Review by Nigel O Durdant-Hollamby
(District Commissioner, Tanganyika 1949-62)
Donald Barton's dedicated account of his work as a District Officer certainly answers
the question posed by members of his family circle who wanted to know exactly
what he did in Tanganyika. It is a graphic description of his career in HM Colonial
Service and is a welcome addition to the range of memoirs published by other members
of the service. It was clearly a strong sense of duty for him to write it and it must now
occupy pride of place in the Barton archives.
Those of us who were in the Provincial Administration cannot fail to be impressed by
the wealth of detail he has recorded; it is almost as if he has had access even now to
copies of various monthly reports he prepared for, firstly, his District Commissioner,
and, subsequently, when he became a DC himself, for his Provincial Commissioner. He
captures vividly the feeling we all have for Tanganyika and reminds us of its warmth,
sunshine, blue skies, starry nights and the smells of the country but also of the trials and
tribulations which we encountered, took for granted and overcame.
His appreciation from personal experience of the pivotal and challenging role of the
DC is of considerable interest. One remembers, probably, one's first prep school headmaster, college tutor and Commanding Officer but always one's first DC. Donald
knows that noblesse oblige was an essential element in the DC's character. Additionally
he is aware that as the CO in the field of the District the DC had to deal with all visiting
notables and, inevitably, had to shoulder the responsibility of office and cope with the
loneliness of command. Satisfying for the born leaders but a trial for those not blessed
with the evident stamp of authority.
Donald's concentration on the DO's multifarious job marks him out, I believe, to be
an idealist who gave his all, mainly, to the likeable African peasant farmer. As such he
could not, like a number of us, be described as empirical in outlook. The scant
recognition he seems to accord the efforts of the European settlers, Greeks, Asian and
Arabs in the development of the country rather confirms this opinion. This is
understandable in his case as the districts he served in contained only a small non-native
population. His skill, however, in handling Tanganyika's problems at district level was
recognised deservedly when, in company with a selected group of us, he was invited in
1971 to the country's tenth anniversary of independence celebrations.
I like the fitting tribute paid by him to his wife, Sylvia, and the praise he has for the
various colleagues in the local Civil Service with whom he worked. Such consideration
is well-received when made but is often overlooked.
An enjoyable book especially for old African hands and their kin and a fine factual
account of kazi ya Bwana Shauri (the work of the District Officer).
Review by Terry Barringer
in Africa Research & Documentation No. 96 2004
This is the latest in a line of Colonial Service memoirs to be reviewed in ARD
and one of the best. Not too long, easy reading but carefully written with
regard to accuracy and relevance (Donald Barton acknowledges the help of
noted scholars Tony Kirk-Greene, Colin Baker and John Iliffe), nicely
illustrated with sketch maps, pen and ink drawings and photographs. An
Affair with Africa can be recommended to the newcomer to the genre and to
anyone interested in the Colonial Service role in twentieth-century Africa. It is
not overloaded with acronyms or Swahili terms and explanatory footnotes
neatly provide any necessary explanations. There is a useful index. The
introduction begins with the words ''No-one with an interest in British
colonial history will need to be told what a District Officer was, but others may
appreciate a brief description." As someone who has read a great many
accounts of and by District Officers, I still appreciated the succinctness, clarity
and flavour of Barton's account. It is worth quoting one and a half paragraphs
"The DO was very much a colonial creation, there had been no
comparable role in Britain since late medieval times. He was an expedient
rather than a model, but - important in a poor coimtry - cheap in relation
to his wide range of duties. Where did a DO's loyalty lie, and to whom
was he accountable? In denigrating colonialism the critics usually fail to
distinguish between the acquisition and retention of colonies on one hand
and the process of disengagement foreshadowed for Africa in the early
1920's albeit not perceptibly begun until after the 1939-45 war, when it
accelerated. They also tend to assume unanimity and complicity between
Westminster, Whitehall, territorial governments, and the administrator in
the field; this was by no means the case. We were not employed by the
Colonial Office in London but by the government of the country in which
we served, a government which had considerable discretion to act and
legislate on its own account. It was answerable to the British Government
and increasingly its own people. Similarly the DO was accountable to his
territorial government, but also in varying degrees, albeit informally, to
the people of his own district; the welfare of his people in his district was
usually a major preoccupation. To this extent most of us 'went native',
with a strong inclination to respond to or advance local needs and
priorities. This is not of course entirely true, but it is a fair generalisation; we were not merely agents of a distant government in Europe.
"The events described in this narrative are a record of one DO's
experiences in Tanganyika; they will not have been precisely replicated
elsewhere but were of a kind familiar to any DO who served anywhere in
British colonial Africa. Most of the incidents were directly related to work,
but I have also tried to convey something of the flavour of domestic and
social life in a rural district."
Donald Barton begins with reminiscences of Empire Day at his elementary
school. As a teenager his imagination was captivated by Kenneth Bradley's
Diary of a District Officer and various "ripping yams" with an exotic and
Colonial setting and he made an early enquiry to the Colonial Service. After
the army and a geography degree at Oxford, he was, unlike many recruits,
allocated to his first choice - Tanganyika. He had an inauspicious start -
straight off the boat and into hospital at Dar es Salaam for an emergency
appendectomy. He enjoyed all his postings in Tanganyika 1952-1961:
Manyoni, Kondoa, Lindi, Masasi, Ukerewe.
Some incidents stand out. I particularly enjoyed Barton's account of
organising inter-school sports to celebrate the coronation, an experience that
taught him a great deal "including the fact that there is not necessarily any
direct relationship between the complexity of an occasion and its importance."
