The British Empire Library

African Ambit

by Reginald Dickenson

Courtesy of OSPA

Review by A.H.M. Kirk-Greene (Nigeria 1950-1966 now Emeritus Fellow, Oxford University)
Two matters of wider-than-the-book relevance occurred to me as I came to the end of reading this enjoyable and very well-produced memoir. One, how good it is - indeed, some might argue how salutary to us District Officers! - to have reminiscences from those who served in the Colonial Service's professional services to complement, and on occasion to correct, the prima facie more politically glamorous autobiographies from Government House and its magic circle. Two, why is it that small Nyasaland, not quite the midget of Gambia yet far removed from huge Nigeria and Kenya, should be able enviably to produce a winner a year, with Patrick Mullins' Retreat from Africa (1992), Ann Davidson's The Real Paradise (1993), and Colin Baker's biography of Sir Geoffrey Colby, Development Governor (1994). Watch this page - or at least the resultant letters to the Editor!

Reginald Dickenson came into the Colonial Service indirectly. Joining the British Post Office in the late 1920s, he arrived in Nyasaland in 1950 on what sounds like a wave of pre-Fisher/Furse patronage: Harold Ellis, PMG of Nyasaland, "suggested that I join him''. Subsequently rejecting the job of deputy director of posts and telecommunications in Nigeria because of (even then!) "the graft and corruption in the country and the likely political problems'', he remained as Controller of the Nyasaland Postal Region in the Central African Federation until 1957. Then followed ten years in the private sector in Jamaica and another ten years with the World Bank in Washington DC and in fifty-two countries round the world, carefully (curiously?) listed at p.314.

In this very worthwhile account of a Colonial Service technical career in Central Africa, two items distinguish Dickenson's book from the more usual kind of memoir. The first is that, though published in 1995 (and, I rejoice to record as a would-be historian of the Service, the impulse of retrospective chronicling grips more and more of us Overseas Pensioners as we progressively reduce to the last generation of survivors of HMOCS), this text is no product of retirement leisure. Rather it closely follows a substantial draft written, from diaries and notes, in 1957/59. This is important in evaluating the positions taken and priorities given, the assumptions made and attitudes expressed, in the writer's 'then' as opposed to his published 'now' nearly forty years later. This sensitivity to chronology is even more important when we come to the second point, for Dickenson's twenty page Epilogue to his memoir on "Africa and Colonialism'' was written not in the 1950s but in 1994. Not unexpectedly, here is another one-time colonial civil servant who emerges as an Afrosceptic: "Looking back over the years.......... the change in the Africa I loved and worked for has been almost wholly for the worse". Customarily, too, his epilogue concludes with the twin message of "pride that, following the work of the early missionaries and my fellow colonial officers, I had some small part in continuing to bring light into darkest Africa" and a prayer - for Dickenson there does not seem to be much hope of much more - that "the free countries of Africa can go forward with help. . . .and will learn the lessons the so often despised missionaries and colonial system taught".

In the year when Roy Welensky's voluminous private papers will shortly be open to public scrutiny and the aborted (and ill-conceived) Central African Federation is more than thirty years past, Dickenson's lament that many Southern and Northern Rhodesians have "cause for major complaint" against HMG after being "forced to leave all that their ancestors built" will find an echo among at least one definable group of our members. It is, too, an end-game likely - as those who attended our 1995 AGM will vividly recall - to be replayed even more vocally and vigorously by our successors in Hong Kong. Mere historian that I am, I much preferred the well-written recollections of Colonial Service life in Chapters 1-12 (especially, of course, Dickenson's views on DCs) to the reflections of the final sixty pages. Perhaps I have enough of that to cope with in all those argumentative Ph.D theses that come my way!

British Empire Book
Reginald Dickenson
The Pentland Press