Sir Geoffrey Colby


In 1947 Colby was created CMG and appointed governor and commander-in-chief of the Nyasaland protectorate, with effect from the following year. Promoted KCMG in 1949, he was governor of Nyasaland from April 1948 to March 1956. Among the important issues he dealt with, four dominated: economic development, a major food crisis, African land-hunger, and the imposition of a federation with the two Rhodesias.

Nyasaland was a significantly underdeveloped country, particularly in respect of African production. Colby was quick in formulating a development strategy. Since the private sector was small, most development had to be government-induced, and this required that public revenue be substantially increased. Raising this revenue was at the heart of the strategy which included more supervisory staff, especially for natural resources and public works departments; improving communications; expanding private enterprise; and increasing agricultural production, both expatriate--mainly tea and tobacco--and African, primarily by changing the subsistence economy to a cash economy, principally through the production of cotton, maize, and groundnuts.

Nyasaland, a densely populated country, was vulnerable to food shortages, and in the 1949-50 season the rains failed and repeatedly replanted maize, the staple food crop, failed to germinate. In a number of areas in the south people died of hunger. Colby's reaction was swift and positive. He handled the immediate food problem by requisitioning surplus rice from the north, importing large quantities of maize from other countries, encouraging local planting of quick-growing alternative food crops, and opening food distribution centres. As longer-term measures, and to lessen the possibility of future drought causing famine, he introduced legislation to ensure the annual early preparation of gardens so that they were ready for any rain that did fall, and he created bulk food storage facilities. By his quick and determined action a far worse situation was avoided and the danger of future famine was lessened.

Large parts of the Shire highlands in southern Nyasaland were owned by expatriate landowners, or often by large overseas companies. Although much of this land was used for cultivating tea and tobacco, large areas were left undeveloped and unoccupied save by unprotected African tenants. Closely surrounding many of these estates were densely populated African village areas. In this situation Colby foresaw the probability of dangerous, racially based, political conflict. He tackled this problem by very considerably reducing the areas in private ownership and converting them into trust land on which he resettled Africans from the congested areas. To accomplish this he badgered the British government for funds to purchase private land, and he pressed the owners to reduce their prices to acceptable levels.

During Colby's governorship the question--intermittently raised since the early 1930s--of closer association between the two Rhodesias and Nyasaland resurfaced. Personally opposed to amalgamation or federation, he argued that existing forms of inter-territorial co-operation were sufficient for the countries' needs. He was convinced that Nyasaland could stand on its own economic feet and did not need the formal support of other countries. Moreover, as early as June 1948 he was convinced that 'African opinion, if ... canvassed, would be solidly against it' (Baker, 272). His arguments were rejected and federation was imposed in 1953 against the strongly expressed wishes of the African population. Thereafter his strategy was to derive as much benefit as possible from the federation and at the same time strongly resist any attempts to increase its powers. He believed that unless serious steps were taken by the Southern Rhodesian and federal governments to reduce racial discrimination the federation would fail. He was right, and it was abolished in 1963.


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