The British Empire Library


Sudan Days

by Richard Owen

Last Guardians: Crown Service in Sudan, Northern Rhodesia and Britain

by Philip Bowcock


Review by Dr. Douglas H. Johnson (Independent Scholar on Sudan and South Sudan)
Shortly after Richard Owen's death in 1982 a memorial mass was held for him in the Cathedral in Wau, Bahr el-Ghazal Province, Sudan, where he had served as governor. This was a touching tribute to a man who spent the final years of his official career in Sudan arguing for special treatment for the peoples of the three non-Muslim southern provinces, and it came at a time when the peace deal that ended Sudan's first civil war looked as if it was about to come unstuck.

The two books reviewed here provide different perspectives on the British administration of the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan and insights into the experiences of different generations of its administrators. T.R.H. (Richard) Owen was too young to fight in the First World War and went from Oxford to the Sudan Political Service in the mid-1920s, a period when British authority in Sudan was at its strongest and the idea of preparing Sudanese for self-government and independence was scarcely entertained. Philip Bowcock was just too young to serve in the Second World War and went from University through national service to Sudan when Sudanese self-determination had become official policy. Owen's memoir focuses solely on his time in Sudan, while Bowcock has written a full autobiography, covering his education, post-Sudanese employment elsewhere during the dissolution of the Empire, and in Britain, still in Crown service.

Owen wrote his memoir during the 1950s and 1960s, with some late additions in the 1970s. The publication of imperial memoirs by anyone much below the rank of governor-general had gone out of fashion by the time he completed it, and so it remained unpublished until now, bolstered by the inclusion of extracts from some of his letters to family, now held in the University of Durham's invaluable Sudan archive. It is arranged in chapters around specific topics rather than a chronological account of service. Some are devoted to types of Sudanese: the Arab Leader, the Fuzzy-Wuzzies, the Nilotic South, the Nuba Hill-men, Prisons (by which is meant prisoners), Police and Police Drivers, the (Sudanese) Official, Servants. Others describe aspects of administrative life and policy: the Daily Round, Crime and the Law, Missions, Education, Recreations, Colleagues and Government. They are written in the style of dining-out stories, intended more to entertain and amuse than to inform.

Owen writes in generalities about stock types - the Arab, the African, the Dongolawi, the Dinka, the Copt, even on occasion the Briton - illustrated with vignettes of encounters with individuals of these types. Some are sympathetic. Others less so. Owen dismissed racial doctrines and 'blood' theories as pernicious, but his language veers towards racial stereotypes. He preferred instead to focus on levels of civilisation. As he explained to a questionnaire from a Sudanese diplomat many years later he preferred the Arabs to the Southern Sudanese because Islam was closer to Christianity, while pagans were 'culturally remote from him.' 1 His comfort with Northern Sudanese is evident in the relaxed conversations he records with shaykhs and others. 'With the Arab', he stated in one of the letter extracts included, 'you can exchange rational ideas on every kind of topic...But with the blacks you can't really interchange ideas, their ideas seldom extending beyond meat, beer and women.' His ability to judge or enter into the civilisation of pagans might have had more to do with limitations in communication. Owen was proficient in Arabic, as all permanent staff had to be. In the non-Arabicspeaking areas officials often also had to learn a vernacular. Owen never did. A secure bridge over the cultural gap which separated him from the "potbellies" (as he sometimes called them) was closed to him.

What many Sudanese and South Sudanese will most want to learn from this memoir is Owen's role in his opposition to the post-war policy of integrating the southern Sudan into the administration of the north. They will find little here. The members of the Sudan Political Service did not air their disagreements in public. Owen argued strenuously for the continuation of British administration in some form in the southern provinces even as the rest of the nation inched towards independence. His personal opposition to government policy receives no mention in Sir James Robertson's earlier memoir, Transition in Africa (London: C. Hurst & Co. 1974), where Owen is in effect airbrushed out of history. Owen very loyally makes no mention of his disagreement with his chief in the main body of this text.

