Steven C. Rubert. A Most Promising Weed: A History of Tobacco Farming and Labor in Colonial Zimbabwe, 1890-1945. Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 1998. xvi + 248 pp. $26.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-89680-203-2.
Reviewed by Phia Steyn (Department of History, University of the Orange Free State, South Africa)
Published on H-Africa (May, 2000)
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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Phia Steyn. Review of Rubert, Steven C., A Most Promising Weed: A History of Tobacco Farming and Labor in Colonial Zimbabwe, 1890-1945.
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