The rationale of this article, then, inspired by the 1991 release of "Mister Johnson", was to serve as a brief biographical journey to discover who Joyce Cary was, in the sense of what his experience was in and how he knew what he did about Nigeria, the setting of his quartet of African novels (a fifth was published posthumously) and of his dozen or so short stories. At the same time, the biographical narrative is set within the wider context of 'colonial fiction'. eg see The District Officer in the African Colonial Novel.
The Colonial Service in Fiction
"Mr. Cary, A.D.O." leaving aside those who worked in the Empire, how many younger, even middle aged, people will recognize the honorific "A.D.O."? And if they do manage to identify that rank of the cadet entry into His/Her Majesty's Colonial Service, the new boy of the Administration if you like, for how much longer will that instant recognition of the former British Empire's largest civil service, a Crown career, continue? Despite all the nostalgic literature of the Raj revisited, reviewed or just revived, from the creative art of Paul Scott to the imagology of D.C.R.A. Goonetilleke and the reconstructive art of Plain Tales from the Raj, may it not be sooner rather than later before the job of the District Officer, even in jewel-in-the-crown India let alone Tropical Africa and the Sudan, will be as remote and half-forgotten as, say, the profession of gladiator or town crier is today?
|Sanders and Bones|
|The Wide World Magazine|
To these authors we must add the name of Joyce Cary. He holds the peculiar distinction of being a front-rank man of letters who, alone among his peers who featured the District Officer in their novels, had himself been a member of the Nigerian Political Service.
The Nigerian Political Service in 1913
|Stepping-Stones: Memoirs of|
Colonial Nigeria 1907-1960
At that time, and indeed right through to 1939, 'real' colonial administration meant rural administration. Perhaps 75% of the colonial officials were serving in Africa, and of these three-quarters were in 'bush' administration. District Officers engaged in the very essence of colonial administration. Almost obsessionally, to spend as much time as possible out on tour or safari, not in the boma or station, was an official requirement. At the bottom of the administrative hierarchy were the ADOs, formerly known under Lugard as Assistant Residents and later generally called cadets. As an ADO, Cary was on probation for three years. During that time he was required, apart from at least adequately convincing his superiors of his qualities (and, as Cary was to learn through his wearisome encounters with Mrs. Hamilton-Browne, of also at least not displeasing the Resident's wife), to pass examinations in the laws and the General Orders of the colony and, most critical of all, in the local language. Then, all being well (and that caveat covered not only passing examinations and earning official approval but also surviving the very real health hazards of service in West Africa, from malaria, blackwater and yellow fever down to more mundane appendicitis and snakebite, still killers in the 1950s), an ADO might look forward to promotion to full DO after a further four or five years; and, if things went better yet, to becoming a Resident in his late forties. His salary would then rise from his initial 250 pounds a year to nudging the four figure range - risible today but better paid than many occupations in England in the 1920s, when the stipend of even the grandiose Beit Professor of Commonwealth History in the University of Oxford was a bare 1200 pounds a year. When I went out to N. Nigeria some 40 years after Cary, my salary was 450 pounds p.a. and that of my Resident 1800 pounds. The Governor earned 8500 pounds. But the leave, on full pay, was generous, with roughly a week earned for every month's service - and the two week voyage each way counted as duty, not leave. As junior officers were not allowed to marry - or at least were forbidden to have their wives accompany them - and even senior ones were for many years required to obtain prior permission from the Governor to bring their wives with them (Cary's Celia Rudbeck may be a bit of a General Orders anachronism), such long leaves back home were a godsend to young married officials like Cary.
A DO - and an ADO even more so - could expect to be regularly moved around the thirty or more Divisions into which the ten Northern Provinces were then divided, theoretically in the name of his own training and experience. Such was the manpower shortage, in turn exacerbated by illness and death, that, as Cary's letters about the perpetual game of musical chairs among the staff make clear, a postings policy could often be no more than lip service to the principle of continuity of administration. Inter-provincial transfers, frequently after a matter of mere months, could involve, as in Cary's case, not only several weeks' trek in riding or walking from one station to another, complete with a line of porters carrying one's total possessions on their heads, but also in exchanging one administrative milieu, for example the sophisticated Hausa-Fulani emirates where Indirect Rule was possible, for the less cohesive riverain districts where there was often little choice save a positive, direct rule. That distinction, between the theory of the DO being an adviser to the local chief and often the practical necessity of his being an executive catalyst lest he run foul of his Resident, was a classic dilemma in the implementation of the Lugardian principles of Indirect Rule and Native Administration. Cary was to experience both styles of administration, in Bauchi and then Bussa, and of both kinds of DO as his superior, the debonair H. S. W. Edwardes and the fire-in-his-belly T. F. Carlyle. At the early age of 30, Cary decided this was not the kind of career for him to look forward to, even with a pension to boot before he reached 50. Instead he resigned after only six years' service. He was then 31.
