'Give the devil [British Colonialism] his due...
I speak of Africa and golden joys'
William Shakespeare in King Henry IV
The decision by Oxford University not to remove Cecil Rhodes' statue
from Oriel College, as demanded by (ironically) African students, is a
rare but welcome move in resisting what has become a perennial effort to
'throw the baby out with the bath water'. Why?
The one-sided narrative about the "evils" of British colonialism in Africa -
the slave trade and natural resource exploitation - has not only
overshadowed the many lasting contributions which Britain made in the
former colonies. To many British people it has also turned imperial history
into a source of national shame and revulsion. But was British colonialism
in Africa such a one-sided episode?
As a Ugandan-born British citizen, born in the twilight of the British
Protectorate government, I can provide no better answer to that question
than by borrowing William Shakespeare's typically British fair-minded
comment, "give the devil his due" (King Henry IV).
Some atrocities were certainly committed in Africa, though nowhere near
the scale of what happened during the British colonisation of North
America. But it was also the same British Protectorate colonial government,
acting through its unsung heroes, the colonial administrators, which built
and maintained the local water bore-hole, health clinic, school and college
which gave me the priceless opportunity to live, learn and become a
commercial pilot, chief flight simulator instructor and later an independent
parliamentary candidate in the UK's 2010 general election.
Millions in my generation and the ones before including the post
independence leaders also owe their achievements to British colonial rule
despite their public denunciations of colonialism. I will call some witnesses
to posthumously give testimony on how British colonialism changed
Uganda and other former African colonies for the better.
First, my own great-great-uncle Yakobo (Jacob) Adoko, who was the chief
of the Lango people, said in The Life of Yakobo Adoko1 "a tribal chief's
work before the British came was about war...he would send his sons with
spears to warn the people to be on their guard and ready for war... I learnt
how to read and write from the British officers, and I kept at my studies until
the CMS missionaries started teaching people in 1914."
Another witness, Lord Lugard, one of the earliest British administrators in
Uganda, said, "when I arrived in 1890, Uganda was a land divided by
violent internal divisions, and during the early months of my residence the
war-drums sounded and the rival factions faced each other in their
thousands, not once, or twice, or even thrice" (Uganda by H.B. Thomas).
Yet another witness, John Gunther, wrote in Inside Africa2 that, "by 1900
Uganda was ravaged by bubonic plague, malaria, tuberculosis, leprosy,
bilharzia, tropical ulcers and sleeping sickness, which were claiming
thousands of lives every year....but by 1934 Uganda had hospitals in all
major centres and eighty-eight dispensaries in rural areas, which recorded
1,378,545 attendees during the year."
My final witness is Sir Andrew Cohen, former head of Africa Division of the
Colonial Office and later Governor of Uganda in 1952-1957. In his book,
British policy in Changing Africa3, he wrote, "the leaders of the anti-slavery
movement saw that the abolition was not enough; they looked to the
spread of the Christian way of life and to the development of legitimate
trade to repair the damage done by slavery."
He continued, "Trade with Africans was not felt by the humanitarians to be
a form of exploitation, but just the reverse; they believed that it would help
to liberate Africans. It was the same motive which in a later period led
colonial administrators to press cash crops such as coffee and cotton on
the conservative peasants...but training the people to run their own
countries has, I believe, been the main distinguishing characteristic of
British administration in Africa."
These testimonies were corroborated by the 1951 Progress in Uganda
Protectorate report, which showed that, "the fifth year of the development decennium has been one of steady progress in all areas especially
Education, Health, Agriculture, Rural Water Supplies, Housing programme,
Electricity development, Public works, Railways and Harbours and Tsetse
And in July 1961, a year before independence, the Protectorate Chief
Minister wrote a Memorandum in which he said, "it should be realised that
the facilities we have to train our people at Makerere are quite inadequate...
This being the case, I propose to ask Council at the next meeting to
approve the plan to offer as many as 300 scholarships this year. These
students are going to England but also to different other countries in order
to prepare to take over the administration at independence",
(Administrators in East Africa4, by B.L. Jacobs).
Today, politics apart, Uganda is a modern nation state. Most diseases
except malaria are under control, millions of Ugandans can read and write,
and many continue to qualify as doctors, engineers, lawyers, accountants
and other professionals working in Uganda and around the world. British
colonialism and 'social responsibility' seems to have been two sides of the
Crucially, Britain's social responsibility in Africa did not end with
decolonisation almost sixty years ago. Today, the UK remains a leading
contributor to development and humanitarian work, funding several NGOs
that are providing vital basic health, education, clean water and emergency
This continued commitment to development and humanitarian work
strongly suggests that exploitation was not the sole motive of British
colonialism in Africa. Rather, it was also the beginning of African-British
friendship underpinned by common language, education, legal and
parliamentary systems and many other modern values. "I speak of Africa
and golden joys - thanks to colonialism", William Shakespeare might have
written in King Henry IV.
1. Thomas, H.B. Uganda Uganda Society Journal, September 1957↩
2. Gunther, John Inside Africa (1955, republished by Beaufort Books 1987)
3. Cohen, Sir Andrew British policy in Changing Africa (1955, republished by Beaufort Books 1987)
4. Jacobs, B.L. Administrators in East Africa (Government Printer, Uganda 1965)