Book Interview: “White Mineworkers on Zambia’s Copperbelt” with Duncan Money

LiM-WG has the pleasure to introduce you Duncan Money, historian and lecturer at Leiden University and researcher at African Studies Center. Duncan is a historian of Central and Southern Africa. He is interested in histories of race and labour in the mining industry.

In this interview, we have exchanged about his work and, especially, about his new book ‘White Mineworkers on Zambia’s Copperbelt, 1926-1974: In a Class of Their Own‘.

Focused on the history of the African mining industry from a global perspective, Duncan’s new book investigates the very complex issues of class, race and labour in the context of the Copperbelt. 

LiM-WG had the chance to meet Duncan Money during 3rd ELHN 2019 in Amsterdam and, since, we have had interesting exchanges, following its activities, publications, and his lively chats on twitter (Follow him : @mininghistory !). 

Before introducing the interview, we would like to thank very much Duncan for taking time to answer to our questions.

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First of all, your book tells the story of white mineworkers in the Central African Copperbelt. Can you tell us what is the Copperbelt and who are those mineworkers?

The Copperbelt is an industrialised, urbanised mining region that stretches across the border between Zambia and Democratic Republic of Congo and has been a centre of the world copper industry for over a century. When the mines opened, the companies which ran them instituted a racial division in the workforce and recruited African men to do the hard manual work and white men to do skilled and supervisory work, as was common practice in the mining industry in many parts of the world. Several thousand white workers were recruited from mining regions around the world and at mines in Zambia this policy remained in place until the early 1970s. My book is essentially about the many and unexpected consequences of this.

Why did you decided to tell the story of those workers? Did the archival sources influence your decision?

It was the sheer volume of archival sources I encountered in Zambia, and how unexpected these sources were. White workers were in a very privileged position in colonial Zambia and so I didn’t expect to find documents about trade unions, calls for international solidarity and wildcat strikes involving white workers. Their employers and the colonial state were distrustful and sometimes fearful of white mineworkers and so closely monitored them and their struggles. Once I began, I quickly became fascinated in the topic, and altered my proposed PhD research topic from the end of empire in Zambia.

What made this more remarkable for me was that very little had previously been written on the topic and previous generations of labour historians, who had written a lot on the Copperbelt, often did not consider whites on the mines to be workers at all. ‘Worker’ in this context was a synonym for ‘African’.

In your introduction, you cite a white miner complaining that he “can’t settle down”. What does he mean and why is this significant for this story?

Coming across this quote was a lightbulb moment for me. ‘Settling down’ had two meanings: white mineworkers would not ‘settle down’ to calm and orderly work and would not ‘settle down’ to stay in the place they now lived. Strikes were frequent and most white workers moved on after a few years on the Copperbelt. The quote was a way of capturing the sense of these workers as both militant and mobile, so I thought it was a good way to open the book.

The context of the quote is illustrative as well. I can across this quote among a series of interviews conducted with white residents of the Copperbelt in the late 1950s. These interviews had been commissioned by the mining companies to assess the stability of their white workforce as they were constantly recruiting new white workers to replace those that left.

In the globalised perspective of labour history that emerges from your analysis, what is the place of race and class?

In the book, I argue that race and class on the Copperbelt were strongly influenced by the international connections and mobility of white mineworkers. The kinds of demands these workers made, the way they engaged in collective struggles and their forms of organisation were all shaped by their experiences and connections with other parts of the world. Why these workers saw themselves as ‘white’ workers was also shaped by these international connections and influences.

One thing that I realised while writing the book is that there were many similarities between the Copperbelt and other mining regions. For instance, the racial division in the workplace and how this functioned was not specific to the Copperbelt but was commonplace in the mining industry around the world during the twentieth century. I wrote about this recently in an article with Limin Teh.

At one point you state that the “the miners’ lamp is perhaps more representative of whites in Central Africa than the pith helmet.”. Does the study of mining labour offer a new perspective on colonialism in Africa?

I think so. Studies of whites in Africa have mostly looked at colonial officials, farmers or missionaries, the classic image in popular culture is the colonial explorer, complete with a pith helmet. The number of whites engaged in industrial work were far more numerous, however.

This is not simply about the occupational profile of the group though. Whites are often conceived or described as ‘settlers’, a term that I avoid in my book. This is deliberate as I don’t think the Copperbelt’s white mineworkers were settlers in any meaningful sense of the word, as most had no intention of settlers. Most were transients who stayed only a few years. This had important consequences for colonialism and white minority rule as it meant that few were prepared to seriously defend colonial rule against the powerful African nationalist movements that developed in the late 1950s, an argument I’ve made elsewhere.

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Duncan Money’s book will be launched on Thursday 24 March, 15h30-17h, (UTC+1) at an online and in-person event at the African Studies Center in Leiden. Register to the online event: Link

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Duncan Money’s book is available to purchase here

But you can also have access to free pre-prints online here

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Find more about Duncan Money’s work on his website

You can find him also on twitter

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Cite this blog post
LIM COORDINATORS (2022, March 15). Book Interview: “White Mineworkers on Zambia’s Copperbelt” with Duncan Money. Labour In Mining. Retrieved May 21, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/qwdf

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