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Tanks Group Archive

Date range: c.1900–1960s.

Tanks Group Services Ltd was a London-based holding company for several railway and mining concerns in Central and East Africa that were associated with the mining engineer and entrepreneur Sir Robert Williams (1860–1938).

A native of Aberdeen, Williams was sent to South Africa by his engineering employers in 1881. There he met Sir Cecil Rhodes and shared his vision of opening up Africa’s interior for development, or exploitation.

In 1891 they formed the Zambesia Exploring Company Ltd, to explore and extract mineral deposits in Southern Rhodesia.

In 1899 Tanganyika Concessions Ltd (Tanks) was founded on behalf of the Countess of Warwick to exploit minerals in Northern Rhodesia, with Williams as managing director.

The Union Minière du Haut Katanga company (UMHK) was formed in 1906 as a 40:60 partnership between Tanks and the Belgian bank Société Générale de Belgique, to develop the copper fields in the Katanga district of Congo that had originally been granted to Williams.

To provide access to the coast Williams obtained a concession from the Portuguese to build the Benguela Railway, linking Katanga with Benguela in Angola. However, the railway failed to realize Williams’s expectations, and most mineral traffic was carried east by the Chemin de Fer du Bas-Congo au Katanga (BCK), to Beira in Mozambique.

The archive comprises papers of Robert Williams himself and papers of or relating to Sir Robert Williams & Co. Ltd, the Zambesia Exploring Company Ltd, Tanganyika Concessions Ltd, Union Minière du Haut Katanga, Geita Gold Mining Company Ltd, Kentan Gold Areas Ltd, Rhodesia-Katanga Company Ltd, the Nile Congo Divide Syndicate Ltd, the Benguela Railway, and Benguela Estates Ltd.

Papers include extensive correspondence files, annual reports, minutes, accounts, contracts and legal documents, and numerous photographs of mining and railway operations.  

As well as being of interest to industrial historians, they are a major source for studies of colonialism and development in Africa.

In 2008 the Library purchased four minute books of the Zambesia Exploring Company, which was the earliest mining company founded by Robert Williams, 1891–6, and 1903–28.

Finding aids

  • Partial outline catalogue available online via the A2A website.
  • Simon E. Katzenellenbogen, Railways and the copper mines of Katanga (1973),
  • Robert C. Hutchinson and George Martelli, Robert’s people: the life of Sir Robert Williams, bart. 1860-1938 (1971).


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