Company rule in Rhodesia

From Chalo Chatu, Zambia online encyclopedia
Chartered territory of the British South Africa Company
  • 1890–1924 (Northern)
  • 1890–1923 (Southern)


Company flag Company coat of arms
"Justice, Commerce, Freedom"
Rhodesia under Company rule in the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica
Capital Salisbury now Harare
Languages English (official)
Shona, Sindebele, Bemba and Chewa widely spoken
Political structure Charter colony
Historical era New Imperialism
 •  Chartered 1889
 •  Pioneer Column; start of Company rule 1890
 •  Named "Rhodesia" 1895
 •  Responsible government for Southern Rhodesia 1923
 •  Direct British rule for Northern Rhodesia 1924
Currency Pound sterling
Today part of
  • 1Northern Rhodesia became Zambia in 1964.
  • 2Southern Rhodesia began to call itself Rhodesia in 1964, then Zimbabwe Rhodesia in 1979. It has been Zimbabwe since 1980.

The British South Africa Company's administration of what became Rhodesia was chartered in 1889 by Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom, and began with the Pioneer Column's march north-east to Mashonaland in 1890. Empowered by its charter to acquire, govern and develop the area north of the Transvaal in southern Africa, the Company, headed by Cecil Rhodes, raised its own armed forces and carved out a huge bloc of territory through treaties, concessions and occasional military action, most prominently overcoming the Matabele army in the First and Second Matabele Wars of the 1890s.[n 1] By the turn of the century, Rhodes's Company held a vast, land-locked country, bisected by the Zambezi river. It officially named this land Rhodesia in 1895, and ran it until the early 1920s.

The area south of the Zambezi became Southern Rhodesia, while that to the north became North-Western and North-Eastern Rhodesia, which were joined in 1911 to form Northern Rhodesia. Each territory was administered separately, with an administrator heading each territorial legislature. In Southern Rhodesia, which attracted the most white immigrants and developed fastest, a Legislative Council was established in 1898. This comprised a blend of Company-nominated officials and elected members, with the numbers of each fluctuating over time.

Partially motivated by Rhodes's dream of a Cape to Cairo Railway, railway and telegraph lines were laid across previously barren Rhodesia with great speed, linking South Africa to the Belgian Congo's southern Katanga province by 1910. The British South Africa Police, responsible for law enforcement in Southern Rhodesia, was established in 1896. A number of police forces north of the river amalgamated to form the Northern Rhodesia Police in 1911. Northern and Southern Rhodesians fought alongside the British in the Second Boer War and the First World War; about 40% of Southern Rhodesian white men fought in the latter, mostly on the Western Front in Europe. Black soldiers served in East Africa with the Rhodesia Native Regiment.

As the number of elected members in the Legislative Council rose, power in Southern Rhodesia gradually transferred from complete Company rule to effective self-government by the growing number of white settlers. In a 1922 referendum, Southern Rhodesians chose responsible government within the British Empire over incorporation into the Union of South Africa. The Company's charter was duly revoked by Whitehall in 1923, and Southern Rhodesia became a self-governing colony of Britain in October that year. Northern Rhodesia became a directly-run British protectorate in April 1924.


Rhodes's dream

"The Rhodes Colossus", a figurative 1892 depiction of Cecil Rhodes as a giant astride Africa, connecting the Cape and Cairo by telegraph

Amid the Scramble for Africa during the 1880s, the South African-based businessman and politician Cecil Rhodes envisioned the annexation to the British Empire of a bloc of territory connecting the Cape of Good Hope and Cairo—respectively at the southern and northern tips of Africa—and the concurrent construction of a line of rail linking the two. On geopolitical maps, British territories were generally marked in red or pink, so this concept became known as the "Cape to Cairo red line". In the immediate vicinity of the Cape, this ambition was challenged by the presence of independent states to the north-east of Britain's Cape Colony: there were several Boer Republics, and to the north of these was the Kingdom of Matabeleland, ruled by Lobengula.[2][n 2] Having secured the Rudd Concession on mining rights from Lobengula in October 1888,[4] Rhodes and his British South Africa Company were granted a Royal Charter by Queen Victoria in October 1889.[5] The Company was empowered under this charter to trade with local rulers, form banks, own and manage land, and raise and run a police force. In return for these rights, the Company would govern and develop any territory it acquired, while respecting laws enacted by extant African rulers, and upholding free trade within its borders.[5]

