Murray Steele

My parents arrived in Northern Rhodesia in 1947 as part of the efflux of ‘Attlee Refugees’, my father going out first to take up a post as pharmacist with Holdsworth Pharmacy in Broken Hill, my mother and myself (then eight years old) arriving a few months afterwards. Shortly afterwards, my father became the Dispenser at the Rhokana Mine hospital, and stayed there until he retired in the early 60s. Apart from offering a better salary, one of the reasons for the move was the fact that my mother’s brother-in-law John Harris already worked on the Mine, and we spent the first few months in their house, in 17th Avenue. I remember being greatly impressed by the fact that they had a refrigerator, a novelty for us. We then moved to 4th Avenue, very conveniently placed for the hospital and a short walk to Frederick Knapp school where I was enrolled. My abiding memories of these days was the icebox in the kitchen, for which a slab of ice was inserted each day to keep things cool, and the ditches that lined the sides of the very narrow tarred roads and were a hazard for those who walked at night, especially if a little befuddled. Like most of the families living on the mine, we made use of the mine facilities such as the mine club: I have a vivid memory of the end of year dance in 1948, with an over- abundance of men waiting around to take turns on the dance floor. We all made use of the Mine swimming pool, although I had problems with the over chlorination of the water, and coupled with a severe tendency to asthma, I did very little swimming as such. The other problem that did not help my condition was the pollution caused by the great mine chimney: most of the time the prevailing winds blew the fumes away from the white township, though at times they would change direction and blanket the first three or four Avenues.

The Bioscope, across the road from the Mine club, was regularly frequented by us kids on Saturday afternoons, each of us clutching our tickey (3d) to pay for admission. We had no idea what we were going to see, and I can remember some unhappiness and consternation when they put on a film version of the ‘Marriage of Figaro‘ with ‘all that singing’ – we felt very cheated.  The other memory I have the old mine cinema was a showing of ‘Easter Parade’ in about 1949. A few minutes after it started there was a loud bang and the sound of breaking glass. A whisper quickly gathered urgency as someone said the cinema was closing and we regretfully trooped out.  We found out later that there has been a railway accident, with sparks from a locomotive igniting a load of explosives in a lorry that had stopped nearby, with a large number of fatalities: it was reported on the BBC Overseas service that evening.

Our social life was restricted to people attending our church, across the railway line in Kitwe, and a few friends: my mother was a trained nurse who had worked throughout the war, but now became a housewife. She did all her housework, but we employed a ‘Garden boy’, Yoram, who stayed with us for all the time I spent in Northern Rhodesia. Her main leisure activity was playing tennis, and she was reader, as was my father. Fortunately the mine club had a reasonable library which was totally free for mine employees, like so many other things.

I had very early exposure to politics in what I discovered later to have been elections for the NR Legislative Council in, I think, 1948.  One of the candidates had liberal views on African development, and the word soon spread in our local school that if he won a seat, all the white people would become house servants to black people, a story that some took quite seriously. My parents believed very firmly that our ‘Garden boy’ should be treated with respect, and be addressed with his name, not the very common imperious ‘Boy!’ that tended to ring out in most households. My mother was not particularly liberal, although my father – a self-professed ‘one nation’ Tory – had more advanced views for his time.

Towards the end of 1950 there was a family discussion about my future education, as I reached the top Standard in our local primary school. My parents ruled out South Africa, as they didn’t particularly like Afrikaners or the apartheid policy that was being introduced – probably the former was a more potent reason. Anyway my mother took me back to stay in Droitwich, where her parents were looking after my great great aunt, a redoubtable old lady nearing her 90s, and I was sent to boarding school at Woverley near Kidderminster. I can vividly remember my first winter back in England, bitterly cold and I developed chilblains. It was a considerable ‘culture shock ‘, coming to the  cramped environment of a boarding school with radiators that generated virtually no heat, and a succession of cold days, each colder and its predecessor.

During the course of my stay there, my parents were divorced, and as soon as secondary education started in Lusaka, I returned with my grandparents and stayed with my mother, who had taken a job locally. At that stage it was the Lusaka Boys’ School, quite close to the centre of town. We had a very big contingent of strapping, mainly Afrikaner, lads from the countryside, some of whom made life difficult for us kids from the UK, who were tall but not so well nourished. We heard much about the Boer War and concentration camps, while I can remember one lad predicting that Northern Rhodesia would eventually become an Afrikaner colony.

