Following Milestones and Breaking New Ground:  The Robert Williams Papers and the Expansion of the South African Mining Frontier
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Following Milestones and Breaking New Ground: The Robert Williams Papers and the Expansion of the South African Mining Frontier



Aldwin Rowe: University of Sheffield

Aldwin Rowe: University of Sheffield



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  • Giving clear idea who and what I am talking about How this feeds back in to the Williams Papers and the usefulness or otherwise to historians and, importantly, How we are to approach these papers now that we are aware of their purpose and structure Under the heading of 'alternative readings', I will talk about a part of my own research using the Williams papers, one that tells a different story. But one of many ways in which it can be used, so to conclude I will say a few words on the wider relevance of the RW papers.
  • Aberdeen. Upper Middle Class. Not particularly well to do, but good connections. Educations at the Gymnasium in Aberdeen, Apprenticeship with Blaikee Brothers as Mechanical Engineer In this capacity that he left for Kimberley in 1883, but quite rapidly shifted from mechanical to mining engineer. Quite a rapid career, after a year Manager Griqualand West Company in 1885 Bultfontein . Useful contacts, but poor health and loss of brother. 1888 goes to the Rand. Manages number of small Syndicates, consulting engineer and mine manager for mines of the Rhodes group. Started earning hefty salary, but 1890 crash wiped out most of his savings. 1890 crash: Metallurgical Department of the Anderson Institute, Glasgow. Humboldt Sexton. Together with Tom Bayne. Rhodesia: will become involved with a range of Exploration and Mining Finance Companies, as Manager of Consulting Engineer. 1893-98 in Partnership with his brother Oliver. Expansion of gold mining Mashonaland – Manicaland – Matabeleland, activities in South Africa. Great expansion, but hard hit by the crash of 1896 Starting with a concession in Northern Rhodesia, focus of activities moves North after 1898. Most significant is concession in Katanga 1900, which becomes focus of activities. Contribute to the formation of the UMHK, later to become the industrial giant of the Belgian Congo. Quickly realize importance of Copper. Linked to the question of transport. Second main strand of Williams' activities. Katanga cannot pay without Benguela Railway, becomes article of faith. The issue is technical, but comes down to lower transport cost per ton of copper produced allow lower grade of deposits to be worked at a profit. This brings a much larger tonnage within view, extends the lifespan of the company.
  • Uncatalogued part of Tanks archives, University of Manchester -ZEC, TCL, Benguela Rly papers. Transferred from Tanks offices. Most of it not opened since then. Six metal chests. Handlist inside one. CONTENT It is almost completely concerned with business, with some exceptions. Connections with influential people, links with high society. TYPES OF MATERIAL Correspondence, letter books, diaries, telegrams, little notebooks, menus, shopping list, contracts, agreeements Reminiscences, random notes -combinations of the two (not my period)‏ Publications (books and brochures)‏ Draft memoirs in different stages of completion (by RW and ghostwriters)‏ Originals as well as copies PARTIALITY Inconsistent, incomplete. Letter books for some years, not others. Diaries for some years, not others. Not in original classification. CONTEXT OF CREATION In addition to archive of company, function is documentation to Williams and Ghost Writers for the writing of speeches and memoirs. It is my contention that, while the WP contain documents spanning five decades, understanding its form, its biases, strengths and limitation, requires a close look at the context of, mainly, the 1920s and 1930s, when Williams is actively constructing image and historical legacy.
  • Williams' own view of his place in history summed up in what I call the 'Milestones' narrative. Elaborated in publications, speeches, and autobiographical notes Not merely a tale of events past, but also an argument, informed by practical as well as personal considerations. It is written with an audience in mind. Not static, evolves Main characteristics remain the same.