North to the Zambezi; territorial rivalry with Portugal

The projected Company sphere was initially Matabeleland and its immediate neighbours between the Limpopo River and the Zambezi. Portugal's colonies in Angola and Mozambique, coastal territories respectively to the west and east of this general area, were over three centuries old, and Lisbon's alliance with Britain formally dated back to the 1386 Treaty of Windsor. However, the exceedingly lethargic pace of local Portuguese colonisation and development was such that even in the 1880s, Portugal's dominions in Mozambique comprised only a few scattered ports, harbours and plantations, all of which were administered from the island of Mozambique, just north of the Mozambique Channel.[6] Angola differed little, with gigantic tracts of hinterland coming under the largely nominal purview of Portugal's modest colony on the coast.[7]

Rhodes quietly planned to annex some of Mozambique into the Company domain so he could establish a major port at the mouth of the Pungwe River. He thought this might make an ideal sea outlet for his proposed settlement in Mashonaland, the area directly to Matabeleland's north-east where Lobengula held dominion over many Mashona chiefs. Rhodes believed that the Portuguese claim to Mozambique was tenuous enough that he could win much of it without provoking major ire: "the occupation of the Portuguese even along the coast line is in most places merely a paper one," he wrote to Whitehall in late 1889, "and if this has not been recognised by international agreement I think it might be left open."[6] But contrary to Rhodes's opinion, general consensus at the Berlin Conference of 1884–85 had made Portugal's hold over the Mozambican coastline very secure.[6] The Portuguese had expanded inland during the late 1880s, creating Manicaland in the eastern Mashona country. They founded Beira, a port on Rhodes's proposed Pungwe site, in 1890.[6] Portugal issued the so-called "Pink Map" around this time, laying claim to the very corridor of land between Angola and Mozambique that Rhodes desired. The British government issued a firm ultimatum against the Portuguese claims in January 1890; Lisbon swiftly acquiesced and left the area open for the Company's drive north.[7]


The name "Rhodesia"

The Company initially referred to each territory it acquired by its respective name—Mashonaland, Matabeleland and so on—but there was no official term for them collectively. Rhodes preferred the name "Zambesia" while Leander Starr Jameson proposed "Charterland". Many of the first settlers instead called their new home "Rhodesia", after Rhodes; this was common enough usage by 1891 for it to be used in newspapers. In 1892 it was used in the name of Salisbury's first newspaper, The Rhodesia Herald. The Company officially adopted the name Rhodesia in 1895, and three years later the UK government followed suit. "It is not clear why the name should have been pronounced with the emphasis on the second rather than the first syllable," the historian Robert Blake comments, "but this appears to have been the custom from the beginning and it never changed."[8]

Administrative divisions and centres

Matabeleland and Mashonaland, both of which lay south of the Zambezi, were officially referred to collectively as "Southern Rhodesia" from 1898,[8] and formally united under that name in 1901. Meanwhile, the areas to the river's north became North-Western and North-Eastern Rhodesia, which were governed separately, and amalgamated in 1911 to form Northern Rhodesia.[9]

The overall centre of Company administration was Salisbury, which was also the Southern Rhodesian capital. The administrative centre in North-Eastern Rhodesia was Fort Jameson, while in North-Western Rhodesia the capital was Kalomo initially, and Livingstone from 1907. Livingstone became the capital of Northern Rhodesia when the two northern territories joined in 1911, and remained so at the end of Company rule.[10]

Administrative posts, politics and legislature

The head of government in each territory under Company rule was in effect a regional administrator appointed by the Company. In Southern Rhodesia, a ten-man Legislative Council first sat in 1899, originally made up of the administrator himself, five other members nominated by the Company, and four elected by registered voters.[11] The number of elected members rose gradually under Company rule until they numbered 13 in 1920, sitting alongside the administrator and six other Company officials in the 20-member Legislative Council.[12] The Company's Royal Charter was originally due to run out in October 1914,[13] but it was renewed for a further ten years in 1915.[5] Company officials also demanded that Lobengula cease the habitual raids on Mashona villages by Matabele impis (regiments). Enraged by what he perceived as slights against his authority, Lobengula made war on Mashonaland in 1893.[14] Matabele warriors began the wholesale slaughter of Mashonas near Fort Victoria in July that year.[15] The Company organised an indaba (tribal conference) to try to end the conflict, but this failed. The First Matabele War had begun.[15]

In Northern Rhodesia, administration was entirely undertaken by the Company until 1917, when an Advisory Council was introduced, comprising five elected members. This council did little to lighten the Company's administrative burden north of the river, but endured until the end of Company rule.[16]


Railways and the telegraph

The railroad from Salisbury to Umtali—ultimately bound for Beira on the Mozambican coast—opened in 1899.

