British Empire Article

Courtesy of OSPA

by Anthony Kirk-Greene
Lyra Nigeriae
Versification seems to have been a popular and persistent trait of the colonial official's life. In such verse, often humorous, sometimes satirical and occasionally ribald, members of the Colonial Service found relaxation and often an outlet for expressing their periodic fits of frustration with authority or, in a later age, with the new political class. From it there often emerges a picture of the DC (and it happens that many of the versifiers encountered so far have been from the Administration, though in no way was it the preserve of all the mini-bards of empire) letting his hair down in a way he could not do in official correspondence, reports and telegrams (however humorous many of the last-named legendarily are!), railing at the Secretariat-wallahs and fact-finding MPs or international 'experts', casting aspersions on the denizens of Government House, and gleefully revealing his longstanding mistrust of politicians all the way from Wau and Ougadougou to Westminster and Washington. Often the antipathy was underlain with a nostalgic hankering after the Golden Age of Arcadian tranquillity, however mythical those soi-disant no-development, no-trouble 1920s were, and with a sneaking contempt for the products of mission education and disdain for the lemming-like race for localization. There is some good poetry, too, but by and large Colonial Service versifiers were nothing if not hugely 'politically incorrect'!

Some of the verses are accompanied by instructions that they should be sung (sic?) to well-known student party-cum-pub melodies, like the rollicking "Phil the Fluter's Ball". "John Brown's Body" and "Be Kind to Your Web-Footed Friends", or else to hymn tunes like Adeste Fideles. Others are set in the metre of popular Gilbert and Sullivan numbers or as parodies of Kipling's rousing "Road to Mandalay" or Noel Coward's ditties like "Mad Dogs and Englishmen" or "Don't Put Your Daughter on the Stage, Mrs Worthington".

Nigerian Verses
Let me say a word about what I have come across so far in the published verse. If it is the Nigerian Service literature that I am most acquainted with, others will, I hope, fill in the gaps for East and Central Africa, South East Asia, the Pacific, the Caribbean, etc. experience. Adamu's (E.C. Adamu) Lyra Nigeriae started life for private circulation in Edinburgh in 1907 and then, with additional verse, went into no less than three reprints (1911-1923). C.A. Woodhouse's Nigerian Verses appeared in 1933, prefaced with the lament that books of verse about Northern Provinces seemed to be conspicuous by their absence. Far lighter, and lightened yet further by the line drawings, are the verses in K. Dewar and K.J. Bryant's In Lighter Africa (1937?) but redolent of the inter-war jokiness of Damon Runyon, P.G. Wodehouse and the Western Brothers. That fine magazine West Africa printed a couple of limericks in 1919, intimating that the pseudonymous writer had plenty more where these came from, "best reserved for the chaste atmosphere of the Scotch Club at Sokoto'. Poor things, I felt, as I read;

There was a young fellow of Zaria
Who daily grew wearier and wearier.
He thought 'twas a worm
That made him to squirm.
But 'twas only a bally filaria.

In Lighter Africa
Maurice Swabey's privately printed History of the Exploration of the River Niger is written, unusually, in unrhyming verse, all 96 pages of it. Luke Ubrative's Lyrics on Lagos carries us into the 1950s, with a "Farewell to Sir John Macpherson" and "Welcome to Sir James Robertson": there is no need for me to crack the nom-de-plume code, for the collection is, I am glad to say, now openly attributed to David Savill. M.C. Atkinson's several volumes of Nigerian Tales all carry a selection of "Poems and Songs", many by Barry Cozens, whose "Sally and Her Raleigh" remains an unpublished gem. Also unpublished, but well circulated, is the legendary "ADO Bende": I have come across at least three variant versions, all claiming, on oath, infallible authenticity... and I would welcome more! The late R.N. Jacobsen was a fine versifier in Bomu Province and the Kaduna Secretariat in the mid-1950s, but he told me he kept little of it himself. Any authentic Jacobsens on offer, please?

