British Empire Article

Courtesy of OSPA

by Anthony Kirk-Greene
Sanders and Bones
Just over twenty-five years ago I sought help over the Colonial Service in fiction from the Overseas Pensioner Journal. Some of the data gathered was incorporated into my pan-departmental contribution The Colonial Service in the Novel presented at the conference organised by J H Smith in 1999 as part of the programme to mark the closing of the Colonial Service. In my first exploration of how the Colonial Service was portrayed in the novel, I emphasized how such novels traditionally have "the ability to open a window on the personal as well as the public life, the ideas and ideals, the views and values of the Colonial Service, in a way that no textbook on or history of colonial administration can ever do".

Without becoming involved in any controversial Eng Lit discourse on 'when is a novel not a novel?' it is nevertheless helpful to bear in mind that many of the DO novels contain a sizeable measure of autobiographical material because the novelist is himself a DO. Post-colonial literary studies, inspired by Jeffrey Richards' Imperialism and Juvenile Literature (1999), have devoted a lot of attention to the influence of juvenile literature and adolescent adventure tales on the mind and imperial ambition of British youth in the half-century between the triumphalism of Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee and the end of World War II. Novelists like G A Henty and Rider Haggard, as well of course as Rudyard Kipling, are widely credited with having helped, in Charles Allen's estimate, "to despatch generations of English, Scots and Irish Protestant gentlemen off to do their bit in the farthest reaches of the British Empire". It is interesting to note that among the most widely read - excluding juvenile readership magazines like the Boys' Own Paper - and cited as influential by young men who had the Colonial Service in their sights as a likely career, were Sanders of the River (1911), including its later film version, K G Bradley's The Diary of a District Officer (1943); and Arthur Grimble's A Pattern of Islands (1952), this time reinforced by a radio presentation. Dedicated to "The District Officers of the Colonial Administrative Service and their long-suffering wives", reprinted five times in its first five months, and translated into eight languages, the last-named soon sold half a million copies. Both Bradley and Grimble are examples of the 'factitious' genre of memoir-novel hybrids. But because Grimble's book was too much a latecomer to make the major impact on recruitment that the Bradley 'novel' had done a decade earlier, virtually coinciding with the replacement of the Colonial Service by HMOCS in 1954, and because its location was the Pacific and not the Africa of our focus here, it is to The Diary of a District Officer and Sanders of the River that we turn first. Bradley's book was first published in 1943, in a war-time edition, and then reprinted in hardback in 1947. This was the peak period of modern CAS recruitment.
A Pattern of Islands

It was mentioned as an influence by more CAS applicants than any other written source. Parts of it had already appeared in that epitome of imperial short story writing, Blackwood's Magazine, back numbers of which graced many a colonial club library. "A narrative of this kind". Lord Hailey noted, "serves better than any formal record to illustrate the work such an officer does and the place he fills in the life of the people". If Bradley's book was not designated as a novel pur sang, its story-telling nevertheless generated as much eager reader-attention and offered as much entertainment as any novel, and in the case of the image of the DO in Africa it has long been recognized as an influential story-portrait of this work.

Bradley's autobiography-cum-novel shared its status as a primary source of inspiration in the putative DO with Edgar Wallace's Sanders novels. There were eleven of these in all, with titles like Sandi the King-Maker, Sanders and Again Sanders, featuring not only Mr Commissioner Sanders but also his military side-kicks, Capt Hamilton and Lieut Tibbetts (Bones) as well as the local Chief Bosambo, with the scenario encapsulated in the initial Sanders of the River. Published in 1911, it swept to the fore in the potential DO's mind with Alexander Korda's film version of 1935. For most Britons in the 1920s and 1930s to whom the work of a DO in Africa meant anything at all, it meant Sanders. However 'juju in the jungle' their setting and 'bravely alone in Darkest Africa' their eponymous hero, these adventure novels established Sanders in Britain's inter-war popular culture as the instantly recognizable symbol of the colonial administrator. Such a hypothesis was reinforced when in 1951 the Sunday Express, as John Lewis-Barned quotes in his autobiography, found it unnecessary to elaborate on careers overseas beyond its says-it-all headline of "Sanders of the River: Still the Best Job for a British Boy".

