British Empire Article

Courtesy of OSPA

by David Nicoll-Griffith
A Chosen Career
Union Castle Line
So far as I know, none of my relations had any connection with the Colonial Service. I was attracted to it for a different reason. As a child I lived on the Dorset coast. In those days almost everyone travelled by sea and I used to watch the ocean liners as they sailed past the Isle of Wight, outward bound from Southampton to what I imagined must be exotic and wonderful places; I loved the sea and I wanted to go with them.

When I was sent away to boarding school, I would see at Waterloo, then a depressing station of smoke and grime, a huge poster. It showed a lilac-hulled liner on a peacock blue sea, with a palm-fringed shore and mountains in the background. Above and below were the words "Union-Castle line to South and East Africa. Sailings from Southampton every Thursday at 4pm".

At school I enjoyed foreign languages, eventually specialising in them up to university. The study of a modern language at that level includes the literature, philosophy, and history of the country as well. From the way that great writers expressed themselves through their language I felt that I could understand why the French and the Germans, for example, were so different and why they thought the way they did. It seemed to me that the character of the language reflected the character and outlook of the people themselves, and this aspect I found to be particularly interesting.

When I came to choose a career I wanted one which would not only take me overseas but also concern itself with better understanding between people of different cultures. Parents and family friends thought that I should try for the Foreign Service, the most prestigious of careers overseas, so I applied for it.The first hurdle was a fearfully difficult written examination which, if one passed, would be followed by a ghastly weekend at a country house where one's every move would be scrutinised and one's reactions constantly tested. Fortunately, having failed the written, I was spared this ordeal!

I also applied for the Colonial Service, and was especially attracted to the idea of selection by interview. But there was more to it than that. I had all along been dubious about being suited to the formality of the Foreign Service. I feared that individuality would be smothered by the requirement of political conformity, and that it would be like a career in a straitjacket. The Colonial Service, by contrast, seemed to offer wider horizons, greater freedom of action and plenty of opportunity for individual contribution.

In applying for the service, one could put down three choices of territory. I asked for Kenya, where there was a good racial/ethnic mix (African, Asian, European, Arab) and a country of immense variety. I also put down Mauritius (French speaking) and Cyprus (Greek versus Turk, and I had done some ancient Greek at School!), but neither of these ever had vacancies for junior officers.

I was duly sent out to Kenya as a District Officer cadet, returning on my first leave home after three and a half years. I had some reason to call at the Foreign Office, and my request was dealt with by a young man of about my own age. I asked him how he liked the Foreign Service. He said that he had spent most of his time at a desk doing little more than rubber-stamping documents, and he wondered whether he had made the right choice. When I told him of my experiences in Kenya, colourful and varied as they were, he seemed quite envious.

As for me I had no regrets at having missed that country house weekend, and in all the years since I have felt sure that the Colonial Service was the best career I could have had, the ten years that it lasted having been the most interesting and memorable of my life.

Colonial Map
1920 Map of Kenya
Colony Profile
Originally Published
OSPA Journal 79: May 2000


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