In 1889 the British South Africa Company (mercantile company, based in London), organized by Cecil Rhodes, obtained a charter to promote commerce and colonization in the region. The company was empowered to treat with African rulers such as King Lobengula; to form banks; to own, manage and grant or distribute land, and to raise a police force (the British South Africa Police). In return, the company agreed to develop the territory it controlled; to respect existing African laws; to allow free trade within its territory and to respect all religions.

Starr Jameson, an associate of Rhodes, led a column of South African and British pioneers deep into the interior, where they founded Fort Salisbury in 1890. Fighting in 1893 resulted in the defeat of the local natives and the takeover of their territory by Rhodes’s company. The settlers pressed the company for political rights, and in 1914 the British government renewed the company’s charter on the condition that self-government be granted to the settlers by 1924.

In 1922, the company entered negotiations with the government of the Union of South Africa, which was keen to take over the territory - a plan foiled by the colony's settlers, who voted against incorporation with South Africa. In 1923, Britain chose not to renew the BSA Co's charter, and instead accorded 'self-governing' colony status to Southern Rhodesia (today, Zimbabwe) and protectorate status to Northern Rhodesia (today, Zambia).

The BSAC was not able to generate enough profit to pay its shareholders dividends until after it lost direct administrative control over Rhodesia in 1923. In 1933, the BSAC sold its mineral exploration rights south of the Zambezi to the Southern Rhodesian government, but retained rights over Northern Rhodesian mineral rights, as well as the company's vast interests in mining, railways, real estate and agriculture across southern Africa.

In 1964, the company was forced to hand over its mineral rights to the government of Zambia, and the following year, the British South Africa Company merged with the Central Mining & Investment Corporation Ltd and The Consolidated Mines Selection Company Ltd to form a mining and industrial company known as Charter Consolidated Ltd, of which slightly over one-third of the shares were owned by the British/South African mining company Anglo American plc.