Colonial history continues to throw up surprising and often revealing nuggets, including the stories of great eccentrics and extraordinary characters which add to the great African heritage. Brenden Sainsbury explores the life and times of one such, Stewart Gore-Browne, who arrived in Northern Rhodesia ‘as an English gentleman and died as a Zambian gentleman.’
On a plain white wall in the hallway of an elegant rural mansion called Shiwa Ng’andu (pictured above) in a remote part of Northeastern Zambia, two certificates hang side by side. One, marked with the Royal Seal of George VI, King of Great Britain and Emperor of India, awards a Knight Bachelor to “our trusty and well-beloved Stewart Gore-Browne”, the house’s former owner; the other, signed by Zambia’s first President, Kenneth Kaunda, grants a Companion Order of Freedom to the same man.
It’s an intriguing if somewhat curious juxtaposition – a knighthood from an imperial monarch and a freedom medal from an African independence leader – but Stewart Gore-Browne was no ordinary colonist. On the one hand, he was an inveterate British aristocrat with a stern militaristic manner and a penchant for precise manners; on the other, a pioneering champion of African self-determination who, on his death in 1967, was the first White person to receive a state funeral in Zambia.
In May 2022, after several days spent visiting a learning centre in the town of Kapiri Mposhi, three hours north of Lusaka, I persuaded a Zambian friend to drive me 10 hours to the Shiwa Ng’andu estate in distant Muchinga province in a rental car with a rattling front wheel.
I had just read Christine Lamb’s 1999 book The Africa House about Stewart Gore-Browne and his Zambian Xanadu. Now, 23 years after the book’s publication, I was keen to find out more about the enigmatic 20th-century maverick and evaluate how his legacy holds up today.
As we reached the end of our long, bumpy journey, I squinted disbelievingly through the windscreen as Shiwa Ng’andu appeared like a ghostly apparition out of the surrounding bush, a gorgeous, red-bricked mansion, part Renaissance villa, part meticulously manicured English estate. In the words of a previous visitor, it was like “coming across a mud hut or a herd of buffalo in Piccadilly Circus”.
Stewart Gore-Browne was born into a wealthy aristocratic family in London in 1883. His grandfather was a colonial administrator and one-time governor of New Zealand. His aunt co-owned a deluxe hotel in Egypt and supervised the world’s first purpose-built motor-racing circuit.
After an unremarkable education at Harrow, he joined the military and was promptly stationed in Africa, gravitating to the then British protectorate of Northern Rhodesia in 1911, where he worked on a boundary commission surveying the border with the Belgian Congo.
Gore-Browne had long harboured dreams of building a grand estate in Africa where land was abundant and prices were cheap. He found the perfect location during a 1914 hunting trip beside a lake called Shiwa Ng’andu, in a spot that had yet to make it onto many maps.
Complicated and driven
Cocooned in the wilds of northeast Rhodesia, his building plans were extravagantly gung-ho, even compared to other crackpot schemes of the era. Crocodile-infested Shiwa Ng’andu was 400 miles from the nearest road and, save for a lakeside Bemba village, the shadowy domain of lions, leopards, and rhinos.
Everything for the ambitious venture had to either be made locally or carried in from the Copper Belt outpost of Ndola, three weeks away by boat and portage, if you weren’t eaten on the way.
Interrupted by World War One, work on the house didn’t commence until the early 1920s and took over a decade to complete. Decorated with paintings shipped out from England and ornate furniture crafted onsite, the finished product was as beautiful as it was incongruous; 100 years on, it remains one of Zambia’s most beguiling buildings.
After staying the night in Kapishya Hot Springs, 20km to the west, my Zambian friend and I returned to the Shiwa house the following morning for a closer look. Entering via a side-gate, we encountered Jo, wife of Gore-Browne’s grandson Charley, on the front lawn and were politely invited inside for an impromptu tour. Graciously, she allowed us to view the chapel and the lounge, the narrow hallways full of photos and certificates, and the pièce de résistance: Gore-Browne’s studious, book-stuffed library.
Complicated and driven, Gore-Browne was an unconventional White settler. A strict and demanding boss, he possessed an indefatigable work spirit and expected it in equal measure from his employees.
