British Empire Article

Contributed by Don Barton

Don Barton was a District Commissioner in Tanganyika from 1952-1961
Some Reflections on Colonialism
Squeezing Africans
The pros and cons of Britain's imperial past are not a topic of hot discussion down at the Dog and Duck or in the popular media, and amongst very few is it a matter of consuming interest. The public is largely ignorant and indifferent; but insofar as there is any interest, the default view appears to be that the empire was a bad thing, an extended episode in our history for which we should feel and express collective shame and guilt. This is as mistaken as the earlier commonplace assumption that the empire was a good thing, that the Pax Britannia was wholly benign. In reality there was both bad and good, the bad associated particularly with the period of expansion and consolidation, the good with the four decades following the First World War. Few critics distinguish between these two phases of empire.

There are countless academic books and papers which are commendably objective in chronicling and analysing colonial history. Some popular historians are similarly neutral; others are partisan, a few trumpeting the merits of Empire, but more drawing attention to its manifold wickednesses. The last category makes far more exciting and bloodcurdling reading, and presumably sells more books, and it is these which seem to be the only sources resorted to by the media commentariat whenever 'colonialism' is on the agenda. These tend to comprise well-educated liberals with a predisposition to condemn 'colonialism' out of hand whether they have any serious knowledge of the subject or not.

A similar tendency prevails in the school system, although teaching history by topic rather than as a continuum means that a great deal is omitted. However we can be reasonably certain that if youngsters leave school with little knowledge of our imperial history, they will at least know about the Atlantic slave trade, and perhaps the Amritsar massacre of 1919 (see Teaching the Empire). It is equally certain that they will not have heard of the Colonial Development and Welfare Acts, or that from about 1920 colonial policy was based not on proprietorship but trusteeship leading to independence. We now have a generation of younger people who, if they think about it at all, are encouraged to believe that all the ills of the developing world - and perhaps Africa in particular - are attributable to 'colonialism'; never mind natural disasters, a hostile environment, overpopulation, climate, the Cold War, the corruption of many postcolonial governments, and unfavourable terms of trade. This last might give pause for thought regarding guilt, for the terms of trade are determined by the West's collective expectation of an ever-rising standard of living which is to a considerable extent contingent on exploiting the labour and natural resources of low-income countries. Sympathy and an occasional donation to Oxfam are poor recompense.

A little over fifty years ago Sir Alan Burns published a book In Defence of Colonies. In fact it is less a defence of colonies than a defence of the manner in which colonies were governed, with independence as the intended end product - in contrast to the lamentable standards of government in the countries which were our most vociferous critics. In its detail the book is dated, but most of the evidence adduced is still relevant to any analysis of what 'colonialism' was in practice as distinct from what it is often mistakenly assumed to have been.

This essay offers no defence of imperial expansion, though in passing it might be noted that at the time it was not seen to be wrong, that most European powers were at it, and that the process was very largely an extension of national rivalries on the continent of Europe rather than a drive for territorial expansion. My intention is simply to challenge, qualify and occasionally correct some of the more egregious and ill-informed criticisms of policy and practice in the final four decades of Empire.

Here I must declare my personal interest. A study of colonial problems and history propelled me into the Colonial Service, in which I served as a District Commissioner in Tanganyika (Tanzania) from 1952-1961. My comments derive from experience and observations on the ground plus wide reading over the years, and represent a reaction to the fashionable prevalence of post-colonial guilt, a condition perhaps even more common now than in the immediate aftermath of empire. By way of contrast there is no similar collective guilt over the Industrial Revolution, which is generally viewed with pride, despite its human costs, social disruption, and spoliation of the landscape. Ironically both imperial expansion and the Industrial Revolution were financed by the same mercantile and landed classes. Our colonial misdeeds are frequently paraded, the good deeds largely unremarked. This negativism reveals a commonplace inability of any current generation to comprehend - or even be aware - that earlier generations had world views very different from their own, views conditioned by the circumstances of the time. This lack in no way dilutes the conviction that the current view - often based on emotion rather than thought - is the only valid one. The liberal-left interpretation of our imperial adventure leads to easy assumptions about tyranny, oppression, exploitation, racism and so on.

