Great Northern Hotel: The story behind the growth of the coloured community

The Chronicle

Mashudu Netsianda, Senior Reporter
BUILT in 1912, the Great Northern Hotel, which lies between 13th and 14th Avenues along Lobengula Street in Bulawayo carries a fascinating story behind the emergence and subsequent growth of the coloured community in the city.

For a discerning person, the building is simply an ancient structure whose architecture is a redolent throwback to the country’s colonial days.

Designed by MacGillivray and Grant and subsequently opened in 1912 by Mr Sidney Redrup, an artist and one of the pioneer Rhodesian colonial settlers, Great Northern Hotel was originally built to serve people who were getting off the train at the nearby Bulawayo railway station.

Mr Redrup helped in designing the layout of the Centenary Park in Bulawayo and the fire station. Scottish-born architect William Hood Grant designed a significant number of buildings in and around Cape Town, Bulawayo and Salisbury (now Harare).

Centenary Park in Bulawayo

In 1903, he went into partnership with his compatriot and colleague Donald MacGillivray and became a fellow of the Cape Institute of Architects in 1910.

They collaborated on a number of buildings, establishing the meticulous attention to detail, judicious interpretations of contemporary style and standard of craftsmanship that were to become characteristic of their work between the 1920s and 1930s.

MacGillivray and Grant also designed the Bulawayo City Hall.

The Great Northern Hotel, whose name is still plastered on what remains of its façade, used to be the watering hole for generations of railwaymen during the colonial era as well.

According to historians and researchers, Great Northern Hotel was the only recreational facility where people of mixed races were allowed to mingle and drink despite the racial discriminatory laws that prevailed in colonial Rhodesia.

Bulawayo City Hall

The area around the hotel was also a red-light district where white men with insatiable appetite for sex would pick up black women.

It is strongly believed that through those inter-racial sexual encounters between black women and white patrons at Great Northern Hotel, led to the emergence of the coloured community in Bulawayo.

Renowned historian, Mr Pathisa Nyathi said early white settlers came as bachelors and naturally got attracted to beautiful Ndebele women.

“The natural desire in a human being to be intimate with someone of the opposite sex meant that the young white settlers had to overcome the racial prejudices that they had and become practical. That practicality being going for the black women that obviously became the genesis for the coloured population in Bulawayo,” he said.

“You will find that we have people like William Usher or Mapondo as they called him in IsiNdebele who met MaKhumalo and obviously from that association, emerged a coloured population.”

Mr Pathisa Nyathi

Mr Nyathi said the relationships between the whites and blacks were one sided.

“It was not Ndebele men going for white women, but it was always white men going for Ndebele women. These bachelors regarded themselves as superior, but here they are stranded because they didn’t bring their ladies; hence, they had to make do with what was available, marking the beginning of the coloured population.”

William came with his brother Reuben Usher to Matabeleland as pre-pioneers and they initially traded and lived amongst the Ndebeles. They gave him the name of Mapondo; a reference to the area from which he originally came.

“After marrying Mzondwase Khumalo, he was given an extensive tract of land called Tshabalala by Lobengula in 1883. William lived in traditional Ndebele style with his large family farming on the banks of the Phekiwe stream,” said Mr Nyathi.

The evidence of their occupation can be found in the terraces made on the stream bank where William made a vegetable garden and the remains of a stone wall that formed part of his cattle pens. He died on 22 September 1916 and was buried next to the walls that had formed his cattle pens. His grave site is within the boundary of what is now the Tshabalala Game Sanctuary.

In 1897, Willian’s farm was purchased and incorporated into the Rhodes Estate and became part of the Sauerdale Block, Dr Hans Sauer having negotiated the purchase of a number of farms on behalf of Rhodes.

“Remember these black women were also aware of the materialistic possessions of these white men so they also got closer to them so that they would access these new exotic items. These were aristocratic Ndebele women such as the MaKhumalos and MaMkhwananzi not the lower classes,” said Mr Nyathi.

Veteran author, playwright and researcher, Mr Cont Mhlanga said the Great Northern Hotel was Bulawayo’s entertainment hub and home of night life to the black community in the colonial era.

Cont Mhlanga

“If you look at its location near the railway station, it is clear that the Great Northern Hotel’s target market was people arriving in Bulawayo by train. Somehow, the hotel was the only place in Bulawayo where there was no racial segregation and blacks were also allowed to drink there, but of course not allowed to sleep there,” he said.

“A lot of whites interacted with black women, which resulted in children of mixed race being born. I remember as a young man we used to go to the Great Northern Hotel for entertainment and it was an ideal place for nightlife in Bulawayo.”

Mr Mhlanga said a majority of white people who frequented the hotel were purely after black women.

“The hotel was the entertainment hub for mixed races in the 1920s up until the 1950s. The areas around the hotel were turned into a red-light district where whites would pick black women involved in sex work,” he said.

“There was also the Skittle Inn, which was a bar strictly for white men and no women were allowed. So, what happens is that these white guys would then later go to the Great Northern Hotel and pick black women.”

Mr Mhlanga said black musicians such as South African singer and actress Mabel Mafuya performed live shows at Great Northern Hotel.

“It was during those shows that people started engaging in multi-racial relationships. Bulawayo was the industrial hub and top business executives on business trips in the city would then go to Great Northern Hotel to look for black women,” he said.

“As the coloured community grew, suburbs such as Thorngrove and some sections of Makokoba near St Columbus High School were created, and that is the same area where Indians also stayed. As the coloured population grew, more suburbs such as Barham Green, North End were created.’

Mr Rob Burrett, an associate researcher at the Natural History Museum of Zimbabwe, said the Great Northern Hotel was one of the first multi-racial hotels in Bulawayo.

Natural History Museum of Zimbabwe

“The hotel was opened by Sidney Redrup having been designed by MacGillivray and Grant. Redrup was an early trade and one of his many businesses was the operations of the refreshment rooms at the railway station. Its name was suggestive of the romantic vision and the driving colonial spirit of the times,” he said.

“It was one of the first multi-racial hotels in Bulawayo, and for many years, a sign that read: ‘where the races meet’ hung outside the building. This, and its reputation for ladies of night may account for the hotel being put off limits to members of the uniformed forces.’

Mr Burrett said the Great Northern Hotel had a shady reputation due to activities that happened there in the colonial era. The building now houses a number of small businesses and has recently been repainted.

“In later years, its original wooden balcony was replaced with less interesting masonry ones. Obviously, the hotel gets sold and resold over the years while management changes,” he said. — @mashnets

Article Source: The Chronicle

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