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Tanks Group Archive

Date range: c.1890s–1960s

Medium: Archive

Tanganyika Concessions Ltd (its name was usually abbreviated to Tanks) was a major company in colonial Africa for much of the 20th century. It was particularly associated with the Scottish entrepreneur and engineer, Sir Robert Williams (1860-1938), and is perhaps best known for building the Benguela Railway in Angola. Williams founded the Zambesia Exploring Company Ltd with Cecil Rhodes in 1891 to explore and extract mineral deposits in Southern Rhodesia. This partnership was relatively short-lived, and in 1899 Williams established Tanganyika Concessions Ltd., on behalf of the Countess of Warwick, to exploit minerals in Northern Rhodesia and the Belgian Congo.

Most of Tanks' interests were in the Belgian Congo and Portuguese Angola, rather than in Britain's African colonies. In particular, the company enjoyed close relations with the powerful Belgian bank Société Générale de Belgique, with which it ran the Union Minière du Haut Katanga company (UMHK), exploiting the copper deposits in the Katanga district of Congo.

Williams was later involved with a highly ambitious project to build a railway from the copper fields to the port of Benguela on the Angolan coast. However, the Benguela railway failed to realize Williams’ expectations, and most mineral traffic was instead carried east by the Chemin de Fer du Bas-Congo au Katanga (BCK), to Beira in Mozambique.

The extensive archive of Tanganyika Concessions Ltd includes the papers of Robert Williams as well as those of its subsidiary companies, 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 Co. Benguela Estates Ltd, and the Zambesia Exploring Company Ltd.

There is a diverse range of records including 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, the Tanks archive is a major source for studies of colonialism and development in Africa, and the relations between colonial governments and business interests.

Further information:

  • Partial catalogue available online via ELGAR.
  • Some material including Sir Robert Williams' business papers are uncatalogued.
  • 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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