Chief among the endeavours pursued by the Company during its early years were the construction of railroads and telegraph wires across the territory it governed. These respective arteries of transport and communication, vital both for the successful development of the new country and for the realisation of Rhodes's Cape to Cairo dream, were laid across the previously bare Rhodesian landscape with great speed. Strategically planned, the railways were not intended or expected to turn a profit during their early years; their construction was largely subsidised by the Company. The telegraph line from Mafeking in South Africa reached Salisbury—one third of the way from Cape Town to Cairo—in February 1892. Just under six years later, in December 1897, the Bechuanaland railway from Vryburg reached Bulawayo, making it possible to travel between the Cape and Rhodesia by train.[17]

A narrow gauge railway towards Salisbury from the Mozambican port of Beira was begun by the Portuguese in 1892, and reached the Rhodesian border at Umtali after six years. Umtali and Salisbury were linked in 1899, on a different track gauge; the gauges between Beira and Salisbury were regularised the following year. The Second Boer War then restricted the further extension of the line from Vryburg, but the completion of the Beira–Salisbury railway allowed the importation of materials. Salisbury was connected to Bulawayo and the Cape in 1902.[17] The Vryburg–Bulawayo railway was meanwhile extended up to the Zambezi, and across when the Victoria Falls Bridge opened in 1905. Continuing through North-Western Rhodesia, the railway reached Élisabethville in Katanga—by this time part of the Belgian Congo—in 1910.[18]

Agriculture and land distribution: the rise of Rhodesian tobacco

A steam-tractor in a field. Three men stand beside the machine.
White farming on the Pioneer Citrus Estate, near Umtali, in the 1910s

The Company originally hoped that gold prospecting between the Limpopo and Zambezi rivers would reveal mineral deposits comparable to those of the South African Rand, and indeed acquired its charter in part because its founders convinced Whitehall that a "second Rand" would be found and exploited in what would become Southern Rhodesia, thereby providing more than enough capital to develop the territory without help from London. Though much gold was discovered during the 1890s, these grand expectations were not met. The Company resolved after about a decade that it could not financially sustain its domain through gold mining alone, and therefore shifted its priority to the development of white agriculture.[19]

To maximise the potential of new, white-run farms, the Company launched a wide-scale land settlement programme for white settlers. As part of this drive it reorganised the geographical distribution of native reserve areas, moving the reserves and often reducing them in size where the land was of particularly high quality. To ensure that the white farmers would retain the reliable access to markets that the nascent railway network provided, tribal reserve boundaries in various relevant places were redrawn by the Company to place the railway lines outside. The new hut taxes concurrently compelled black peasants to find paid work, which could be found in the new agricultural industry,[19] though most tribesmen were reluctant to abandon their traditional lifestyles in favour of the capitalist labour market. Managers at farms and mines often had great trouble sourcing sufficient manpower.[20]

Tobacco, initially just one of several crops earmarked for wholesale production, soon emerged as Southern Rhodesia's most prominent agricultural product, though its early development was far from stable: aside from the climactic uncertainties of the unfamiliar country and the mercurial quality of the product, the early industry was cursed by a debilitating boom and bust cycle that continued well into the 1920s. All the same, tobacco endured as the territory's staple crop, while the growers came to dominate Southern Rhodesian politics, holding a majority in the Legislative Council from 1911. Holding considerable political and economic power up to the end of Company rule in 1923, the Southern Rhodesian tobacco industry retained its prominent position for decades afterwards.[19]

Immigration and economic performance

Statue of Rhodes in Bulawayo, 1920s

White immigration to the Company realm was initially modest, but intensified during the 1900s and early 1910s, particularly south of the Zambezi. The economic slump in the Cape following the Second Boer War motivated many white South Africans to move to Southern Rhodesia, and from about 1907 the Company's land settlement programme encouraged more immigrants to stay for good.[21] The Southern Rhodesian mining and farming industries advanced considerably during this period;[22] Southern Rhodesia's annual gold output grew in worth from £610,389 in 1901 to £2,526,007 in 1908.[23] The territory first balanced revenue and expenditure in 1912.[22] There were 12,586 whites in Southern Rhodesia in 1904, and 23,606 in 1911;[22] in 1927, four years after the end of Company rule, the black and white populations in Southern Rhodesia were respectively 922,000 and 38,200.[24]