On other territories I am much weaker - so far. From the Gold Coast I know of a collection by F.C. Lander, What might have been written and other verses (1941) and W.W. Barnhill's West African Rhymes (1948?), whose "Hints on Pronunciation" for newcomers to the Coast atones for some of his other rhymes:

You must not call this man a Ewe
You'll look so sheepish if you do.
In better circles, at a levee.
You'll hear them talk about the Ewe.

From Central Africa, C. Gouldsbury's Rhodesian Rhymes appeared in 1932. From East Africa, those who served in the NFD will know all about the rhymes in the DC's files at Isiolo, where the name of an eminent senior officer ranks high among the versifiers. There exists, I am told by Dick Cashmore, a neat Kenyan collection by John Rowlands, Nosegay of Cacti. I know there's a lot of poetry in the backnumbers of Corona. I suspect that much humorous verse circulated within the Colonial Office, though even the admirable Cosmo Parkinson could not bring himself to identify the subsequently distinguished author of personal chaff enshrined in the doggerel "Diet of Worms".

As for sister Services, one cannot but imagine that the ICS was full of brilliant lyricists: rhymesters, doggerel-mongers, versifiers, minstrels, poetasters, poets, bards - the lot. In the South Asia archive at Cambridge I came across - only the tip of a vast iceberg, I feel sure - verse written for the 1928 Bombay ICS Week, culminating in the dinner held at Government House, with a dozen stanzas composed a la well-known nursery rhyme:

Ten junior Heaven-borns,
Feeling very meek.
Come as in duty bound
Up for the week...

West African Rhymes
Seven junior Heaven-borns
Going out in search of fun.
One forgot to call HH 'Sir'
- And then there were none.

It is the Sudan Political Service which has left one of the most public legacies, the collection by K.D.D. Henderson and T.R.H. Owen, Sudan Verse, published in 1963. The final stanza of "Sudanization Blues" says a lot to most of us:

We're public servants old and bleary.
We've spent a very long time here.
But now the prospect is more cheery
Because our final leave is near...
And so we end our term imperial
A trifle sooner than we thought before.

One suspects that the Sudan Archive at Durham may hold a fuller, unexpurgated collection. Incidentally, Owen was locally known in the Service as the Sudan's Poet Laureate.

One thought emerges unambiguously from what I have read so far. The more one knows about the local context of the verse, the easier and the richer the enjoyment. Who was Sexy Lexie or Minister the Sinister? What was Secretariat Secret Circular C. all about? Where and what was Fid-al-Dee and why should it appear so frequently other than to rhyme with P.W.D.? Again, the non-Swahili speaker is likely to miss a lot of the humour in any putative "A Troubador among the Tutsis", and you will need to know far more Ibo than I do to grasp the significance of the imagined " 'Orrible Odes from Ogoja". Here I urge that in this project we shall all be helped beyond measure by a little insider's guidance in accompanying footnotes. A glossary, too, may bring relief.

So what is all this leading up to? A proposal. Might a group of us take on the task of assembling them in some kind of order, territorial or chronological or thematic? Might we then try and persuade some institution which has already shown a commitment to preserving a colonial archive, such as Rhodes House Library at Oxford or the Royal Commonwealth Society Library now at Cambridge accept the deposit? And, who knows, one day these poems might appear, if not in some Golden Treasury of the Gold Coast or Ballads from Boma and Bush, at least to illustrate a point being laboriously made by some earnest scholar in his (or her) study of "The Colonial Service Mind at Work and Play". For however much the amusing and the light-hearted tend to dominate imperial versification, the serious historian will often find it a unique source of social, political and administrative commentary. As I have written elsewhere:

"Saved from scurrility by their sense of humour and sensibly taken not at face value but as a clever, college-days throwback item of intellectual virtuosity, such verse can nonetheless tell the researcher who reads between the lines and behind the text quite a bit about our private feelings on 'S-G, S-D and All That."

I used to think that every colonial civil servant was confident he had one first-class novel under his solar topee, waiting to be written. Nowadays it's more likely a memoir for publication. Yet from my latest research, I begin to wonder whether every colonial civil servant did not conceal a pot-pourri of poems under his or her mosquito net. Among us 'colonials', Kipling has a lot to be responsible for. Today, of course, the dictates of 'P.C.' may put a brake on the publication of some of the choicest of colonial versification. But in an archive, contemporary fashion has no sway: the past is the past.

