The British Empire Library

Donkey's Gratitude

by Tim Harris

Courtesy of OSPA

Review by F. G. Finch (Tanganyika 1951-1962)
This account of 21 years in Tanganyika deserves a far wider readership than those of us who believed, as did Lord Curzon, speaking of India, that "our work is righteous'', and who also worked in the service of overseas territories.

Tim Harris has succeeded in writing far more than a personal reminiscence. He certainly fulfils his own declared objective - "to counteract the ignorance which .... prevails as to what colonial administrators did and what their values and standards were".

Throughout the book Tim's own character comes shining through, although one can be sure that it was not his intention that this should be the case. Surely he combined a wealth of practical experience with robust commonsense and moral courage. It is in some of his more humorous observations that he reveals the extent to which he was unsparing of himself. If he approached his work with optimism, it was optimism laced with the necessary degree of humorous cynicism to which the title gives the clue. He must have had a remarkable ability to get on with people. He can even be amusing about the pinpricks of bureaucrats who knew far less of local conditions than he.

Tim is, of course, aware that he is describing events of over 30 years ago. He himself mentions the danger of presenting "an old-fashioned, paternalistic and authoritarian approach". But he describes things as they actually were and as they were recognised and accepted by everyone. True, some incidents may appear shocking to those who choose to read history backwards, those who would judge past events in the light of the "correctness" of a later and altogether different age. But even in these cases it should be observed that apparently severe actions were fully supported by local and respected authority.

The book commands particular respect not only on its own merits, but also in the light of the severe physical handicap under which it was written - yet a further example of Tim's determination. This makes even sadder the author's death before he could finish it. The final chapter was, in fact, written by his former colleague and friend, Geoffrey Bullock, and a most interesting and lively chapter it is. But I do feel sure that, had he lived, Tim would have submitted his whole book to a process of revision and editing. I have no doubt that this would have eliminated a number of repetitions and perhaps unnecessary detail. Robin would, I am sure, have remained Robin throughout and not (as so frequently) Robert. Tim would quite definitely have known that the anonymous chief shown in one of the photographs is Chief Adam Sapi of the famous Hehe tribe, and, indeed, Tim recounts the fascinating story of the Chief's grandfather's skull in the course of his narrative. I also think that the surnames of the Provincial Commissioners under whom Tim served and obviously respected and admired might be restored to them. There is one exception to this admiration and he, naturally, remains nameless. An index would also surely have been seen to be a necessity.

These are, however, but small points. They certainly do not detract from the overriding impression of an outstanding man who clearly loved his work, achieved so much for the people among whom he was working, and who was sad to leave "because we loved the country so much". There will be few, if any, comparable accounts which combine personal memories with the illustration of historical events. I did not know Tim personally but more and more, as I read his book with huge enjoyment, I regretted that fact. He may have been fireworks but he most certainly must have been fun.

British Empire Book
Tim Harris
Pentland Books