The Colonial Administrator in Fact: Mr. Cary, ADO, 1914-1919
|Joyce Cary's Africa|
Sailing in April 1914, Cary reached Zungeru, still the capital of the North, in May. He found himself posted to Bauchi Province, away to the north-east. Its headquarters were at Naraguta, the tin-mining centre which later developed into the modern Jos. No sooner did he reach Bauchi, arguably with Adamawa the most scenic of the Provinces, than he went down with malaria. Cary was lucky in that most influential of newcomers' career hazards, his immediate superior. His substantive DO was H. S. W. Edwardes. Given to natty eccentricities in dress, in due course Edwardes had a difference of opinion with his Resident, and having earned the black mark of being labelled "temperamentally unsuitable" to be placed in charge of the Province, he saw out his time in what Cary described as "the dustbin posts of Kabba and Munshi", the so-called 'punishment' riverain provinces. Two other DOs whom Cary was to meet in the Province similarly made a deep impression on the young Cary. One was J. J. F. Fitzpatrick, a fellow Irishman (and, later, a fellow writer) but cantankerous, who also came unstuck and was posted out, all the way to Nyasaland. The other was T. F. Carlyle, a great "pagan man", in Cary's own words, and to me rather like the reincarnation of a life-size 'Sanders of the River': all-seeing, all-knowing and almighty.
Cary's first blissful months were soon shattered by the outbreak of war with Germany. Nigerian troops were ordered to Yola, on the eastern border, preparatory to invading the Cameroons, and their route passed through Nafada, where Cary was enjoying his first independent command. His letters home encapsulated the ADOs life, then as 40 years later when the present writer was upcountry in the same north-east:
"Alone here... no other white man for 150 miles... no doctor and no possibility of help coming in case of riot in less than seven days."
In another letter his description of the ADOs work was no less accurate of many another day and age: "I am the [military] Censor as well as Builder, Surveyor, Road Constructor, Police Inspector, Assessor and Collector of Taxes, Magistrate, Meteorologist, and Doctor". Soon after the heavy casualties suffered by the Yola column more ADOs were drafted into the army. In July 1915 Mr. Cary ADO became Lietuenant Cary of the Nigeria Regiment. After something of a breakdown at Yola in 1916, he was declared unfit for further combat and sent to England on furlough. He arrived on 15 April, became engaged to Gertrude Ogilvie on 2 May, was married on 1 June, and sailed back from Liverpool on 9 August. Not a bad itinerary! His posting, still in the army, was switched at the last moment from Yola to Lokoja, but soon there came the best news of all: he was to return to Nafada, this time as OC Troops.
When Cary was demobilised in March 1917, he was posted to Kontagora Province, to the west, three weeks' trek away and at the height of the hot season. As with many of us, Cary was sad to leave his station, "where every soul was a friend". As soon as he reached Kontagora, his resident broke the news that he was sending him to take charge of Borgu. Cary was to write, thirty-five years later:
"At my first coming I had hated it. I had left an Emirate of the North with its desert traders, its pageant of horsemen, and got in exchange for this 12,000 miles of waste."
