The British Empire Library

A Rough Passage: Memories of Empire - Volume 1 and Volume 2

by Ken Barnes

Courtesy of OSPA

Professor Colin Baker (Nyasaland/Malawi 1954-1971)
Ken Barnes's autobiography, A Rough Passage, follows his life and career, from schooling in Malaya, Australia and England, to Cambridge University, reading history, and London University, attending the Colonial Administration post-graduate course. He was posted to Eastern Nigeria in 1954 and stayed there until 1957. Thereafter, he transferred to the Nyasaland Administration and spent the following 10 years in the secretariat, mainly in Finance. Here, he progressed to become Permanent Secretary in 1967. The chapters on this part of his career are full of work on preparing the annual estimates, development planning, drafting papers and flying to meetings with officials in London, the IMF and World Bank, and others in various parts of the world - Lisbon, Nicosia, Washington, Abidjan, Barbados, Copenhagen. It was a whirlwind existence which would have taxed the strength and sapped the energy of the healthiest of men.

But Ken Barnes was not the healthiest of men. Only seven months after arriving in Nigeria, he contracted poliomyelitis and spent many months in hospital. Over the years his handicap led to a series of damaging falls, innumerable prosthetics worries, broken limbs and eventually to almost permanent confinement to a wheelchair. Nor was that all, for hepatitis, retina detachments, glaucoma and worryingly high blood pressure were to follow. Distressingly bad luck pursued him still further, for his wife, Leslie, his devoted support, was diagnosed with leukaemia in 1974 in Brussels, where he worked with the European Commission, and she died three weeks later, leaving him devastated. It pursued him later, too, in divorce after a brief re-marriage, and in a period of alcoholism.

In his health, in the loss of Leslie, and in other ways, Ken was not the luckiest of men, but in his Nyasaland career he did benefit from a significant measure of better fortune which, added to his undoubted ability, took him rapidly to the top. He arrived in Nyasaland in 1960 just as the rapid progress to independence was beginning. That progress was accompanied by compensation schemes which induced older and more senior officers to retire prematurely and others to remain and fill their places much sooner than otherwise would have been the case. Nor was the way blocked by accelerated promotion of Malawian officers, since Dr. Banda, unlike fellow African leaders, was adamant that Malawians should not replace expatriates until they were sufficiently well trained and experienced to do so. The successive and rapid departure of those above him in the Ministry of Finance led to Barnes's promotion to Permanent Secretary when he was only 37 years of age.

In writing his autobiography he has used many sources to supplement his own remarkable memory: letters, diaries, archives, other documentation and the recollections of colleagues. The wide range and the nature of these sources have led, possibly inevitably, to his writing in great detail. Little is left out, even if some of it is placed in an unusually large number of brackets - even brackets within brackets - and in endnotes, a few of which are unusually long. But this style does not detract from the story of Ken Barnes's remarkable life - indeed it helps readers to feel that they are being taken along with him, as part of that life.

Although concentrating on Nigeria and especially Nyasaland/Malawi, the two volumes of this book have a much wider appeal. They tell a remarkable story of individual courage - guts - and success, set in the detail of end of empire in Africa.

British Empire Book
Ken Barnes
213 and 376
The Radcliffe Press