Still the good side's left to tell!
Take Sanders of the River - well,
A splendid chap! It's types like his
Have made our Empire what it is.

More than fifty members wrote to me, with some three hundred samples, sources and suggestions, so a grateful report is clearly in order. It will be recalled that the object was to collect and preserve examples of poetry and verse written by or about members of the Colonial Service and HMOCS in the field or in retirement, and often composed for their (and their colleagues') amusement rather than with a view to publication. I expressed the hope that even if no publication evolved, the collection might be accepted by Rhodes House Library, Oxford, or the Royal Commonwealth Society at Cambridge. The good news is that this has been successfully negotiated with the former as part of its unparalleled Colonial Service archive.

No significance - of seniority, quality or chronology - attaches to the order in which the contributions are discussed below. I have purposely omitted any judgemental qualifiers of "amusing", "excellent" or "slight" - or better or worse! My role has been simply that of a collector, not an assessor.

M. J. C. Waters from Hong Kong wrote to say that he thought this last major colony would prove to be a very productive source of verse on the End of Empire era. Among the half-dozen poems of his own were "Ode to HMOCS of Hong Kong" and "Ballad of the Political Governor and the Dragon", with its opening lines of:

A political Governor came to Hong Kong,
To challenge the Dragon and beat on the gong...
No feathers, no uniforms, red minutes gone.
Old colonials muttered 'He's got it all wrong'.

The original is said to be in Christopher Patten's proud possession, in contrast to the experience of an early governor of N. Nigeria. H. H. Bell was so upset by the anonymous poem circulating in the Secretariat at Zungeru which ended up 'by mistake' in H.E.'s in-tray that it is said to have hastened his departure in dudgeon. From Hong Kong, too, B. D. Wilson, who seems to be in a position to claim a record of 45 years' service as an administrative officer, offered his "Lines Written during a Boring Devonshire Course Lecture". That same Devonshire Course provoked ('inspired' would apparently be too kind to the Supervisor!) Alan Brown to write a skit of it, which he sent in with his poem "Usagara Safari" written in Tanganyika in 1950. Mr J. J. J. (who asked that his name not be revealed) sent some "doggerel which I penned, mostly in frustration and desperation" during his service in the Federation of Malaya, including "The Song of the Senior Civil Servant" and a lament on the seemingly over-localization of the public service. Also from Hong Kong, via much overseas service elsewhere, J. C. Griffiths drew attention to his regular verse contributions to Obiter Dicta (already deposited in the Association, written under the nom de plume of 'Druid'. C. E. Duff, whose service with the Forestry Department in N. Rhodesia goes back to 1931, sent two contributions (one on the fate of the prematurely resigned DC) but regretted that his best, a lament on the closure of Forestry and the contraction of Agriculture written on the retrenchment year of 1932 was (tantalizingly) incomplete. From North Borneo came Stephen Holley's suggested 1950 advertisement (in verse) for security-proof secretaries.

C. J. L. Reynolds and R. Somerset each sent contributions from Nigeria, the latter responding to my original call for any more versions of Nigeria's (in)famous "A. D. O. Bende", while R. E. N. Smith pointed out that his birthday "Ode to the Last DC" in the Gilbert and Ellice Islands is unusual in that he was not the author but, as he puts it, "the humorous target". From P. E. Linney came five poems written when he was in N. Nigeria, among them "The Ballad of Kaduna" disenchantedly composed after the first two months of his first tour in 1953, one on the Royal Tour of 1956, and "A Farewell to a Retiring D. P. W." parodying Charles Wolfe's epic, "The Burial of Sir John Moore at Corunna". R. M. Wright sent in a parody of Lewis Carroll's "The Walrus and the Carpenter" written in Katsina where, as a cadet in the 1930s, he suffered in the Provincial Office under an administratively irritating Resident. Still in that seemingly inspirational protectorate of N. Nigeria, Dr. K. D. B. Thomson supplied a collection of his verse, much of which first appeared in Kaduna's Medical Services Newsletter, among them his sonnet "Shall I compare thee to the Harmattan? Thou art more dry and blowest more cold", dedicated to a retiring senior officer in the Ministry. From N. Nigeria, too. Foresters Bob and Val Fishwick contributed a copy of Ian Williams' "The Lake Chad Polo Club", with its alleged membership of "Hard and scruffy sinners who had never played the game". Desmond North's recollection of the legendary Lenox-Conyngham's N. Nigeria limericks calls for a discreet mention rather than a direct quotation. The same goes for the rhyming thunder-box notice copied by G. E. Lythe at EllObeid. Importantly, A. B. Cozens corrected me on the authorship of "Sally and her Raleigh", which I had attributed to him. The author was, in fact, his Nigerian contemporary C. Low.