He makes the point, that I have not seen elsewhere, that the coronation
happened in Ramadan and so the queen's many Moslem subjects were
excluded from feasting. Fasting also put Moslem lads at a distinct
disadvantage on the sports field.^ There are some unforgettable vignettes - a
formidable lady missionary from Australia before whom a tough DO fled in
terror, the "passionate pop" (Passionist Father) Valentino, famous for his
homemade brews and homemade cheeses, the very bald and puzzled Arab
trying to claim the fifteenth prize in a raffle: a permanent wave at the Maison
Chloe in Dar. There is a story of how a local police inspector got away with
murder most foul and some trenchant remarks on the relationship between
law, justice and truth in the Tanganyikan context. Attitudes and atmosphere
in the run-up to independence are also well evoked.
He is generous in his appreciation of African staff and colleagues - domestic
staff, up and coming African civil servants and especially the District Office
Messengers (a group which are crying out for a full length study of their own).
There is also a lack of comparative studies bringing in the colonial services of
other European powers. Barton has a short but telling account of his visit to his
opposite number just over the Ruvuma in Portuguese East Africa.
After Tanganyika, Barton worked for the British Council with postings in
Nigeria, Malaysia and Afghanistan. Let us hope he will be persuaded to write
another volume on his second career.
Review by John Cooper-Poole
in Tanzanian Affairs September 2004
Memoirs by former Colonial Service officers replete with tales of witchcraft and exciting encounters with wildlife are not uncommon, and probably fairly easy to write. In this case the author goes much further and tries to answer such questions as "yes, but what did these chaps actually do for their living, and why and how did they do it?"
Don Barton joined the Colonial Administrative Service in 1951 and after attending the First Devonshire Course at Oxford was posted to Tanganyika in 1952, where he served until 1961. During that time he had postings in Manyoni, Kondoa, Lindi and Masasi and finally Ukerewe.
The author's feel for place results in vivid description, not just of views and sights, but of tastes and smells. That pervasive smell of bat droppings above ceilings, for example. He also shows us the day to day work of administration at District level, and the impetus which lay behind it, and gives a good insight into the diversity of matters with which young officers had to deal, including much which was routine or plain boring. This insight into the work of the young District Officer gives the book an historical value which such memoirs do not always have. The reproduction of the letter from Julius Nyerere to the author, and presumably other officers, begging them to stay on after independence would alone give the book an historical interest.
There are interesting insights into family life. Very special qualities were needed by the wives of colonial service officers. The early years of their marriages were marked by long separations and the difficulties of bringing up young children in remote places. A lot could (and should?) be written about the way they spent their time.
The book is well illustrated. There are interesting and relevant photographs and attractive drawings by Don and his daughter, Nicola, as well as maps.
The author was initially attracted to the idea of a Colonial Service career by reading Kenneth Bradley's "Diary of a District Officer" at the age of sixteen. If there were still a Colonial Service this book would surely attract other youngsters to join it. As it is, it is a very enjoyable read, while being also a document of considerable historical interest. Thoroughly recommended.
Review by John Mayatt
in 'An Affiair With Africa' Don Barton gives a graphic and absorbing account of his life as a District Officer in Tanganyika for the last decade of Britain's trusteeship of that country. The framework of
his story is established through an explanation of the role of District Officers, and District
Commissioners, an account of how he came to join the Colonial Service and an evocative
description of the Union Castle sea passage from Silvertown in London's docklands to Dar es
Salaam, by way of the Suez canal, Before reaching the moment of departure he, like other
entrants, spent a year at Oxford on the First Devonshire Course where an extensive list of
subjects had to be studied; administration, law, accounting, tropical agriculture, forestry. East
African history, economics and development Islamic history and theology and a course in basic
surveying and construction - and the important subject of language, which for Don was Swahili. A
wide ranging introduction course - giving an idea of just how much was expected of British
During their ten years in Tanganyika, Donald and Sylvia Barton were stationed in the centre
[Manyoni and Kondoa], the south [Lindi and Masasi - on the edge of the enormous Selous Game
Reserve] and finally in the north [Ukerewe on Lake Victoria] - being in each of these districts for
roughly equal intervals of time. It was in these places that hie carried out all the duties required of
a District Officer - implementing Tanganyika Government policies, maintaining law and order [all
British D.O's were local magistrates], developing local government institutions arid supervising
The book paints a vivid picture of a great varied of events experienced, people met and problems
solved during his time as a D.O. For example: laying plans to alleviate an anticipated severe
shortage of food resulting from a poor harvest - together with undertaking the risky allied task of
attempting to track down and apprehend blade-market food smugglers; dealing with a drunken
expatriate bachelor accused of rape, found guilty, sentenced and dismissed from the service;
investigating a conspiracy to murder; being suddenly called out to a violent riot in a mission
school, establishing the facts and taking action; addressing the problem posed by a prevalence of
man-eating leopards in the south around Masasi; the story of a Polish ex-RAF expatriate who
was instrumental in helping an aspiring Tanganyikan woodworker to establish himself as a local
carpenter, complete with a mechanised workshop. A profile of a colourful and eccentric Anglo-
Greek hunter and Game Ranger is highly entertaining. The story of a trip across the Ruvuma to
Mozambique to meet his opposite number provides an insight into the markedly different
approaches by the British and the Portuguese to the administration of colonies. Domestic
concerns and aspects of family life are also recounted and give the reader a picture of the modest
lifestyle enjoyed by a D.O.
Don says that he found Tanganyikans to have 'an innate sense of what constitutes good
behaviour as reflected in ritual courtesies and mutual hospitality" and that they show "a great
capacity for laughter". My own experience of living and working in Tanzania some 20 years later
led me to the same conclusions. It is a most interesting story told in a captivating way - a book
which is difficult to put down and which gives the reader a privileged window on the life and times
of a British Colonial Service D.O.