British Empire Article

Courtesy of OSPA

by R E N Smith
The Lap of Luxury
Port Herald, Nyasaland
It is now the established and unquestioned belief amongst the British public and intellectuals of all varieties and nations that not only were wicked colonialists conscienceless oppressors of the poor but also that they lived in the lap of luxury that they, as really mere lower-middle class arrivistes, could not otherwise have contemplated in their most technicolour dreams. This belief is not entirely new, for in 1949 we First Devonshire course neophytes, peacefully pursuing our studies at LSE and SOAS in London, were often greeted with the derisive hail of "White Masters" from the more radical of the students there. I still remember the horrified incredulity with which a group of these gentry greeted the arrival of John Pepys-Cockerell, immaculately clad as if for the city.

Arriving in Nyasaland in January 1950 I spent my early months in a one-roomed Tobacco Buyers' office (with no facilities) on Famine Relief before going to my first district station. This was Port Herald, whose sonorous and historical name has now been replaced by the more Malawian one of Nsanje. This will not have changed the climatic conditions - it was extremely hot, humid and cursed with a remarkable variety of insect pests, all distinguished by size, persistence and ferocity. It was no more than 150 feet above sea-level and 150 miles or so from the sea, with a vast swamp on the other side of the Shire river, on whose right bank it stood. I can only hope that the housing conditions have changed for the better, for in my time these were simplicity itself. Even though as Assistant District Commissioner - a grandiose title for a brand new probationer chicken just out of the egg - I was allotted a large and imposing two-storied house; it had just four rooms plus an outside toilet. I shared it with the Assistant Superintendent of Police, the Rhodesia Native Labour (Mtadizi) recruiter, and at night, the Customs Officer. This unusual arrangement came about because the last-named was awaiting his decree absolute, and to avoid putting it in jeopardy, since he had his lady love living in his own house, came over after dinner and slept in our joint living room. I cannot remember if the country sported a King's Proctor, but if we did, this simple system foiled him, for it was a legal dogma that adultery could only take place at night.

The Lap of Luxury
Saucepan Radio
Thus I had just the one room to myself and here I kept my state - a bed with skin thongs and a lumpy kapok mattress, a Roorkee (collapsible - and it was) chair, a canvas covered camp table, and a side-board-bookcase-drinks cabinet cum-whatnot made by piling empty petrol boxes on their sides. The boxes had previously contained two four gallon flimsy cans for petrol but were now a major element in our living; there were stacked boxes in my room for clothes, books and other valuables. I had lids put on several and these contained all my gear from pots and pans to food, clothes, grog, for ulendo (safari). Another had side doors and folding legs and held paperbacks and my one great luxury, the famous "saucepan" radio. Central African veterans will remember these hardy and useful wirelesses, conceived as a cheap means of receiving news and music for villagers, and sold in vast numbers; they were indeed built inside "saucepan" shaped containers and made one's lonely tent or ulendo seem in touch with the world - even if it was only Radio Lusaka.

The Lap of Luxury
Nyasaland Huts
Modern political correctness will undoubtedly contrast my lordly state most unfavourably with the miserable and abject poverty of my oppressed subjects in their mud huts, but in fact these buildings were little, if at all, inferior, to my single bare room and sparse furniture. A "mud" hut is a more sophisticated and solid construction than the title indicates, for it is not mud, but wattle and daub, and is similar to those buildings that housed my Anglo/Saxon-Celtic-Welsh peasant ancestors for centuries, and where they bred, lived, brought up their families (and often the livestock) and died in conditions that they probably considered to provide a reasonable and cosy familiarity.

There were other snags with home-making. Not long after my arrival in Port Herald we were blessed with a brand new experiment, in the form of an Agricultural Supervisor; this was a large and innocent young man named Mike, even newer to Africa than me. Before leaving England he had been assured that he would be provided with a house, but on arrival what he actually received was a sum of money and instructions to build himself one. In order to have somewhere to put his Government refrigerator (kerosene), bed, table and chair as well as himself, he started off with the kitchen, which was a small separate building from the house. For the time being his cook had to make do with a thatched shelter and a fire amid some stones. Mike also had to arrange the making and burning of the bricks, and to this end he had a large clay pit excavated. Whilst doing this he heard a commotion among his workmen and went to investigate. They were all highly agitated and pointed to a large snake they had unearthed. In his virginal innocence Mike promptly picked it up and turned to his men for its identification. Finding himself suddenly alone, he walked over to his kitchen to ask his cook. That worthy took one horrified look and not being able to get past Mike, crashed out through the wall. Putting the creature in a sack, Mike sent it to the camp of a Game Department man, a keen herpetologist, who sent a note of thanks, adding that he hoped Mike had not tried to handle it. Apparently a burrowing viper (for such it was) possessed the ability, unique among snakes, of being able to strike backwards over its own head - and even skilled and devoted snake lovers were reluctant to handle it.

