Chatham House History: Five Key Moments on Africa

To mark the centenary of Chatham House, the Africa programme curated an exhibition of archive material which charts how the institute has been both a major forum for discussion on Africa, and an important platform for African leaders to engage in international affairs.

Expert comment Published 9 July 2020 Updated 9 March 2022 3 minute READ
President Nelson Mandela of South Africa addresses an audience at an event co-hosted by Chatham House, the CBI and COSAT on July 10, 1996.

President Nelson Mandela of South Africa addresses an audience at an event co-hosted by Chatham House, the CBI and COSAT on July 10, 1996.

As with any history, Chatham House has a long and complex one. Progress has come in fits and starts, sometimes driven by wider social change, but often led by individuals within the institute. When examining the institute’s work on Africa, five seminal moments from the history really stood out.

The Founders

Lionel Curtis is credited as the founder of the institute, having proposed the idea at a meeting at the Hotel Majestic while attending the Treaty of Versailles talks.

Curtis served in South Africa during the Second Boer war and subsequent period of unification. He was one of the cohort of officials that served under Lord Milner, later dubbed ‘Milner’s Kindergarten’. Several of this group were involved in the foundation of the institute.

His experiences in South Africa undoubtedly informed his political philosophy - a strong belief in liberal imperialism. This is captured in the emblems of empire inlaid into the roundtable which is still in the Chatham House library, given to Curtis as a wedding gift.

But more importantly than his political philosophy, Curtis was an astute social networker and fundraiser who unlocked the finance required to establish the institute. Curtis’s papers in the Chatham House archives depict his almost obsessive following of the career of the South African diamond tycoon Sir Abe Bailey that eventually led to the first significant endowment to the institute - after the building. South African Prime Minister Jan Smuts, a friend of Curtis and early champion of the institute, spoke at a dinner in honour of Bailey’s contribution.

Curtis’s connections meant much of the early finance came from South Africa, including from Otto Beit and Percy Molteno, who was also an early financer of the African National Congress (ANC).

Hailey’s Africa Survey

In 1938, Chatham House published Lord Hailey’s monumental Africa Survey. Its detailed 1,837 pages of study came to represent a seismic shift in attitudes towards the continent. Lord Lothian’s foreword emphasises that it grew from an idea of Smuts from 1929, although these origins remain disputed.

What is known is that Oxford University had submitted a proposal for a study of the continent to an American foundation which rejected it on the grounds that they didn’t want American money to be used to expand Smut’s doctrine of dominion. The group then merged their own plan into an emerging study by progressive missionary Joseph Oldham.

Curtis brought in his friend Lord Hailey to lead the initiative. Hailey was a distinguished civil servant who served in India but never in Africa. The project moved to Chatham House and received a substantial grant from the Carnegie Foundation. Having been originally conceived as a study to reinforce segregationist ideas, the final survey was groundbreaking. Its underlying assumption of basic racial equality debunked the premises of segregation and re-set British attitudes towards Africa.

This shift in mindset was hugely significant at the time, but the work would later be criticized for not including any African voices. And, despite carrying his name, Lord Lothian wrote very little of the text. He fell ill, in part due to the pressure of the four-year project, and the work was largely written by notable Africanists Lucy Mair, Charlotte Leubuscher, and Margery Perham. The Africa Survey was updated and reprinted in 1956, including a pull-out map depicting newly-independent Sudan. A sign of real change.

Independence and National Liberation

The 1960s was a decade of transformation both on the continent and at Chatham House. The institute became an important conduit for newly-independent African states to engage in international affairs, hosting several independence presidents, including Prime Minister Modibo Keita of Mali, President Léopold Senghor of Senegal, and President Julius Nyerere of Tanzania. Many of these speeches were republished in the Institute’s journal, International Affairs.

In January 1962, the Nigerian government invited Chatham House to host a conference in Lagos on the external international relations of the newly-independent African states. But it wasn’t just presidents that were offered a platform. Liberation leaders were also invited to speak as well as conduct research.


Dr Bernard Chidzero, a later finance minister in independent Zimbabwe, wrote on African nationalism in International Affairs in 1960, and conducted a multi-year study at the institute resulting in the publication of a book. In 1968, Eduardo Mondlane, founding president of FRELIMO, made an important speech on the nationalist fight for independence in Mozambique.

In 1961, Kenneth Younger, a new director of the institute, increased its research capacity on Africa through significant new hires. Catherine Hoskyns’s 1965 book on the Congo crisis became the seminal study on the topic. Dennis Austin, who had experience in West Africa, wrote the definitive work on Ghana’s transition to independence in 1964.

African Institutes

Chatham House has also been involved in the establishment of think-tanks across the world, including three in Africa.

The South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA) was founded in 1934, in response to proposals made by Chatham House the previous year at the inaugural British Commonwealth Relations Conference. An East African Institute of International Affairs was also established in Nairobi but did not survive. The Nigerian Institute of International Affairs (NIIA) was formed in 1961 in Lagos. Its founding director general Dr L A Fabunmi, said ‘the main task of the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs will be to create, develop, and sustain an African perspective in world affairs’.

Chatham House has maintained a good working relationship with its sister institutes. In 2005 a special edition of International Affairs was launched at NIIA, the first time in the journal’s history it was launched outside the UK. And SAIIA staff and leaders are regular contributors to Chatham House events and research, including a partnership on the study of Central and Eastern European relations with Africa.

The Africa Programme

Created in 2002, this was the first time Chatham House had a dedicated research team working on the whole of Africa. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, work on Africa had been conducted by regionally-focused study groups, and the personal interests of the director for studies, Dr Jack Spence – a leading authority on South African foreign policy. An earlier attempt to create a more formal programme in the late 1990s fell victim to staff turnover.

In 1998, the British Angola Forum (BAF) was formed and found a home at Chatham House. At the end of Angola’s civil war in 2002, under the leadership of Dr Alex Vines, the BAF morphed into a continent-wide programme.

Since then, the Africa Programme has produced more than 160 original research publications, and organizes between 120-140 events on Africa every year. The Africa Programme is marking the centenary of the institute with a major research theme on Foreign Relations and African Agency in International Relations.

Chatham House’s work on Africa has its roots in the liberal imperialism of the post war leaders. But throughout the last 100 years, it has been a platform for progress, playing a vital role in informing policymakers and facilitating debate on African affairs, as well as highlighting African perspectives on global issues.

The exhibition on the History of Africa at Chatham House was first displayed at the world-renowned fine art auctioneers and valuers Bonham’s in London for a reception in February 2020 marking the centenary of the Institute. It was curated by Christopher Vandome with the assistance of the Chatham House Library, and digitized with the help of the Institute’s communications department. Please contact the Library team for further information regarding the archive.

Chatham House Centenary 2020 Stamp

Chatham House Centenary:
Throughout our centenary year in 2020, Chatham House marks a century of influence, independent analysis and trusted dialogue with a number of exciting initiatives. Throughout the year, we explore key political moments from the institute’s history and reflect on how Chatham House and other think-tanks should approach the future.