Tobacco farming in Zimbabwe

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Thu Jun 1 13:09:13 MDT 2000

Published by H-Africa at (May, 2000)

Steven C. Rubert. _A Most Promising Weed: A History of Tobacco
Farming and Labor in Colonial Zimbabwe, 1890-1945_.  Monographs in
International Studies. Africa Series, no. 69.  Athens, Ohio:  Ohio
University Press, 1998.  xvi + 248 pp.  Maps, illustrations, notes,
bibliography, and index.  $26.00 (paper), ISBN 0-89680-203-5

Reviewed for H-Africa by Phia Steyn <sophias at>,
Department of History, University of the Orange Free State, South

"Lazy, raw aliens" and the tobacco industry in colonial Zimbabwe

Steven Rubert, influenced of the British Marxist historian E.P.
Thompson, sets out, in his study on tobacco farming and labor in
Southern Rhodesia between 1890 and 1945, to write a "history from
below" that examines the work, living conditions and socio-economic
relationships of the tobacco laborers (p. ix, 187). The fifty years
under investigation is of particular significance to Southern
Rhodesia and its tobacco industry:  in 1890 European settlers and
officials, as part of the Pioneer Column of the British South Africa
Company, began to settle land in Mashonaland. The main narrative
ends in 1945, the year in which tobacco surpassed gold as the
colony's main export commodity.

Rubert starts off by focusing on the development of tobacco farming
in the territory. While the search for gold provided the impetus for
the settlement of the Pioneer Column in Southern Rhodesia in 1890,
the agricultural potential (including the suitability of the
territory for growing tobacco) was recognized from the start. By
1892, nearly three hundred farms had been registered, and in 1893
the first European cultivation was reported. In the first few years
of European settlement, the tobacco that farmers grew was mostly of
a variety indigenous to the area. After the turn of the century
"Virginia leaf" (tobacco commonly used in cigarettes) was introduced
in Southern Rhodesia. This, along with the development of flu-curing
facilities (the process by which tobacco leaves are dried) from 1904
onwards, were major developments and would henceforth allow European
tobacco farmers to sell their produce directly to the United Kingdom
where flu-cured Virginia tobacco was in high demand.

Tobacco farming, which held the misguided promise of quick wealth,
spread rapidly, with the vast majority of tobacco farms situated in
the provinces of Mashonaland and Manicaland. By 1927, nine hundred
eighty-seven farmers produced over twenty-four million pounds of
tobacco. However, overproduction swamped the market resulting in an
overnight drop in prices, which forced many tobacco farmers into
bankruptcy. After the 1928, crash the colonial government recognized
the need to regulate the industry and over the following eight years
it passed several acts aimed at stabilizing the production and
marketing processes and improving the quality of the product.

The government further initiated additional financial assistance
programs to lure European farmers into cultivating tobacco. One of
these programs involved the inauguration of the Ulere Motor
Transportation System in 1936.  This system provided free
transportation for migrant workers en route to Southern Rhodesia's
farms and mines. It was of particular importance to the tobacco
industry because, unlike the cultivation of other crops, tobacco
farming was labor intensive that required a large work force for up
to ten months of a year. The colonial government's initiatives
stimulated the recovery of the tobacco industry in Southern Rhodesia
in the 1930s. World War II further accelerated the growth of this
industry when British manufacturers, being cut off from most of
their supplies in the United States, came to rely on Southern
Rhodesian tobacco as their main source of tobacco. The increase in
demand and production enabled the tobacco industry to become the
most important export industry by 1945.

In line with the anthropologist Henrietta Moore, the author argues
that "'work' is more than the exertion of physical activity by a
person on material objects such as land and tobacco plants" (p.
xii). Consequently, the author, in contrast with more general
histories of labor in Africa, also details the various types of work
tobacco laborers had to perform, the status associated with these
jobs, the disciplinary practices the laborers were subjected to, the
rations and medical care provided, life in the compounds, and the
relationship between tobacco laborers and their indigenous Shona
neighbors.  Throughout, the author contrasts the experiences of
tobacco laborers with these of laborers on the mines in Southern
Rhodesia. He makes extensive use of Charles van Onselen's book,
_Chibaro: African Mine Labour in Southern Rhodesia, 1900-1933_
(London, 1979), to achieve this comparison. An important difference
between the labor experience in the mine and tobacco industries
relates to the compounds which housed the laborers.  Whereas mines
followed either a closed compound or a three-tier system (that had
elements of both open and closed compounds), most tobacco farmers
simply could not afford to set up the necessary structures for
similar compounds. Due to the nature of the workplace and the lack
of capital, compounds on tobacco farms were exceptionally open and
allowed laborers freedom of movement once the work day had come to
an end.

Tobacco farmers, in addition to male labor, made extensive use of
women and children as casual labor at peak times. The majority of
these women lived in the compounds and was expected to work in the
mornings only. The afternoons were left open for the unpaid labor
that the women performed in and around the compounds. Women were
paid wages that were proportionately lower than that of the male
laborers, and substituted their meager income by brewing and selling
beer, cooking meals, washing clothes, resorting to prostitution and
by selling surplus produce from family garden plots. The main source
of juvenile labor came from the neighboring Shona reserves and they
were employed to do some of the lighter tasks as well as those that
required smaller hands.

The author concludes by focusing on the development of a moral
economy among tobacco laborers between 1890 and 1945. In this
period, the majority of European farmers and officials viewed their
black laborers as "people who are backward in civilization", "lazy"
and "raw aliens" who knew nothing about working as part of a group
and who could not perform tasks without supervision (pp. 167-168).
These viewpoints provided tobacco farmers with reasons and arguments
to keep wages low and living conditions below humanly acceptable
levels. Tobacco laborers, however, adapted to the wage economy into
which they were drawn and developed "a consciousness that allowed
them to know exactly what work they agreed to perform, and for how
long when they signed on to work for tobacco farmers" (p. 176).
Whenever the actions and demands of the tobacco farmers went against
what was perceived as acceptable, the laborers would take strong
positions against the perceived injustices.

Rubert's book is a fine history based on archival research,
newspapers, published and unpublished secondary sources, and
interviews. In terms of content the author succeeds in his stated
aim of chronicling the circumstances under which black men, women
and children lived and worked on European-owned tobacco farms in
Southern Rhodesia between 1890 and 1945.  While the comparison with
the labor experiences of mine laborers were interesting, one is left
with questions as to how the labor conditions on tobacco farms
compared with that on other types of farms in the colony.  Answers
to these questions are unfortunately not forthcoming from Rubert's
book. On the whole, the book makes a valuable contribution to the
history of labor in Southern Africa. It should further be commended
for the writing style the author employed, which makes the book
highly readable and accessible to non-academics as well.

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Louis Proyect

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