Some Reflections on Colonialism
Mandated Territory
This bias manifests itself in a variety of ways; selectivity in presenting facts; wilful misrepresentation and misinterpretation of the facts; choice of vocabulary; picking out particular reprehensible but rare events and representing them as typical; attributing failed policies to arrogance or wilfulness; and as noted above judging past events without regard for the realities of the time. A common error is the failure to distinguish between the period of imperial expansion up to about 1920, and the subsequent fluctuating commitment to trusteeship and eventual self-government within the Commonwealth as it was then understood, with Britain as the senior partner. This policy found an early expression in the document mandating the administration of Tanganyika Territory (formerly German East Africa) to Britain. A relevant extract read 'until such time as the native peoples are able to stand by themselves under the strenuous conditions of the modern world .... the material and moral well-being and the social progress of the inhabitants forms a sacred trust of civilization' - a trust to be exercised by the League of Nations and the administering authority. In similar vein the Duke of Devonshire (Colonial Secretary 1922-24) declared of African colonies in general that 'HMG regard themselves an exercising a trust on behalf of the African population, and they are unable to delegate or share this trust, the object of which may be defined as the protection and advancement of the native races'. On another occasion he stated 'Primarily Kenya is an African Territory, and HMG think it is necessary definitely to record their considered opinion that the interests of the African natives must be paramount, and that if and when those interests and the interests of the immigrant races should conflict, the former should prevail'. This nearly provoked a settler rising in Kenya colony, and certainly failed to curb settler influence.

Many critics seem to be unaware of the policy of progressive disengagement, or simply regard it as so much humbug. It was admittedly one which proceeded very fitfully; circumstances were different in every colony, HMG and the British public at the time were preoccupied with war debt, then the Great Depression and the prospect of a second world war, and it was not until after that war that real progress was - or could - be made. One may reasonably assume that there was a element of window dressing in the policy; the reality of any government policy, foreign or domestic, rarely if ever matches the rhetoric. Then there were senior politicians of the day, both in Government and Opposition who opposed the policy, notably Churchill in the Commons and Salisbury in the Lords. Yet the policy was there, as evidenced in a small way by the 1938 Colonial Office recruitment pamphlet Appointments in the Colonial Service; the introduction made it clear that there was, and would continue to be, progress towards self-government: the post-war version was even clearer. There would have been no good grounds for misrepresenting matters, and there would have been no shortage of recruits had our stated policy been to hang on to Empire. Presumably the intention was to attract people who would be favourably disposed towards measured withdrawal from Empire, and this was indeed the case even though the process accelerated more rapidly than expected at the time.

India was very much the jewel in the imperial crown, and was in many respects an untypical colony. But even in the acquisitive 19th century, Macaulay's mid-century memorandum predicted that independence would be the inevitable outcome of the extension of liberal Western education in the subcontinent. India - and perhaps Ceylon - were arguably the only countries in the colonial empire which were - objectively- 'ready for independence' before the event.

The philosophy underlying the whole business of trusteeship and withdrawal from Empire is admirably summarised by Don Taylor in his book The British in Africa (1962).... 'The policy of the British in Africa has owed its value not to the fact that they take a larger size in haloes than anybody else but that they know the most about international sin and have been longest at the penitent form. This is a very positive virtue in an imperfect world, likely to do more good than any amount of wishful thinking about the innate goodness of mankind. British policy has been based on two main propositions: that a community of people under an alien government, will, in the end, demand to rule themselves; that the duty of the alien government is to see to it that those people are not only prepared for Government but are bequeathed a country in as stable a position as possible'. The exercise of this duty in Africa and elsewhere has had mixed and often unexpected and disappointing outcomes, but was in itself by no means ignoble.

The Colonial Office
Gilbert Scott Building
Comparatively few commentators have noted that Westminster, the Colonial Office, colonial governors and Legislative Councils did not all sing from the same hymn sheet, and that colonial governments did not simply follow instructions from London. Westminster often took its eye off the ball, the Colonial Office provided a measure of consistency and continuity, whilst colonial governors and legislators had considerable freedom of action - as did administrators in the field. The scope for the expression of individualism had advantages and disadvantages; on the plus side individual initiatives could produce beneficial results, but also led to inconsistencies of policy between and within colonies.

