Chaplin, Francis Drummond Percy

At a Glance:

Colonial administrator, businessman



Bird names: 1


Southern Africa

Sir Drummond Chaplin, 1926 [link]

Content note: this profile contains discussion of forced labor, concentration camps, and apartheid.

The Bird:

Chaplin’s Barbet (Lybius chaplini)

Chaplin’s Barbet [link]

The Name:

There are some people in history that raise an immediate red flag about anyone who associated with them. When the subject of your investigations is someone like Sir Francis Drummond Percy Chaplin– usually known as Drummond Chaplin– who corresponded with arch-colonialists Cecil Rhodes and Rudyard Kipling, things are not liable to be heading in a positive direction. In the case of Chaplin, not only does the story of his life fail to head in a positive direction, but it quickly spirals into some of the more nauseating corners of British colonialism.

Chaplin (1866-1933) was born in London, but spent most of his career in southern Africa, split between Rhodesia and the colonies that eventually merged into South Africa. He initially intended to practice law, but after a stint as a correspondent for The Times of London, he switched to the business world. In 1900 he became the general manager of the Consolidated Goldfields of South Africa Ltd., and as such became a leader in an industry that ran on brutal forced labor. He soon found a strong political ally in Lord Alfred Milner, and as the Boer War heated up, he supported Milner’s suggestions of establishing camps to which Boer and Black civilians in the areas of conflict would be relocated. The 45 camps for Boers and 64 for the Black Africans uprooted as part of Britain’s scorched-earth policy were at first called “refugee camps”, but another term was soon popularized: concentration camps.

It’s hard to determine Chaplin’s position on the concentration camps, although his alliance with Milner– who believed in “the importance of racial bond” and that it was “the British race which built the Empire, and it is the undivided British race which can alone uphold it”, in an unnerving prequel to later decades’ fascists’ rhetoric on the bond of the Volk— in this period would alone put him in a highly suspect position. But his possible involvement, if any, in that atrocity is far overshadowed by his definite involvement in another one.

The gold and diamond mines of South Africa were brutal, with little regard to safety and high rates of death and injury. After the Boer War, with labor even scarcer than usual, the British solution was to import Chinese laborers to work in the mines. These workers, eventually numbering 63,000, were treated terribly, both by their employers and by the local communities, and anti-Chinese sentiment became widespread. Meanwhile, the laborers were on contracts that forbade them from leaving their prison-like housing at the mining compounds any day but Sunday and tied them to a given mine for their three-year contract, making it nearly impossible to change jobs if conditions were intolerable. As a mine owner, Chaplin was an enthusiastic proponent of this plan, and no doubt benefited greatly from it. After only four years, pressure from white South Africans, horrified at the prospect of increased non-white presence in the colony, all the miners were unceremoniously repatriated, and further immigration was restricted.

It’s often hard to determine the boundaries of corporate interests and colonial administration in this time period. It’s no surprise, then, that Chaplin fluidly crossed that boundary over and over during his career. Even when he was administrator of Rhodesia, it was under the mandate of the British South Africa Company. Capitalism and colonialism were inseparable. Unsurprisingly, Chaplin ran the colony like a businessman. He regarded education of Black subjects as merely a way to attempt to better extract labor from them, and much of his administration focused on how to make Northern Rhodesia as profitable as Southern.

Chaplin continued his involvement in politics on returning to South Africa after WWI. He was a member of the Union Parliament, where he attached himself to then Prime Minister Field Marshal Jan Smuts. Smuts was a vocal proponent of segregation, and although later in life he supposedly had a change of heart– saying that complete segregation was impractical, which barely counts as a mellowing of his position– he was still a strident segregationist during Chaplin’s term. The groundwork laid by Smuts and his supporters in this era would provide the framework for the official apartheid policy enacted in 1948. Chaplin was long dead by that point– having retired from politics in the late 20s to race horses and focus on business– but he was an important figure in the political scene that would eventually lead to apartheid. His career, though faded to obscurity now, was deeply entwined with the brutal course South Africa would take in the future, and shape it through the present.

J.F. McLaughlin


Kynoch, Gary. 2005. ‘Your petitioners are in mortal terror’: the violent world of Chinese mineworkers in South Africa, 1904-1910. Journal of South African Studies 31. pp 531-546. [link]

Magubane, Bernard. 1996. The making of a racist state: British imperialism and the Union of South Africa, 1875-1910. Africa World Press. [link]

Malcolm, Dougal O. 1941. The book of the quarter: Drummond Chaplin: his life and times in Africa by B.K. Long. Journal of the Royal African Society 40(16). pp. 262-272. [link]

Mungazi, Dickson A. 1989. A strategy for power: commissions of inquiry into education in colonial Zimbabwe. The International Journal of African Historical Studies. 22(2). pp. 267-285. [link]

“Obituary: Sir Drummond Chaplin”. 1933. The Times. [link]