The British South Africa Company (BSAC or BSACo) was established following the amalgamation of Cecil Rhodes' Central Search Association and the London-based Exploring Company Ltd which had originally competed to exploit the expected mineral wealth of Mashonaland but united because of common economic interests and to secure British government backing. The company received a Royal Charter in 1889 modelled on that of the British East India Company. Its first directors included the Duke of Abercorn, Rhodes himself and the South African financier Alfred Beit. Rhodes hoped BSAC would promote colonisation and economic exploitation across much of south-central Africa, as part of the "Scramble for Africa". However, his main focus was south of the Zambezi, in Mashonaland and the coastal areas to its east, from which he believed the Portuguese could be removed by payment or force, and in the Transvaal, which he hoped would return to British control.
It has been suggested that Rhodes' ambition was to create a zone of British commercial and political influence from "Cape to Cairo", but this was far beyond the resources of any commercial company to achieve and would not have given investors the financial returns they expected. BSAC was created in the expectation that the gold fields of Mashonaland would provide funds for the development of other areas of Central Africa, including the mineral wealth of Katanga. When the expected wealth of Mashonaland did not materialise and Katanga was acquired by the Congo Free State, the company had little money left after building railways for significant development, particularly in areas north of the Zambezi. BSAC regarded its lands north of the Zambezi as territory to be held as cheaply as possible for future, rather than immediate, exploitation.
As part of administering Southern Rhodesia until 1923 and Northern Rhodesia until 1924, BSAC formed what were originally paramilitary forces, but which later included more normal police functions. In addition to the administration of Southern and Northern Rhodesia, BSAC claimed extensive landholdings and mineral rights in both the Rhodesias and, although its land claims in Southern Rhodesia were nullified in 1918, its land rights in Northern Rhodesia and its mineral rights in Southern Rhodesia had to be bought out in 1924 and 1933 respectively, and its mineral rights in Northern Rhodesia lasted until 1964. BSAC also created the Rhodesian railway system and owned the railways there until 1947.