To his wife he explained that Kontagora Province was more than not being his beloved Bauchi, it was "the most backward and deserted province in Nigeria" and Borgu "a long way from Civilization and rails ... the loneliest station of them all". It is in notional Borgu that Mister Johnson is set. Cary was, as was customary with young and well-balanced officers and as he recalled many years later, "on the list of men who could be sent to the loneliest place without the risk of sending them off their heads". It was the experience of Borgu which was to dominate Cary's four published novels, whereas most of his short stories and the posthumous Cock Jarvis draw heavily on his Bauchi and Yola days. The year ended on a high note: the armistice in November and the "glorious news" of the birth of his second son less than a fortnight after his own birthday. As with his first son, Michael (later Deputy Secretary to the Cabinet), who had been born in April 1917 while Cary was trekking wearily from Nafada to Naraguta en route for Kontagora, the painful pattern of Colonial Service life frequently meant that thousands of miles disturbingly separated the parents at the precious moment of a child's birth. Cary needed these fillips. He had been suffering from another bout of depression. "My work is hopeless", he wrote, "I can't do anything, sometimes I don't believe that I will ever do anything". He suffered from severe attacks of asthma, insomnia and depression, culminating in outbursts of temper which he described as 'bush hates' - "those unreasoning fancies which seize you when you are alone in the bush" - which, as he explained to Gertie, "lead sometimes to strange and even tragic results" (he was too solicitous to mention the several cases of suicide by colleagues).
If 1918 had been the year of administrative details (Jangali and tax arrears. Native Treasury accounts, court work, etc.), 1919 was to be a time of practical, creative work ("I love making things"), of clearing roads and building bridges now that the dry season was here. These counter-balancing responsibilities of the DO's work, so often reflected in the contrasting personal interests of successive DOs in charge of a Division, Cary was subsequently to depict in Mister Johnson:
"Just as Blore is particular about tax assessment and is always collecting statistics, so Rudbeck, as soon as he comes to a station, sends for the chief and complains about the roads [and] spends his afternoons riding about the country..."
Life of Joyce Cary
Set, that is, until the creeping feeling of guilt about being separated from his family came to a climax. In May the storm broke over Cary's head, with a letter from Gertie - what Alan Bishop, his new biographer, in Gentleman Rider (1988) calls "the letter he must have been dreading". In it she once more cogently set forth the old arguments about whether he should:
"remain in Nigers [as she called Nigeria] for good ... a ghastly country ... which daily threatened his health, if not his very life."
Enforced separation, like risk, Cary accepted, but the tone of Gertie's next sentence made him feel "awfully unhappy". She had written:
"I know the work you do is splendid, and that it should be done by someone keen and capable, but I think you mean to stick to it mainly for financial reasons and because you think there is nothing else you can do."
Nobody who has been engulfed in that long loneliness of bush life will fail to realise how criticism tends to hurt and quickly fester. There was, too, the earlier, poignant letter written in 1917 in reply to Gertrude's entreating him to leave the Nigerian Service, with its opening lines of:
"I've been four months alone now ... I haven't exchanged a word of rational conversation... When I do talk English, I have to pick up the simplest words and repeat my meaning in two or three forms ... I know what to guard against - nerves, drink, illness, etc."
Like a sore, the more irritated attention it is given the deeper the poisoning tension of suspicion, depression and resentment penetrates the mind. For Cary the radix malorum seemed to be whether he could "find some other way of making an income". Humbly, he concluded "the only aptitude I seem to have is writing". He was back to square one, to the dilemma of 1913 when his decision to join the Nigerian Political Service was prompted as much by his determination to show that he could hold down a steady job after his earlier years of flitting from France and Edinburgh to Oxford, Montenegro and Ireland, as by economic enthusiasm.
Yet as he sailed from Nigeria on leave in January 1920, Cary was keyed up by the dazzling prospect of a new career and an end to his anxiety about and worries from his family. Against that, he loved the work and was well thought of in the Nigerian Service. In her study Molly Mahood claims that what tipped the delicate balance was the report by the Colonial Office medical board. Though only 31, his health was declared no more than "fairly good" and he was advised by the doctor that he ought not to return to the tropics. Accordingly, he sent in his papers to the Colonial Office. His Nigerian career was not much longer than five years. Yet, as he was to write when he was in his successful sixties, "My years in the African Service ... are richer to my memories than any of my books". If the life of "Mr. Cary, ADO" was no longer for him, fortunately for posterity his second career would be that of a writer.
The Colonial Administrator in Fiction: Joyce Cary's District Officers
Countless Caryists have analysed the characters of Joyce Cary's African novels. Much ink has been spilt - and no few tears - on just how 'real' Cary's Africans are. Certainly they are far more than bland stereotypes. William Boyd, in emphasising Cary's supreme gift of imagination, holds that he:
"achieved an insight into the mind of the African which avoids sentiment, condescension or paternalistic complacency, attributes which dog even the most well-intentioned accounts of colonial life ... There is a freedom and forthright vigour about the way his imagination ranges through the minds of all his characters that is unimpeded by good liberal reticence and prudent self-awareness."
