The British Empire Library

Studies in District Administration in the East Africa Protectorate (1895-1918)

by T H R Cashmore

Courtesy of OSPA

Review by Cedric Barnes (Senior Research Analyst, FCO)
The prosaic title of this Ph.D dissertation (now available to a wider lay audience) does not do justice to what is both an insightful academic account of early administrators of the colony of Kenya and a highly entertaining read. Cashmore's account combines what was then ground-breaking professional historical analysis, with memorable quotes, sharply drawn characters and revealing vignettes of a pioneering period of colonial administration.

At the time of writing Dr Cashmore's Ph.D dissertation was an antidote to traditions of imperial history-the view from on high-providing instead what the (mostly 'unaccompanied') men on the ground termed 'the worm's eye view of the world'. If such a subject matter, i.e. the doings of relatively lowly colonial officers, was unusual then, it later became unfashionable, since the study of African history in its own right, quite rightly focused on the 'agency' of Africans.

Nevertheless if African figures are not quite so clearly depicted as their colonial counterparts, Cashmore's central thesis - the importance of local African actors on the practice of colonial policy - demonstrates that interactions between administrators and their new subjects shaped the foundations of rule in the East African Protectorate. Nor were these interactions between especially unequal protagonists, in spite of the value the British placed on their own 'prestige' as rulers. At times the dependence of ruler on those he claimed to rule was all too clear; there are numerous examples where "there was cause to wonder who was the ruler and who the ruled" (p.186).

This was in part because British colonial rule in Africa was, and especially in the early years, "a shoestring operation". While force, or the threat of force, was always present, after the first campaigns of pacification the resort to armed actions was actively discouraged; it was expensive and disruptive. Instead Cashmore's would-be civilising administrators looked for local 'collaborators' (see especially Chapter III, pp. 77-85), and in so doing, assumed, consciously or not, distinctly 'African' formulations of power. Finessing the politics of local collaboration between British administration and African society was the art to be learned by both parties, and inevitably brought a meeting of minds, rather than a clash of civilisations. The risk was that overly sympathetic administrators became 'mere chameleons' (p.32) though hardly surprising when "in effect, the District Officer had to become the paramount chief of the African society over which he ruled" (p.214).

Despite their sympathy with 'their people', the men on the spot, especially when frustrated by what they saw as conservative, recalcitrant or downright rebellious peoples, might advocate "hell-fire", while senior bureaucrats in first the Foreign Office then the Colonial Office in London restrained with a policy of "glaxo" (p. 174). The irony was that it was not the societies who resisted hardest and longest in the early years, but rather the central highlanders who had, more often than not, put up little early resistance, who became the early 'nationalists' - the 'men in trousers '(p.215). Cashmore's fascinating study ends with the impact of the First World War that did much to stimulate political consciousness of a new generation of African actors, but also saw the end of the pioneering breed of British administrators.

British Empire Book
THR Cashmore
Cambridge African Studies Centre