Who is a radical in history? Problems of definition on the Zambian Copperbelt
My presentation aims to explore the how historians should identify the appropriate subjects for radical history through a study of white mineworkers on the Zambian Copperbelt from the 1930s to the 1950s. In many ways, this group appear to be ideal subjects for radical history. Overlooked in the historical record, these mineworkers were determinedly militant and engaged in several bruising encounters with the mining companies and the state during this period. Many were avowed communists and self-consciously internationalist.
However, they were also racist, at best disinterested and at worst actively hostile to the much larger African workforce on the mines. Their industrial strategy involved implementing and maintaining an industrial colour bar that prevented Africans from holding any skilled jobs on the mines and it was a strategy which was highly successful.
This paper will caution against projecting contemporary understandings of radicalism into the past. We need to understand historical figures on their own terms, even when the line between radicals and reactionaries seems confused. This calls into questions what lessons we can learn from this past for present-day politics. These white mineworkers sought and received considerable international support for their struggles and their politics were not beyond the pale for trade unions elsewhere at this time.
Incredibly, white miners from the Copperbelt were elected onto the Executive of the newly-formed World Federation of Trade Unions in 1945 to represent the whole of Africa. This points to a wider conclusion: notions of radicalism are historically contingent. Many radical historical figures held opinions or did things which would now be unacceptable in contemporary radical political movement. We need to have a fuller understanding of these actors to recognise who was a radical in history.
About Duncan Money
I’m a history PhD student at the University of Oxford and my research follows the fortunes of the European community on the Copperbelt, a long and narrow region of copper mines strung out along the border of Zambia and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Through this, I aim to understand how many developments in this region can be better explained by transnational flows of people, capital and ideas, rather than as part of the national history of Zambia.
Labour has become a central focus of this research. White mineworkers flocked to the newly established copper mines from around the world. I argue they were part of a vast, predominately English-speaking labour diaspora that linked mining and industrial centres across the globe. This world of European labour has vanished and the experiences, and even existence, of this world have been largely forgotten.
The ideology of this world was a seemingly contradictory combination of industrial militancy, political radicalism and racial exclusivity, and it came to dominate life on the Copperbelt. It is useful to examine how this peculiar combination played out on the Copperbelt as it was utilized with extraordinary success by white mineworkers who, by the 1950s, emerged as one of the highest paid group of workers in the world.
The provisional title of my D.Phil. is: ‘No matter how much or how little they’ve got, they can’t settle down’: A social history of Europeans on the Zambian Copperbelt, 1926-1974. My wider research interests are on the relationship between race and class, decolonisation, mining history and labour history.