For Boyd, then, not only is Mr. Johnson "a great literary character [who] can safely take his place beside any of the enduring characters world literature has presented us with", but, in Boyd's view, "his race is - paradoxical though it may seem - quite irrelevant". Cary's Nigerian critics have sometimes been less kind: one whose "facts read as strangely as the 'fiction' " and who, for Michael Echeruo, is no more than one more writer among "a long and undistinguished line of European novelists of Africa". As Molly Mahood rightly reminds us, "Like almost every masterpiece. Mister Johnson has been misunderstood from the day of its publication". What I set out to do here is to comment on Cary's characterization of the DO.
|An American Visitor|
|The African Witch|
What is more, in my reliance on Cary for piecing together the character of the DO in fiction, I would not want to overlook his admirable descriptions of the DO in fact: namely his letters home to Gertie (often enchantingly illustrated with line drawings), his Handing-Over Notes, and the actual diary of his post-Cameroons campaign days as a DO in Borgu. All of these and more are among his papers in the Bodleian Library at Oxford, and Alan Bishop has for some time now been working on a full edition of the Cary letters.
I do not want to claim that what I have written here on analysing Cary's experience and presentation of the African administrator forms a startlingly original contribution to the study of Joyce Cary. All that I offer is another perspective on Cary. This is derived from a blend of my own good fortune to have been a latter day DO in the 1950s and in 'Cary country' too; next, since the 1960s, to have been an academic, also in Cary's Oxford, now working on the history of the DO in Africa; and then, the final catalyst, to have been consulted by Bruce Beresford and his team, in however a properly marginal manner, in the making of "Mister Johnson". Together these have helped me to integrate Cary's African fiction more securely into its context of Colonial Service history, in so far as the image of the DO in literature is concerned.
That character, of the DO, is no stranger in English fiction. He has fascinated Kipling and Forster, Hanley and Huxley (and Edgar Wallace), Orwell and Maugham. Yet sui generis and arguably outstanding is the writing of Joyce Cary as a source for the study of the DO in fiction. Sometimes I ask myself, as I settle down to tackle another dusty, daunting ms. memoir in Rhodes House Library, why do I undertake such laborious research when the end might just as effectively, and likely more elegantly, be achieved by quoting verbatim passages from Joyce Cary's novels and stories and letters as the essence of what life was like as a DO in Nigeria at the zenith of colonial rule? For Cary has the unique claim to be not only an established writer but also to have been a District Officer. He might not have endorsed the fact that Mister Johnson is still regularly used at Oxford, seventy years beyond its conception and fifty since its publication, in a course of lectures on "Imperialism and Decolonization" in the Modern History Faculty, in order to illustrate the principles, practice and puzzles of Indirect Rule. Doubtless they use it for 'better' reasons in the English Faculty! The release of the film will doubtless and deservedly give Mister Johnson a fillip, in the same way that Richard Attenborough's "Gandhi" earlier did for undergraduate audiences in the history of the Raj. Yet I believe Cary might well have approved of another encomium of the Johnson story. "No civil servant [alas! here he was too late], business executive or missionary", urged Douglas Stewart in the W. T. Whitley Lectures for 1960, "should embark for Africa without having read Mister Johnson".
If, as I sombrely prophesied at the beginning, the life and work of the DO becomes for the next generation as underknown and misunderstood as is today the occupation of, say, the Odeon organist of the 1930s or of Robert Louis Stevenson's Leerie the Lamplighter, to the point that one's offspring are being sincere rather than cynical when they ask "What did you do as a DO, grandpa?", as long as J oyce Cary continues to be read one need not despair that all is lost. Come the centenary of the closing down of the Colonial Office in 2066, the true image of the DO in Africa, warts and all yet dimples included, stands to be more widely perpetuated and more tellingly portrayed in the novels and short stories of Joyce Cary than in the archives of our imperial history. It is to the shelves in Blackwells and the Bodleian, not the basement in Rhodes House, that those interested in what the British DO did in Colonial Africa may most likely, and most rewardingly, turn in the first instance.
|Africa in 1913 Map|
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|Author's Imperial Books|
|OSPA Journal 63: April 1992|
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