In 1985 Brian Lapping wrote End of Empire, a masterful account based on
his TV series starting with India, The Jewel in the Crown, the first to be
dislodged, moving through the Middle East, finally to Africa, the continent
where many of OSPA's of remaining members served. That was the year I retired
after spending 20 years at IDS where FCO had held a conference about what
should be done with the remaining pieces of empire excluding the sensitive
territories of Gibraltar and Hong Kong. Our government is still struggling with
this rump which now includes several tax havens, and of course, the
Falklands and Gib. The Colonial Office (CO) in its hey-day employed some
4000 staff, never mind countless overseas officers. A new large building
being planned was aborted and it lingered on in rented accommodation in
Church House, Westminster, and as the Empire shrank, finally finished up in
a room in the Commonwealth Office, which itself was merged with the FO to
become what was mischievously called by detractors, the "Common and
Foreignwealth Office", but which we now all know respectfully as the FCO.
The German History Museum is currently hosting a special exhibition about
its colonial past. Back in the '40s on the "Devonshire" course we probationary
administrators, mostly public school and Oxbridge, learned that the UK
headed up the international colonial admin league table of France, Belgium,
Portugal, Spain, Germany, US and the empires of Rome, both ancient and
How will the British colonial record be remembered?
At its peak in the 1870s the achievements of the British Empire were once
encapsulated in our Imperial Institute intended as a permanent Empire
museum. But after WW2 in 1958 this morphed into the Commonwealth
Institute and Imperial College, and as the role of the Commonwealth declined
so did that Institute, which closed down in 2002. Its unusual copper roof
donated by the Northern Rhodesia Chamber of Mines always leaked,
threatening the future of the building. Its contents were then transferred to
the Museum of the British Empire and Commonwealth in Bristol, which itself
closed in 2009, and some of the contents were then passed to the Bristol City
Museum. The remaining assets were liquidated and passed to the
Commonwealth Education Trust, a charity established in 2007 to advance
education in the Commonwealth.
How then shall we be remembered? It will not be by this sorry institutional
saga. What is needed is another Gibbon, Britain's finest ever historian, to
match his History of the Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire, a monumental
task. We need someone who can take better distance from Elkins' murky
account of the Mau Mau rebellion, who will not confuse British politics with its
administration, turning us into the whipping boys. Politicians have concealed
colonial records at Kew and they have also had some destroyed, but a rich
seam remains. The anticipatory Colonial Records project at Rhodes House of
all places was set up 60 years ago as our exodus gathered momentum. Many
of us sent our papers there to be perused by future scholars. OSPA has
worked hard to place on the record and preserve a faithful account of our
remarkable contribution to development and independence.
The Romans were ill-prepared for their sudden exodus from Empire. Likewise
we have received little notice to make ready for unexpected departure -
Brexit. For many, especially because of our preoccupation with WW2, our
withdrawal from Empire seemed hasty and ill-prepared. Many of my
colleagues were blinkered and ignored the winds of change, and spoke of the
need for another 25 years as they grasped their golden handshake.
Our departure from Africa was a major, well-accomplished exercise. Early
(secretive) thinking about independence took place at a Colonial Conference
held in the late '30s when Indian independence was already imminent.
It is impossible to predict what would have happened had Churchill won the
1945 election, but Labour was well prepared, and Indian independence was
successfully erected on the 400 year foundations of the British Raj and the
ICS. This very separate and somewhat exclusive experience inevitably
impacted on the colonies. Thus in Uganda we adopted both the Indian and
Criminal and Codes as the basis for the codification of our legal system.
District Officers were modelled on Indian Collectors. Both were concerned
with tax collection.
The first formal notice of Labour's plans came in a widely promulgated 1948
despatch from the Secretary of State for the Colonies, Arthur Creech Jones,
in a despatch containing policies rehearsed in Labour's Fabian Colonial
Research Bureau. Rather unusually a member of that bureau also occupied
the Africa desk at the Colonial Office, a high flyer and seen as the architect of
African independence. At the time some of the problems seemed
insurmountable. In East and Central Africa there were white settlers with
similar ambitions to those in South Africa. Our man at the Africa desk, who
had seen war service posted at the tender age of 32, as the Lieutenant-
Governor of Malta under siege, devised a federal solution for Central Africa
which failed. The transfer of power to African politicians began in Gold Coast in 1958, a model that would inspire others to follow, the process ending up
finally with a formal constitutional conference at Lancaster House in London.
