British Empire Article


Courtesy of OSPA


by R.E.N. Smith
Checking the Books
Devonshire Course, 1948/9
As a humble Probationer Cadet I attended the First Devonshire Course at Oxford and London in 1948-49. This, the last of the long courses, was intended to prepare me and other hopefuls in all the essentials of a District Officer's life and works, and on the whole it succeeded quite well. It was perhaps rather biased towards West Africa in general and Nigeria in particular (one lonely unfortunate rose to his feet and cheered on the only occasion the Gilbert and Ellice Islands were mentioned), but the content was on the whole sufficiently catholic to suit most tastes. Many grey-haired veterans will remember with affection the lively and hilarious lectures in criminal law from that ace of dais performers. Professor Davidge, and Mr Longland's detailed and solid lectures on simple engineering, illustrated by almost incomprehensible sketches drawn on newsprint. Looking at the lecture list I see that we studied Colonial Government, Religion and Administration, the Law of Evidence and Tort, Land Utilization, Problems of the British Empire, Land Tenure and Native Law, Imperial Economic History, Geography, Social Anthropology, Forestry, and the other two already mentioned, Criminal Law and Field Engineering. After Oxford we went on (with the Cambridge course members) to a joint five-month course at SOAS and LSE (where we were known derisively and unlovingly as the "White Masters") and here we studied not only the language of the territory for which we were destined, but also its geography, history, agriculture and economics. The eighteen month course covered a formidable breadth of study but the one thing missing was training in the most practical and vital basic subject that would bedevil us all from the moment of our arrival in any district in any colony.

I am referring to simple book-keeping; from my earliest days as a very junior ADC at Port Herald in Nyasaland to my more mature years as Senior District Commissioner in the Gilbert and Ellice Islands, I had ample opportunity to bemoan my lack of basic book-keeping skills. In 1950 there I was, green but keen, foot-slogging from one Native Authority Headquarters to the next, followed by an impressive train of porters carrying my tent and baggage in the most romantic Sanders of the River style, but coming face to face with reality on arrival at the chief's court, where I found myself struggling to check the Court Clerk's accounts for both the court and the Native Authority itself. Twenty years and more later, there I still was, sailing the wide Pacific in the best Grimble manner, from one Island Council office to the next, endeavouring to make sense of their receipts and expenditure and trying to produce annual budgets. In the interim I had perforce learned a great deal, but it would have helped if I had been trained in book-keeping to begin with.

I suppose that basic accounting is really very simple, but as the years have gone by, colonial accounting seems to have become more abstruse and complicated. I came across an ancient and long superceded system in Nyasaland that I still feel has much to commend it in unsophisticated societies. On the upper back verandah of the four roomed Boma in Port Herald, an appallingly hot building stinking of old and new bat droppings and plagued with the largest mosquitoes in Africa, was a stack of abandoned ancient court records. As the DC (himself new to the job) tried to keep all the reins in his own hands and gave me far too little to do (a kindness bad for both my education and my reputation), I found myself studying not only the obligatory volumes of the Colony's Laws but also the old records.

These were fascinating in the insight they gave to the administration of the district in the days when district officers were often locally recruited; not that these officers were necessarily inferior to their successors, but they were often men of strong character, with a chequered history and highly individualistic habits. From the court books it seemed that the bane of their workaday lives was the ineradicable habit of the local African of picking up his spear and going walkabout - usually down to South Africa or Rhodesia for work. There was no official disapproval of this practice (except insofar as it deprived the country of the man's "hut" tax), but the travellers were supposed to obtain a pass to leave the country. Never greatly impressed by the magic of Western legal thinking, the requirement was generally ignored by Africans, and the DCs of old appear to have spent much time in court fining the offenders ten shillings or a pound for their delinquency.

Now this is where the accounting was solved by a stroke of genius. In my time there would have to have been a clerk or three, receipt books in triplicate or quadruplicate, and pages of accounts, the money then paid into the treasury and yet more accounting carried out and columns of figures balanced and reconciled with the receipts, with many possibilities (too often seized upon) for chicanery. In the bad old days the DC as District Magistrate heard the case in his court room (another name for his office), entered it in his court case book in longhand, and then sent the offender down to the Post Office, which, together with an enormous and steadily growing termite mound, occupied one of the Boma's other three rooms. There he would buy a stamp for the amount of his fine, take it back to the DC, who would then ceremonially stick it alongside the court record, obliterate it with his office "District Magistrate" stamp and that was that. The only actual accounting was done by the Post Office clerk, who had to balance his own accounts however many or how few stamps he sold, and, even if so inclined, he could not pass off a ten-bob stamp as a pound one, as it had to go back to the court record. The process was simplicity itself, and I still cannot see any flaw in it. The court record said "Fined 1 Pound", there was the 1 pound stamp, duly cancelled, alongside it - and no mass of receipt books to be checked - the court record said it all. The only document the auditor needed was the court record, and he merely checked that each "fine" entry had the appropriate cancelled stamp alongside it, as an army of green ink ticks testified. Perhaps the system was too simple and too foolproof, for any self-respecting and ambitious assistant financial secretary could easily dream up a more complicated one, and be on his way to great heights in the colonial hierarchy. Innovation, however unnecessary, can be sold to one's superiors if you wear the right air of modest omniscience, infer that the inspiration came from them in the first place, and promotion is yours!