A. C. Frith, another versifying Forester, recalls that in the Sierra Leone of the 1940s the standard party song went to the tune of 'The Mountains of Moume' and produced several textual variants, while in British Honduras the robust song going the rounds in the 1960s was about two successive Governors, sung to 'The House of Peers' from Iolanthe. It was reflective poetry and not mocking verse that G. C. R. Clay composed in N. Rhodesia in the 1930s and, I think, published. Coral McKenna sent verse written by her late husband Peter when he was with the N. Rhodesia Police and later in Legal Affairs. It was from Mrs M. P. Stanley that we received copies of the verse written by her late father, I. M. Wethey, who had been a DC in N. Rhodesia. Mrs Marguerite Beet provided a verse from Barbara Carr's Not for me the wilds, illustrating the hazards of a boma feud between DC and MO in N. Rhodesia when it reached the Provincial Secretariat where a poetaster was 'on seat'. From N. Rhodesia, too - a territory seemingly as kindling of the bard in us as N. Nigeria - came R. M. Lees's poem of exile in reverse, "England 1978", with its nostalgia of:

I long to tread the vleis again
As I have often done.
And feel the arid burning heat
Of tropic midday sun.

A. Simmance found a copy of the truly tragic "Lines Written on the Tana River'', attributed to a young DC who died at Kipini in 1915. T. G. Brierly forwarded a letter, in verse, addressed to the Tanganyika Standard in 1950 by G. A. Gordon- Creed on the discomforts of living in Mtwara.

These are all valued contributions, sometimes single examples sometimes in twos and threes, exactly the sort of versification - serious poetry, pseudo-Gilbert and Sullivan, mimetic Flanders and Swann, neo-McGonagall, clever parody or just doggerel - that this project hoped to unearth. But in addition to these items, there were collections too, often substantial and sometimes already published though in many cases so locally or so modestly as to be forgotten or unknown, or even - in one or two instances of rare value -- unrecorded by the Bodleian Library. In this new galaxy of library acquisitions now made possible through the generosity of our members, four stars shine forth to reflect the glister of librarians' eyes. One, presented by M. B. McMullan, is a volume of thirty poems, Christiansborg Castle, written by W. F. Hedges in the 1920s and printed at Eastleigh, Hants, in 1924. It has pen and ink illustrations by the author (quaeritur: who was Hedges?) and is dedicated to the Governor, Sir Gordon Guggisberg. The volume is indisputably of greater worth than its contents. The second rarity was presented by D. G. Bompas of the Audit Dept., who admits to having taken it into protective custody, as it were, when the Secretary of the Zomba Gymkhana Club retired in 1945. White ant-eaten, damp and discoloured, this scarce pamphlet, Nyasaland Numbers 1916, turns out to contain twenty-two poems by Robert H. Napier and was printed by the Blantyre Mission Press in 1918, with the proceeds going to the British Red Cross. Napier was killed in German East Africa in 1918. The pages are so fragile that I feel I may be one of the last to have been able to turn them without disintegration. The third treasure, again (and no less understandably) in fragile condition is C. C. Brown's Mural ditties and Sime Road soliloquies, sent through the good offices of J. Lewis. It is a (? unique) collection of verse compiled by civilians interned by the Japanese in Singapore's notorious Changi Gaol and Sime Road Camp and published at the end of hostilities by C. C. Brown of the Malayan Civil Service. One further printed rarity, brought to my notice indirectly by J. D. Rabbett of the Corona Club, is a copy of the cyclostyled Zungeru Herald and Sportsman, dated 10 September 1904, rightly proclaiming itself "the first newspaper published in Northern Nigeria''. In it is a song, with a chorus sung to the air of "A Fine Hunting Day", full of references to 'station personalities'.