What he felt comes only in a note penned in 1952, included here as a postscript. Here Owen identifies as the main villains of the piece the Egyptians, the Yanks, the Foreign Office, though in fact the persons most responsible for sabotaging the guarantees for the South Owen advocated were the northern Sudanese nationalists eager for the handover of power. Like so many men in provincial administration at the time he did not fully understand that neither the Sudan nor any part of it was Britain's to dispose of. The administration might have been British, but by treaty the country was an Egyptian, not a British, colony.

It is perhaps just as well that Owen wrote his memoir without the aid of selfreflective hindsight. What does emerge very clearly is that his objections to government policy was not that he was prejudiced in favour of southerners and biased against northern Sudanese. Quite the reverse. His objection rested on the uneven development within the country that meant that southern Sudanese would find it difficult to participate as equal partners with their northern countrymen. While Owen might have expressed his frustration and disgust in private to his British colleagues apparently he retained civil relations with his Sudanese counterparts. Some British officials resented their withdrawal from the Sudan, Owen's Sudanese successor as governor of Bahr el-Ghazal later commented, but Owen took it Very nicely,' and was very accommodating in handing over full administrative records.2

Philip Bowcock's experiences as a junior official at the end of the condominium were very different. Even though independence was on the horizon when he entered the Sudan service in 1950 he was still offered a twenty-year contract (independence came five years later). The facility he showed in learning languages while in school was soon employed when he was sent off to the Middle East Centre for Arab Studies in Lebanon to learn Arabic before being posted to Khartoum. His first posting outside of Khartoum was in the Upper Nile Province where, unlike Owen, he was required to govern in the vernacular and soon added Nuer to his languages. He remained in Nuer districts until his post was Sudanised and he left in 1955. Bowcock had the great good fortune to marry a Sudan Medical Service nurse, Brenda Stephens, who accompanied him to his district and on all his treks, provided a mobile medical service, and also learned to speak Nuer. This memoir is in many ways a shared memoir as it incorporates many of her diary entries and notes as well as his.

Much of the account of their few years in Sudan deal with the accelerating pace to independence and the impact that had on his remote districts. Bowcock shared Owen's scepticism about the future but not his condescension towards southern Sudanese. Less than five years into his twenty-year contract Bowcock received his notice. After some hesitation he joined the Colonial Service in Northern Rhodesia (later Zambia), where he added several more vernacular languages to his repertoire. Before African independence finally caught up with him there he studied law and eventually entered the judiciary. The mid-1960s saw him back in Britain starting on another civil service career in the Home Service before going into private law practice.

Despite this series of professional upheavals what emerges from Bowcock's account is not only his discipline and determination to move into new spheres of work but the opportunities for training and practical experience that the Sudan and Colonial Services combined offered. It was an accumulated expertise that was called upon in one last exercise in decolonisation when he was sent to Zimbabwe as an election supervisor in 1980.

Bowcock is able to reflect on a life spent in three different branches of the civil service before going into private practice. He quite clearly rates his experience in the Sudan above that of the Overseas and Home Services. Observing a Britain with local government often uncoordinated between various bodies, agencies and councils he rather nostalgically regrets the absence of the equivalent of a colonial District Commissioner chairing monthly meetings of the District Team.

Bowcock's autobiography is enhanced by a comprehensive set of appendices including a monthly diary, an annual report and handing-over notes from Sudan (of administrative value still to the emerging nation of South Sudan where so many records have been lost during decades of civil war), his Zimbabwe Election Supervisors' Report, and reflections on subsequent returns to Sudan and Zambia. The inclusion of this contemporary writing adds substantially to this invaluable historical source for the citizens of the countries in which he served as well as for future researchers.

1. Francis M. Deng and M.W. Daly Bonds of Silk: The Human Factor in the British Administration of the Sudan East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1989, p.193.
2. Francis M. Deng and M.W. Daly op. cit. p.144.

British Empire Book
Author
Richard Owen
Published
2016
Pages
320
Publisher
Matador
ISBN
1785890247
Availability
Abebooks
Amazon
British Empire Book
Author
Philip Bowcock
Published
2015
Pages
352
Publisher
Radcliffe Press
ISBN
1784534382
Availability
Abebooks
Amazon


Library




Share