The link between these three volumes is the fact that they are all products of the
OSPA Research Project. They are, however, very different in content and approach.
The essence of Empire and After is that most of the contributors served in the colonies,
and what they are offering, therefore, is first hand knowledge based on experience.
In How Green was our Empire?, similarly, the contributors are writing from first hand
experience in the field. The focus of the third volume, by contrast, is on a continuing
'colonial' issue - establishing what is the appropriate relationship between the United
Kingdom and those possessions, to use a non PC term, which are not independent and,
more importantly, do not wish to be.
No one would suggest that the people who were players in the process of decolonisation
are those best fitted to reaching sound historical judgments on that process,
or on the colonial era itself. Their experience, recollected and set out in this way,
however, is invaluable source material. The OSPA Research Project has set out to gather
and present the same kind of material as was gathered, forty years ago, through the oral
archive of the Oxford Colonial Records Project.
Writing in Empire & After John Smith, who served in Northern Nigeria before and
after independence, and later was governor of the Gilbert & Ellice Islands, and played
a crucial role in the OSPA project, puts it well. 'We are writing about matters once
central to our lives and of which we believe we have the right to be proud, but we must
be realistic and consider the context in which we write. Service memoirs can neither
supplant seriously researched history, political or other science nor have the impact of
a novel' (p5). The contributors do not attempt to supplant the work of professional
historians, but they fulfil an important role in reminding us both of a great deal of
devoted service to 'their' countries and, more importantly, of the limited resources at
In his chapter on education in Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia), for example, Peter
Snelson describes the legacy of the British South Africa Company, under whose rule the provision of education was left to the missionary societies. A later policy of building
a sound foundation of village education in the 1930s was hampered by lack of money at
a time of world-wide depression, and a fall in the price of copper. Even after the second
world war, in the period leading to independence in 1964, 'shortage of money remained,
of course, the main constraint on growth' (p28). Peter Snelson wryly comments:
'The Attlee government in Britain made history by nationalising the country's major
industries - steel, coal, power supply, the railways etc. What a pity it did not help the
government of Northern Rhodesia to buy out the BSAC royalties, as Arthur Wina,
Zambia's first Minister of Finance, did in 1964'.
The range, geographically and chronologically, in the first volume is wide: Asylum
for Vietnamese Boat People in Hong Kong, policing in Nigeria, the role of language and
sport in nation building, the complications of politics and boundaries in Uganda.
The flavour and emphasis provided by the different contributors are, obviously, varied,
but none of them writes with unrealistic yearning for a mythical golden age.
It is easy to make judgments with the benefit of hindsight, and there have been
many criticisms of colonial rulers in their treatment of the natural resources of the
colonies - criticisms which appeared in The Times at the time of the OSPA
conference which was the subject of the second volume of these papers. They
produced a response from Henry Osmaston, one of the conference participants, whose
'short, dignified rejoinder', to quote Terry Barringer in her introduction, 'emphasised
the commitment of people like himself in the Colonial Forestry Service to
conservation and sustainable development. His contribution was acclaimed by retired
Colonial officers, many of them equally irritated and hurt by what they perceived as
years of politically correct but ill-informed jibes at "colonisers" and "colonials".
Representatives of a younger generation of academics and practitioners in the field
also welcomed this letter' (pi).
Environmental history has been 'something of a growth industry in the last twenty
years', to quote Terry Barringer again (p2) and it is salutary to be reminded, in Anthony
Kirk-Greene's contribution to this volume, how few people were recruited into the
'green' services before 1939 (p24). As he also points out, however, distinguished
institutions for the training of 'green' officers were developing in the 1920s (the Imperial
College of Tropical Agriculture, in the West Indies, opened in 1921, later to be
integrated with the training of Colonial Agricultural Service probationers at Cambridge,
and the similar integration of the Imperial Forestry Institute in Oxford - established in
1905 - with the training of Colonial Forestry Service members).
One of the issues explored by different contributors is the competing claims of people
and animals. Caroline Cowan (a Ph D candidate in the Department of Geography at
Cambridge) touches on this in her article on the Tsavo National Park in Kenya.