Sandi the Kingmaker
Sanders, who must have been in his early thirties when he was posted to his West African territory "the land which curves along the border of Togo", was no newcomer to that continent: "Mr Commissioner Sanders had graduated to West Central Africa by easy stages... He had met the Basuto, the Zulu, the Fingo, the Pondo, the Matabele, Mashona, Barotse, Hottentot and Bechuana, then northward to the Congo, eastward to Masai, and finally by way of the pigmy people he came to his own land" (Southern Nigeria). In the physical description of his DC hero, Edgar Wallace left little to the imagination of Hollywood: "He stood by the steersman, a slim and dapper figure in spotless white, his pith helmet at a rakish angle, for an elephant fly had bitten him on the forehead the night before, and the lump it had induced was painful to the touch. Between his regular, white teeth was a long, black cheroot". Of medium height, spare and clean-shaven, Sanders would sit "cross-legged on his canvas chair, chewing an unsmoked cigar and drawing little patterns with his ebony stick on the sand". At his hip, he carried a Browning in a leather holster: "the grip was shiny with use". Generally abstemious, he enjoyed champagne and port on special occasions: "O Abiboo (Habibu), bring me from the cold cellar one bottle of the wine with the golden end and also one bottle of the wine with the dust of many days". Two of Sanders' features are emphasised time and time again: his eyes, "cold and prohibitive", and the steely timbre of his voice when he spoke as the Keeper of the King's Peace, "bleak and cold". Both constituted danger signals to a transgressor, whether legal or social. On such occasions Sanders' voice had "the quality of an ice-cold razor", as he addressed the wrong-doer with "his hard little smile"; and "his cold eyes were unnerving". The secret of Sandi the Kingmaker's administration lay in its simplicity and strength. "I am Sandi, who sits for king on the Great River", he informed the paramount chief of Ochori. "I am a man quick to kill, and no respecter of kings or chiefs".

Closely bound up with his uncanny intimacy of the people and problems of his area was Sanders' acquaintance with the local language. Typically, the DC "did not favour coast English", always insisting on speaking coast Arabic, "a language allowing of nice distinctions". Sanders was a fluent speaker rather than a master of the language: "In the black land which Sanders governed, 800 words form an extensive vocabulary". Sanders supplemented his own tireless touring with "a large number of native agents who kept him in touch with events of interest to himself and his government". These formed "so competent an intelligence service that at any moment he could have given a rough survey of the social and economic conditions of every one of the 23 trivial communities it was his job to govern". Thus informed, Sanders was able to learn of a rumour almost before it was born, to scent trouble before it was cooked up. Sanders' attitude towards the officials at headquarters hardly changed among DOs down the years. Like his field colleagues throughout the Colonial Service, he had little love for the artificial life of the capital: "The officers of the territories regarded a summons to attend at this unholy place with the same enthusiasm as the mother of a family might look upon an invitation to the White House if it was quarantined for measles". In Whitehall, few could claim to rival the Sanders legend: "Sanders was a tradition at the Foreign Office". So there we have Mr Commissioner Sanders, spare of limb, short on speech and stern to behold, self-controlled, self-possessed and self-reliant, the archetypal African administrator of English fiction. While few colonial administrators alive might care to recognise all of themselves in this image - and fewer still, of course, after the professionalisation of the Colonial Administrative Service from 1926 - there would not be many on the West Coast (and likely elsewhere) who did not at times find echoes of the Sanders saga in their work. If Sanders was no more than a stereotype, at least it was a stereotype that had its roots in fact as well as in fiction.

A rumour of drums
Beyond this duo of foundation 'fiction' sources for the study of the DO in Africa, K G Bradley and Edgar Wallace, four working categories of novelists can be distinguished. The first is the surprising number of DOs who, sometimes in their retirement but frequently while still in their job, decided to write a novel about the life of a DO, either under their own name or using a pseudonym. Among them were the Tanganyika DO, K A Dobson, with no less than four East African novels to his credit, one pointedly titled District Commissioner (1954), and M Kittermaster, a skilful miniaturist of Nyasaland boma life, one of whose novels is simply called District Officer (1957). H Best's A Rumour of Drums (1962) and W Fowler's Harama (1962) are both set in N Nigeria, while I Brook's (a pseudonym for I Brinkworth) Jimmy Riddle (1961) and The Black List (1962) are located in W Nigeria. From an older generation, A C G Hastings wrote two DO novels about Nigeria, Gone Native (1928) and Jane's Way (1936). In the latter the DO, Allen, has little time for or interest in anything other than his job, "his work was waiting for him and work was the main thing" ... until, of course, he meets Jane. M Taafe's (a pseudonym for DC R A J Maguire) The Dark Glass (1963) is set in Tanganyika.

