Harry Mitchell joined the Colonial Administrative Service somewhat hesitantly in
1953 after Cambridge, with no family background of colonial life. After the
Devonshire Course in London, he joined five other administrative cadets posted to Sierra
Leone in 1954. They had been assured both in London and subsequently in Freetown
that a career lay ahead of them in the Colonial Service. The unreality of this soon
dawned on some of them who took the difficult but wise decision to leave the Service in
time to find an alternative career elsewhere. Harry Mitchell was one of them.
Memoirs of service in Sierra Leone covering the period 1945 to 1961 when Sierra
Leone became independent are few. We should therefore be grateful to the author for
having kept a careful record of his time in the Provincial Administration from 1954 to
1959. He wrote this book over forty years ago after leaving Sierra Leone and while his
memories were still fresh, when working in India in a commercial capacity. He has
brought his story up-to-date in a chapter which highlights recent events in Sierra Leone.
He traces Sierra Leone's recent troubles to attempts within Sierra Leone, and from
neighbouring Liberia, to gain control of the diamond industry and trade. The Colonial
Government was only partially successful in this respect during the 1950s, while
successor governments had neither the will nor ability to deal effectively with it. To this
failure can be attributed the recent civil war and the destruction of Sierra Leone, with the
terrible cruelties inflicted upon the inhabitants of what had been, in colonial times, a
comparatively peaceful country.
He is sceptical about the value to the British taxpayer and indeed to the people of
Sierra Leone of the vast amounts of military expenditure, material help and money
which have been given to Sierra Leone in support of President Kabbah. He suggests that
the Lfnited Nations could play a useful role in restoring law and order by, as it were,
re-colonising former colonies destroyed by internal strife, though he holds out little hope
of this being acceptable or practicable.
He contrasts the present unhappy situation with the comparative success of the
Colonial Government in maintaining law and order with modest human and material
resources in the first half of the twentieth century. No more than twenty administrative
officers were in place at any given time to run a country the size of Ireland with a
population of about three million which was achieved by a measure of bluff by the
governing and the consent of the governed.
The Court Messenger Force which played a vital part in the good governance of the
provinces is handsomely acknowledged by Mitchell. Its abolition in 1954 by recentlyempowered
politicians, to whom its presence was anathema, and its replacement by the
Police Force, hitherto largely confined to the Freetown peninsula, saw a gradual
reduction of the District Commissioners' authority and effectiveness, which was what
the politicians wanted. The replacement of Provincial Commissioners hy Ministers a few
years later contributed further to this trend. The 1956 Northern Province uprising against
the Chiefs might well have been avoided had the Court Messenger Force been in place.
Harry Mitchell tells his story in a straightforward and attractive style and he gives a
clear and detailed account of his work in the Provincial Administration in the 1950s. His
descriptive writing is a pleasure to read. He does not ignore the personal challenges he
met - loneliness, running a home, maintaining his car and falling into debt - and how he
dealt with them. His departure was very much Sierra Leone's loss.