Exporting Empire is published in Manchester University Press's flagship
Studies in Imperialism series, which has recently passed its 100th issue,
under the general editorship of Professor John MacKenzie, himself no stranger
to OSPA or the book reviews pages of the Overseas Pensioner.
Professor MacKenzie introduces this volume with anecdotes of his boyhood in
Northern Rhodesia and his early ambition to become a District Officer himself.
Instead he became a 'historian wallah', a species regarded wryly or with
suspicion or even downright hostility by many former colonial officials. He went
through his share of 'post-colonial guilt' but as he came to know many former
officials, he realised that "there was a mismatch between the people I met, so
often dedicated, charming and thoroughly sympathetic, not least to the
aspirations of colonised peoples, and the villains who haunted the pages of
some modern scholarship" (p. xvi).
Chris Prior, a 'historian wallah' of a younger generation, does not seek to vilify
the Colonial Services but to 'examine what British Colonial officials thought and
why' between the end of the Scramble for Africa and the start of the Second
World War. The book is a reworked version of his PhD thesis. It is much more
readable than most such products. Prior has read and digested a great deal of
Colonial O ffic ia ls ' own published and unpublished writings, official
correspondence, newspapers, contemporary fiction (Sanders of the River and
Mister Johnston), and an impressive range of secondary literature. Sudan and
the Sudan Political Service, often treated separately, are discussed alongside
the colonies of west, east, central and southern Africa. He stands alongside
Anthony Kirk-Greene in his exposition of the Service's 'mindset' and 'mental
landscape', revealing as Professor MacKenzie states, "the complexity of
individual preferences and experiences, frustrations and desires. Among much else, he demonstrates the practical limitations under which colonial officials
operated" (p. xvi).
Four questions especially are addressed. Firstly he explores the formation of
officials' ideas and attitudes. How much were these formed in the light of
experience? And how much were they preconditioned by upbringing and
education and the climate of ideas in Britain? Secondly he explores motivation -
ideas of adventure and leadership, duty and service, social status and financial
security. Thirdly, he looks at social and intellectual networks, co-operation and
clashes between different services, territories and individuals. Fourthly, he
enquires into the roots of and threats to officials' belief in themselves and their
mission, their attitudes towards economic, infrastructural, educational and
political change. His findings are neatly summarised in a short conclusion. Most
recruits were ill-informed about the specificities and realities of Empire. In Africa,
"the most important networks to which officials had access on a day-to-day basis
were the intra-colonial informal networks of gossip" (p.170). Esprit de Corps was
patchy. There were personality clashes, there was pride and prejudices about
other districts, other colonies, colleagues, superiors and settlers. Idealism was
not entirely absent but there was plenty of self-interest (though this did not
always take the form of seeking promotion), self-preservation and selfaggrandisement.
Feelings about policy, change and modernisation were
This is all done without jargon and with an instinct for a telling quotation. Prior is
particularly good on the differences between generations, the influence of the
new science of anthropology on District Officers and vice versa, on obsessional
road building and on attitudes to "the orthodoxy of the interwar period" (p. 165) -
Indirect Rule. One could wish for more on relations with African clerks,
messengers and servants but cannot have everything in a relatively short book.
My only complaint about this book is that it is not long enough. We can only
hope the author will turn his attention to a successor volume, telling the story
from 1939 to decolonisation.