The British Empire Library

Le gouvernement des colonies: Regards croises franco-britanniques

by Veronique Dimier

Courtesy of OSPA

Review by A.H.M Kirk-Greene (N. Nigeria 1950 - 65)
For those who are comfortable in reading French, Professor Dimier's meticulously researched and formidably argued 300 page study of the conventionally contrasted French and British views on and practice of colonial administration is a major contribution to the long historical debate. She is equally at home with the Colonial Service training course papers at Oxford, Cambridge and London as with the archives of the Ecole Coloniale and the Colonial Ministry at Aix-en-Provence. She writes, too, as perceptively of the opinions of such scholarly interpreters of colonial government as Lord Lugard, Margery Perham and Lucy Mair as of the arguments of French scholar administrators like M Delafosse, R Delavignette, H Deschamps and H Labouret. Inevitably, it is the controversy over indirect rule versus assimilation and over the prima facie polarized relations with chiefs and with the educated elites that lay at the heart of the inter-war debate.

Dimier does not set out to settle the argument whether there really were more differences than correspondences of substance between the policies of the two colonial powers. Rather is it the very question itself: why, and why in the 1920s and 1930s, should such interest and such a vigorous argument on this issue have arisen? Which of the many interlocutors, French and British, and with what institutional, political or social backing, were behind le grand debat colonial between the wars?

In such a fine and intellectual study, researchers will regret the inadequacy of the bibliography caused by the neglect of all the superb sources cited in the notes, and again, the publishers' reprehensible decision to dispense with an index. One concluding thought. Surely Chapter IV, on the image of the beau ideal colonial administrator, would be well worth translating into English...

Precis on Chapter IV - The Ideal Administrator
Translated by Mrs Anne Marie MacDonald
Robert Delavignette's insistence, Dimier wrote, on the primacy of "a sense of humanity" in colonial administration ("the white man's achievements will only be worth what we ourselves are worth. They will be reduced to mere bits of paper and metal if we are only mechanics and clerks and do not manage to humanise those achievements... And how can we humanise them if we don't appear to [the Africans] as simply other human beings?") echoes the beau ideal prescription of Lord Lugard: "The more human administration is, the less tied by regulations, past events, office routine, the more successful it is guaranteed to be".

Both these authorities on the philosophy and principles of colonial administration are in agreement, derived from their own experience as eminent colonial administrators, on their image of the ideal administrator. First, what was to be rejected was the mere replica of the typical rational-legal bureaucrat. Max Weber's portrait of "an agent who applies to the letter orders and decrees from above and who ensures that they are applied literally by others". What influential experts on colonial rule like Margery Perham and Robert Delavignette sought to instil in their Colonial Service training courses at Oxford, Cambridge, the LSE and at the Ecole Coloniale in Paris was the need for "a civil servant, yes, but one who could be defined less by his specific functions and more by his attitude as a human being and his quality as a leader deputing to others". Overall, his work "should depend on a decentralised colonial administration, based not so much on bureaucratic rules and regulations but rather on men themselves and on their personal relationships with the authorised representatives of real communities". What they must never be is "mere cogs" in a centralising machine.

From her extensive research Dimier reckons that "To define the role of the ideal colonial administrator became an increasingly popular trend between the two World Wars", in Britain as well as France. Significantly, in the field it began to be recognised that "institutions should allow the duties and the degree of power of colonial administrators to vary according to circumstances and the officers themselves". To quote the reality acknowledged by the famous governor Lyautey, "in the colonies, where the unexpected is the rule and decisions are daily necessities, one rule dominates the rest; 'the right man in the right place'". Or, as another leading French governor, J Van Vollenhoven, put it, "Regulations are nothing, men are everything".

According to Dimier, in France it was not until Delavignette became the first director of the Ecole Coloniale to be appointed from within the ranks of the colonial administration that a serious attempt was made to define the ideal administrator. As for Britain, Dimier discerns a sense of the ideal not only in the gubernatorial arguments of Lugard like his Political Memoranda and The Dual Mandate in Tropical Africa but also in "the more romantic but just as effective writings of the academic Margery Perham", especially her novel Major Dane's Garden. Dimier declares that is "quite impossible to describe a form of art" - which is what for her colonial administration essentially is - "inasmuch as it mostly rests on men, on their personalities, their qualities and their personal relationships, and not on decrees". She turns approvingly to Margery Perham for her definition that the secret lies in "choosing a competent man, or at least a man of character, and of then giving him large discretionary powers". Such an officer will be able, when swamped by "confused and contradictory orders that are totally inapplicable to local conditions", quickly to "sort out the necessary from the superfiuous" - or as Maurice Delafosse wrote, "to reconcile common sense within the letter of the law". To help him, he must above all "have an interest in the people of his territory", or, as Delavignette put it, "the getting hold of Africa from the inside". However, Dimier finds such local knowledge and grasp of "the African mind" generally to be "more intuitive than intellectual".

She finds that a quote from Margery Perham defines the ideal colonial administrator more deeply yet: "his work puts him in touch with all aspects of native life, from the cradle to the grave. His career and interests are widely linked with Africans' development. There are few men in this position who will not to a certain extent become devoted to the service of native people... all too willing to represent and defend them". Only by experiencing long postings in the same division or cercle and being constantly on tour will the ideal administrator become accomplished in "taking the pulse of African society" and thus, as Sir Ralph Furse looked for in his search for the ideal candidate, "win the confidence and loyalty of Africans". Margery Perham used to spell out to her students the need for "a broad-minded approach, high ideals, brave devotion to one's duties born from a sense of responsibility, tolerance and above all team spirit, in addition to a feeling of duty towards the community, of financial probity and detachment from group interests". Delavignette's guidance to perfection was broader: "It is not a question of controlling others but of controlling yourself'.

In support of Dimier's belief that "the moral of the story is that we must pretend to follow regulations... if we apply them to the letter we should never get anywhere", she cites Sir Alan Burns' opinion that the over-issuance of circulars and directives by a central government merely had the advantage of demonstrating "the ease with which this mass of papers can be ignored" - a view shared by modern sociologists and public administration experts who point out that "the more bureaucratic the system and the more numerous the rules, the bigger is the margin of manoeuvre and of interpretation by those in the field".

In following this search for the ideal colonial administrator, one cannot but be aware that this was essentially a pre-occupation of the 1920s and 1930s. Some of our members may well recall those debates, but for those of us trained on the post-war Devonshire Courses the focus was, despite Furse's continuing voice-from-the-past vision of his beau ideal candidate as 'Head of House and Captain of the XI', arguably more on development, local government and nascent nationalism than on seeking to define and shape the ideal administrator.

British Empire Book
Veronique Dimier
Universite de Bruxelles