British Empire Article

Courtesy of OSPA

by Alan Forward
Setting the Record Straight
Wind of Change
Those of us blown out of our colonial outposts by Macmillan's 'wind of change,' may wish that he had heeded Shakespeare's words, "Ill blows the wind that profits nobody." (Henry VI, Part 3, Act 2, Scene 5.) In the last forty years or so, it has been a rare event for us to read a tribute to our "incorrupt, beneficial and just ideals." This tribute comes from the pen of a distinguished historian, Andrew Roberts, in his recently published A History of the English Speaking Peoples since 1900.

This is a weighty tome of some 700 pages and Roberts has given me permission to quote from his book in this article. I first contacted Roberts after listening to him debating our colonial record on the radio with the usual suspects, the Left/liberal critics of the British Empire. They have, as we all know too well, waged a relentless campaign against us, calling for apologies for our colonial role abroad and inculcating a sense of guilt here at home for our alleged tyranny and exploitation.

Since the 1960s, some of us have tried "to set the record straight" by writing books and letters to the press. We may have thought that we were winning when The Times leader on 1 July 1997 thundered, rather prematurely, that, "The years of post-colonial guilt and imperialism have, at last, given way to a more balanced, historical assessment." This encouraged me to publish my own book. You Have Been Allocated Uganda. The title comes from the Colonial Office telegram which informed me of my appointment to Uganda in 1954. Glen McKnight, who reviewed it for the Canadian Journal of African Studies, described it both as "a compelling read" and as "a primary document for use by scholars." Thus it seemed a good idea to send a copy to Roberts.

Setting the Record Straight
Harry St George Galt
To my surprise, he sent me some draft paragraphs for his latest book based on my account of the assassination of sub-commissioner Harry St George Galt in Ankole District in 1905, just eleven years after Uganda had been declared a Protectorate. He rightly described this incident as "a minute footnote in the history of the British Empire." But it has lessons for us all today. He asked me for more details of the subsequent inquiries. I was able to help him by drawing his attention to an article by Henry Morris in the Uganda Journal (Vol 24, No. 1) from which Roberts recorded, "It is a complicated story that incorporates witchcraft, cover-ups, buffalo-poaching, at least two double crosses, exile, a drinking party, smallpox, infected milk and a hunch-backed dwarf, one of the most terrible cases of distorted mind and body."

Roberts was clearly impressed that the long and complicated investigation into the assassination ended, not with the conviction of two chiefs at the High Court at Entebbe for aiding and abetting the murder of Galt, but with their acquittal by the Court of Appeal for East Africa at Mombasa - some tyranny!

Roberts wrote of Uganda, "A country of nearly 94,000 square miles with a population in 1955 of just over five million, including 48,000 Asians and 5,600 Europeans, might have been considered hugely difficult to police; those who seek to portray the British Empire as a tyranny need to explain why places like Uganda produced so little popular insurgency against British rule."

Roberts was keen to know the strength of the King's African Rifles, and Col John Dent, MBE was able to inform Roberts of their strength in the 1950/60s. Roberts continued, "It is certainly not enough to argue that the native people lived in fear of reprisals from the single battalion of the King's African Rifles, led by some two dozen British officers, ten British senior NCOs and 850 Ugandan soldiers and junior NCOs. It is far more likely that they recognised the benefits that British rule brought. As early as 1901, the great Uganda Railway was built; this huge four-and-a-half year project involved constructing a railroad 550 miles into the heart of Africa."

Roberts quoted George Santayana, the Spanish-born American philosopher, who described the "sweet, just, boyish masters" who ruled the British Empire in its final phase. He continued, "they tried their best to rule some twenty different peoples in Uganda, derived from three racial groupings, speaking some twenty different languages, who lived in four kingdoms and ten districts." That they "managed to achieve this without more Britons than poor Harry Galt being killed is an astonishing tribute to their incorrupt, beneficial and just ideals."

Readers of my book will know that I once spent a sleepless night close by the Galt memorial stone, some seventy miles north of the district headquarters at Mbarara, wondering if I would become the second administrative officer to be murdered. That evening I and the Sekibobo of Mitoma County had been having a beer after a long day on tour, when we were told of a triple murder a few miles along the road past the memorial. We went to the scene and sent runners to Police HQ at Mbarara. There was little else that we could do and I returned to my tent.

Setting the Record Straight
Sir Hesketh Bell
I might have slept if I had then known about the administrative, as opposed to the judicial, reaction to Galt's murder. Sir Hesketh Bell, the Governor, considered that the two chiefs who had been acquitted should nevertheless be punished for their negligence. They had failed to report facts which would have led to the arrest of the suspected assassin, who later committed suicide. Bell ordered that they should be exiled to the coast. In his Glimpses of a Governor's Life Bell recorded his further action of fining the Omugabe and his senior chiefs hundreds of heads of cattle and levying a special tax to pay for the building of the Galt Memorial Hall. Bell wrote, "These proceedings may appear high handed and arbitrary, but it was essential to impress upon the natives throughout the Protectorate the sanctity of the lives of our small staff of officers, and the lesson that was given to the people of Ankole was so striking that it is unlikely that it will ever have to be repeated."

It was never repeated because Galt was the only administrative officer murdered in Uganda. Who knows, Bell's actions may have kept me safe that night fifty-one years ago? But I did not then know of his action to promote Pax Brittanica, without which nothing could have been achieved. The usual suspects should have been at my tent that night to learn that law and order, so sadly lacking in Africa today, was, and will always be, the basis for all social, economic and political development.

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Originally Published
OSPA Journal 93: October 2007


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