LONDON -- When armed white settlers thrust into southern Africa in 1890 to raise the British flag over a land they named Rhodesia, they were lured by promises of gold beneath the ground and land aplenty above it.
More than 120 years later, the contest for the continent's resources in the land now called Zimbabwe seems undiminished, though China, not Britain, leads the scramble.
And, as the elections last week in Zimbabwe showed, a parallel battle is still being waged, at least in President Robert G. Mugabe's preoccupation -- some might say obsession -- with the decades of colonial and quasi-colonial rule that ended with independence in 1980.
Throughout his tenure, Mr. Mugabe has prevailed, securing his seventh consecutive term in office last week.
Neither his years -- he is 89 -- nor his political foes, nor sanctions imposed by his Western adversaries in London, Washington and elsewhere have been able to end the increasingly personalized and autocratic rule he has secured through a blend of guile, an iron fist and what his critics call a lust for power.
"Robert Mugabe has survived for so long because he is more clever and more ruthless than any other politician in Zimbabwe," the former U.S. ambassador in Harare, Christopher W. Dell, said in a confidential 2007 cable made public by the WikiLeaks anti-secrecy group.
From another perspective, the outcome of Zimbabwe's election -- labeled as flawed by London and Washington -- showed the constraints on postimperial power and, more broadly, the limits of the West's ability to bend defiant regimes from North Korea to Syria to its will.
But Mr. Mugabe's survival has again conjured the conflicted and intimate flavor of his relationship with Britain, profoundly hostile and yet marked by what the late Heidi Holland, a biographer, called "the peculiar intensity of a family quarrel."
The Zimbabwean leader, for instance, is said to admire Britain's royal family, and is wont to use the regal "we" in speaking of himself. He upholds British traditions, like afternoon tea, but accuses Britain of harboring neocolonial ambitions. "I've thought about retirement, but not when the British are saying, 'We want regime change,"' he said before the vote. "I won't be changed by the British."
The ties that bind European powers to their former African possessions are often a tangle of resentment, selfinterest, guilt, dependence and emulation, shaded by the dictates of realpolitik.
France, for instance, has long practiced a muscular neocolonialism, underpinned by the deployment of its troops, most recently on a relatively large scale to repulse an Islamist advance in Mali.
Even though it has sent forces to Sierra Leone, Afghanistan and Iraq, however, Britain has never been prepared to risk a similar military campaign in southern Africa.
Yet, by imputing continued colonial aspirations to Britain, Mr. Mugabe has been able to harness Africa's deep-rooted resentment of foreign dominance, casting his political survival as part of the elemental contest between slave and master, rather than as one more skirmish in the war of democracy versus tyranny portrayed by his enemies.
"More than many other African leaders," wrote the filmmaker Roy Agyemang, who made an award-winning documentary about the Zimbabwean leader last year, "Mugabe draws cheers across the continent."
The origins of Britain's fraught relationship with Mr. Mugabe long predate the Lancaster House conference that Britain convened in London in 1979 to broker a settlement after seven years of guerrilla warfare, during which Mr. Mugabe led the biggest of two rival insurgent forces.
Citing the Maoist adage that political power flows from the barrel of a gun, he showed little interest in ending the war. Britain, for its part, acknowledged that Mr. Mugabe and his armed followers could not be ignored, but it sought to blunt his claim on exclusive power through constitutional provisions that some in London hoped would sideline him.
The British miscalculated.
In the elections in 1980, Mr. Mugabe won outright victory. When the Union Jack flag the settlers had lofted in 1890 was finally lowered, it was Mr. Mugabe who officiated at the handover of power from Prince Charles.
In those early years, the seeds of bitterness between London and Harare, sown under white rule, spread their dark blooms.
Even as British advisers trained the bulk of a new national army, elements of the separate, North Korean-trained Fifth Brigade started a murderous spree against Mr. Mugabe's ethnic foes in the western Matabeleland region, killing thousands. Britain looked on, powerless.
"There is a limit to what this country can do to impose its will," Britain's former foreign secretary, Geoffrey Howe, said later, "and to some extent a greater limit in an ex-colony with an extremely sensitive government."
But there was also a phenomenon that Ms. Holland called Britain's "unresolved colonial feelings" of condescension and hostility toward Mr. Mugabe, contributing to "postcolonial toxicity on both sides."
Promises of land reform enshrined at Lancaster House went unredeemed. Indeed, Mr. Mugabe initially seemed to seek an accommodation with the country's 4,500 white farmers while Britain did little to redress the huge imbalances in land ownership before the explosion of farm expropriations ordered by the Zimbabwean leader starting in 2000.
Last week, Britain greeted Mr. Mugabe's victory with what Foreign Secretary William Hague called "grave concern" over the conduct and credibility of the vote.
But his remarks served to highlight the ambivalence of British perceptions blending revulsion at Mr. Mugabe's tyranny with frustrated impotence toward the corruption, economic decline and brutality that have been the hallmark of his tenure.
"There may be little that Britain can do," wrote the columnist Stephen Glover in the conservative Daily Mail, "but William Hague should at least speak like a decent human being appalled by the activities of a man who was put into power by a British government and has caused so much suffering to a once bountiful country."
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.