The Lap of Luxury
Shire River, Chikwawa
My next palace was the District Commissioner's house in Chikwawa; the proper incumbent had gone sick, and for a glorious few weeks I was elevated into the position - at no extra pay, of course. The house, however, had lost its former good size and status, for it had been perched on the cliff edge above the Shire river, and as the river had progressively undermined the cliff, it had had to be demolished. My house was built from the salvaged materials - and consisted of two long high thatched buildings, with a verandah for sleeping on, for Chikwawa was as hot and sticky as Port Herald.

I moved from Chikwawa to the sub-district of Mwanza, where once again any incipient delusions of being of a superior clay to the local population were soon dissipated. This time I had a "bush-house", and any officer who served in Nyasaland at this time will remember these misbegotten constructions. Allegedly designed by a qualified architect, who allegedly never had to live in one, these creations boasted two modestly sized rooms - living room and bedroom, joined at one side by a miniature dining room, and on the other by the bathroom and loo. For some highly technical reason the room farthest from the (outside) kitchen was the dining room, so that to avoid continually falling over the Bwana and his guests (if any), food had to be brought through the bathroom and bedroom to reach it, while the loo access from the living room was through the dining room and bedroom. Being then a bachelor, I was comfortable enough, but in Zomba and other metropolises families were expected to occupy these huts - and huts they were, being often thatched.

On my first leave I married and brought my bride to our first house, down in the Shire Valley below Zomba at the lonely Land Settlement station of Chigale - hot, malarial and on the wrong side of a deep (in the rains) stream. The two "officer" type houses had been built in the usual confident if unskilled manner by a previous Land Settlement Officer (we were jack of all trades - with the inevitable corollary), and were the essence of simplicity - living room, dining room and bedroom all in a straight line and with bathroom attached to the bedroom. This latter had been built over a not properly filled-in well, and its bricks sagged dangerously outwards; this was no problem and was easily solved by a brick buttress suitable for a modest sized cathedral. The kitchen was some distance away, on the far side of the road leading to the next door house - again no problem as no-one lived there. The house chimney was also simple - it just went straight up so that at midday there was a bright patch of sunlight at the bottom; this too did not matter, as I never had occasion to indulge in a fire. There was a store-room attached to the house, which had been the abode of a spitting cobra until Tony Smith, my predecessor, had been temporarily blinded by it.

Not long afterwards we found ourselves, via a thatched house on a prison farm and a nicer one-and-a-half bedroom one in Zomba, once again on our own, at the sub-district station of Kasupe, where the house (formerly in part the post office) had a beautiful site on a col between two mountains. It was therefore on the main route of wild animals in their travels, and there were plenty of them, even though we were no more than thirty miles from Zomba, the then capital. We were often regaled by the grunts and roars of itinerant lions - romantic Africa at its best, if one's security had been better than the mosquito wire-gauze doors that our bedroom sported in hot weather. Water was a problem, only solved by my messengers catching enough tax defaulters to supply a work force to hump an old 44 gallon container (cut in half) up the hill from the well in the dambo (marshy area). This house had another "first", for its septic tank had been recently installed, but as the house was built on solid rock, the tank had to be above ground, and one's first sight of the house was of this fine and impressive concrete construction, standing several feet in the air and all but alongside the front path and steps to the house. Luxury was lacking, but all the same we spent three very happy years at Kasupe.

Colonial Map
Southern tip of Nyasland Map
Colonial Map
Southern tip of Nyasland Map
Colonial Map
1959 Nyasaland Map
Colony Profile
Originally Published
OSPA Journal 83: May 2002
Lap of Luxury Part Two


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