British Empire Article

Courtesy of OSPA

by Dr Jonathan Lawley (Northern Rhodesia/Zambia 1959 - 1969)
These are some extracts from a fuller account given in the Commonwealth Current Affairs Journal: The Round Table. The full version is available here

Provincial and District Administration

I soon concluded that the administration was appropriate to the country's needs. It needs to be borne in mind that in 1960 Northern Rhodesia had been a colony for less than 40 years. Prior to that, from the time of the first traders and missionaries at the beginning of the 20th century, the country had been ruled by Cecil Rhodes' British South Africa Company.

Achievements of the British Colonial Service:
A Retrospective View
British South Africa Company
Consequently, though there was a relatively sophisticated and prosperous copper mining industry, the level of local indigenous development throughout the country was low. Primary school education for blacks was near universal but there were only two secondary schools. For technical skills both on the mines and elsewhere, the country depended on whites, either from the UK or from South Africa. Despite the shortage of blacks with even a full primary education, they were heavily involved in the lower levels of the civil service and were making rapid progress. At rural district headquarters, or bomas as they were known, the entire clerical staff was black and most had at least one black executive officer. The rural administration was entirely dependent on its local staff. In my first posting we were no more than a District Commissioner (DC) and two DOs in a district with a population of around 50,000. Our principal role was to train local staff within the overall context of working towards the country's independence.

Achievements of the British Colonial Service:
A Retrospective View
Mwinilunga Boma
The bomas normally also housed a number of other civil servants, such as an agricultural and veterinary officer, and perhaps staff working for the Public Works Department. Though theoretically we administrators coordinated their activities and those of other government departments, they operated independently while we concentrated on maintaining the closest possible contact with the people through the chiefs and their village headmen as well as through the Native or Local Authority. We were also responsible for training central and local government staff and maintaining their efficiency. Overall, the whole structure of government was simple and cost-effective.

I soon became aware that the main focus of a cadet's work was direct contact with the people in the villages. One would normally be expected to spend at least a third of the time on tour, living under canvas and going from village to village in the chief's areas. To be effective you needed to be fluent in the local language so learning it had to be the first priority. Far from being top-down, the way things worked was much more the other way round and the greatest importance was given to listening to and understanding the preoccupations of local village people. All this was conducted in collaboration with traditional authority represented by the chief and the local village headman. He and his assessors--with whom he dispensed justice--normally accompanied us on tour. The main emphasis was on working with and through local culture and customs in accordance with the established Lugardian principle of indirect rule. There was no question whatsoever of DOs pushing British values or culture or the English language. The main aim of village to village touring was to gain an understanding of local issues and of what preoccupied local chiefs and their people. District Officers also had a judicial role of reviewing cases which had been decided in the local chief's court. They had the power to change rulings but seldom used it. Law and order and crime prevention were in the hands of six or so chief's Kapasus or tribal police. They seldom had much work to do in a rural area where crime levels were incredibly low under a system that was understood and accepted by everyone. Except in the case of murder, the Northern Rhodesian Police did not operate in rural areas.

Achievements of the British Colonial Service:
A Retrospective View
Tribal Chiefs
The other main preoccupation for DOs operating in a chief's area was the effectiveness of the Native Authority or local council of all the traditional chiefs in the district in its role of providing services and collecting taxes. Beyond local government, justice and good administration, a DO's concerns would include public health, education, medical facilities through rural clinics, and good agricultural practice and livestock management. Much emphasis in the Southern Province was in the priority we gave to supporting and encouraging good practice in the maintenance of health and hygiene. In all this we hoped to gain the confidence of the people over matters such as medical treatment for small children with measles. All too often rural people would rely on traditional healers and risk their children's lives by seeking modern medical treatment only as a last resort or after one of the children had died. Of course education was a prime concern for everybody. I always visited the local school when on tour and talked to teachers and children. It was a continuing wonder how in most rural areas even small children would walk long distances there and back to school every day and still show great enthusiasm to learn.

