Document Type


Date of Degree

Spring 2015

Degree Name

PhD (Doctor of Philosophy)

Degree In


First Advisor

James L. Giblin


This dissertation examines the history of land inequality. Historians have long assumed that unequal distribution of land in Zimbabwe was a consequence of colonial rule. I show that unequal distribution of land long predated colonialism, and that the interaction between pre-existing and new forms of inequality fundamentally shaped the colonial experience.

I begin with basic perspectives from environmental and agrarian history, I emphasize that access to land has determined whether Africans will be able to obtain subsistence, but that productive land is always a relatively scarce resource. I look very closely at the differences in soil productivity within particular landscapes, micro-environments and even individual tracts. Such differences in soil quality and the resulting scarcity of the most productive lands, I argue, provoked competition for land long before shortages caused by colonial land policies.

I situate this competition within the intimate social settings of households, kinships and, after the imposition of British rule in 1890, farms and mission stations. In them, I find political and social dynamics which, together with colonial rule, created inequality among Africans and contributed to unequal access to land. They include gender, kinship, status and generation. Through an analysis of stories of precolonial migration and settlement, I examine claims to political and ritual control over territory made by chiefs, spirit mediums and `first-comers'. Colonial land alienation deepened this competition, while the contingencies of colonial administration often forced officials to relate to European settlers in ways that opened opportunities for Africans to contest their subordinated access to land.


Colonialism, Gender, Kinship, Land, Social Relations, Zimbabwe


xiv, 291 pages


Includes bibliographical references (pages 270-291).


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