In Our Defence: Her Majesty's Overseas Civil Service

Courtesy of OSPA

by John H. Smith, CBE
(Administrative Officer, Nigeria 1951-70)
University College, Ibadan
University College, Ibadan
Recent articles in the Overseas Pensioner have challenged anti-colonial comments particularly by the BBC and The Times. Colonial memoirs usually face up to the criticisms levelled against us and Harry Mitchell's Confessions of a Briefless Barrister has a whole chapter devoted to the defence of Britain's imperial record. He criticises Tim Butcher, more for Blood River about the Congo than for Chasing the Devil, his account of Sierra Leone, where Mitchell began his career. Mitchell's concern is that Butcher blames colonialism for the mess he found in the Congo some fifty years later and effectively quotes a Malaysian UN officer who argued that Malaysia had done extremely well since independence despite colonial rule. Neither Butcher nor the Malaysian accepted that British rule and preparation for independence was any better than Belgium's. Another target is the BBC's comment in a documentary about Livingstone suggesting that his exploration encouraged the "Scramble for Africa", thereby creating exploitation 'every bit as shameful as the slave trade'. Mitchell's efforts to engage the BBC in constructive discussion failed, an experience shared by OSPA.

Chinua Achebe
Chinua Achebe
We learn about a less expected defender in Professor Gilbey's Chinua Achebe on the Positive Legacy of Colonialism, in African Affairs, October 2016. Gilbey points out that Achebe, although a key figure in the rise and persistence of anti-colonial ideology in Africa, made a clear statement in his final work There was a Country about the positive legacies of colonialism and was never the simple anti-colonial figure most assumed, welcoming in particular the educational opportunities he enjoyed. Achebe, as a young man, seemed to those of us who knew him to be a model of the development and modernisation that we hoped latter-day colonialism would bring. After an English style secondary education, Achebe was an early graduate of Ibadan, Nigeria's first university, carefully nurtured by the University of London. Soon writing well-constructed novels in beautiful English, he became one of the most popular novelists of the second half of the Twentieth Century worldwide. He was certainly a nationalist, particularly irritated by Joyce Gary's African novels, writing about his country with exceptional observation and understanding, the impact upon it of colonialism - Things Fall Apart - and the impact upon its peoples of participation in the modern world - No Longer at Ease and Man of the People. He was also an Igbo, the Nigerian people whose culture and demographic pressures perhaps best prepared them to exploit the challenges and opportunities colonialism offered. Things certainly didn't fall apart in the Northern Emirates where Indirect rule ossified tradition and kept western education at bay.

Gilbey demonstrates how Achebe's popularity, turning him into something of a literary industry, resulted in admirers blaming every fault and flaw on colonialism despite Achebe acknowledging local faults and failures. Achebe was essentially a fair minded critic of colonialism of which he could never approve but in which he could see some advantages, just as, although an Igbo and loyal to Biafra during the civil war, he remained more a Nigerian than a Biafran.

Ibadan Map
Ibadan Map, 1961
Colony Profile
Originally Published
OSPA Journal 113 (April, 2017)
Further Reading
The Dar Mutiny Of 1964
by Tony Laurence


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