Early European prospectors were shocked at the extent of tribal diggings found on the Copperbelt and the Katanga pedicle.
Even before the Lunda and Mwata Kazembe Empires of last century, copper was in circulation in the form of ingots or crosses. Used as currency in central African trade it was somewhat eclipsed in value with the increase in slave trade.
In keeping with the attitudes of the time, many prospectors refused to believe that the local tribes’ people were in fact responsible for the digging.
The early European discoveries by prospectors like William Collier (reputed to have made his discovery on the site where he had shot a roan antelope) in 1902, had to await economic viability before any serious mining attempts were undertaken.
It was only in the 1920s that a technical breakthrough was achieved that made the mining of the then Northern Rhodesia’s ‘red gold’ highly profitable. And the fortunes of the country were irrevocably changed.
The claims that made up the Copperbelt were divided between two conglomerates – the Anglo American Corporation of South Africa and the U.K. Selection Trust. (Later the Roan Selection Trust – RST) An initial boom in the industry was affected by the Great Depression of the 1930s.
International gearing up for the hostilities that resulted in World War 2 created the next boom which lasted until the early seventies. This broad outline does not even begin to illustrate the enormous impact that copper has had on the country which is Zambia today.
It was copper that motivated infrastructural development in a country low on the priority list in the Colonial repertoire. It was copper that shaped colonial policies towards a federation with the then Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) and Nyasaland (Malawi).
It was copper that created the social realities that fomented trade unions and the birth of Zambian Nationalism. Zambia was born with a ‘copper spoon in its mouth’.
A newly independent Zambia based political and socio-economic policies and strategies on the fortunes of copper.