Colonial Mbabane

 

The Brits set up their capital in Mbabane in 1903 following the Second Anglo-Boer War. Swaziland remained a protectorate until independence in 1968.  This building was the seat of government – twelve administrators ran the country, with four district commissioners. Now it houses the office of the deputy Prime Minister.

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At the centre of the city there is a lamp standard and balusters taken from the old Waterloo Bridge, built in 1817 and dismantled in 1934. Topped by a crown and badged with a lion’s head, these beacons were distributed around the Empire. The plaque says this was funded by “members of the over-seas league”, perhaps as an aide-memoire of London for the homesick expatriates.

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This is Allister Miller Street. He was one of the first white settlers in the country and started the Times of Swaziland newspaper in 1897. He was not popular with the locals, but the street name was just changed seven years ago to Gwamile Street. His son was an early aviation pioneer. He joined the Royal Flying Corps in World War 1, set up Union Airways, the predecessor of South African Airways, and served in the South African Airforce in World War 2.

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The Mbabane Library was founded in 1921. For a subscription of £17 per year, one can borrow up to four books at a time. It smells like the senior combination room at my college in Cambridge. There are four rooms, with sections for children, crime, biography and fiction. It is open for just four hours a week, on Wednesday and Saturday mornings. A few years ago, a burglar managed to squeeze between the security bars and get into the library through an open window. He found nothing worth stealing, not being very impressed by the Crime Section, but he couldn’t escape. A security guard heard his cries for help the following morning and the police assisted his exit.

Next door, there is a book exchange. The Library committee purchases second hand books from Canada. It costs just 10p to swap books. It is probably the most successful, longest running aid project in Swaziland.

Apart from these buildings, there is little physical legacy of the colonial period in Mbabane. Cuts to the Foreign Office budget caused the closure of the British High Commission. It seems Britain does not share the USA’s opinion of Swaziland’s strategic importance. The new US Embassy in Ezulwini is like a massive Führerbunker.

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4 Replies to “Colonial Mbabane”

  1. As always a good read, but made me curious about what a “senior combination room” was? All our embassies now look like Fort Knox (a better comparative than the Fuhrerbunker politically speaking)

  2. Thanks. That’s a much more pleasant smell than my odor-memory associated with common areas of student housing (think stale beer, fritos, old sock). The combination of leather, wood polish, and pipe smoke describe an library for me.

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