Finally, it was a thrill to be able to scrutinize at last the original text of A Nosegay of Cacti, a collection of verse written anonymously (in fact, by J. H. H. Rowlands, a Kenya DC) and printed in Mombasa. This treasure was received as a personal gift from Sheila Farrar. A copy was also received from T. H. R. Cashmore, who several years ago first introduced me to this work and who in many ways is the unwitting stimulator of this whole project. I am also grateful to Dick Cashmore for short extracts from his private collection of Kenyan verse. One, "Ode to Horace", the Kisumu hippopotamus, actually appeared in no less an august place than the Nyanza Province Report for 1927. Another is a copy of G. H. H. Brown's poem (he was DC Wajir) "Golden Road to Habbaswein", with apologies to James Elroy Flecker, along with what Cashmore calls his "Fragments of N. F. D. Ballads", verse partially recollected from his own service there in the mid-1950s. These are full of local lore and personalities known only to the initiated (if second-guessed by the aficionados), such as the locally celebrated "Somali, Somali, we shed a tear", written at Wajir in 1935, and "Brave Benito" (authorship pro. tem, under wraps) provided by Hugh Walker. Here Terence Gavaghan nobly came to the rescue, with a complete text of the best-known of N. F. D. Ballads, "District Commissioners' Meeting, Isiolo 1946" and additional information on Johnnie Rowlands of A Nosegay of Cacti fame. The popular Flecker model is echoed in "Kava Khan", a Kenya Rehabilitation fantasy sometimes attributed to Gavaghan. The hallowed colonial custom of personalized versification continues, according to Walker, at the annual reunion of former Somaliland civil servants - examples are cited in "The Pre-War Ditties of the Admin People" by M. B. Page in the Anglo-Somali Society Journal, Winter 1996. That imperial-cum-graduate habit lives on, too, in independent India, for I have in my files 150 lines of verse on "The Scots in India", being the Oxbridge-style composition of the Indian ambassador to Khartoum delivered at the Caledonian Ball on 2 December 1982.

Other respondents were equally helpful in reminding me where specimens of colonial verse could be located, in printed sources other than those which I listed in the inaugural article like the 14 volumes of Corona, M. C. Atkinson's series of Nigerian Tales, Dewar and Bryant's In Lighter Africa, etc. To his published collection Lyrics on Lagos, written under the pen-name Luke Ubrative, D. O. Savill added "Remembering" and "A Farewell Tribute to a District Officer". D. G. Smith provided a copy of his collection of forty pan-African limericks, At Once Come Mad, with drawings by G. Tucker, published in Johannesburg under the pen-name of 'Dau'. They include verse about several Ugandan and Kenyan stations, among them:

There was a DC from Thika
Who kept his false teeth in a beaker.
One night by mistake
They were tried by a snake
Who became an extempore speaker.

Mervyn Fox drew attention to a hundred page booklet Rhymes of the Old Plateau, written by a Scottish Medical Officer, R. R. Murray ("Kasame") in N. Rhodesia in the 1930s, including "Station Life", to be sung to the air "There's Nae Luck Aboot the Hoose". Harold Barker referred me to the poems in his autobiography A Circle of Trees, among them his reply in verse to guests at another Caledonian Ball. Lady Maddocks recalled some of the ditties sung in the Western Region of Nigeria administrative circles, including the slightly irreverent "And Then We Shall Be Free!". T. W. Brandon reminded me of the many pages of verse which appeared eighty years ago in Lady Clifford's Our Days on the Gold Coast, among them (under her professional name of Mrs de la Pasture) "To the Colonial Civil Servant of West Africa" and "From the Secretariat", with the rousing chorus:

Fill, fill my inkpot to the brim.
Put nib into my pen,
And I will vault into my chair
To bandy words with men.
The warrior's joy is famed in song.
But what of the penman's glee
Who through the Secretariat
Swops phrases with H.E!