The school itself had a clear distinction between those who were obviously going to stay for just two years, and then become apprentices, and the rest of us who were in for the long haul. So the rest of us tended to take Latin and French, while the others did Afrikaans. The Gilbert Rennie schools opened I think in 1955, a great improvement over the rather decrepit Lusaka Boys’ School, but involving a bit of a bike ride to Kabulonga, then on the fringe of Lusaka.

For 18 months or so we lived out of Lusaka on Teagles Plots, where my mother rented a house from a local smallholder of Polish origin, who lived there with his young son, and used to tell stories about the invasion of Poland in 1939, and his eventual reception as a refugee at the Bwana Mukubwa camp. From there we moved into town, and rented a variety of properties. My mother eventually returned to her nursing career and became a ward sister, working in Northern Rhodesia, South West Africa (as it was then) and Australia where she and my grandmother died. My father remarried and left Northern Rhodesia just before independence, and opened up his own chemist shop in South Devon.

I did my Cambridge O-level equivalents at the end of 1955, and stayed on into sixth form, swapping from science subjects to art subjects after six months, a decision taken against the advice of the headmaster, a scientist and the sixth form science teachers, but one I was very glad to have made. There was quite a lot of discussion amongst the nine of us in lower sixth, as to whether one should take up the matriculation option at the end of the year and go to South Africa, or whether to stay on and gain the necessary qualification to enter the new university in Salisbury. We had two visits I can remember from the new lecturing staff who were obviously travelling around to attract students. My best friend and his twin brother and I decided to take up this option, and we both qualified managing to get the scholarships that were on offer at that time: we were very lucky!

The total student body at the UCRN (University College of Rhodesia and Nyasaland) in March 1958 was at just over 120, which meant that everybody knew everybody, although our friends tended to come from those subjects we had enrolled in. At that stage the University merely offered General degrees, and the PGCE, which brought in a leaven of mature students in the mix of rather raw undergraduates. I remember being told quite firmly that Geography was not really a suitable university subject and was not on offer – disappointing, as I had a good A-level result in it. I was offered a choice of Economics or Social Anthropology, and was convinced the latter was more interesting by the subject head, Clyde Mitchell, whom I found one of the most fascinating lecturers I encountered during my studies there. However my main interest was History, with Eric Stokes, a renowned Indian historian, and a young historian from Oxford, Terence Ranger- no longer with us – who was the greater influence upon my future career.

The atmosphere on campus was pretty relaxed, and I think the majority of us didn’t work particularly hard until our final year.  My political education started early, in my first year. I arrived with very amorphous ideas about race, but they soon changed in response to the people I met as the University. The UCRN modelled itself very much on the Oxbridge principle, with the single tutors sitting with undergraduates at mealtimes: I can remember feeling very embarrassed when I took John Read (later to be deported) to be another first year undergraduate like myself.  Again following Oxbridge practice, we wore undergraduate gowns at lectures and evening meals. In my first year the first multiracial hall of residence, Carr Saunders, was set up, and white male students were given the option to stay there or in the all-white Manfred Hodson Hall further up the hill. I opted for the former, where our Warden was Terence Ranger. He was a dab hand at table tennis and we all lost when we took him on.
 A group of us became supporters of Garfield Todd’s URP, formed after the rift that precipitated the election of 1958, and we travelled to many meetings to heckle the Dominion party speakers who are advocating strict segregation and a general clampdown on African political activists. We were disappointed with the extinction of the URP in the polls, although some of us came to welcome the Whitehead government when it showed signs of moving in a more liberal direction later.

During my final year, I decided that I wanted to become a teacher, but didn’t necessarily want to spend a further year doing teacher training in Salisbury. The political situation had worsened in 1960, following a crackdown on African political organisations, and a tougher line taken against African protestors, and I decided I would be happier back home in Northern Rhodesia. Like many of us at that time I extensively hitchhiked home over bank holiday weekends (especially Rhodes and Founders, which we renamed ‘Rogues and Bounders’).  This was without any worry about our safety, a source of surprise to me now, but perhaps indicating how relatively peaceful the countryside was in the final years of the 1950s.

After completing my finals, I returned to Nkana Kitwe, and with some help from my father’s contacts, was able to get temporary work on the mine, doing dogsbody work (such as collecting market traders’ rent). I was then appointed a Learner Mine Official, and with a group of five or six other similar young people went through a very rudimentary training programme, after which notice was taken of my interest in teaching, and I was appointed to the staff of the school run for the sons of Black mine employees at Luansimba, on the very outskirts of the mine township. I was the first graduate teacher and even landed up teaching maths and science, as well as the art subjects for which I was better qualified. At that stage the programme only extended for two years of secondary. Later, further years were added, and a science teacher was thankfully and fortunately appointed. My aim at that stage was to stay maybe a year or two and then go overseas for teacher training, probably to Britain.