Looking into this impressive list of DO novelists for images of the DO, Dobson's District Commissioner opens with a personality clash between Fenton and Redmayne, from whom he is to take over Kulago district. Fenton's personal troubles, exacerbated by "the loves and hates of small town life", dominate the story. The two DOs are depicted as opposites, both of them the sort of characters quickly recognizable by 'real life' DOs from among colleagues they have known. Redmayne is portrayed as impressive, "tall and big, suave and genial with everyone - bit of a window-dresser but efficient, to give him his due. People believed in him, HQ believed in him. He talked big, too, contriving to give the impression that difficulties were nothing to him, that he was taking the strong line". Fenton, on the other hand, "could not be like that. Physically he was small and light... Compared with his predecessor he felt he must look insignificant. He was sure he knew his job Just as well, but he could not bluster, he could not pretend confidence that he did not feel, he could not advertise what he did not believe in".

In Kittermaster's Katakala the DC, Worthington, has made himself something of an expert on witchcraft cases, cleverly exploiting his gift for ventriloquism and cashing in on his need for a glass eye. "This made his stare rather forbidding, since the Africans were never quite sure which eye was looking at them". An autocratic monarch, Worthington used to tour his district in style, "his progress from village to village was like that of an Oriental potentate". In Best's novel, the theme is once again of a sharp antipathy between two DOs, Ian Keith on his second tour returning from leave, and his senior Pettibone, a brilliant egomaniac, who jealously guards his kingdom against every hint of interference with his personal rule: "White men have a knack of creating difficulties where none existed before". The inevitable physical and mental silences of the tropics raises the personal irritations into a conflict between ideals and values, "an absorbing duel to the death, each DO becoming harshly primitive as the civilized veneer is stripped away". As for W Fowler, he presents a cast of over twenty CS characters in his novel, among them half-a-dozen DOs, one of whom. Wood, is the narrator. The seniormost DO, "sallow after years in the tropics, was below average height but straight and compactly built... A friendly smile enlivened his face as he came forward to meet me". Another DO was "a handsome man with an assured manner", who was so anxious about his health that "at night he drank hot milk inventions, and who had a special nerve tonic sent out by the Army and Navy Stores". Behind the "domineering and ruthless" image he was plain fussy. Jimmy Riddle is the name of the DO in I Brooks' eponymous novel, "quite a man, a sort of Sanders of the River", who is visited by a formidable female Westminster MP, Iris Pratt.

A second group of novelists is the relatively, perhaps surprisingly, large number of established authors who took the DO in Africa as the central character in at least one of their novels. In literary ranking, the list is headed by Joyce Cary. (Unlike colonial Malaya and Hong Kong, Africa never earned the attention of that masterly story-teller, W Somerset Maugham - for better or for worse.) What is more, Cary also properly belongs to the previous group of novelists, those who were at one time a DO. His five African novels, not published until the 1930s and one posthumously in 1974, were all set in Nigeria, where he had been a DO during World War I. He left early, having learned he could earn infinitely more money by selling fiction to magazines like the Saturday Evening Post at almost a year's CS salary for one story. The DO also appears in Cary's collection of short stories Spring Song (1960), and is the principal character of one of his unpublished novels, Daventry.

In Cary's first African novel Aissa Saved (1932), the DO Bradgate is a secondary but authentic character behind Aissa. "Petitioners usually found it easy to see Bradgate because he made a rule that when he was on trek anyone could approach him at any time", thereby by-passing his parasitic office staff. In An American Visitor (1933), Cary reflected on how some of the American missionaries he had met in N Nigeria looked on the DO as "the equivalent of anti-Christ, whose crimes were that he had left native religion alone, that he drank two whiskies and sodas every evening, above all he represented the British Empire and administered the law". In The African Witch (1936), the problem faced by the DOs Burwash and Eisk is with a "nationalist spell-binder", Aladai, educated at Oxford. The 'Scotch Club' evenings are powerfully portrayed. Cock Jarvis (1974) appeared posthumously, based on one of Cary's one-time colleagues in Nigeria. Cary could never quite complete his portrait, and at the end of twelve years and half a million words he put it aside. Yet he felt it contained "some of the best stuff I ever wrote". Certainly as a portrait of one of the larger-than-life characters of that early period. Cock Jarvis is unrivalled.