Not all loose ends were always successfully tied up; Rhodesian land
ownership for example.
Understandably the architect for the demolition of our African empire was not
universally popular. Officials on the spot often said much more time was
needed to prepare for independence despite the start of crash education,
development, and localization programmes. The Westminster democratic
constitutional model powered events with African politicians at the helm
subordinating traditional authority systems.
The Africa "architect", Sir Andrew Cohen, was again translated from the
Colonial Office, only this time to govern Uganda, where as a protectorate,
indirect rule was firmly entrenched rather than Westminster democracy. As a
result, his term of office was marred by the deportation of the Kabaka of
Buganda, who had been recognized in a solemn agreement made with
Queen Victoria in 1900. Indeed Churchill teased him by asking him whether
he had heard of the divine right of kings, which curiously arises today over
sovereignty and Brexit, with our PM now being compared to Henry VIII.
Sir Andrew Cohen (1909-1968) joined the CO in 1933 when the British
Empire of tropical Africa was expected to last for ever. After a scholarship
and first class honours at Trinity College Cambridge he became a home civil
servant, African governor, diplomat at the UN, and finally the first Permanent
Secretary of Labour's new Ministry of Overseas Development (referred to as
ODM to avoid confusion with the Ministry of Defence) which became
responsible for British overseas aid with a crucial part in helping establish
newly independent territories. His field experience was invaluable in this. His
biographer, who never finished the task, described him as "the first to foresee
the coming of African independence at the end of Hitler's war, and as most
urgent in laying the necessary foundations for it. ...the first proconsul for
African nationality in the common interest of Britain and Africa his
personality was represented by an intensely individual force of mind, a
towering physical presence, and volcanic energy".
The new dynamic leaders at ODM (Andrew Cohen and Barbara Castle)
became known mischievously as "the Elephant and Castle".
At Cambridge because of his towering intellect, he was recruited as an
Apostle and accordingly labelled a Russian agent by the notorious Peter
Wright in his sensational and inaccurate book "Spy Catcher", an absurd libel
which sadly Cohen could not refute from the dead. He took no part in Jewish
corporate life, finding Jewish communalism as objectionable as discriminatory Zionism. His sister, Ruth, became Mistress of Girton College, Cambridge. He
reminded me of my wonderful college principal, a towering Jewish intellectual
who also died in his prime. By 1947 Cohen had risen to become head of the
African division in the CO where he was one of the few to realise that there
had to be a change from indirect rule via African chiefs to modern systems of
representative government making use of educated African officials and
elected leaders. The beginning was to be with changes in local government,
reflected in the 1948 despatch, leading to a transformation to the nation state.
Cohen believed that after Creech Jones fell from office in 1951 he was exiled
to Uganda where a Governor's boots would cool his radical heels. He was
renowned for his awkward loathing of ceremony. He first came on tour to the
district where I had just been made a rather young District Commissioner, and
we clicked, as I was a rebel, too. We revised the old Bunyoro Agreement and
signed a new one in preparation for things to come. I became a disciple to the
Apostle. Later our young Native Authority Clerk who had made his way
through Uganda's Byzantine constitutional changes all the way from Bunyoro
in the early 50s to Parliament to become Obote's deputy PM at Independence
some 20 years later, asked me to stay on as PS Education. I sat down with Jo
Zake, an old friend, and now Obote's new Minister of Education, and his first
words were that with the departure of so many expats we had to double the
numbers in tertiary education. When I asked where would we get the
teachers, he replied, "I've rung Andrew Cohen in London and he says he will
arrange this". He did, and so did we.
When I returned home in 1965, Cohen summoned me to the ODM and said
he had a job for me at IDS. There must be many others
whose lives were influenced by this remarkable man with a prophetic vision of
Africa's future architecture.
Although our Empire has ended, curiously its 1917 Order of Chivalry still
lingers on and, strangely, with awards mostly to athletes and actors.