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|
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|
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.
|Tribe That Lost Its Head|
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|
|The African Poison Murders|
|Major Dane's Garden|
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|
|One Man One Matchet|
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 Early 20th Century|
|OSPA Journal 100 and 101: October 2010 and April 2011|
|Additional Articles by Author|
|For Better or for Verse? Poetry in the British Empire|
|Symbol of Authority: The British District Officer in Africa
by Anthony Kirk-Greene
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