British Empire Article


Courtesy of OSPA


by Anthony Kirk-Greene
The colonial governor, no longer so readily met in Government House or even the Athenaeum, is today making a notable comeback in the literature. The most complete factual guide remains David Henige's Colonial Governors (1970), an indispensable record of 'who was who' among colonial governors across the world from the 15th to the 20th century. This, however, does not set out to be more than a list, primarily for quick reference, of names and the dates of holding office.

Following my 1980 Biographical Dictionary of the British Colonial Governor, Vol I: Africa (it may now be confessed that the reason Vol II never saw the light of day was because a cost-conscious publisher balked at my calculations that up to a third of the non-African colonial governors already featured in Vol I due to their one-time African connections), today, in the 21st century, the colonial governor has earned a distinguished place in the new (2004) Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (ODNB).

The ODNB carries entries on more than fifty colonial governors who died before 2000, all authoritative in basic biographical details and each enhanced with narrative accounts of the subject's career, along with a critical attempt to put his record in an evaluatory perspective. Every entry averages some 1,250 words but extending to twice that in the case of a few 'giants' like Malcolm Macdonald and reaching 5,000 for the venerable Lugard and has been written by an invited and signed specialist. Besides the many new entries, none which appeared in the original 33 volume DNB has been dropped, though all these have been revised. In some cases the narrative profile is accompanied by a photograph. In our Colonial Service context, members will be glad to find entries also for such 'honorary members' as Sir Ralph Purse and Dame Margery Perham. My only complaint (it would be, wouldn't it?) is the Oxford University Press's solecistic disregard for the exactitude and common social observance of hyphenated surnames, so that Arden-Clarke, quite illiterately, is listed under Clarke, Wyn-Harris as Harris and Sharwood-Smith as Smith.

Covering 2,400 years of Britain's history, published in 60 volumes at #7,500 and taking up as much as eleven feet of shelf-space, with 50,000 biographies and 10,000 contributors, it will come as a relief to learn that the ODNB is also available by annual subscription to individuals and institutions on line at www.oxforddnb.com providing desktop access to every biographical entry. In their creation of people who "have shaped all aspects of British history", the editors reckon that the ODNB outlines "the life story of Britain".

Also appearing in the opening years of the new century are two studies of linked interest. The first examines the pedigrees of Britain's top diplomats to Africa during the period since independence. The second study offers a career analysis of what I once labelled Britain's 'post-colonial colonial governors', that is to say the latter-day governors of Britain's overseas territories appointed by the ECO following the landmark closure of the Colonial Office in 1966 (rather than the largely symbolic date of 1997 when the Colonial Service officially ended, following the handback of Hong Kong).

In Accredited to Africa: the British Diplomatic Representation and African Experience (Diplomacy and Statecraft, 2004, 11, 79-128) I examine the career chronologies of every British Head of Mission to 19 independent African States between c.1960 ('independence') and 1995, setting out to identify the often-prized and one-time virtually indispensable qualification of "African experience" among the 200 or so appointments made by the ECO to Ambassador or High Commissioner to an African country during this period. What the detailed tables of biodata also reveal, maybe surprisingly to some but not to most OSPA members, is the sizeable number of former DOs who, having gained admission into the Diplomatic Service when their CO career came to an end, concluded their 'second career' in a top FCO post in Africa.

On the related theme of charting the careers of Britain's overseas representatives on a wider canvas than Africa alone, D G P Taylor has recently published a profoundly researched and exceptionally interesting article, The Pedigrees of Post-Colonial Governors, 1966-2003 (Diplomacy and Statecraft, 2006, 17, 425-446). His focus is on the previous experience of those appointed by the FCO to governorships in Britain's "Dependent Territories", restyled "Overseas Territories" in 1997. Based on dedicated research into the FCO files, he examines how the FCO thought about and handled the appointment of some 100 'post-colonial governors', a process now calling for very different representational responsibilities and personal requirements from those obtaining in the CO territories before 1966. In particular, Taylor asks how appropriate the prior experience of the post-colonial governor has been in the FCO's assessment of his suitability for an appointment to an overseas territory, during the period 1966-2003. "How far", he asks, "has the FCO come to terms with the difference in the nature of appointment and what sort of people have been appointed?" Once again, what is at issue is the relevance of the definition of and the need for "previous experience" in the FCO's selection criteria and how appropriate that experience turned out to be in the tasks which the governor was required to perform. Hence Taylor's underlying thematic question of "What sort of people have been appointed?". He is particularly strong in his account of the post-1966 FCO system for selecting its governors of overseas territories and in his interpretation of the evolving policy background against which such appointments have been made. On the Colonial Service impact Taylor notes that as many as one third of the governors appointed from within the Diplomatic Service had been colonial administrators at some stage in their careers. It is to be regretted that in research terms the publishers have woefully undermined the value of this first-class article by failing to include the critical tables of meticulously gathered biodata from which Taylor's interpretations derive and on which his conclusions are based.

Overall, then, for the present generation of post-imperial historians such variables as the background, career, mission, local achievements and political challenges, the biographical presentation and the ultimate interpretation of the colonial governor, all continue to reflect in - and maybe colour - the portrayal of Britain's 20th century history. On the wider picture, such presentations are equally valid in helping the former colonial territories and their citizens to fashion their view of their country's history in the 20th century. As the new (2007) school curriculum proposals aptly put it, "people and societies involved in the same historical event may have different experiences and views and develop a variety of stories, version, opinions and interpretations of that event". Today, forty years after the closing of the Colonial Office, the literature on the CO's colonial governors and now the FCO's post-colonial governors and heads of mission is significantly enriched by the biographical profiles and analyses described in this article.

Colonial Governors
Colonial governors from the fifteenth century to the present: A comprehensive list,
Originally Published
OSPA Journal 93: April 2007


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