Achievements of the British Colonial Service:
A Retrospective View
Training School
Of prime concern always was the state of the rains and the prospect of a good harvest. Featuring prominently in a DO's report would be any concerns over a poor harvest and the possibility that famine relief might be needed. In the Southern Province we were concerned to move away from prevailing wasteful and destructive subsistence agriculture by supporting the Agriculture Department's efforts to train so called 'improved farmers'. We had the benefit of a service unique to the country, the District Messengers. They were nearly always local men whose vital role can be described as explaining the administration to the people and the people to the administration. They were a dedicated loyal group of about 30 handpicked uniformed and disciplined men in every district of the country who enjoyed high prestige and the complete confidence of chiefs and administrators. Most important of all in the DO's relations with the people was a strong culture of mutual respect.

In Retrospect

I have returned to Zambia many times since leaving in 1969 and have never heard a word of criticism of British rule. Quite the contrary. During a visit to the village of my late manservant, the headman said that Britons and Zambians were brothers. I have every reason to believe that the relationship is similar in neighbouring Malawi, which I have visited several times. I lived for two years in Mauritius, which was taken from the French in 1810, in the mid-1970s. The British involvement reflects the fact that we always put the peoples' interests first. Even the Franco-Mauritians preferred to think of themselves as British rather than French. In that country we retained French as the official language and retained the Code Napoleon as the basic law of the land. Our fostering of all the different cultures including Hindu, Muslim, Chinese, Creole and French has made for a highly successful, prosperous country where cultural diversity and the high-level education which we encouraged and promoted are its main sources of strength. They combine with democracy and a free press to make it the most prosperous African country.

Achievements of the British Colonial Service:
A Retrospective View
Polio Clinic
What were the key factors in making a success? I think mainly that it was that we always respected the local culture, thus giving the locals space to take pride in their own cultures and develop their own strengths. We never attempted to push our culture, value system or language down local throats. I have seen enough of Francophone Africa to recognise that in Madagascar, for instance, the French are still resented for these very reasons and a new strong relationship with Britain sought. In another African country I know well, Mozambique, everyone is delighted that it is now a member of the Commonwealth. The same goes for Cameroon, where especially in the former West Cameroon ties with Britain and the Commonwealth are very strong.

Looking back now it seems to me that despite handing over Independence to countries such as Zambia before, in our terms, they were ready for it, nevertheless it has to be admitted that there is something to be said for people learning from their own mistakes. It has to be said too that for those of us on the ground our doubts about early independence arose because of our concern for the people's welfare, rather than because we wanted to see British power per se retained.

Achievements of the British Colonial Service:
A Retrospective View
Irrigation Projects
In Northern Rhodesia, in barely half a century we had brought peace and prosperity, statehood, education, infrastructure, enterprise, and the rule of law and democracy. We had united a tribally diverse country and administered through local institutions in a way that was acceptable to the vast bulk of the population. We were not brutal, nor were we corrupt. However, such was the haste in handing over independence to Northern Rhodesia that we did not have enough time to nurture the undoubted local flair for commercial enterprise. The field was left, in the rural areas, mainly to Asian expatriates. Furthermore, the espousal of socialism by the nationalists made it more difficult for it to discover its own entrepreneurial strengths and slowed things down considerably. However the new Zambia, having reached its own conclusions, is now highly entrepreneurial. Most entrepreneurs are women. For this I think we can take some credit due to our opposition in colonial times to prevailing discrimination against women and girls.

Also contrary to some current perceptions, we did not enrich ourselves through our African colonies. In fact, it was the expense of running them that was one of the factors in hastening our departure.

The wonder is that the achievements of the colonial period were in the teeth of an indifferent and sometimes hostile public opinion in Britain. It might even be concluded that pride in our global role in bringing countries to maturity and independence in the modern world coincided with our no longer being able to afford the cost.

