The British Empire Library

Brief Authority: A Memoir Of Colonial Administration In Tanganyika

by Charles Meek

Courtesy of OSPA

Donald Barton (District Commissioner Tanganyika 1952-61)
Innes Meek is to be commended for publishing his father's memoir; it is an informative account of life and work (mostly work) in Tanganyika's Administration during the two decades leading to independence in 1961. There is much to engage the general reader, but the book's greatest appeal will be to the confirmed Afrophile. Much of it is typical of the genre, and is none the worse for that; anything which adds to the body of knowledge about the realities of colonial administration, as distinct from ill-informed assumptions, is to be welcomed.

There are two respects In which Brief Authority differs from most of its kind. First the author's initial four years were served In wartime, and we are given a clear account of the difficulties, hardships and shortages which beset officials and public alike. Second, in three appendices, the reproduction of two district annual reports and handing over notes, we have contemporary accounts as distinct from recollections; and whilst 'CIM' Meek tells us that he had his eye on posterity whilst penning his annual reports, they were essentially "internal" documents. (I confess that my own were less carefully composed than his).

The greater part of the narrative deals with work in six rural districts over a consecutive period of 16 years, an unusually long time to avoid a spell in the Secretariat. On this matter the author is a little ambivalent; early on he expresses hopes of advancement, fulfilment judged to be contingent on being "noticed" in the Secretariat, yet there is no suggestion in the text that he ever sought such a posting - he was evidently "noticed" in the field! He clearly enjoyed life up-country, as most of us did and this Is reflected in the enthusiasm with which he describes the more constructive aspects of district administration, reforming Native Authorities, dealing with problems such as an outbreak of pneumonic plague, sleeping sickness, marauding cattle thieves, the threat of famine and so on. In Mbulu District he carried forward the major development plan initiated, with C. D. and W funds, by his predecessor Peter Bell.

'CIM' mentions his tendency to authoritarianism, describing himself as a benevolent dictator; if he was, this is not revealed, and by contrast he describes numerous occasions when long and exhaustive consultation with the local people was undertaken - as when dealing with clan and dynastic issues in Arusha district. Here he pays tribute to the invaluable work of the Government anthropologist Hans Cory, who several years later was involved In setting up representative District Councils in East Lake Province (all to be swept away when the ruling party assumed control of local government a few years after independence). There were of course occasions on which the exercise of authority was necessary and desirable, but consultation and discussion was increasingly the way forward - perhaps to an extent which is unimaginable in modern Britain.

Throughout, 'CIM' Meek tells us something about his seniors, usually in terms of approbation; I would like to have known more about the succession of DO colleagues who supported him during his several years as DC Mbulu. More seriously, the brevity of the chapter - 9 pages - covering his final four years in Dar es Salaam as Permanent Secretary to the Chief Minister, Julius Nyerere, and then Head of the Civil Service, is disappointing; this is not necessarily a criticism, and there are perhaps good reasons why the account is so short. Fortunately the events culminating in independence are described in detail by Colin Baker in his biography of Sir Richard Turnbull, reviewed here

A noteworthy and valuable component of this book is the lengthy introduction by the author's son, Innes. In it he levels criticism at post-colonial bien pensant historians who, whilst emphasising the acknowledged deficiencies of colonial rule, are reluctant to recognise any merits - not even the over-arching policy, however imperfectly executed, of preparing colonies for independence. Can one imagine the former German East Africa being cast adrift and left to its own devices after the Great War? Innes Meek goes on to give a useful potted history of colonial Tanganyika, embracing local government, constitutional advances, and the economy.

If there are faults they are of a kind inherent in any generalisation. Thus in his description of Indirect Rule he Is perhaps unaware that in no two districts was it the same in practice; or that in many areas the advent of District Councils provided for popular representation at local level, with power shifting from Chlefdom to District Councils. Again, it is surely an exaggeration to say that one purpose of Indirect Rule was to reinforce the office of Chief; the Chief was a means to an end - effective and economical local administration. However, several of his criticisms of Indirect Rule are valid and were shared by numbers of younger DO's.

Innes Meek's analysis of the characteristics of a colonial administrator - his authority, confidence, class and so on - comprises the stereotype depicted rather dismissively by Jeremy Paxman in his recent book on Empire, overlooking the fact that post-war entrants were as likely to have been products of state schools as of public schools. One 1950's recruit went on to become the Labour leader of Southampton City Council, about as far removed from the stereotype as one can imagine. And was not the "officer class" a relic of pre-war days? As for authority, this derived from one's office rather than any innate sense of superiority; and confidence from a growing familiarity with the work, and awareness that one was making a fair fist of it - supplemented by an occasional pat on the back from one's DC.

Finally, may I endorse Innes's opinion of E K Lumley's Forgotten Mandate, and urge readers to get hold of a copy; County Library Services can oblige.

British Empire Book
Charles Meek
Innes Meek
IB Tauris
978 1 84885 833 6