Edgar Whitehead

Edgar Whitehead

Sir Edgar Cuthbert Fremantle Whitehead, OBE, (February 8, 1905September 22, 1971) was a Rhodesian politician. He was a longstanding member of the Southern Rhodesia Legislative Assembly, although his career was interrupted by other posts and by illness. In particular he had poor eyesight, and wore very thick glasses, and later suffered deafness whilst in office. As an ally of Sir Roy Welensky, he was Prime Minister of Southern Rhodesia from 1958 to 1962. His government was defeated in the 1962 general election by the Rhodesian Front.

Whitehead was born in the British Embassy in Berlin, Germany, where his father was a diplomat. He was educated at Shrewsbury School and the University of Oxford, and moved to the colony of Southern Rhodesia in 1928 for health reasons. After working briefly for the civil service at Gwelo, he moved to a farm in the Bvumba Mountains near Umtali. Whitehead became active in the local farming unions.

He became a member of the Southern Rhodesia legislative assembly in 1939, but his service was interrupted by the Second World War. During the Second World War, he was in West Africa and was an Air Despatcher with the Royal Air Force in the United Kingdom. He served as Acting High Commissioner for Southern Rhodesia in London from 1945 to 1946, before returning to Salisbury as Minister of Finance and Posts & Telegraphs. During the Federation period, Whitehead served as Minister for Rhodesia & Nyasaland Affairs in Washington, D.C. from 1957 to 1958.

Following a cabinet revolt which brought about the resignation of the liberal Garfield Todd in 1958, Whitehead was chosen as the compromise candidate for his United Federal Party's leadership. Recalled from Washington, a by-election was held to elect him to parliament, which the opposition Dominion Party won. Whitehead then called general elections and entered parliament as member for the Salisbury North constituency, becoming Prime Minister and Minister for Native Affairs.

His near five years in office saw continued rapid economic growth but also the beginnings of the dismantling of the Central African Federation against the wishes of his party. He was crucial in the negotiation of the 1961 constitution, which gave blacks representation in the Southern Rhodesian parliament for the first time. There was a relaxation of racial discrimination laws and a drive to enrol black voters during his period of office, but this was done against a background of civil unrest and a tightening of security measures.

The policies of Whitehead's government caused alarm among the white population, while the blacks remained dissatisfied with the advances they had made. The conservative Rhodesian Front, led by Winston Field, defeated the UFP in the 1962 elections, riding upon opposition to the new constitution and Whitehead's relatively liberal views on race, winning 35 of 50 white seats. Of the 15 seats for blacks, the UFP won 14.

Whitehead remained as Leader of the Opposition in Parliament until 1964. He lost his seat in the 1965 election when the Rhodesian Front took all the white seats in Parliament. The Rhodesian Front, from 1964 under the leadership of Ian Smith, would rule Rhodesia ('southern' was dropped from the name with the independence of Northern Rhodesia as Zambia) until 1979.

Alec Douglas-Home in his memoir 'The Way the Wind Blows' noted his view of Whitehead as being very deaf, very blind and able to consume 13 beers in an evening without leaving the room. He was a bachelor and was seen by former Federation Minister Julian Greenfield in his memoirs (page 234) as having even less charisma than Edward Heath with voters, whether male or female.

Awarded the O.B.E. in 1944 and knighted in 1954, Whitehead retired back to the United Kingdom to live with his sister near Whitchurch in Hampshire. From there he called for a union between the UK and Rhodesia as a way forward from UDI. He died of cancer of the oesophagus and lung in a nursing home in Hamstead Marshall near Newbury in September 1971. A plaque to him in Harare (then Salisbury) Cathedral Cloisters was unveiled by former Governor Sir Humphrey Gibbs in 1972. His papers, including an unpublished autobiography, are in the Rhodes House Library, Oxford.


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