The white population north of the river was far smaller, with only about 3,000 settlers spread across the 300,000 square miles (780,000 km2) of Northern Rhodesia. In the same area there were roughly a million black people. The whites in Northern Rhodesia were primarily concentrated in the far west, along the railway line between Bulawayo and Élisabethville in the Belgian Congo. A community of about 250 lived in the vicinity of Fort Jameson near the eastern border. In between were vast swathes of largely uninhabited bush, which lacked roads, railways and telegraph lines, making communication between the two white communities very difficult. The amalgamation of North-Western and North-Eastern Rhodesia in 1911 did little to improve the situation. Northern Rhodesia suffered as the result of its artificial nature—the country was not homogeneous in terms of population, history or geography—and unlike Southern Rhodesia, it never turned a profit or became self-supporting. During 1921 alone, the Company's administration of Northern Rhodesia lost it more than £1.25 million.[16]

Policing north of the Zambezi

North-Eastern Rhodesia was initially policed by locally recruited rank-and-filers, led by white officers from south of the river; the first force was raised in 1896. During its early years it busied itself eliminating the slave trade, in which foreign traders, mostly Arabs, captured villagers for sale as slaves overseas.[25] A more regular police force was then introduced by the Company in each of the northern territories. Because there were so few white immigrants to North-Eastern Rhodesia—and because most of them were men of the church or of business rather than potential recruits—the North-Eastern Rhodesia Constabulary was almost exclusively black, including all of its non-commissioned officers.[26]

North-Western Rhodesia attracted more white immigrants than its north-eastern counterpart, and its police force initially comprised an all-white detachment of Company police seconded from Southern Rhodesia. The unit proved expensive to maintain, however, and many of its constables fell victim to the unfamiliar tropical diseases of Barotseland.[26] Local black constables were introduced in 1900 after the Company unsuccessfully attempted to recruit more whites.[25] In 1902, the Barotse Native Police was formed, with Bemba, Ngoni and Ila recruits making up most of the ranks. Minor forces of white policemen were formed in the towns north of the Zambezi.[26]

After North-Western and North-Eastern Rhodesia merged into Northern Rhodesia in 1911, the police forces were amalgamated as the Northern Rhodesia Police (NRP). Like the BSAP, the NRP was effectively a paramilitary rather than civil organisation, with its armed constables receiving martial training under military command. Because they were not trained in the civil manner considered normal in a more developed country, most of them were illiterate. The main purpose of the force during the early 1910s was not to police Northern Rhodesia's towns, but rather to prevent and combat potential uprisings. The constables were also considered suitable for use as soldiers in the bush. It was not a large force; just before the outbreak of the World War I in 1914, it had only 800 personnel.[27]

End of Company rule

1922 Southern Rhodesian government referendum

Sir Charles Coghlan led the Responsible Government Association's campaign for self-government.

In 1917, the Responsible Government Association (RGA) was formed. This party sought self-government for Southern Rhodesia within the Empire, just as Britain had previously granted "responsible government" to its colonies in Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa as a precursor to full dominion status. Sir Charles Coghlan, a lawyer based in Bulawayo, led the RGA from 1919.[28] The RGA opposed the proposed integration of Southern Rhodesia into the Union of South Africa, which had been formed in 1910 by the South Africa Act 1909, Section 150 of which explicitly provisioned for the accession of territories governed by the British South Africa Company. The Company originally stood against Southern Rhodesia's addition, fearing the territory might become dominated by Afrikaners,[29] but abruptly changed its stance when, in 1918, the Privy Council in London ruled that unalienated land in the Rhodesias belonged to the British Crown rather than to the Company. This removed the longstanding stream of Company revenue created by the sale of land.[29]