Let us take a look at other misconceptions and misinformation. I have yet to stumble across a history of Britain which focuses on failures of government policies over the centuries. Such a book would make dismal reading, since failure is at least as common as success. Many policies have been, and still are, ill thought out, ineptly implemented, and subject to the notorious law of unintended consequences. We assume that our governments usually think that are acting for the best, and do not disregard the common good. Yet for critics of Empire, unfortunate outcomes of policy are attributable to stupidity, arrogance or the absence of fully fledged democratic institutions - as if democracies are not also prone to failures of policy. Whatever the regime, cock-ups happen, whilst even legitimate criticism is blessed with the gift of hindsight.

There is also selection of facts to prove a point. Thus we are periodically reminded in suitably grisly terms of the Amritsar massacre in 1919, represented as typical of colonial rule, whereas it was the last gasp of one extreme characteristic of late Victorian imperialism. We rarely hear that the Guardians of the Golden Temple applauded General Dyer's action and made him an honorary Sikh, or that a large section of the Punjabi commercial community thought that he had averted wider civil unrest.

More recently Britain's colonial record has come under attack for admitted brutalities during the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya, in dealing with the communist threat in Malaya, the Greek-backed insurrection in Cyprus, and the chaotic withdrawal from Aden. Again these events are presented as typical whereas in reality they were exceptional; most colonies never saw any imperial troops and most achieved independence with no more than a few broken heads. Mau Mau was not a national insurrection but a tribal one in pursuit of tribal advantage and reflecting tribal (Kikuyu) grievances. In Malaya a communist minority of the minority Chinese population sought to overthrow a legitimate government and seize control. In Cyprus Greek political activists and guerrillas wanted union with Greece without regard for the Turkish population, and took up arms to achieve this. In Aden rival factions wanted us out but declined to discuss terms on which rapid and definitive constitutional independence could be achieved; they were determined that we should be driven out at gunpoint rather than withdraw peacefully. Palestine too was an exceptional case with international ramifications and is outside the scope of this paper, but In passing it is worth noting that by the mid-1930s Britain sought to extricate itself from its problematic mandate. Two separate commissions reported in 1937 and 1938 and recommended constitutional exeats; a two-state solution more favourable to the Arabs than the 1948 dispensation was rejected by them, and a one state solution safeguarding Arab interests was turned down by the Jews. A world war then intervened.

It is self evident that writers who were not involved or even alive in colonial times must rely on the recorded facts, but interpretation of the facts is often questionable. It is also obvious that the record is incomplete. It may be doubted that many district office files covering the period of say 1920-1965 remain in either district offices or national archives of former colonies. The typical district office turned out perhaps three or four hundred letters and memos a month, to native authorities, businessmen, senior officers and members of the public. Were it possible to analyse these a picture would be revealed of an administration which was essentially liberal and humane, fair, dispassionate, and revealing a preparedness to bend the rules or turn a blind eye if it was in the local public interest to do so. Then there were letters home, now destroyed or mouldering forgotten in attics; and in personal archives the occasional appreciative letter of thanks addressed to a colonial official for his resolution of a personal or local problem. There were also the tens of thousands of men and women, mostly now dead, who called at the district office with a problem, complaint or petition in the knowledge that it would be fairly and - usually - sympathetically dealt with. But their voices are now silent, unlike the voices of those critics who take the simplistic view that because 'colonialism' was wrong everything done in the name of colonialism was also wrong. By the same token, everything done by the government of a democratic state should be good - but this is manifestly not so.

Let us now turn to the vocabulary commonly employed in describing the colonial state, starting with 'colonialism' itself. 'Isms' tend to be based on an underlying philosophy or dogma of some kind, be it communism, feminism, Pelmanism or nationalism. If there ever was such a philosophy relating to the colonial enterprise, it was surely during the period of expansion, and rightly referred to as 'imperialism'; even then much of the expansion was ad hoc and opportunistic, or almost accidental. If there ever was 'colonialism' it surely ceased when trusteeship replaced proprietorship; after the early 1920s we had - if anything - 'de-colonialism'. Again 'colonialism' suggests colonisation, whereas in fact most colonies were not colonised; those that had been became Dominions. Meanwhile 'colonialism' persists, largely as a term of abuse - hence the inverted commas in this text.