John Lewis-Barned invited attention to the verse often appearing in Tanganyika Notes and Records as well as to that included in his autobiography A Fanfare of Trumpets, such as "The Secretariat Wallah's Lot" by the unknown Kremlin Warrior and "White Man's Burden". So, too, did Anne Gittins, widow of J. W. Gittins of the Fiji Administration, to her parody of Rudyard Kipling's "The Provincial Mail Carrier" which appeared in her Tales of the Fiji Islands.

While readers were co-operating so diligently I was not entirely idle myself. To the principal sources set out in the inaugural article I am now able to add a further handful. In Rhodes House Library I came across a copy of "The War Song of the Amazons", compiled by a group of early Women Administrative Assistants. D. Rooney recounts in his biography how Sir Charles Arden-Clarke, building on his experience in establishing Native Treasuries in Africa, set out to continue the good work in Sarawak but recorded in a limerick his disappointment at the local response:

There was an old fellow called Cla'ak
Who had an affair with Sara'ak
First result of his squeeze
Were six little NTs
But no Chinese, no Malay - all Dyak.

I looked up, too, the extensive work of that curious and understudied author, J. M. Stuart-Young, among whose publications was The Seductive Coast: Poems Lyrical and Descriptive of West Africa (1909), which included "Men of the Niger" and "Our Nurses". In his History of the Palestine Police Force, E. Home records the songs thumped out on camp pianos in the late 1930s to the tune of "A Little Grey Home in the West". I understand that Veronica Bellers, daughter of a well-known Kenya DC, has collected a lot of verse for her forthcoming book on the Colonial Service experience. There is, too, the Secretariat spoof "Hot Weather Circular", likely attributable to Khartoum, which concluded:

All minutes shall be made to rhyme
To while away the summer time.

I suspect, too, if the ditty quoted in D. M. Young's history of the nineteenth century Colonial Office is anything to go by, the CO was a rich repository of clever versifiers. Nor, as Hugo Williams' poem "Beachcombers" makes clear, were those seconded to the CO immune from the catching habit. Lastly - and leastly - I have come across in my files a batch of "Colonial Service Portraits" in rhyme. Let me quote and you may understand why they remained unpublished:

There was a young fellow called Purves
Who joined the Colonial Service.
After a month in the bush
He was given the push
Since Africans made him feel nervous.

An elegant candidate nurse
Appeared before Major Ralph Furse
When offered a post
In Fiji or Gold Coast
She asked 'Which do you think is the worse?'

Now I wonder who will dare to own up to authorship?

So there it is. An extensive collection of Colonial Service (by and about) verse, as wide-ranging in topic as the disposition of the Service itself, is now on its way to Rhodes House Library as an addition - the only fictional item -- to its Colonial Service archive. We express our gratitude to them for their continuing interest in 'us'. Much of it is so localised in its allusions, so person-specific in its references, and so vernacular in some of its language that to grasp its real meaning and merit, requires either a territorial tutor or the explanatory apparatus of biographical footnotes and a glossary. Some of it, too, is blatantly politically incorrect by today's standards of public propriety - but then it is not today's but yesterday's verse. I am not sure that I see in the offing an immediate volume of wide appeal titled Ballads from Boma and Bush or Ditties of a DC. Yet R. J. Vernede's successful anthology of prose and poetry, British Life in India (1995), shows what can be done half a century beyond the end of imperial rule. An anthology of the most commonly found characters in this colonial collection, the administrator or the Secretariat, might perhaps be on the cards. But I do believe that researchers who want a unique and so far untried insight into the unofficial make-up of the Colonial Service, mentally at leisure and light-heartedly at work, could find a lot to interest and amuse them - and occasionally to bemuse them - from within this preliminary collection of Colonial Service verse.

Africa Map
British Empire Map, 1897
Originally Published
OSPA Journal 72: October 1996
Additional Articles by Author
The District Officer in the African Colonial Novel


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