Like most people working on the mine I was well paid, and the incentive to leave Africa and take teacher training overseas soon disappeared: I was teaching anyway. I got married in 1962, very young at the time, but we were helped by the subsidised accommodation (we lived at No.6, 10th Avenue) which was available to all mine employees at a virtually peppercorn rent. There was some fairly limited trouble in Nkana-Kitwe, with one big demonstration in the town after the deaths of Africans in a disturbance near Lake Bangweulu which I witnessed.  There was some muttering amongst the older students in the school but this soon stopped after UNIP officials visited the and apparently warned pupils to behave: we had absolutely no trouble, not even the food strike that was quite popular in black schools at that time. From 1962 onwards, things moved smoothly and inexorably towards Independence. The ceremony in the Kitwe town centre on 24 October 1964 was a quiet occasion, marred only by some white youths letting off firecrackers when the new flag was raised.

As time passed the desire to return to higher education continue to grow, and I now began to think of a postgraduate degree in history. At that stage the University of London was very bureaucratic about this: an honours degree, involving two years further undergraduate study was required. I made enquiries of some American universities, I was annoyed and a little amused when one wrote back to say that it did not recognise my degree: they had obviously not realised that it had been validated by the University of London. Eventually I applied to the University of Edinburgh, and used in support my application quite a lot of background articles on African politics and history which I had written for the new Times of Zambia during the independence campaign. Fortunately the head of history, George Shepperson, best known for his work on the Chilembwe Rising accepted me for the M Litt degree and we left in February 1966, at a time of great anxiety following UDI.

Our departure was relatively straightforward: we were moved by a spirit of adventure, certainly motivated by a trip to Britain in 1964 during which we had taken in all the usual tourist destinations and had looked up relatives. I cashed in my Rhokana pension, transferred my life insurance into sterling, and we had enough to finance a two-year M Litt research programme. I can’t say I have any particular feelings about leaving; I was nearly 27, my wife few years younger and we felt we had the whole world in front of us. It was in any case a time of optimism generally; when we arrived, I wrote to the Worcester County Council to see if there were any temporary teaching posts for the summer term to fill in the time until I started at Edinburgh in September, and was offered a choice of two posts. I chose the one in Great Malvern, very close to my family home in Droitwich, and we had an idyllic three months there.  Looking back on it, with the current difficulty faced by so many graduates in getting jobs they are qualified to take, I am surprised how lucky I was at the time.

My wife’s parents left at the same time as us. Her father, Ron Coney, was the Kitwe Fire Chief, and I think her mother had always wanted to go back home to Glasgow. He eventually worked as a security officer for the Caterpillar tractor firm in Glasgow. One of Fiona’s brothers, born in Bulawayo never really settled in the UK, and he returned to South Africa as soon as he graduated; her younger brother, born in Northern Rhodesia (1959), has shown no interest in going back at all.

For the next five years I was away from Africa, completing my MLitt degree (on the effects of liberal pressure groups on the policy of the two Rhodesian administrations). In a sense I had not given up on Africa, since I was studying it, a kind of vicarious association, though without the intense colours and bright sunshine and smells of the high veldt. During the final months of writing up my dissertation, George Shepperson suggested I should contact the new Simon Fraser University which was appointing staff in African history, under the leadership of the distinguished historian of Sierra Leone, Peter Kup. I was offered a temporary teaching assistantship and we left for Canada in the autumn of 1968. Within a short time I decided to embark on a PhD programme, and had the good fortune of winning a Canada Council bursary that enabled me to travel to Southern Rhodesia to do research. We arrived just in time to witness the declaration of a republic. My PhD was a study of the African policy of the settler government from 1923 to 1939, arranged thematically. I was able to do some teaching and specialised in southern Africa, helped by the various pre-qualification courses I took at Edinburgh and Simon Fraser which in effect brought me up to an equivalent BA History Honours degree.

I have posted details of my employment and publications on the Linkedin and Academia websites.
This is just a general and very broad outline which I will fill up with extra detail at some future stage. I am leaving reflections on my position as a member of the NR diaspora until later.

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One thought on “Murray Steele

  1. Hello, Murray,
    I attended Gilbert Rennie 57,8 and 9, having failed the first time at A levels.
    I think I recall your name. Were you a day boy or in res?
    Bill Knott

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