Colonial rule has often been critically described as both oppressive and paternalistic, concepts which are mutually contradictory. Rule which does not conform precisely with our ideals of democracy is not by definition oppressive, although it can be; and rule by civil servant is not self-evidently more oppressive than rule be elected politicians, especially when moderated by legislative councils. Large sections of any population object to much of what any government does, whether democratic or colonial; it does not follow that that government is oppressive. What matters in practice is how that government conducts itself and the extent to which if furthers the best interests of its people; it should by now be clear that an election does not create a democracy. I do not know how the word 'paternalistic' acquired a pejorative or dismissive meaning; in its literal sense it surely suggests a protective instinct, possibly patronising at worst, but certainly not oppressive. The paternalistic colonial state had something in common with the modern 'nanny state'; it cared. And sometimes nanny did - and does - know best. Given that one of our purposes was to drag the colonies into the 20th century, with at least some of the benefits which this would bring, we were collectively better - equipped to take a lead than most of the people amongst whom we worked, the majority of whom saw the future essentially as a continuation of the past. We did not of course always get it right - no governments do. If there is a fault in attitudes it is that whilst we sought to engage pretty comprehensively with the typically 90% plus rural populations, we neglected to engage in the same way with the small educated and urban classes who were often seen as actual or potential trouble-makers - as some were - rather than collaborators in legitimate change.

Some Reflections on Colonialism
Inter-War Trade Routes Map
Another loaded word associated with 'colonialism' is exploitation. The word has both positive and negative connotations, but in the colonial context the implication is invariably negative, suggesting something akin to robbery. But exploitation is a feature of all societies, embracing property, land, personal and employment relationships, the accumulation and utilisation of capital, natural resources, trade and so on. In the capitalist system it benefits all, but particularly the successful entrepreneur, whilst under communism it tends to benefit party apparatchiks. So exploitation was not a uniquely wicked feature of 'colonialism'; the 'colonialists' who were exploiting Africans and Indians two hundred years ago were precisely the same class which initiated the Industrial Revolution, thereby exploiting the British labouring classes, with women and children sent down coal mines and set to work in factories for 12 hours a day 6 days a week. Despite the social upheaval the Industrial Revolution is perceived as beneficial, despite its casualties; it is not seen as a matter for national shame or as a stick with which to beat earlier generations of entrepreneurs. The pre-colonial Atlantic slave trade was a gross example of the exploitation of people, but it is worth reminding ourselves that British nationals were, effectively, the first slaves in the West Indian plantations - indentured labourers and debtors. They could not stand arduous work in the tropics, and were apt to die of exhaustion or illness before being released from bondage.

Again, we are often accused of exploiting the natural resources of the colonies; utilising natural resources has been a function of mankind ever since homo sapiens stood up on his hind legs. First and foremost we exploited our own natural resources - timber, coal, iron, tin and soil, as all people do in proportion to their level of technology and aspiration. It is true that the colonies were seen as sources of raw materials, which were then processed in the industrialised world rather than in the countries of origin, thus eliminating the prospect of locally added value. The alternative would have required heavy and often risky investment; and whilst subsequently there has been much investment, exports even now tend to be primary products, especially in the less developed countries. It is invariably assumed that the benefits of commercial enterprise in the colonies accrued exclusively to the owners and stockholders of British companies. Certainly they were far and away the main beneficiaries - though companies were also known to go bust. But there were residual cumulative benefits within the colonies, increasingly funding the institutions of government, and later an expanding range of social goods. (I think I am right in saying that - excluding India - our colonies were a nett liability to the British Exchequer from the early 1920s onwards).

The Colonial Office
Instruments of Independence
In any discussion on 'colonialism' reference will be made at some stage to the 'struggle for independence'. This struggle is partly fact, partly myth. In India certainly there was vigorous political agitation which predated HMGs adoption of the trusteeship principle; injuries were inflicted, lives were lost, and prison beckoned the agitators; to this extent there was struggle. Subsequent bloodletting in periodic rioting, and Gandhi's campaigns of non-violent protest reflected impatience with Britain's tardiness in moving its most developed possession towards Independence; the second world war resulted in further delay and friction.