Mister Johnson
But the greatest of Cary's African novels, and an unsurpassed presentation of the various kinds of DO so familiar to DOs serving right up to the 1960s, is Mister Johnson (1939). If the principal character is arguably the Nigerian clerk Mr Johnson, he shares centre-stage with a galaxy of instantly recognizable DOs: the senior Bulteel, "a little, fat, bald man with a pink head and a small white moustache"; the burnt-out Blore, "a short, fat man with a snub nose and gold spectacles, [who] walks with a hasty shuffle like one pushing his feet through deep slush... bald and pensive as a Buddha... his expression is mild and benign... a deeply reverential man"; the young and ambitious careerist Tring, "one of those people who can always catch the right eye at the right time"; and as co-star the young enthusiastic bush ADO, Rudbeck, "a modest young man, ready to take knowledge from his seniors. He soaks it in unconsciously and has picked up even mannerisms from his various DOs". His senior DO, Blore, with his passions for tax assessment and "always collecting statistics", has no time for Rudbeck's despisal of office work and his driving passions for roads, which Blore looks on as "the ruin of Africa and a typical threat to established things". Always kind and courteous to his African clerks, Blore has seen it all before and takes comfort from the belief that nothing - and neither his seniors nor his junior ADOs - can last for ever. Tring is a "popular young man", assigned to the provincial office, "thin, small, handsome, with smooth fair cheeks and blue eyes. His shirt is clean every day, his shorts are pressed down the sides so that they stand out like a Greek guard's kilt. He is hard-working, shrewd, even-tempered, obliging, and already people say of him 'Tring will get on, he's the stuff for a Chief Secretary'". Rudbeck respects Tring's mind but has no wish to be posted to provincial HQ and leave his beloved road project behind. He has recently married Celia, who is determined "to be useful to him, an encouragement and an inspiration", but he soon finds her getting in the way of his total commitment to the new road, "work which he enjoys more than play and at which he works harder". As for Bulteel, "like all old officials in the world he hates a fuss or a scandal" - just what the eagle-eyed Tring discovers in the murky account books of expenditure on the road kept by Rudbeck's clerk, Mr Johnson, and accordingly reports the misdemeanour to Bulteel. The latter saves his ADO by removing words like "embezzlement" and "forgery" from Tring's report before it is sent off to the Chief Secretary and substituting "unorthodox accounting for expenditure". Cary emerges as the second-to-none memorialist of the early inter-war DO in Africa. No DO can have any difficulty in identifying Cary's DOs from his own mental Staff List.

Tribe That Lost Its Head
Other major novelists who have featured the DO among their characters include Gerald Hanley, in his The Consul at Sunset (1957); Nicholas Monsarrat, with his The Tribe that Lost its Head (1956) and its follow-up Richer than All his Tribe (1968); and Simon Raven's The Feathers of Death (1959), in which Matthew, the DO Gikumo, is said to be based on a well-known DO of the 1950s in Kenya. Written round that rich source for novelists, the Mau Mau uprising, Elspeth Huxley's A Thing to Love (1954) is arguably superior to the American novelist Robert Ruark's Something of Value (1955) and Uhuru (1962), though the DO appears in them all. Structurally, Peter Dickinson's Tefuga (1986) is somewhat oblique, for it focuses on the DO in early N. Nigeria through the mechanics of a film-maker going out in the 1980s to make a film about the 1920s. The novel by the prize-winning Canadian M. G. Vassanji, A Book of Secrets (1994), is set in Tanganyika, where the diary of the DO Alfred Corbin unlocks stories and secrets from seventy years ago.

When Gerald Hanley's The Consul at Sunset appeared in 1957, it was hailed by the Evening Standard as Africa taking over where Kipling left off. Set in Somaliland, "the hot, god-forsaken African desert", it is essentially a novel about colonial administrators, with "the whole problem of governing natives portrayed in all its human intensity, sexual as well as social". Because this is Somaliland in the late 1940s, the civil administration temporarily includes military personnel serving as political officers, such as Captain Milton, who gets mixed up in a disastrous relationship with a Somali woman. However, Captain Sole, the leading character, is a regular DO, though keen to give it up, "a career he had so idly chosen". "I can't believe in my job any more, I mean as an official. I can't get near the people. I'm either the big, kindly father to them, or I must punish them, often when I don't want to". On the other hand, for his superior, Colonel Casey, a regular army officer, "the Empire was a sacred thing, a sacred club of which he was a member, a man conscious of certain responsibilities to the backward people, as long as those people did not worry him too much". Sole argues that younger men can no longer look on the empire as a religion. Nor does he accept that being a DO is a vocation. "It was a good job, with plenty of freedom and decent rewards", but he wants out. This bleak presentation of colonial administration and the moral disintegration of empire ends with the image of Col. Casey saluting the flag at sunset, "pride and loneliness stirring in him. The sun did not set in the flag, but it had begun to set in the hearts of those who saluted it and the Empire it had represented, and he could not understand that terrible sunset".

