The British Empire Library

Goodbye to Pith Helmets: A District Commissioner's Account of the Last Years Before Ghana's Independence

by Philip Dennis

Courtesy of OSPA

Review by Richard Jeffries (Ex-Lecturer in African Politics, Now Honorary Research Associate Department of Political Studies, SOAS, London)
For a student of post-colonial Ghanaian politics, such as the present writer, often struggling to understand quite why economic and political trajectories after independence proved so disappointing, it is interesting to compare different perspectives on the last years of colonial rule.

Philip Dennis was appointed to the Colonial Administrative Service in 1939, after graduating from Magdalen College, Oxford, and served in the Gold Coast from 1940 to 1956. Starting as an Assistant District Commissioner at Cape Coast, he proceeded, after a spell with the Royal West African Erontier Eorce in Nigeria, to serve at Tarkwa, Sekondi, Kpandu and Kumasi. His work focussed especially on administrative reorganisation and financial reform of local government and, later, as a Judicial Adviser, on reforming the system of native courts. His memoirs are a fairly standard example of this genre. They include some quite acute observations regarding both the local-level operation of government and, occasionally, developments at the centre. He emphasises, for example, the obstacles to the effective operation of local government presented by a lack of financial viability - a point of more than purely historical interest; and he observes how very out-of-touch with local economic grievances were most central government officials in 1947-48.

Such observations are never very fully or satisfyingly developed, however, and they are interspersed with much longer passages dealing with narrowly, even mundanely, personal and domestic matters and with observations regarding the author's work colleagues and friends. It would be inappropriate to criticise the book on this score. Such a balance obviously reflects Mr Dennis' intended readership. But it is somewhat disconcerting, for an academic certainly, to find himself whisked within the space of a paragraph from comments on recent administrative reforms to a description of a dinner party. Even for those whose interest is primarily in the remarks about fellow colonial personnel, the style of writing will perhaps prove rather frustratingly kaleidoscopic, just beginning to get interesting when the subject is suddenly switched. And it is difficult to know, on occasions, whether or not particular comments are meant to be read with an especially dry sense of humour. Having said this, the memoirs make quite pleasantly entertaining reading, and Philip Dennis is to be congratulated on his nicely terse writing style.

It would be quite wrong to suggest that, as regards the decidedly fragmentary comments on the political developments of the time, the memoirs offer any very penetrating insights or fresh historical material. The author's main contention regarding decolonisation is one that is likely to be widely shared by ex-colonial officials; that the main failing of colonial government during this period was the lack of adequate preparation for self-government, deriving in part from the expectation, up until 1947, that there would be far more time to implement various reforms than actually proved to be the case. The general direction of colonial policy is considered to have been, if not beyond criticism, at least quite sensible and well-intentioned; and Ghanaians and colonial officials are presented as, on the whole, working together co-operatively and enjoying very friendly personal relations. "There was remarkably little anti-white feeling amongst ordinary people", we are told, "although politicians were trying to build it up." Philip Dennis, like many DCs, possessed a far more accurate understanding of contemporary social and political realities; and it is one of the weaknesses of the academic study of Africa that it has been so much more heavily influenced by radical utopianism of the kind represented by authors like Hodgkin.

British Empire Book
Philip Dennis
The Pentland Press
1 85821 789 X