But India was not typical. Elsewhere the struggle was largely fiction, designed to show 'freedom fighters' in a heroic light, and post-independence to boost the self-esteem of former colonial peoples. There was inevitable tension between 'them and us' as to when a given colony or protectorate was ready for independence. Naturally local politicians and their supporters wanted it sooner rather than later, whilst we were more cautious, generally wishing to see more economic development, and a more experienced indigenous political class and civil service before handing over. Meanwhile we would hold the ring. In individual cases there could be economic, strategic or security reasons - or excuses - for further delay.

Insofar as there was a struggle it was over timing, not principle, which had been established decades earlier. In late colonial times no local politician or agitator faced execution, though many courted a spell of imprisonment as a badge of honour. Where bloodshed occurred it almost always derived from the duty of any government to maintain or restore law and order, in circumstances in which it is irresponsible to do nothing. Malaya, Kenya, Cyprus and Aden were extreme and atypical examples of this requirement. In most colonies the struggle was a fiction, and was in reality simply the application of political and popular pressure to accelerate independence in the knowledge that it was going to happen anyway. The 'freedom fighters' were always pushing at an open door, and their leaders knew it. This is not to say that there were no dinosaurs around who wished it was otherwise; and many officials thought, with good reason, that a few more years of preparation would be no bad thing had it been possible.

Before moving on from the requirement to maintain law and order it should be explained that by and large the indigenous populations of the colonies were peaceful and law abiding, particularly in rural areas, and mob violence was as rare as the violence that was sometimes needed to contain or suppress it. And need generally arose because the forces of law and order - typically the local police contingent - was heavily outnumbered; the ratio of police to population was much smaller than in the UK. Extreme measures became a substitute for numbers. By contrast, when rioting occurs in Britain, large bodies of police can usually be assembled to control it without resort to firearms.

The old Roman dictum 'divide and rule' crops up in anti-colonial criticism more often than is justified. Certainly it had its place in the process of imperial expansion and in overcoming local opposition to it. But in the last few decades of the colonial era? In readying a colony for independence I can think of no worse recipe for governments to follow. It is possible, and I speculate, that many local politicians in the years immediately prior to independence perceived our party system as divisive, the notion of a loyal opposition completely alien; and of course it is divisive unless one accepts an overarching loyalty to the state and its people. But at the time of independence the main thrust of colonial politics was a legitimate wish 'to run our own affairs'. It is common to speak of nationalist politicians, but in reality most of the indigenous populations had little or no sense of nationhood, despite several decades of unified colonial rule; horizons were defined by family, clan and tribe and even the district could appear an amorphous concept, let alone the nation. It was local differences which provided divisiveness, not the colonial power seeking to establish a cohesive and viable nation state. Some colonies of course displayed few symptoms of division either before or after independence.

A fashionable euphemism which has crept into use latterly is the reference to indigenous functionaries and civil servants in colonial times as 'collaborators', equating them with the Norwegian Quisling and French Laval and Retain, who collaborated with the Nazis following the military conquests of 1940. In a purely literal sense the indigenous peoples who worked with, and for us, collaborators - but not in the negative emotive sense implied. With very few exceptions the colonies were not nation states when we acquired them, so there was no consequential disloyalty or traitorousness to the state - as was the case in German - occupied Europe.

Indeed the colonies became nation states in consequence of colonial rule, as did local nationalisms - albeit that such nationalisms often developed from opposition to colonial rule rather than from a clear sense of nationhood. Again, collaboration in WWII Europe required subordination to a more powerful invader of comparable culture and levels of economic development; by contrast, colonial occupation, over time, provided an entry into the modern world and the prospect - initially a very dim one - of improvement, development, and personal advancement within the politico-economic system which opened up these prospects. At the present time, for good or ill, the populations of former colonies voluntarily aspire to or 'collaborate with' manifestations of western culture and enterprise which are alien. Colonialism - again for good or ill - hastened this process, and probably few would wish to revert to an earlier pre-modern way of life. This is not to suggest that the outcomes are wholly beneficial, and millions are mired in poverty, ill health and malnutrition - but not primarily in consequence of a colonial rule which effectively ended 50 years ago.