She notes the criteria for Kenya National Parks laid down by the Game Policy
Committee: that humans should have no rights in National Park areas and preferably
should not live there; that there should be no economic development; that they should be
large in size and with a range of habitat; that there should be a wide and representative selection of fauna (p61). It is not at all surprising that such a clear division was at times
controversial. One has only to consider today's arguments in the UK over the extent and
sanctity of the green belt to be reminded that clear-cut policies are easier to achieve in
theory than in practice.
There are some excellent anecdotes in this volume. Ted Wilmot, for example, who
served in Nyasaland in the Colonial Agricultural Service from 1950 and retired as
Deputy Secretary from independent Malawi in 1972, recalls a meeting on agricultural
matters addressed by President Banda. T said to him, "Your Excellency, had I not
known you, your address could have come quite comfortably from a Colonial
Administrative Officer". He replied "Ah! Mr Wilmot, the message is the same but the
methods are different. You people forced, I encourage." (This may have been true
regarding Agriculture, but could not adequately describe political processes of the
period)', as Mr Wilmot shrewdly comments (pi22).
Another anecdote in Ted Wilmot's chapter describes his (post-war) recruitment
I was asked three questions. 1) "Could I set a plough?" "Yes". 2) "Could I teach an
African to set a plough?" "It would depend on the African". 3) "Could I build myself a
house?" "If I had to, then I would" ........... I was allowed in. There was one
supplementary question: 4) "Could I keep wicket?"
It is an amusing reminder of the habits of a (not so long) bygone age - and will
doubtless horrify those for whom recruitment has become a complicated science. If they
read this volume they will do well to reflect that unscientific recruitment produced some
pretty good results.
The third of these volumes deals with the complications of what might be called the
residue of the end of the colonial era. It is interesting to be reminded (by
David Killingray in his chapter setting out the origins of the UK overseas territories) that
what he calls the Imperial fragments are 'related to Britain (United Kingdom Overseas
Territories), France (Departements d'Outre-Mer, and Territoires d'Outre-Mer until
2002), the Netherlands (Aruba and De Nederlandse Antillen), Portugal (Azores,
Madeira), Spain (Balearic Islands, Canary Islands, Ceuta and Melilla), Denmark
(Greenland, Faeroes), the United States (Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, US Virgin
Islands, Guam, Freely-Associated States in the Pacific), Australia (External Territories)
and New Zealand (Territories Overseas and Self-Governing Territories)'. The inclusion
in that list of the United States will surprise some people.
As the editors point out, there are great differences between the French and the British
approaches to the relationship with their overseas territories, a relationship in the British
case reflecting a measure of pragmatism (pi). This is underlined neatly in the chapter on
UK policy towards the Caribbean overseas territories in the new millennium, by Helen
Hintjens and Dorothea Hodge. Commenting that the uneasy constitutional relationship
with the UK is not as unusual as one might expect - echoed as it is by the uneasy
relationship of the Dutch and French Caribbean territories with their respective metropolitan 'parents' - they quote an Anguillan politician who described the British
approach as "aggressively non-interventionist" (p. 87).
The fact that this chapter is concerned with the current millennium emphasises the
significant point that, whereas in the second half of the twentieth century there was wide
agreement on the rightness of ending colonial rule (even if there were arguments about
the detail of how it should be achieved) the remaining small territories present quite
different issues. British policy broadly favours independence when it is desired, but is
not concerned with forcing it on unwilling recipients. What to do about those unwilling
recipients is, as this volume demonstrates, not always easy to decide.
The classic example of difficulty is, of course, Gibraltar. Martin Blinkhorn, in his
chapter A Question of Identity: how the People of Gibraltar became Gibraltarians, sets
the current situation very clearly in the complex context of relations with Spain.
He draws attention to the crucial, and little recognised, fact that there has been a long
period of demographic hispanicization which (as is widely recognised) has not led to the
kind of political consequences that might have been expected. In short, it 'has failed to
generate political hispanicization' (p49).
Taken together, these three volumes perform a most valuable service. They provide a
wide variety of first hand insights into the colonies as they moved rapidly towards
independence, insights which will be invaluable to historians attempting to deal
accurately and fairly with that period. And, in the third volume, they point to a whole
range of problems which did not die with the end of the colonial era.