  • Progressive discovery and development of mineral belts from Kimberley to Katanga brought railroads and industry into the heart of the African continent, making them -chronologically as well as geographically- milestones marking Africa's progress towards modernity and civilization. The opening of the Katanga copperbelt is the outcome of this linear progression, the pinnacle of Anglo-Saxon dynamism and achievement in Southern Africa. Central Africa owes its salvation to Robert Williams himself. There are a couple of elements in this which people here in the audience today would probably have some problems with. Before examining closer, look at the context
  • This context is not one of a man at the height of his powers, but one that is under intense financial pressure. The financing of the Benguela Railway was a constant drag on the finances of ZEC and TCL. The failure to have railway construction included in the UMHK is the key to these problems. Troubles started earlier. BSAC, Leyland; and would continue. Katanga is expanding rapidly, UMHK is paying dividends. 1923-29 growth. “ An exhausted hanger-on” of centre of UMHK policy.
  • Centre of theatre: -Rhodesia -Congo Reform Association -Leopold's Reforms of 1906
  • Seeking investors and allies. Argument aimed at politicians, press, and potential investors. Case for investment: mix of sentimental, economic and strategic arguments.
  • Symbols of modernity -railways, industry, smelters, images of peace and quiet contrasting with the barbarity which precedes it. Authority of Livingstone -roughly the same area. Civilisation and Christianity must go hand in hand Fairness and firmness. 'The native is a child'.
  • British Wealth and Initiative drives expansion, usurpation by foreign elements Progressive economic penetration of the interior requires no explanation: it is the expansion of Empire and civilization. It is the right thing to do. Plays the Rhodes card often. This catches on. Promise: loyalty and honour, not search for gain, drive Williams. Last thing he said to Rhodes before he died.
  • Article of faith. Links in with other economic arguments. Lower grade means work on a larger scale, bigger markets, more raw materials.
  • A man who is always right, who is guided by providence -how can he be in his embattled position? Discredit those who blocked progress, refused finance. German agents galore. Starts before the war. Into geopolitical minefield. Lack of imperial fervor, lack of idealism Beit Trustees, BSAC Directors money-grabbers, not imperialists. Petpeeves: Belgian incompetence, attempts to write themselves into history of Katanga. Management problems. Unlike dislike for Germans and Jews, not made public. Stresses good co-operation with Jadot.
  • Mix of original documents and post-factum reflection. Narrative most explicit in interpretative notes, but also informed selection of material. Pioneer: compare trips to Rhodesia with trips to Katanga Fortunate side-effect. There is a lot of information on the operations of the Williams group in Rhodesia; material which doesn't in itself support Railway finance dominates in documents as well as interpretation. You can be pretty sure that any document which supports Williams' view is there. Many things Robert Williams and his biographers were not interested in. His associates, business partners. Anything that doesn't fit in the linear story: Dead ends and failures (there were many -global expansion, Congo-Nile, ). Some of those documented in Tanks archive, so not completely lost. Hit and miss Also evidence contradicting narrative. Tension between the narrative and traces of facts that just don't fit
  • Mistreatment of Africans hampers recruitment Booker T. Washington: technical training. By 1924, he argues against strict racial segregation, but stresses long term process. Also argues against equal pay for equal work: African peculiarity Rhodesian Example -hut tax, tight controls, enforcement of contracts. Encourage African consumption (gendered). Progressive in context of Leopoldian Congo. Bertrand: Chicoti, Chirapula Stephenson Genuinely concerned. There is feedback -concern with image (CFS), and he does change his position. However: don't ask too many questions. Men on the spot to do what works under the circumstances.
  • You know you have to be on your guard when he stresses his own contribution There are problems with it you can't correct. It simply doesn't have much on labour, for example, so if you want to write labour history, you won't find the necessary materials here.
  • Typical form of British Foreign Direct Investment Head office with limited size and capabilities, no internal know-how. Tended to talk of ZEC as parent company, and Tanks group as large mining concern Assets of RW & Co.
  • Once a mining company is created: shares are sold on a rising market. No long term interest in its success. No fraudulent practice, but flotations were premature (no real knowledge of prospects).