Achievements of the British Colonial Service:
A Retrospective View
Presentation, 1937
It would not be wrong to conclude that the run-up to independence was a very difficult one for us in the PA in Northern Rhodesia. Besides the certain knowledge that the country was not ready for it was the continuing frustration that what we were trying to achieve in the face of great difficulty was both misunderstood and misrepresented in Britain. Certainly there was no consensus that we were doing a fine job. Mainly I think there was indifference on the part of the British public. Particularly irritating were the antics of politicians such as John Stonehouse and others who went on so-called 'fact-finding' tours aimed ostensibly at exposing our iniquities and by implication suggesting that we hand over the reins of government immediately. Frequently there was the assumption that we were cruelly suppressing the local people and sometimes that we were living a life of luxury and indulging a desire to dominate and bully fellow human beings who were not in a position to defend themselves. I think a lot depended on whether the critics had spent a significant part of their life living in a foreign country. Overall, there seems to have been a very wide failure to appreciate fully the issues and the realities. On top of all this was the relentlessly hostile rhetoric from the United States, with its misguided and inappropriate equation of Africa with its own fight for independence. In the face of all this, it says a lot for the quality of our leadership in the form of an outstanding Governor Sir Evelyn Hone and his PCs that we managed to remain steady on our course and achieve independence with maximum goodwill and virtually no violence directed at us. Unlike the French there was no question of conditions aimed at securing economic dominance or any sort of political or cultural position. On the contrary, it seemed to me that rather than protecting our future position we were prepared almost naively to give everything away with independence.

When we limped exhausted over the line, it was possible to feel great pride in what we had achieved in a very short time. We had remained calm and retained our perspective. We had left a sound though depleted administrative structure and the full coffers which we regarded as important. Race relations were excellent and the PA retained the people's confidence.

Perceptions and Realities

From what I saw in the post-independence years it was the people in the civil service whom we had worked with and trained over the years in the bomas who saved the country. The great majority maintained the traditions of sound and incorrupt administration that they had operated with us over the years.

Achievements of the British Colonial Service:
A Retrospective View
Post-Imperial Friendship
Another factor that I think saved the day is the utmost goodwill and warmth which had always existed between Zambians and Britons. The relationships helped nurture shared values on things such as free speech, tolerance and the rule of law. Despite the cultural differences the Zambians and the British understand each other and this is good for continuing friendship and excellent business relationships.

On the British home front, I appreciate that changing well-ingrained conceptions of what the Colonial Service was in its last years is a formidable task. However, such is the level of misconception that those of us who are in a position to gainsay it must keep going. Perhaps we can point out particularly to the academics that, in ways which we condemn in others, particular instances are being taken from the colonial period without regard to time or place, and applied to the whole. Perhaps those who think they are espousing the truth can be persuaded to pause to reflect that, on the contrary, they might just be perpetrating falsehood and distortion. Those who see themselves as supporting the little man might just possibly come to see that it was us in the administration who were his genuine protector.

If the verdict on the British role is to be left to the former colonised we can take comfort that from them comes goodwill and a continuing desire to maintain and strengthen the association directly and through the Commonwealth.

It is my firm opinion that in our colonial role we helped bring out the best in the people we colonised. Despite our stay in several countries being limited to a few decades, we have left a legacy of the wherewithal for achievement in the modern world. With this has come new self-confidence. These things have made for quite extraordinary progress in most of our former colonies in a very short time. It is very clear to me that an ability to learn fast and to embrace change are two great African strengths which assure our former colonies of their potential to achieve great things. We helped them to recognise this. I am mindful too that whereas we in the Colonial Service played our part in bringing about change and influencing African life and culture we on our side have in turn been changed and deeply influenced by Africa.

Colonial Map
British Empire Map, 1897
Colony Profile
Northern Rhodesia
Originally Published
OSPA Journal 110: October 2015
Round Table: Volume 104, Issue 3, 2015


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