A Course of Fun
by B. D. Wilson (Hong Kong 1948-83)
The article "Checking the Books" by R. E. N. Smith, wherein he bemoaned the failure of the First Devonshire Course in 1948-9 to include book-keeping, put me in mind of my time on the previous Devonshire Course in 1948. We were a relaxed group of over 100 lads, mostly wartime ex- Service, impatient to be done with lectures and to get on with the job in our respective territories. At Oxford one of our number, a humourless young man who tried to press his Communist views on lecturers, ceased to appear one day and was presumed to have been quietly sacked. An amiable African on the course said he found the content unappealing and dropped out.

The vast majority of us were destined for African territories and this was reflected in the content of the lectures. One man named Coffin was going to a Pacific territory, giving rise to a string of jokes about cannibals, big cooking pots, and deadly diseases. Donald Luddington (later Sir Donald and Governor of the Solomon Islands) and I were due to go to Hong Kong. For me, this choice of destination was somewhat round-about. Having been born in Penang, I had opted for the Malayan Civil Service, but was instead offered Uganda. Finding that Uganda was well inland and far from the coast, I asked the Colonial Office to reconsider. They offered Hong Kong. I looked it up on the map, thought it sounded all right, and said "yes".

At the London School of Economics, Donald and I grew increasingly bored with the continual stream of lectures on Africa. Its colonial history, anthropology, economics, and geography were of little interest to us. We complained, and were told that special arrangements would be made for us to learn about the administration of a comparable waterfront community. This consisted of attending a meeting of the Stepney Borough Council which turned out to be a splendid slanging match between Councillors, vying with each other in invective and insults. The politest Councillor present was a West Indian.

The other students at the USE were almost all younger than ourselves, perhaps less mature and certainly more prone to silly ideas. Notice-boards and corridors were plastered with posters on the lines of Hands off Malaya, Down with Colonialism, Freedom for All. The Devonshire men felt themselves a cut above this nonsense, believing that our job in our posted territory was to educate its people to their own eventual self-government. Needless to say, we made little contact with the remainder of the LSE, although out of curiosity I did attend a lecture by Harold Laski, a well-known leftwinger to the point of communist. To my disappointment, he stuck strictly to the lecture's stated title.

The frustration of the Devonshire men at being back at school when they wanted to get on with the real work in their territory led to increasing bolshiness. One lad who had served in the Coldstream Guards always appeared in a blue suit and a bowler hat. Another was a racing fan and spent his time at lectures reading Raceform over the Sticks. Having made his daily selection, he would discreetly slip out, ostensibly to go to the toilet, in reality to the nearest telephone to place his bets. A group of crossword devotees, with heads down, would get on with the puzzle as if making notes, calling perhaps to neighbours "Have you got 5 across?" "No, but I can help with 10 down if you're stuck". Tired of this lack of attention, one lecturer actually asked us to get our newspapers turned to the right page before the lecture started, as the rustling was too distracting for him. When the lecturer on colonial history described the establishment of African colonial territories as a disgraceful episode, he was roundly booed, much to his surprise. He kept a more discreet tongue thereafter. When the time came for an examination at the end of the course, no one had any worries. We were not competing with each other. We simply passed notes round and whispered answers to those who had paid even less attention than ourselves. One young man felt the need to be fortified during the long hours of the examinations, so he armed himself with numerous bottles of ink (only fountain pens in those days; no ballpoints). But they contained sherry which he was kind enough to share with neighbours.

The one really useful piece of information came from a visiting Colonial official who said that, if you find yourself in some distant posting and you tear off a strip of black velvet, for God's sake send her elsewhere when your DC comes to visit. Otherwise you may be in real trouble.

All this sounds as if we were the most useless bunch of larrikins about to be let loose on an unsuspecting colonial public. In reality, it was nothing of the sort. These were serious young men, but tired of academic study and anxious to get on with the practical side of their chosen profession. The real learning probably came overseas on the job. It's a sad reflection that few of us actually served our full time in HMOCS. The majority probably became redundant in mid-career as their territory reached independence, forcing them to seek other employment, often in a quite different field.

Were we better administrators after completing the Devonshire Course? I doubt it, but ever since I've always enjoyed crossword puzzles.

British Empire Map
British Empire Trade Map
Colony Profile
Nyasaland
Gilbert and Ellice Islands
Originally Published
OSPA Journal 74: October 1997


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