By modern standards, his methods were, at times, cruel and draconian: he had a volatile temper and sometimes beat his African workers; but, by the conventions of the 1920s, he was relatively enlightened. There was no racial segregation at Shiwa. Instead, Gore-Browne’s children and grandchildren mixed freely with African kids and his inseparable companion in later life was his trusty Black chauffeur, Henry Mulenga.
Unlike many settlers, Sir Stewart learned to speak the local language, Bemba, and gradually developed a prosperous community on his new estate that fostered training and education for local people. Shiwa had its own schools, hospital, post office, shops, and airstrip. Whitewashed worker’s houses looked as if they’d been teleported over from a Cornish village, and, by the mid-1920s, the self-sufficient estate had 1,300 local employees.
A latecomer on the political scene, Gore-Browne was appointed to Northern Rhodesia’s legislative council in 1935, aged 52. By then, the uptight Victorian world he had grown up in was fading fast and his views had evolved.
Uninterested in partisan ties, much of his political vision was shaped by his years living in isolation in the African bush, cut off from imperialistic Europeans. At Shiwa, he had come to rely on Africans for survival and he was determined to pay them back.
Vocal supporter of independence
As calls for native autonomy mounted, Gore-Browne, in marked contrast to other White settlers, continued to vociferously oppose segregation in favour of consultation with Black leaders and their inclusion in the political process.
After World War Two, he became an important mentor to independence crusaders Kenneth Kaunda and Harry Nkumbula, both of whom were regular visitors to his home, ultimately providing funds to send Nkumbula to university in Uganda.
By the late 1950s, he was a vocal supporter of independence, arguing that Northern Rhodesia “must confer equal voting powers on equal terms for both races, without any disingenuous catches or strings attached to it.”
Navigating a fine line between White authority and Black aspiration sometimes put him at odds with both sides. His backing for a plan to split Northern Rhodesia into separate European and African-controlled areas in 1948, with the Europeans getting the lucrative copper mines, fell foul of most Black leaders. Equally, his support for the United National Independence Party (UNIP) meant he regularly locked horns with Whites.
Despite the political bumps, Kaunda remained a faithful friend. In 1962, aged 81, Gore-Browne accompanied his one-time protégé in a delegation to the United Nations in New York. It came as no surprise when Kaunda invited the Englishman to be an honoured guest at Zambia’s independence celebrations in 1964.
At Gore-Browne’s state funeral in 1967, Kaunda was lavish in his praise. “He was born an English gentleman and he died a Zambian gentleman,” he remarked in his eulogy. “Perhaps if Africa had more like him, the transition from colonial rule to independence would have been less traumatic.”
Looking back today, in an era when even Abraham Lincoln is exposed to withering re-evaluation, it’s easy to view Gore-Browne as just another privileged White settler who presided over a paternalistic African estate.
Like other colonists of the era, he hunted and shot rhinos for sport, hosted lavish garden parties, and strode around his domain wearing a lounge suit and a monocle. The eccentric aristocratic veneer may, in part, account for his faded legacy – when Kaunda died in 2021, many of the obituaries failed to mention Gore-Browne – but the stuffy and old-fashioned image veil an important part of the story.
Placed in historical context, Gore-Browne’s views were unprecedented. A man ahead of his time, he not only inspired devotion among many of his African colleagues but also commanded respect in the corridors of power in London. Never afraid to tear up the rulebook, he was a bridge between two opposing worlds, mixing tolerance and humanism with stiff Victorian manners and a regimented work ethic.
The publication of The Africa House revived some interest in Gore-Browne’s story and, in 2001, Charley and Jo set about transforming Shiwa Ng’andu from a virtual ruin into the productive estate and intriguing historical heirloom it is today, that also offers accommodation to visitors.
Nevertheless, 21 years later, I was surprised to find that so few of the Zambians I spoke to during my trip had heard of the pugnacious Englishman or the house where he had been given a chief’s burial under his Bemba name, Chipembere (Rhinoceros) in 1967.
As we finished our tour and began the long journey back to Kapiri Mposhi, I took a last glimpse of the sturdy mansion as it disappeared in the rear-view mirror. Some have called it a preposterous folly, others a vanity project, yet rather like its eccentric owner, it stands as bricks-and-mortar testimony to what can be achieved with audacity, fortitude and an underlying desire to give something back. “If only I can leave a better country for all my people at Shiwa, then it will all have been worth something,” Gore-Browne once wrote of his incredible adventure.