Predictably, 'colonialism' prompts accusations of 'racism' an 'ism' which wasn't in the vocabulary when it was most in evidence - say from the late 15th to early 20th centuries - when it was presumably seen as perfectly natural. Even then it was by no means universal, and British nabobs in India made honourable marriages with Indian women, and adopted local customs. Nor was it all one way; the Chinese regarded westerners as barbarians - not entirely without reason. However, an amateur analysis of early colonial attitudes towards race has no part in a paper more particularly concerned with the later period of trusteeship. I see 'racism' as a rather slippery word, more typically deployed to shut down discussion then to advance it; I will stick with the earlier and more meaningful discrimination and prejudice.

Some critics quote examples of extreme discrimination perpetrated more than a century ago as if they were still typical on the eve of independence. In reality overt prejudice waned during the 20th century, most markedly after each of the two world wars. It is likely that there were differences between colonies, and I can refer only to my own experience and observation with absolute certainty. I witnessed very little prejudice in the civil service, but there was a very small minority amongst us whose attitudes might be politely defined as old-fashioned. Prejudice was perhaps rather more common in the private sector, where there was a wider range of expatriate nationalities in junior supervisory positions.

In general expatriate civil servants related to Africans very much on a man to man basis and with the usual courtesies in either Swahili or English, and sometimes with rather more sensitivity than we would accord to a fellow countryman. I witnessed a classic example of this when, one day, I entered a colleague's office and found him and his African visitor sitting on the floor engaged in conversation. When I quizzed him later, he explained that the African had ignored the proffered chair and sat on the floor; my colleague thought it only polite to join him there. Where there were elements of de haut en bas derived from seniority or status rather than prejudice. Older Africans were addressed with particular respect, whilst trusted domestic servants were often treated as members of the family, and frequently became lifelong friends. There was occasional condescension, patronisation and insensitivity, but it would be ungenerous to read too much into this; these characteristics are not unknown within our own society.

In Tanganyika, and no doubt elsewhere, there were institutional features which have mistakenly been perceived as discriminatory. One was the existence of four or five government boarding schools built primarily for the children of expatriate officials. Their purpose was to encourage recruitment of much needed expatriate staff after the second world war; potential candidates could well be put off by the prospect of otherwise having to pay boarding school fees in Britain, and seeing their children only every 2-4 years when on home leave. Similarly there were 2 or 3 European hospitals but most of us necessarily resorted to the same medical services as Africans - except that we, unlike them, had to pay for some of them.

Checking the Books
Devonshire Course, 1948/9
In similar vein there is the frequent criticism of the slow rate of indigenisation of the upper echelons of territorial civil services. India was a notable exception, with Indians admitted to the hitherto exclusively expatriate Indian Civil Services (ICS) on the basis of competitive examination from the last quarter of the 19th century; the downside was that they had to sit the examination in London, so that recruitment was limited to the well-heeled. But in general, the criticism is valid, though cannot be attributed to prejudice. Throughout the period of trusteeship the empire was financially under-resourced and overstretched, so that too few graduates were produced to serve the requirements of government. A further problem varying from colony to colony, was that a high proportion of such graduates as there were sought employment in the private sector or the professions rather than the civil service, and aspired to get away from the rural areas where most expatriate officials were happy to see out their careers.

Whilst the shortage of qualified and experienced manpower at the time of independence is beyond doubt, there is a further reason for this which is largely overlooked. This is that local and international pressures resulted in independence arriving several decades before HMG had intended or planned; so we are blamed for not having achieved by 1960(ish) a level of preparedness which we had not expected to achieve until near the end of the century. It was clear on the ground that the Westminster/Whitehall time frame was unrealistic even if not wholly undesirable. With hindsight there was a serious error of judgement, representing a conflict between an idealised and protective view of 'readiness for independence' and mid-century realpolitik.

Arthur Bainbridge
The 'Club'?
In fact and in fiction 'the club' is often represented as a bastion of race prejudice. In itself the concept of an expatriate club is completely understandable. We were the aliens, a small minority in a foreign land, who spent our days working with and for the benefit of local people, speaking their language, and absorbed by their concerns. What more natural or reasonable than to want to spend some leisure time amongst fellow-exiles, to let one's hair down, air grumbles and opinions, discuss the current Test Match, or occasionally behave within the confines of the club as one would not normally behave outside it. Indians, Malays and Africans had their clubs, why not the British, Greeks, Lebanese and other expatriates? The club which had regular guest nights, when members invited their indigenous friends for drinks, a meal, a dance or to witness amateur dramatics, was a social asset. What was discriminating and unacceptable was the club that did not, and presumably there were some.

