The British Empire Library

Managing The British Empire - The Crown Agents, 1833-1914

by Dr David Sunderland

Courtesy of OSPA

Alan Frood (Nigeria 1951-59, Crown Agents 1974-88)
This book explores in great and enthralling detail how the British Government managed the economic development of the Crown Colonies during the 19th and early part of the 20th C. This period saw an increasing demand from the colonies to share in the economic development following in the wake of the industrial revolution, and although some development had been taking place with private capital and local resources it was clear that the British Government had to take a more active role. This was a field of activity in which Colonial Office officials had no experience and it is not surprising that the government found that if it was to play a part in the economic development of the colonies it had to make use of the expertise that existed. This did not lie within government but in the somewhat uncertain hands of the many individual colonial agents who were appointed by the colonies to handle their commercial and financial affairs.

Because of dissatisfaction in the Colonial Office and the colonies with the standard of service that was being provided by these individuals, almost all of whom were former Colonial Office or other government officials, the Office decided in 1830 to create a single agency by dismissing all but two of the agents and appointing them as Joint Agents General (later renamed Crown Agents) for the Colonies. However, although the Colonial Office appointed these individuals and their successors they remained the agents of the colonies for which they acted and upon which they relied for their income. This arrangement created a complicated and unclear set of responsibilities for the Crown Agents. They had by law to act in the best interests of their principals, that is to say the colonies, but they had always to be mindful that their appointment depended upon their being seen to safeguard the interests of the UK Government that appointed them, and of course they wished to safeguard their own interest by preserving their own status and financial well being. It does not require much imagination to see the inevitable stresses and strains which were to arise within the relationships between the Colonial Office, the Crown Agents and Colonial Governors and much of this book is devoted to analysing these relationships and examining their impact on the economic development of the colonial empire.

As Dr Sunderland points out, historians of the role of the British Government in colonial development have tended to disregard the role of the Crown Agents. However, in the situation where the Crown Agents had a monopoly over (1) the procurement of all non-local goods and services by colonial governments, (2) the raising of money in the capital markets to pay for them and particularly (3) over the appointment of commissioning of engineering consultants and capital projects, the Crown Agents inevitably played a major role in the making and implementation of development policy. This applied particularly to the development of infrastructure such as railways, ports and bridges etc. This situation was accepted, and in some respects welcomed, by Colonial Office officials who had little experience of this aspect of government, and to some extent it relieved the Office of the inevitable criticism which came in some cases from Parliament, in others from Ministers, Colonial Governors or commercial interests.

A fascinating aspect of this book for me is Dr Sunderland’s detailed analysis of how decisions were made. In his introduction he writes, “It is assumed that individuals are primarily motivated by their own self-interest, but on occasion make choices that fail to maximise their welfare, that is their income, status and power”. He applies this assumption to the actions of the parties involved in making policy. Colonial Office officials, the Crown Agents and colonial governors. He identifies and examines in the greatest detail the individuals whose decisions determined policy, their relationship to each other, their family backgrounds and education and even in some cases how much they left in their wills. He reviews the main development activities, eg procurement, engineering consultancy and management, the raising of development capital, the selection of colonial staff, and examines the impact of the decision makers’ personal circumstances upon them.

A web of connected interests emerges; many Crown Agents were formerly Colonial Office officials and serving officials aspired to be Crown Agents; Crown Agents staff were employed because they were known to, or related to, a Crown Agent; eminent consulting engineers were on the boards of engineering manufacturers; and the directors of firms supplying goods and services were friends of a Crown Agent. The analysis reveals that the big players in the development business were drawn from a fairly closeknit group of individuals who knew each other, or were known to each other, and came from the same social background and preferred to deal with each other.

His conclusion about the effect of these relationships on the economic development of the colonies was that on balance it was benign. He believes that in a field of activity so open to fraud and corruption the moral attitudes of the social group acted as an effective deterrent to major wrong-doing, and minor corruption, mainly the favouring of those within the group, was restrained within a level that was seen by society as an acceptable price to pay to establish relationships of trust, whether applied to personal behaviour or in the performance of contracts. His very detailed researches did not reveal any major instances of corruption.

This book deals with Colonial history up to 1914 and those of us involved in Colonial development in the latter half of the 20th C. are bound to speculate about the extent to which the factors that affected development in the 19th C. continued into the later 20th C. In particular, whether the practice of keeping the formulation and implementation of development within a relatively narrow circle of players, public and private, continued, and for how long and to what effect. Most of us were on the receiving end of British Government colonial policy in the 1950’s and 60’s, and to learn Dr Sunderland’s views on its conduct over this period we will have to refer to his second book which deals with the period 1914 to 1974 and which has just been published.

I hope this perhaps inadequate survey of what I found to be a great read will encourage OSPA members, if not wishing to buy the book, to ask to see it through a local library. As an ex-employee of the modern Crown Agents (vastly different in most respects from their 19th C. predecessors but not in their ambition to assist overseas development) I cannot resist quoting the last lines from Dr Sunderland’s concluding paragraph. This is, of course, highly selective and the Crown Agents come in for much criticism, but nevertheless they are his last words:

“The Crown Agents can therefore be seen as the lynch-pin of crown colony development, and had they not existed economic growth in the colonies would almost certainly have been slower and less significant”.

British Empire Book
Dr David Sunderland
The Boydell Press/Royal Historical Society,
0 86193 267 6