Soldier Blue Introduction (PDF)


My Family

My family in Salisbury, Rhodesia, 1963


They arrived in Rhodesia, the story goes, with a pram full of saucepans, a few shillings jangling in their pockets, and an optimistic trust in a benevolent universe, that things would somehow work out. That’s how they tell it, anyhow. I have to admire them for bravely tearing the umbilical cord of family tradition. No Williams had ever set foot out of England before, and most of them had never ventured out of Norwich. If Norwich was good enough for my grand father, my uncle said, it was good enough for him.When my parents decided to go to Africa in September 1958, they didn’t know they were stumbling into the beginnings of a civil war that would spiral into political madness, and end in economic ruin and poverty. They didn’t know that their only son would be coerced into fighting in the war. Nor did they know that in the early hours of the new millennium, they would have to flee the Dark Continent, leaving their house, car, servant, bank account and forty-six-year old suntan. No, in 1958 they believed the stale propaganda that was still being disseminated, albeit in an embarrassed way, by the British government – that the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland (as it was then called) was a healthy animal, a thriving outpost of the Commonwealth Empire, another Canada, Australia or New Zealand. The fact that Southern Rhodesia was stilla colony meant nothing to my parents. They had enthusiastically celebrated Ghana’s independence in 1957, admitting that they had no idea what they were celebrating, but the jubilance was infectious. My parents were neither racist colonisers, rabid capitalists nor ranting missionaries. They had nobusiness in Africa, and were, I now sadly conclude, simply naïve. But by committing themselves to settling there, Africa became their problem, and mine. And Africa did not tolerate naiveté.

I didn’t want to go. Or let’s say, I wouldn’t have wanted to go, if I had had a choice. But I was only three months old at the time. I was not consulted. I would like to have grown up in England, eaten sandwiches on a warm train, rocked through the countryside of cows, sheep and green hills, watched the ‘Flowerpot Men’ and ‘Muffin the Mule’ on TV, read Enid Blyton’sFolk of the Faraway Tree and Noddy in Toyland. But my parents had other plans.

Let me introduce them: Bernard Hugh Williams of Old Catton, Norwich, Roman Catholic, graduate of Strawberry Hill Catholic College, and Lina Cavedaschi, now Williams, Italian, from Parma, Italy, brought to England after the war as a reward for helping the Partisans against Mussolini (or so they said – I suspect that she was told this so that the raw wounds of Italian fascism would not smart her in post-war Britain). Newly married and living in South London, they had seen a film of blue skies and smiling colonials in a place called Southern Rhodesia.

Deceived by the British government, who knew damn well the Federation was falling apart, they were sent as gullible Brits to pretend they were living in an extension of England, sans snot. For Rhodesia, promised the film, was a paradise of blue grainy skies and green vegetation, clear flickering air, mountains, gurgling streams, crime-free cities. But this film failed to show the five million brooding, dispossessed Africans in the townships and Tribal Trustlands. It failed to sweep its 16-mm Beaulieu camera lens up North, where the British Empire was cracking and crumbling in Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland. Instead, the film focused on a smiling, black ‘delivery boy’ on a bicycle, ringing his bell at the gate of a large house. This house could be yours; that ‘madam’ could be you, Lina; and that man caressing his Lion Lager on his stoep could be you, Bernard.

And who could blame them for wanting that? In 1958 they were living in Austerity Britain, in a caravan, for God’s sake, on a mouldy, squelchy Kingston estate. Maybe they would have liked to think of themselves as imperialists (making a better world for themselves), or missionaries (making a better world for others), but they never thought of themselves as susceptible victims of an outdated image of Africa.

I have no recollection of the Cape Town Castle’s voyage from Southampton to Cape Town, the dramatic arrival at Table Bay, the awe with which these Brits gaped and gawked through the town, the dismaying train trip up through the Transvaal and Botswana, through deserts to the back of beyond, with scrawny picanins running alongside the train yelling at them as if they had left something behind.

Finally, they arrived at Salisbury Station, which to their relief looked like Surbiton Station back in Surrey (a blackened brick model, with London Bakery nearby), steel passenger bridges over the tracks (made in Birmingham), black porters, a tearoom, and a black Bentley in which they were escorted through the town to their residence.