Let us now turn to the matter of democracy, and two common criticisms; that colonial rule was undemocratic, and that when independence came to be seen as the end product, the Westminster model was imposed in a one size fits all fashion. The first assertion is true, the second less so, and both need qualification. Until the 1950s little was known about the histories of many of the territories which came under colonial rule; subsequent research revealed that whilst - as was commonly assumed - there were native dictatorships and autocracies on one hand, on the other there were societies which had characteristics which were recognisably democratic. Participatory politics was not uniquely British.

In early colonial times our rule was, almost by definition authoritarian - often necessarily so. But as central and local government structures bedded in, authority mellowed - particularly following the onset of trusteeship, a tendency which accelerated after the Second World War. Instruction on the basis that 'we know best' gave way to consultation and dialogue, and much of a district commissioner's time was spent discussing matters of local concern in village meetings, district councils, and with the farmer in his field - taking note and later taking action. In this sense, although a government functionary he also had a touch of a constituency MP about him in the days before parliamentary elections; he was closer to his public than senior officials in Britain are to theirs. As noted earlier democracy is not defined by elections alone, but by the manner in which a government conducts itself and responds to public need and opinion. Colonial rule could be surprisingly liberal, receptive, and responsive. Individualism has been mentioned earlier; this could sometimes lead to inconsistencies in district administration, and a certain bewilderment in the local population. On the other hand the wide discretion given to the district commissioner also allowed him to ease up on or even ignore government policies if he was convinced that it was in the local interest to do so. The 'democratic deficit' was more apparent than real in late colonial times, but a residue of authority remained with the expatriate official because, until the flags changed, someone had to carry the can.

As to the Westminster model, it can fairly be asked what other model would we have been qualified to offer. Certainly it would have been unrealistic to devise different forms of government for each of fifty different territories. Half a century ago our form of parliamentary government was more highly regarded than it is today, both by ourselves and internationally. It had been replicated in the Dominions, and there seemed no reason why it should not work in the colonies as they achieved independence and aspired - as most did - to statehood within the Commonwealth.

But I run ahead of myself. It can be assumed that the early empire builders did not suppose they were founding future independent democracies; but as a rule they did establish Legislative Councils. Initially comprising only officials and sometimes members of the new colonial elite, these bodies were susceptible of incremental development into independent governments - and indeed ensured it as indigenous people were appointed or elected to them. The legislatures of the thirteen American colonies had already demonstrated their refusal to be indefinitely ruled from Britain. In the new empire the lesson had yet to be learned, and future policies and interactions would determine the what, how, and when of constitutional evolution.

As late as the first decade of the 20th century when Indians already played a part in provincial legislatures, Lord Cromer observed that in the colonial context 'Parliamentary institutions were an exotic system', and that 'democracy would enable a small minority of natives to misgovern their countrymen' - which turned out to be true in a number of cases. However, with trusteeship there emerged a vision of eventual independence as parliamentary democracies. Our model had served us well, and it seemed to be the obvious way to go. For the next two or three decades it went very slowly, but speeded up after the Second World War.

The assumption that the replication of our form of government was 'best' could be regarded as arrogant and an imposition. But it should be remembered that at the time it was widely admired internationally - and by many native colonial politicians. Some nationalist leaders approved the principle - with or without conviction - whilst others took the view that 'if it's good enough for you it's good enough for us' - they were not going to be fobbed off with an inferior product; and some no doubt thought that it didn't matter anyway - they could do as they pleased after independence whilst still enjoying the same rituals and privileges as the mother of parliaments. It would be fruitless and presumptuous to generalise about the varied motives and intentions of our successors at the time of independence but a former colonial administrator and governor made this retrospective and relevant observation: 'Of course we made plenty of mistakes and showed all the human failings, but perhaps our greatest fault was to join with those to whom we transferred power in a conspiracy of optimism. Our expectations and theirs were too high' (John Smith in his Forward to Symbol Of Authority: The British District Officer in Africa. I think that he was right, although it does not excuse subsequent instances of misrule and political corruption in some of the former colonies. However it is also pleasing to note that in recent years there have been fewer coups d'etat than formerly, and an increase in the number of heads of state and prime ministers who have stepped down following election defeat. If there is a lesson to be learned from our colonial experience it is that democracy is a tender plant which cannot be reliably transplanted, and requires a fertile soil in its new location. Had the lesson been learned, our recent interventions in the Middle and Near East world have been more cautious.