When we first meet the DO Forsdick in Nicholas Monserrat's The Tribe that Lost its Head, he is "sweating in the noonday heat, his khaki shorts wilting, his florid face a ruddy purple under the sun". Further up-country, the DO Tom Ronald and his young wife "lead a lonely existence... his only link a radio schedule, his only strength a 12-bore shotgun" . Despite his reputation of "an oldish man, of legendary strength and endurance, whose name alone, 'Great White Father', made murderers kill themselves outright and thieves throw away their spoil in despair", the visitor finds Ronald to be "laughably different - young, cheerful and thickset, with fair, shiny, curly hair, an ex-footballer, probably [thought the visitor] given to hearty reminiscences and endless glasses of beer after the game". His welcome, unlike Forsdick's, did not surprise. "What ho, chaps! Glad you got here in one piece. I bet you're about ready to wet the old whistle!" Yet behind the residual inanity of a minor public school boy lay something else, of a different quality altogether, "something strong and tough and competent... He certainly knew his territory and what was going on in it". In all these novels it is noticeable what detail is given to the DO's physical descriptions and their mannerisms.

A Guest of Honour
Three other well-known novelists have brought in the DO, not in his work and life in Africa but in his retirement. In Nadine Gordimer's A Guest of Honour (1971), the former DO James Bray, who had been expelled by the colonial government for having sympathized with the African nationalists, is invited ten years later by the new African government to return for independence day and is pressured into taking up employment with them. The returnee also featured in M. Taafe's semi-autobiographical novel The Dark Glass (1963), where J. Hume, a former DO, returned to Tanganyika in the early 1950s after many years in retirement, explaining his visit by his inability to stay away any longer: "the ghosts of the past were all around him". John Le Carre, who in Smiley's People (1979) pondered on "why are Scots so attracted to the secret world? Ships' engineers, colonial administrators, spies", introduced into A Small Town in Germany (1991) a former DO, "an ex-colonial man who liked to offer common-sense as an antidote to intellectual hot air". More explicitly still, Graham Greene in The Human Factor (1978) presented the head of the Secret Service, Sir John Hargreaves, as a one-time DO in the Gold Coast, who "had acquired the knack of snatching his siesta in the most unfavourable circumstances, even surrounded by quarrelling chiefs" . He had also "during his years in Africa grown to appreciate the novels of Trollope", not because he was a reader of novels but "because they reinforced the patience which Africa required". Mr. Slope would remind him of "an importunate and self-righteous DC" he had once known and Mrs. Proudie of the governor's wife.

The African Poison Murders
Women occupy a third and notable group of our novelists, and it is not difficult to find a number of them choosing colonial society, and in particular the DO, for their scene. Among those whose husbands were in the CS were the American Erick Berry, whose mix-and-match 'factitious' vignettes in Mad Dogs and Englishmen (1941) throw a lot of light on the DO's work in N. Nigeria (her husband was H. Best, DO and novelist), and Carol Christian, author of Into Strange Country (1959), whose husband was a DO in E. Nigeria. Writing as the wife of an agricultural officer, a rather different portrait of the DO appears in Elizabeth Hargreaves' novel of up-country Sierra Leone, Handful of Silver (1954). Here the DO's wife, Helen Pomfret, is fondly remembered by an Old Coaster lover "as she had been when she first came out to the West Coast, before she acquired any veneer, any idea of her official position, any knowledge of the Staff List", and long before her husband had begun "to train her to be a DO's wife" - he used to go hot and cold with embarrassment at dinner parties, "watching her working up for some ghastly faux pas ruinous to his career". Elspeth Huxley's numerous novels about Kenya frequently contain sketches of DOs, including her thrillers Murder at Government House (1937), Murder on Safari (1938) and The African Poison Murders(1939). It is, however, in her sole Nigerian novel, The Walled City (1948), that Huxley classically used the DO for her central characters: the career-contrasting Freddy Begg, the perfect Secretariat man obviously heading for a governorship, meticulous, cautious, admirable on paper but less commendable when it comes to human relations; and Robert Gresham, "young, ardent, full of dreams", who sees every problem in terms of flesh and blood. To add to the electricity of their relationship, each of them is married and their public lives become dramatically intertwined with their personal ones. Begg, "with the zeal of the ambitious and the relatively young added to his industry and talent for compromise", can already point to accelerated promotion. Gresham on the other hand is noted as an officer who "chafes a little under authority... a little over-enamoured of his own opinions which have not always coincided with those of his superiors".

