|Michael and Anne Tibbs have broken new ground in colonial memorabilia with
their publication of A Sudan Sunset, a simple, story of how a District
Commissioner and his young wife coped with their time in the outback of Kordofan
Province in the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan.
At the philosophical and sentimental level, District Commissioners in the Sudan
Political Service were type-cast - fair minded, liberally educated and freely accessible agents of the Government in Khartoum. They did what was right by their own lights and
tackled their various administrative duties in their Districts with minimal resort to the
bureaucracy of Central Government. For months in the rainy season, many roads were
impassable to lorry traffic. Postal services were infrequent. Basic public utilities including
a system of telegraph and power supply were generally non-existent in the outlying
districts. The measure of success for a District Commissioner was reflected in the number
of days spent on trek in the bush and his ability to summarise succinctly the state of play in
his district in his monthly report to his Provincial Governor.
The required qualifications for substantive appointment were simply a pass mark in a
Government examination in Arabic and in the elements of Sudan Statute law. A few
officers took an exceptional interest in magisterial work and others learned the hard way to
build laterite roads and to construct substantial buildings, .schools and dispensaries. Some
planted rose gardens and grew fruit and vegetables in spare time. Clever Provincial
Governors shuffled the pack from time to time to spread the benefits of particular
demonstrated talents in the Districts. Michael Tibbs was an all-rounder.
The social round for British officers and their families stationed in remote Districts was
necessarily limited and of their own making. They were supported by locally
knowledgeable and experienced Mamurs, non-commissioned administrators raised and
paid in the Turkish tradition to take care of routine, and by detachments of the Sudan
Police and clerical services.
Michael and Anne Tibbs write enthusiastically of the warmth of their welcome into
Sudanese homes and family life. They shared with the people their festivals, their joys and
sorrows, their expectations and their successes and failures. Many a glass of sweet tea and
bitter coffee were consumed in passing the time of the day with 'the poor man at the gate'.
During days of trekking on horseback with the Baggara. the Tibbs would have discussed
the origins of the cosmos, the meaning of the stars in the sky, tribal folk lore and customs,
the rains, the crops and cattle. This was the common experience of officers in the Political
Service throughout their careers and accounts, I like to assume, for the lasting friendships
between the British in retirement and the Sudanese which have survived the
recriminations, the sadness and the disappointment which have soured Anglo-Sudanese
relationships for half a century.
When the sun set on British administration in the Sudan, deci.sions were taken by the
Co-domini with scant reference to the Sudan Civil Service or to the wishes of the Sudanese
in the Provinces.
Michael and Anne Tibbs confirm my understanding that the fellahin and their tribal
leaders in Kordofan and Darfur never comprehended the reasons for the abrupt departure
of their trusted British District Commissioners although they were not opposed to self
government or independence of their country. Most of us simply worked on in our offices,
calmly and undismayed, until the day appointed by the Co-domini for our departure.
Within a matter of months, the established administration was showing signs of breaking
down. I am not at all sure that the Sudan Political Service was, in any sense, successful in
preparing the Sudanese for .self-government. The highly personali.sed British prefectorial
system in the Provinces has not turned out to be a sound foundation upon which to build a
new Sudan. I do not think that it was ever intended to be and the Colonial Office had no
better results elsewhere in Africa despite an intensive training programme for indigenous
civil servants extending over twenty years.
Michael and Anne have provided historians and political scientists with a ball by ball
account of the personal involvement of a young British family in the government of a
racially volatile and potentially explosive District in Western Kordofan during the run up
to independence. Anne herself has drawn all the fascinating illustrations which illuminate the text which has been largely knitted together with extracts of letters sent by the Tibbs to
their families and friends at home in the early fifties. Anne has brilliantly captured in her
drawings and photographs a record of life in the Districts as we knew it in the days of the
Politics and the rights and wrongs of the Sudan's fifty years dependence upon the
Condominium have no place in this book. The Tibbs simply want to thank the Sudanese
for the privilege of working with them and to pass on the story to their grandchildren.
Nowadays, it is the fashion to find some good in colonialism after all. This superb plain
tale will provide searchers after truth with plenty of ammunition to refute the view that the
British Empire was governed by Di.strict Officers 'strutting through the tropics in solar
topees'. The Tibbs have succeeded in elevating the few of us still alive to the status of
legend in our time.