Half a century after our withdrawal from empire, we are sometimes criticised by the left for hanging on to the colonies too long, and by the right for abandoning them prematurely. Excluding India (and Ceylon?) where we arguably did stay unnecessarily long, neither proposition is tenable. We may have outstayed our welcome In some cases, but that is a rather different matter. If, instead of embarking on an extended period of trusteeship in the 1920s we had simply walked away, can anyone suppose that the ex-colonies would have benefited? As to abandoning them in the 1950-60s, the momentum towards early independence was unstoppable; the use of force was electorally unthinkable, and wholly at odds with the principle embodied in trusteeship. On the other hand a mutually agreed extended period of internal self-government in collaboration with expatriate civil servants would almost certainly have been advantageous in many cases.

Ugandan Independence
Ugandan Independence
In retrospect and in terms of more recent international norms, it can fairly be said of our former colonies (and those of Spain, France, Portugal, the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, Italy and the USA et al) that we should never have been there in the first place. But we were, and eventually steered them towards independent statehood in the modern world - with admittedly variable results. Critics have a tendency to suppose that if what became the colonies of European powers had been left to their own devices, all would now be well. It is possible, but unlikely. Africa is typically presented as the major victim, but is probably the least likely to have reached the 21st Century without major upheavals. We know that in pre-colonial times there were a few African empires such as Songhai, Ghana, Ethiopia and Monomatapa (Zimbabwe) and some functioning proto-states such as Zululand and West African city states. But taking Africa as a whole, with literally hundreds of large and small polities, ethnicities and languages, how are we to imagine them coalescing into a much smaller number of coherent and viable modern states other than by the usual processes of war, conquest, shifting alliances, negotiation, breaking up and reforming? Such a process might still be going on; perhaps it is, despite acceptance of inherited colonial boundaries.

Again, even had there been no colonial occupation, powerful external interests would have exerted pressure and influence for their own advantage. In these circumstances it is not difficult to envisage a scenario in which foreign trading concerns would have co-operated with local leaders and entrepreneurs at the comparatively few coastal locations with good harbours, and set about exploiting the interior for their mutual advantage - a re-run of the slave trade but with commodities instead of people. The likely outcome would have been a few very prosperous coastal city states and a largely neglected interior - except as a source of profit; one could then go on to predict future unrest in the landlocked interior. It is unlikely that a form of utopia would have emerged; the only certainty is that the map of Africa would look very different. As things stand, we created embryo nation states with arbitrary national boundaries, and expected (post 1920) that they would finally become self-governing states within the Commonwealth. And yes, few of the imposed national boundaries made sense on the ground, but historically this goes for many or most national boundaries at one time or another. The old Organisation of African Unity (OAU) considered whether or not to adjust their inherited boundaries, and decided against. One can see why, but a bit of tweaking here and there might have been possible without any significant loss of face; however experience elsewhere suggest that migration across land borders tends to render them obsolete in time.

In conclusion, and since actions are said to speak louder than words, perhaps the most telling response to the more fanciful criticisms of Britain's colonial rule was provided by the colonial peoples themselves in WWII. 0ver 2 million Indians and tens of thousands of other indigenous 'colonials' volunteered to fight the common enemy or support the war effort in other capacities. This demonstrated that they were not entirely discontented with British rule - or that they expected their own parts of the Empire to become independent in the not too distant future; to suggest otherwise is to dishonour their memory. It cannot be assumed that they were ali simply deluded or unemployed. Ironically, it seems that their children and grandchildren tend to be more critical of colonial rule than those who experienced it and who are now mostly dead - as are all my Tanzanian friends.

Colonial Map
British Empire Map, 1897
Colony Profile
Books by Donald Barton
An Affair With Africa - Tanganyika Remembered


Armed Forces | Art and Culture | Articles | Biographies | Colonies | Discussion | Glossary | Home | Library | Links | Map Room | Sources and Media | Science and Technology | Search | Student Zone | Timelines | TV & Film | Wargames

by Stephen Luscombe