Understanding Zambia: Reflections on history

As you know, I often reflect on my time in Zambia, and in the next series of posts I wanted to cover some of the history of Zambia, and to talk about it in context.

From her earliest beginnings in prehistory, through the period of the Khosian occupation of the area through to the 4th century, when a new influx of Bantu peoples descended from the north something reddish and orange has attracted humans to Zambia. Bantu archaeological records demonstrate the importance and utilization of copper in the area between the 4th and 15th century CE (Schmidt et al. 2001). Copper was used by these peoples as ornamentation, the color signifying life; with a higher value than gold, and continued to be mined and worked long before and after colonial interests arrived in the 17 and 18th centuries (Bisson 2001).

From 1888, when Cecil Rhodes claimed Northern and Southern Rhodesia, by obtaining rights from local chieftains of the Mwata Kazembe, Lozi, Chewa and Bemba peoples, Copper remained of vital interest to the country. From the 1880s, the territory belonged to the Rhodes British South Africa Company, and the extent of copper deposits was unknown. In these early years of colonial occupation, the territory was considered more a source of labor and another of Zambia’s rich resources, her people, were capitalized upon. It wasn’t until an American scout, Frederick Russell Burnham overseer for the Northern Territories (BSA) Exploration Co. arrived in 1895 and saw many similarities to copper deposits he had worked in the United States, and encountered natives wearing copper bracelets, that he set about surveying the region (Burnham et al, 1926). He discovered major copper deposits, which were worked and developed, and after negotiations in 1923, Northern Rhodesia became a protectorate of the British Colonial Office.

Continued exploration led to discovery of enormous copper deposits in 1928, in the region now known as the Copperbelt. These discoveries cemented Northern Rhodesia’s (now Zambia’s) fate as a majority copper exporter. Two companies; the Anglo American Corporation (AAC) and the South African Rhodesian Selection Trust (RST), later to become the Roan Antelope Trust, who controlled the sector until independence (Roberts, 1976), developed the mining sector, the economy, and set the economic machine in motion.

With exports of copper fueling the economy (Northern Rhodesia provided nearly 13% of global production in 1938 (Crown Auditors Office, 1938)), the government and people were free to focus on political gains, the economic prosperity gave them more bargaining tools, and as the years passed African participation and recognition in the local government increased (Roberts, 1976). After WWII, the two Rhodesias were joined with Nyasaland (Malawi), and formed a new state, the Central African Federation (Roberts, 1976).

Throughout this process, Northern Rhodesians fought for increased representation and participation in government and in 1962 finally won a majority in the legislative council. Soon after, capitalizing on the decolonization movement, and utilizing its general copper wealth as a bargaining tool the council passed resolutions calling for N. Rhodesia’s succession. The proposal included demands for internal self-government, a new constitution, and a new national assembly based on democratic ideals. In 1963, the federation was dissolved, negotiations with the mining companies intensified, and Northern Rhodesia became the Republic of Zambia on 24th, October 1964 (Roberts, 1976). Tying itself closely to European ideals, and to political ideologies, it chose the 24th because it was, as Andrew Roberts notes in his “A History of Zambia,” “United Nations Day, [which] symbolized Zambia’s commitment to the ideals of the United Nations Charter. Zambia chose to become a Republic within the British Commonwealth: Kaunda became Head of State as well as chief executive” (1976:222).

Her constant struggle for independence, and the freedom of her peoples is integral to her identity today. We’ll get into some deeper history in the next segment!


Bisson, M. 2001. “Precolonial Copper Metallurgy: Sociopolitical Context”. In Ancient Africa Metallurgy: The Socio-Cultural Context, 1st ed., pp 83–145. Walnut Creek: Altamira Press.
Burnham, Frederick Russell, and Mary Nixon Everett. 1926. Scouting On Two Continents. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, Page & Company.
Crown Auditors Office, 1938. Annual Report On The Social And Economic Progress Of The People Of NORTHERN RHODESIA 1938. COLONIAL REPORTS—ANNUAL #1935. London: HIS MAJESTY’S STATIONERY OFFICE.
Roberts, Andrew. 1976. A History Of Zambia. New York: Africana Pub. Co.
Schmidt, Peter, Michael S. Bisson, S. Terry Childs, Phillip de Barros, Augustine F. C. Holl, and Joseph O. Vogel. 2001. “Ancient African Metallurgy: The Socio-Cultural Context”. American Antiquity 66 (4): 747. doi:10.2307/2694190.






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