He had no desire to be part of the bureaucracy of empire. Instead, he decided to make Africa his permanent home. After trekking across Northern Rhodesia, he bought 23,000 acres of land in the remote north-east, at a place called Shiwa Ngandu by the lake where Livingstone's dog Chitane had been eaten by a giant crocodile.
Moreover, he had a vision, a dream of creating a Utopian community where he would provide education, building skills, and healthcare to the natives in return for their labour. Teaching himself from army building manuals, Gore-Browne showed workers how to make bricks and tiles from local clay, later branching out into roads and bridges. He tried to develop an industry, choosing essential oils as a high-value product that could be transported easily, and planting orange and lime groves from which to extract the oil.
Eventually his three-storey house in the middle of nowhere was built, complete with library, tower, wine cellars and rose gardens. But Gore- Browne's marriage to a girl less than half his age, the daughter of the woman he had loved, was doomed, as were his essential oils. The estate became a black hole for his family fortune and he spent more and more time alone in his library, listening to the gramophone and writing letters to his aunt Ethel.
Over the years the man who had thought nothing of beating his servants' heads against trees came to respect the local people, shocking other white settlers by welcoming black men to his dinner table and fighting for their cause on the Legislative Council. He took his African driver all over Europe, visiting the great opera houses, losing him in Hampton Court maze, and kitting him out at his London tailors. He became a mentor to Kenneth Kaunda, who led the country to independence and became Zambia's first president.
Gore-Browne died shortly afterwards and it is hard not to imagine that he would be disappointed were he to see the place now. Zambia is riddled with corruption and bad management. His daughter and son-in-law who took over the running of the house were murdered. The estate he built is crumbling. Local people have abandoned the brick houses and reverted to mud huts, and the name Gore-Browne lives on only as the label on a dusty glass cabinet in Lusaka Museum bearing a bowler hat, walking stick and inkstand.
Christina Lamb is the author of `The Africa House: the true story of an English gentleman and his African dream' (Viking, pounds 12.99)
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