Major Dane's Garden
Finally, and perhaps surprisingly to many, the academic Margery Perham gave us one of the most thorough images of the DO, in her novel Major Dane's Garden (1925), set in Somaliland where she had gone to visit her sister and DO husband. Once more the plot revolves round a clash between two men in authority, with the DO falling in love with the colonel's wife, Rhona, described in memorable period prose as "the sort of girl that all boys can like and all girls can love". Dane is depicted at length, culminating in the projected image of "altogether a weather-beaten but reflective person, who looked as though he knew how to keep silence and was not to be classed as any one particular type". For all that, he had a mind, and was determined to keep it agile in the difficult conditions of outstation life, as the library in his bungalow showed. As he sat on his verandah, "his hands were empty, but he was busy. He was pondering alternative methods of attacking a problem in higher mathematics, a rather unsociable recreation he had developed in loneliness". We learn that "ten years of his life in Africa Dane had spent learning one lesson, that of self-control". Setting this youthful novel against a lifetime of academic analysis of the DO, it is possible to identify in Dane many of the qualities which Margery Perham came over the years to associate with her evolving image of the beau ideal DO.

The fourth, and last in terms of chronological emergence, class of novelists who have written about the DO in Africa is at the same time one of the most revealing. This is the African novelist, essentially a feature of the final years of colonial rule and into the present. Two leading African novelists, Nigeria's Chinua Achebe and Kenya's Ngugi wa Thiong'o, featured the DO in their first novels. Achebe's classic Things Fall Apart (1958), which sold several million copies and has been translated into over 30 languages, closes with a memorable passage on the received image of the anti-hero DO in the opening years of Britain's gradual occupation of south-east Nigeria. Captain Hamilton reflects, as his escort cuts down the corpse of Chief Okonkwo and "the resolute administrator in him gave way to the student of primitive authority", on what unique data his work is providing for a possible book (or at least a chapter), which he might well title The Pacification of the Primitive Tribes of Lower Niger. By the time Achebe's Arrow of God (1964) came along, Capt. Hamilton's book has become a manual for new DOs. Here the unpromoted DO, Capt. Winterbottom, dutifully puts on his white uniform with sword when taking the march-past of school children on Empire Day, despite his poor health and sleepless nights. He was "something of a school prefect" in the way he kept his fellow Europeans up to the mark. His aide is Tony Clarke, who has just arrived on the station as a replacement for an ADO struck down by cerebral malaria. As he dresses for dinner in the irksome heat, he reads Hamilton's inspirational call in his book for Britain to send its finest young men out to West Africa to "play their best in the game of life". Irritated by a directive from the Lieutenant-Governor urging the introduction of a policy of indirect rule, Winterbottom reflects that "the great tragedy of British colonial administration was that the man on the spot who knew his African and knew what he was talking about found himself being constantly overruled by starry-eyed fellows at HQ". Achebe also criticizes the way DOs looked down on their departmental colleagues.

