Heroes: the underground railroad in Rhodesia

Talking about Zimbabwean history reminded me that there are some unsung heroes of Zimbabwe’s struggle for majority rule whom I wish to salute.   These are the people who, rejecting the racist policies of the Rhodesian Front government, organized an illegal underground railroad to secretly transport black and white resisters across the border, mostly to Botswana and Zambia.   The whites transported were usually resisting military conscription to fight in a war they disagreed with, a war in support of a cause they believed immoral.  I knew a couple of these railwaymen:  AP (“Knotty”) Knottenbelt, who had been headmaster of Fletcher High School, a state boarding school for black boys, from where he resigned in 1969 rather than raise a Rhodesian flag; he is said to have tied the flag to the back of his car and driven it through the dust of the schoolyard in front of the assembled students before hoisting it; he later tutored at the University of Zimbabwe, and the Mugabe Government appointed him to the board of the Posts and Telecommunications Corporation after Independence.     Another railwayman was his bridge partner, Nick Holman (1919-2002), father of the (now former) Financial Times Africa Editor, Michael Holman.   These men and their collaborators deserve praise and admiration for their great personal courage in support of a non-racial society.

One of those transported by this railroad was the late Christopher Lewis, son, grandson, and great-grandson of Rhodes Scholars.  His father, Charles Patrick Jameson (“Pat”) Lewis (d. 1975) was a lawyer in partnership with Hardwicke Holderness MP (1915-2007), and Chairman from 1961-1969 of the Constitutional Council established under the 1961 Rhodesian constitution; Christopher Lewis’s paternal great-grandfather Vernon Lewis CMG (d. 1950), was a Rhodes Scholar later appointed in 1950 Chief Justice of Southern Rhodesia (being succeeded on his death the same year by Sir Robert Tredgold);  Vernon Lewis was married to Ethel Amy Jameson, daughter of Leander Starr Jameson (1853-1917), Prime Minister of the Cape Colony between 1904-1908, who had led a failed attack against the Transvaal in 1895-1896 (later called the Jameson Raid).  Another son of Vernon Lewis, John Vernon Radcliffe Lewis (1917-?), was also a Rhodesian and Zimbabwean judge.

Christopher Lewis’s maternal grandfather Leonard Ray Morgan (1894-1967), also a Rhodes Scholar, was a lifelong friend of Robert Graves whom he met at Oxford, and was Permanent Secretary for Education in the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland; and Christopher’s uncle by marriage was the chiShona linguist, George Fortune (1915-2012).  Ian Hancock’s interesting history of liberal white opposition to the racist policies of the Rhodesia Front is dedicated to the memory of Pat Lewis. Christopher’s sister Annette was married to lawyer Anthony Eastwood (1940-2015), whose first wife Ruth Fischer (later Ruth Fischer-Rice) (b. 1939) was the daughter of Bram Fischer (1908-1975), lead defence counsel at the Rivonia Trial of Nelson Mandela and others. Bram Fischer was the son of a Judge-President of the Orange Free State and grandson of the only Prime Minister of the Orange River Colony, Abraham Fischer (Prime Minister 1907-1910); his wife Molly was a niece of Jan Smuts.

Well before the fall of communism, Anthony Eastwood once told me of visiting the USSR as an honoured guest and asking, as a lawyer, if he could meet a fellow lawyer.  The next day he was ushered into a meeting with the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the USSR.

A wonderfully well-written but very sad memoir by Hayden Eastwood, son of Anthony and Annette Eastwood, of his upbringing was published in 2018.


Hayden Eastwood [2018]: Like Sodium in Water: A Memoir of Home and Heartache. Cape Town, RSA: Jonathan Ball.

Ian Hancock [1984]: White Liberals, Moderates and Radicals in Rhodesia 1953-1980. New York, USA: St Martin’s Press.

0 Responses to “Heroes: the underground railroad in Rhodesia”

Comments are currently closed.