  • Expansion: territory covered increases, number of companies increases, and each one gets more capital. Widening circle of investors. Commands increasing level of resources. Most of the action is in London, not Rhodesia. Widening circle of investors. Spreading risks, making a market. First stage towards Williams Consolidated Profitable without producing. Share prices go up, and 100 per cent dividend ZEC in 1895.
  • When, after 1897, productive development was wanted, RW & Co lacked the staff and expertise to see this through. Rand: problem not only lack of capital, but also know-how. When Williams worked there as an engineer, his skills were highly valued. Skill Scarcity. Now that Deep Level mining was being developed, highly skilled engineers had been attracted, and Williams was hopelessly outclassed. Only partial success in centralizing control.
  • The call more likely to have been from shareholders than Livingstone. Crises in South African mining send shockwaves, lead to interest in new mineral fields Those who did not manage to secure a prime piece of the mineral belt have more incentive to go look elsewhere, preferably before the public finds out. Roots of difficulties of RW in Katanga in his Rhodesian past; Organisation of th egroup, problem of transition. Ill-equiped, has to start from scratch. Tanks, and other FSC had no expertise in mining whatsoever. Any expertise there was, was within the firm of RW&Co. TCL was merely a financial construct. TCL also only gold. Does have group of financial backers to draw on, has a reputation and a business network. Has good prospectors. And has RW himself. Decentralised ownership source of instability. Dependent on boom and bust.
  • Capital not on national lines. Shifts in global mining; changes in capital requirements, and in skills needed. Out of reach of company promotor: becomes case for big business. UMHK needs to develop specialized in-house knowledge.

Following Milestones and Breaking New Ground: The Robert Williams Papers and the Expansion of the South African Mining Frontier Presentation Transcript

  • 1. Following Milestones and Breaking New Ground The Robert Williams Papers and the Expansion of the South African Mining Frontier Aldwin Roes University of Sheffield
  • 2. Outline
    • Biographical sketch
    • The Robert Williams Papers
    • Narrative Structure
    • Back to the Archive
    • Alternative reading: the Robert Williams group and the Southern African mining frontier
    • Wider relevance
  • 3. Robert Williams (1860-1938)‏
    • 1883: Kimberley
    • 1888: Rand
    • 1891: 'Zambesia Exploring' and Southern Rhodesia
    • 1898: Katanga and the Copperbelt
    • 1906: UMHK
    • Railway finance
      • 1901-1930s: Cape to Cairo (Beira)‏
      • 1902-1931: Benguela Railway
    • 1928: Sir Robert Williams, Bart. of Park
  • 4.  
  • 5. The Robert Williams Papers
    • Extent
    • Content
    • Types of material
      • Documents
      • Reflections
    • Partiality
    • Context of creation and preservation
  • 6. The 'Milestones' Narrative (1)‏
    • Publications, speeches, memoirs: autobiography and argument
    • Self-image
    • Evolution of the Milestones Narrative: many disappointments, many endings
      • Birth of a new industry (1911, Memoirs)‏
      • Benguela Railway (1917, 1918)‏
      • Cape to Cairo (1921, 1922, 1932)‏
      • Some Problems (1924)‏
  • 7. The 'Milestones' Narrative (2)‏
      • “ Great discoveries of mineral wealth like Kimberley diamonds, the Rand and Rhodesian goldfields, and the Katanga copper deposits, have been the milestones measuring Africa's progress along the paths of civilisation”.
      • “ [Katanga] is the milestone that I have had to erect largely by my own efforts”.