A Grain of Wheat
Ngugi's DO in A Grain of Wheat (1967) belongs to a much later group than Achebe's DOs of 1930. Kenya is on the verge of independence, though some DOs such as John Thompson, "tall, a leathery skin that stuck to the bone", are thinking about staying on under the new government. In the boma he had over the years "developed a mania for writing letters. He scribbled notes to everyone". For Thompson, the secret of being a first-class DO was always to do the unexpected. He begins to find the news about uhuru in the papers so distasteful that, rather ashamedly, he turns over the picture of the new Prime Minister and refuses to look at it again. Yet "he had worked as a DO in many parts of Kenya. He worked hard and his ability to deal swiftly with Africans was widely recognized. A brilliant career in colonial administration lay before him". In the end, Thompson comes to grief over an incident when he was in charge of a Mau Mau detention camp. It was "the tragedy of his life" and "the wound never healed". He leaves Kenya a disillusioned man, feeling guilty that his one-time enthusiasm and success as a DO had crumbled and his earlier good relations with Africans had given way to autocratic behaviour and even personal violence. In despair, he looks back and asks himself "What was it all about?" Thompson resigns, in haste to quit Kenya before independence. "Why" he angrily asks, "should people wait and go through the indignity of being ejected from their seats by their houseboys?" Like Achebe's Hamilton, he too plans to write a book of his experiences as a DO, a novel to be called Prospero in Africa.

One Man One Matchet
Among other African novelists fascinated by the DO, T.M. Aluko has portrayed in his One Man, One Matchet (1964) both a European DO, Stanfield, whose pass in the Yoruba language exam "was completely inadequate for understanding any farmer speaking not the standard Yoruba accepted by the government", and a young Nigerian DO, Udo Akpan, known locally as "the black white man". So firmly placed in the mind, with the respect he commanded, was the image of the DO that two of his real-life African successors have written autobiographical novels about their own life as a DO, A. Adebayo's I Am Directed (1991) and M.A. Ogunyemi's The D.OThe D.O. (1987), a frank and forthright title which at once recalls the novels by Dobson and Kittermaster. But the African novelist who has written more about the DO than any other is the female Ibo author Adaora Lily Ulasi. The DO emerges as a generally negative character in all three of her novels. The old-style, nononsense DO Maurice Mason, who is "quite content with the status quo. I'm paid to be a DO after all, not a ruddy Governor", features in Many Things Begin for Change (1971), where he is murdered. Mason was "heavily built for his height, who gave the impression of being a lazy man - which he is not". His ADO is "a tall, lanky, sandy-haired young man with a zealous air about him". There is also Hughes, a DO whose reaction to a crisis is "I may be earning my meal ticket here but I'll be damned if I'll sign my death warrant as well" . In her mystery novel The Man for Sagamu(1978), Ulasi introduces two "Resident Officers", one of whom, Mr. "Whitticar", [Whittaker] becomes the main character.

A Central African satirist fixated by the character of the DO is Kapana Makasa, a truelife anti-colonial 'agitator' in the N. Rhodesian nationalist movement whose damning indictment of "The Great Sir of Taxes" was published as Bwana District Commissioner (1989). It is enhanced by its telling line-drawings. One excerpt will indicate the acid rhetoric of the whole. For Makasa, the DCs come as "instruments of oppression. They imposed heavy taxation, caned people, had indiscriminate imprisonment, forced tribute of chickens and cassava, made people build shelters for them on tax circuits, made women draw water or ululate, making roads without pay... A whip and a handcuff were the two instruments of colonial brutality which demoralized the African people into submission". Boma, we are told, stood for "British Overseas Military Administration".

Africans too young ever to have known a DO in their life have a fine opportunity to recoup in the novels of writers like Achebe, Ngugi, Aluko and Ulasi. Britons, who showed more indifference to than interest in their African colonies and may perhaps have now and then come across an ageing ex-DO in Sussex or the warmer climate of Cheltenham, are equally fortunate to have the character of the DO in Africa enshrined in the writings of an extensive list of British novelists. This literature is likely to continue to offer to the general public a primary and potentially persuasive perspective on the image and identity of the DO in Africa for a long time ahead. The DO has earned a permanent niche in the novel, by British and African novelists alike. As I have concluded elsewhere, while scholars working on the activities and personalities of the District Officer will continue to find it rewardingly de rigueur to analyse the notably rich Colonial Service holdings of the Oxford Colonial Archive Project (OCAP) and the oral history recordings in the British Empire and Commonwealth Museum collection at Bristol Museum, no serious researcher should overlook the unique resource of data, description and detail on the DO available in the novels written, by British and African authors alike, about the DO in Africa.

Africa Map
Africa Map Early 20th Century
Continent Profile
Africa Profile
Originally Published
OSPA Journal 100 and 101: October 2010 and April 2011
Additional Articles by Author
For Better or for Verse? Poetry in the British Empire
Additional Reading
Symbol of Authority: The British District Officer in Africa
by Anthony Kirk-Greene


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by Stephen Luscombe