“It’s just like England!” The only difference was the naked blue sky, so blue as to make the pale northern sky of England look white, the heat visibly shimmering on the red corrugated roofs of the low government buildings, the emerald green grass growing untidily through every crack in the road, and the palm trees in a line down the Causeway. The road we are driving on, the driver said, was once a river, and was the first path the pioneers had trotted and splashed through to Fort Salisbury to set up the Union Jack in Pioneer Square, announcing the 1890 occupation of Mashonaland.

The films were right about the weather. The sky was a lonely blue, with no protective guard against infinity. You felt as if you were on a ball in space, turning slowly, going nowhere. The sense of purpose in England, its smugly ordered history, with a bbc commentary to guide you through the low clouds of depression to those metaphysical mountains of meaning – there was none of that in Rhodesia. Here, you were alone. The Milky Way was a band of milk splashed across the night sky and the city lights did nothing to it, except for the pearl of great price, as my father called the Pearl Assurance building in First Street. Salisbury, the capital city, named after the Prime Minister of England in 1890, was where we settled. Yes, we were settlers too. Settler in any African language is a nasty word – one settler, one bullet, as they used to say. Dust settles over everything. It’s insidious; once it’s settled, you can’t get it off. But we thought of it as a good word. We’ve come to settle; we’re not going to take the gap at the slightest disturbance, like they did in Kenya or Zambia.

Rhodesia is different from all the other colonies in that here people settle. It’s our home; they don’t understand that, do they? We came to settle. We settled three generations ago; we came just as the African was arriving from the north, just as the Matabele had settled earlier. You can’t give the land back to the original inhabitants: there are no original inhabitants. There are no expats here, only Rhodesians who have been on the land for generations. To settle also means to tame, to conquer, to civilise, as in we’ve settled the unrest, calmed it down, stroked Simba till he purred.

So we settled easily: glorious sun, dark shadows, thunderstorms, white kingdoms of solid clouds, every day a celebration from riotous birds at five a.m. to the orange sunset theatre at six p.m. and the stars heavy in the Milky Way all night. Life in Rhodesia was ripe fruit falling into our hands.

Our country was named after Cecil John Rhodes who, as our teachers explained, had sailed like Columbus across the seas to discover a new world. After extracting all the mineral wealth out of South Africa, elbowing his way into governorship of the Cape Colony in the 1880s, he set his sights northward. He had a dream: to conquer the whole of Africa, to paint the map British-red from the Cape to Cairo. Due to ill-health and the shortsightedness of the Crown, however, he only managed to get as far north as this small country. In his honour, a statue of him was erected on the main street of the capital city, Salisbury, on Jameson Avenue. The statue was made of copper, so in the subtropical African weather, it quickly turned bright green.

Most of the whites who populated this new country had been lured from England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland to wrestle farms out of rocky red earth, to leech and export copper, tin, coal, asbestos, and to build a neat, two-hundredthousand-strong civilisation.

Some of them were descendants of the first few pioneers who trekked up with the pioneer column in 1890. The core of the new Rhodesian spirit – doctor, lawyer, baker, candlestick maker – arrived at a low, unimpressive kopje on 12 September 1890 and surveyed the swampy Makabusi and Marimba marshland around it that was to be called Fort Salisbury. “All is well,” the leader of this pioneer column, Colonel Pennefather, reported. “Magnificent country. Natives pleased to see us. Everything satisfactory.”

He thundered down the kopje, splashed across the Causeway, set up the Fort and planted a Union Jack in the mud of what was to be Pioneer Square, later to be surrounded by the Rhodesia Herald offices, Meikles Hotel and the Anglican Cathedral. For seventy years, the country flew the Union Jack and unashamedly proclaimed itself to be a British colony, for the betterment of all its peoples and for the glory of Christian Western Civilisation which had now been brought to shine in the Heart of Darkness.

By the 1950s, however, the British had changed their minds about colonising Africa, declaring that it was no longer decent to spread Western Civilisation in this way. Under pressure from writhing black populations, the British apologised and made unobtrusive gestures of withdrawal, magnanimously giving the Africans their continent back with a timid smile, the teeth falling out one by one:

Ghana 1957
Nigeria 1960
Kenya 1963
Malawi 1964
Zambia 1964
Mmm? Well…

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