  • 8. Elaboration of the 'Milestones' Narrative: Context (1)‏
    • Financial weakness: railway finance
      • Pre-war fiascos
      • South African opposition
      • Protracted negotiations TFA Advisory Committee
      • Tension control - finance
    • Marginalisation in Katanga
      • Belgian frustration with TCL
      • Nationalism
      • Capital increases
      • Change in management
  • 9. Elaboration of the 'Milestones' Narrative: Context (2)‏
    • Tensions with SGB, risk of take-over (1924)‏
    • 1930s: Ending of railway pool, limited traffic
    • Result: combative Williams
      • Re-affirmation of own contribution
      • Case for investment and government support
      • Seeking allies, discrediting opponents
  • 10. Re-affirmation of own contribution (1)‏
    • “ I had to educate small peoples to great affairs”.
    • “ There are a few important facts in connection with this History which should be taken careful note of by those Belgians who have got the ‘English invasion of Katanga’ on the brain. Belgians owe much, if not everything, to the British”.
  • 11. Re-affirmation of own contribution (2)‏
    • Teleological and linear
    • Pioneering
    • “ Where angels feared to tread, I came along”
    • The man is always right
    • “ assiduously cultivated image of someone rarely wrong in his professional judgements and work, highly ethical in business, benevolent in his dealings with labour, and the centre of stage in every theatre he visited”.
    • Guided by Providence
    • “ It was ‘the Call’ described by Kipling in the form of Livingstone’s lecture”.
  • 12. Selling the Railways (1)‏
      • “ I have raised £10,000,000 for Railways & have done so chiefly because of two things:
      • -Because I am looked upon as Rhodes' lieutenant.
      • The British people are highly sentimental.
      • -I bring trade to England & have placed orders for
      • five millions [stng] in British workshops already.”
  • 13. Selling the Railways (2): humanitarianism
    • The railway is the Great Civilizer
    • “ Then it was a desolate land, the people almost wiped out with slave raids (and what were left in many instances proved to be cannibals), no industry, no government, not the least sign of civilization anywhere – simply a land of nothingness”.
    • “ Now all is peaceful civilisation, with a railway line”.
    • Follow Livingstone
    • What about labour?
    • “ The native is a child”.
    • “ The black man is edging out and displacing white labour [...] What a problem this poses”.
  • 14. Selling the Railways (3): Romantic Imperialism
    • Manifest Destiny
    • Rhodes, Rhodes, Rhodes,...
    • ... and Leopold, too
    • Cape to Cairo: promise to Rhodes, 'my Great Chief'.
  • 15. Selling the Railways (4): economics
    • “ Katanga cannot pay without Benguela Rly that is and will remain my strong card!”
    • Workmen of Britain
    • Trade and markets (Rhodesia, South Africa)‏
    • Raw materials win the war
  • 16. Opponents
    • “ It was one long struggle of optimism built up from experience against all the ignorance and distrust of foreigners and our own people, against jealousy, against opponents at home and abroad”.
    • German opposition
    • BSAC: Unpatriotic 'greedy Jews'
    • Belgian incompetence
    • Short-sighted Governments and Bankers
  • 17. 4. Back to the archive
    • Interpretative implications of milestones narrative
    • Evidence in support of narrative
      • Pioneer: stress on early years
      • Railway finance (documents and interpretation)‏
    • Blind Spots
    • Evidence contradicting narrative
      • African labour organization
  • 18. African Labour Organization (1)‏
      • “ It was Robert Williams who first saw that the remedy for this highly unsatisfactory state of affairs was to build up a permanent workforce. [The UMHK's labour policy] is the greatest monument to Williams' foresight and humanity”.
      • “ Interview with Mr. Lambert Jadot & discussion re introducing Black Labour to replace white on Katanga Railway. Mr. Williams stated he would resign from the Board if this was done” (1915).