The loss of this source of income hampered the Company's ability to pay dividends to its shareholders, and caused its development of the Rhodesias to slow. The Company now backed Southern Rhodesia's incorporation into South Africa,[30] hoping its membership in the union could help solve both problems.[29] However, this prospect proved largely unpopular in Southern Rhodesia, where most of the settlers wanted self-government rather than rule from Pretoria, and came to vote for the RGA in large numbers.[29] In the 1920 Legislative Council election, the RGA won ten of the 13 seats contested.[31] A referendum on the colony's future was held on 27 October 1922—at the suggestion of Winston Churchill, then Britain's Colonial Secretary, continuing the initiative of his preprocessor Lord Milner—and responsible government won the day. Just under 60% of voters backed responsible government from a turnout of 18,810; Marandellas was the only district to favour the union option, doing so by 443 votes to 433.[32]

Self-government vs. direct rule

Southern Rhodesia was duly annexed by the Empire on 12 September 1923, and granted full self-government on 1 October the same year.[33] The new Southern Rhodesian government immediately purchased the land from the British Treasury for £2 million.[34] The Company retained mineral rights in the country until 1933, when they were bought by the colonial government, also for £2 million.[35]

The future administration of Northern Rhodesia, a proposition of little economic viability without its southern counterpart, was a burden the Company now endeavoured to rid itself of. Negotiations between the Company and the British government produced a settlement whereby the territory would become a protectorate under Whitehall, with government transferred to the Colonial Office in London, which would henceforth appoint a local governor. The Company would concurrently keep the country's mineral rights, extensive tracts of freehold property, and half the proceeds from future sales of land in what had been North-Western Rhodesia. Northern Rhodesia duly became an Imperial protectorate on 1 April 1924, with Sir Herbert Stanley installed as the inaugural governor. British South Africa Company rule in Rhodesia was thereby ended.[36]

Notes and references


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  1. The Ndebele people's term for themselves in their own language is amaNdebele (the prefix ama- indicating the plural form of the singular Ndebele), whence comes the English term "Matabele". Their language is called isiNdebele, generally rendered "Sindebele" in English.[1] For clarity, consistency and ease of reading, this article uses the term "Matabele" to refer to the people, and calls their language "Sindebele".
  2. In 1890, Lobengula's kingdom was about half a century old. The Matabele had previously made up part of the Zulu Kingdom; Mzilikazi, Lobengula's father, had exiled with his followers by King Shaka around 1823. They initially settled in the Transvaal, becoming known as the Ndebele or Matabele. The arrival of Afrikaners to the area in 1836 precipitated a conflict that saw the Matabele migrate further north in 1838. They established themselves across the Limpopo River, in what henceforth became called Matabeleland. Zulu customs and military traditions endured among the Matabele, as did the Zulu language, which evolved into Sindebele. Lobengula once told an English visitor that "The proper name for my people is Zulu."[3]

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  1. Groenewald 2007, p. 52; Marston 2010, p. v; Stapleton 2011, p. 41
  2. Berlyn 1978, p. 99
  3. Davidson 1988, pp. 99–101, 112–113
  4. Parsons 1993, pp. 179–181
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 Encyclopædia Britannica 2012
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 Rotberg 1988, pp. 304–312
  7. 7.0 7.1 Duignan & Gann 1975, p. 258
  8. 8.0 8.1 Blake 1977, p. 144
  9. Brelsford 1960, p. 619
  10. Hunt 1959, pp. 9, 12, 17
  11. Willson 1963, p. 101
  12. Willson 1963, pp. 111–114
  13. Wessels 2010, p. 18
  14. Ferguson 2004, p. 187
  15. 15.0 15.1 History Society of Zimbabwe 1993, pp. 5–6
  16. 16.0 16.1 Walker 1963, p. 669
  17. 17.0 17.1 Walker 1963, pp. 538, 788–789
  18. Weinthal 1923, p. 726
  19. 19.0 19.1 19.2 Rowe 2001, pp. 65–69
  20. McLaughlin 1980, p. 74
  21. Gann 1958, p. 134
  22. 22.0 22.1 22.2 Walker 1963, p. 664
  23. Gann 1958, p. 133
  24. Wills 1967, p. 371
  25. 25.0 25.1 Gann 1958, p. 69
  26. 26.0 26.1 26.2 Gann 1958, p. 74
  27. Gann 1958, p. 75
  28. Blake 1977, p. 179
  29. 29.0 29.1 29.2 29.3 Wood 2005, p. 8
  30. Okoth 2006, p. 123
  31. Willson 1963, p. 111
  32. Willson 1963, p. 115
  33. Willson 1963, p. 46
  34. Berlyn 1978, p. 103
  35. Blake 1977, p. 213
  36. Gann 1969, pp. 191–192
Online sources
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