  • 19. African Labour Organization (2)‏
    • Words
      • Fairness pays
      • Africa without Africans
      • Grudging acceptance: some problems
      • African peculiarity
    • Actions
      • Rhodesian precedent
      • Robert Williams & Co in Africa
      • Strained labour market: 1917, 1925
      • “ a reputation for pestilence and death”
      • Belgian innovations
  • 20. Overcoming Limitations
    • Awareness of bias: assess reliability
    • Confrontation with other sources
      • Archival sources
      • Business data
    • Theoretical and historiographical advances
  • 21. 5. The Robert Williams Group and the Southern African mining frontier
    • Institutional aspects
    • Business Model
    • Performance
      • Expansion
      • Crisis
      • Consolidation and northward expansion
    • Implications
  • 22. The Robert Williams Group: institutional aspects
    • Cluster of Free Standing Companies
      • Linking South Africa to the London capital market
      • Management functions externalized
    • Robert Williams & Co, Mining Engineers
      • Corporate function
      • Territorial organization
      • From two clusters to one
    • Control within the cluster
    • Enhanced importance Williams Papers
  • 23. The Robert Williams Group: Business Model
    • Finance and Exploration Companies
    • “ The Buluwayo Syndicate really represents the biggest financial people in the whole of Africa to-day, so that if there is any flotation to make, in all probability when Mr. Hammond and I have examined the property and decide it is ready for flotation, this Syndicate, together with the Zambesi Company, will float it”.
    • ZEC: Rand reconstructions
    • Limited capital base, rapid turnover
  • 24. Performance: Expansion
    • 1891-1895: Expanding cluster
    • “ We are having lots of difficulties, but no doubt marble palaces and steam-yachts will be the result of present inconvenience”.
    • H. Romilly, 1891.
    • Paper, not gold
    • Conflict and co-operation
  • 25. Performance: Market Value
  • 26. Performance: Crisis (1)‏
    • 1895-96: Speculative bubble bursts
      • Capitalization of dreams
      • Initiative passes to London: swindles
      • Market crash, Jameson Raid, Ndebele & Shona risings
    • Narrowing of opportunities
      • Business model runs aground
      • Scarcity of capital for Rhodesian & Rand ventures
  • 27. Performance: Crisis (2)‏
      • “ As for 10 St. Helens Place they will be our ruin if we have any more to do with them. They are floating off all sorts of rubbish and I candidly tell you, I cannot take their rubbish into Williams Consolidated”.
      • Robert Williams, 9 Oct 1895
      • “ We must go dead slow until the market improves sufficiently to allow us to float off subsidiary companies”.
      • Robert Williams, 31 Jan 1896
      • “ We must economise for a bit”.
      • Robert Williams, 24 Oct 1898
  • 28. Performance: Consolidation and Northward Expansion (1)‏
    • 1896-1899: Losses and disappointments
      • Retrenchment Robert Williams & Co
      • URGF, Clark's Consolidated, ZRI
      • Priced out of Rand
    • Financial Consolidation: ZEC+
    • New opportunities
      • Country risk vs. insider knowledge and business network
      • BSAC is in the same boat
  • 29. Performance: Consolidation and Northward Expansion (2)‏
      • 1898: Tanganyika Concessions Limited
      • 1900: Katanga Concession
      • Out with the old, in with the new
    • “ So far as Clarks Consolidated, the Z.E. Co and the Bulawayo Syndicate are concerned, I am coming to look at them [...] as likely to turn out failures. [I]t seems doubtful whether the investing public will again give us the opportunity of selling large blocks of unproved claims”.
      • “ The [ZEC] directors seem extraordinarily anxious to acquire as large an interest as possible in the Tanganyika, and it makes one suspicious that they are not very hopeful of their own unaided possibilities”
  • 30. Performance: Consolidation and Northward Expansion (3)‏
  • 31. The Robert Williams Group and the South African mining frontier
    • Business is business
    • Boom and bust: regional economic dynamics
    • Future in Katanga
      • Institutional aspects and business model
      • Know-how
      • Capital: mixed blessings of London market
  • 32. 6. Wider Relevance
    • Impact on South and Central Africa
    • Globalisation and fragmentation
    • Business and Imperialism
    • Shifts in global mining
    • Gentlemanly capitalism
    • Networks and information flows
    • Cosmopolitan elites: culture and ideas