The British Empire Library

Adventures in Education

by Bernard de Bunsen

Courtesy of OSPA

Review by J. Jacobs (Uganda 1947-1965)
To review a man's account - and to some extent, inevitably, an assessment - of his own life is an act not to be undertaken lightly, especially when it is disclosed that the account "was not initially intended for publication". I have taken this on board partly because I spent the last years of my "colonial" career on de Bunsen's staff at Makerere (though not directly employed by Makerere, being seconded from the Colonial Administrative Service), and partly because my own non-academic background was in such contrast to the author's, thereby allowing perhaps a more impartial assessment of his undoubted achievements.

This autobiography - it is no less despite a disclaimer in the Introduction - embraces the subject's upbringing and career up to retirement in England. Half the book is devoted to his work in East Africa; as Principal of Makerere for 15 years and three years as Vice- Chancellor of the emerging Federal University of East Africa. His greatest achievement was undoubtedly the development of Makerere from a national college (which had started life a quarter of a century earlier as a Technical School), a centre of Higher Education for Kenya, Tanganyika and Uganda, to a national degree-awarding University with four times the numbers of staff and students. As the author of the Book's introduction says, Makerere was the "centre-piece and climax of de Bunsen's career".

His achievement was all the more remarkable in that he had no prior experience of University administration other than as an undergraduate of Balliol College, Oxford. He acknowledges, only by inference, the silver spoon with which he was born although he does not seem to recognise some of the undoubted concomitant outcomes. Thus, "Why I went to Oxford, and not to Trinity, Cambridge, with which we had so many family connections, I am not sure. And why to Balliol? Maybe it was my headmaster, Charles Evans, who prompted it, though Gilbert Murray had suggested to Mother ( "Mummy" elsewhere throughout) that I should go to Oriel whose venerable President, Phelps, said they would be 'glad to have another de Bunsen' And why not indeed? His paternal great-grandfather had been Prussian Minister to the Court of St. James; his grandfather had been Liberal leader in the Reichstag. De Bunsen had schooled in Switzerland and England (at a Quaker school to whose ethos he had been "constantly drawn", although "unable to accept in its totality the Quaker faith of pacifism"). He was, exceptionally, allowed a fourth year at Balliol in order to graduate. He refers to himself as a committed Socialist and developed and practised a lively social conscience throughout his life.

Prior to Makerere, his career had involved him in teaching in a London secondary school; in a Liverpool elementary school and thence as a Schools' Inspector. He records his admiration of the "wonderfully resilient and cheerful children" who, despite the economic depression had "little of the boredom that seems to have descended on the present generation". He moved on to the Wiltshire Schools Inspectorate where he served from 1934 to 1938. Thereafter, on his own initiative, he had his "first peep at Africa", West Africa. He was impressed by Fourah Bay College in Sierra Leone where "the degrees its students obtained were those of Durham University, proof to all that a sound English education could be translated and continue to live long after it had died in England". (!!!)

Just before the outbreak of WWII he joined his Quaker uncle Charley on a quixotic visit to Germany seeking to prevent war. His uncle met, to no avail, both Hess and Himmler and he visited an English cousin, Hilda, married to a Bismarck. He spent the war as a member of the Schools Inspectorate and did his share of air raid warden duties in Sheffield where he found that "crises, even destruction, can release one". At the end of the war, for a brief period he became "an un-uniformed Lt. Col." inspecting education establishments of the Army and RAF in Germany.

It would be difficult to imagine a less military person than de Bunsen and the readers, especially those who knew him, would have wished for more than the paragraph which he devotes to this experience. He was able to visit his "Uncle Waldemar and Aunt Mia" whom he "had helped put up their blackout curtains a few days before the War". A few days later he found himself having to choose between two offers of employment - as Cultural Attache to the UK Embassy in Washington or Director of Education in Palestine. No hint is offered to the background to these offers of potential apotheosis. In the event he opted for "the bigger challenge" but devotes only ten pages to his experiences in Palestine during the two years prior to Independence. He soon became aware that Britain "was losing the will to control" and describes well the tragi-comedy of the final departure in May 1948. Three weeks later he was transferred to Uganda as Head of the English Department at Makerere...

There he found a Higher College "on the brink, loathe to take the plunge" (into University College status for which UK funds were available), resisting the changes which such a step would involve. The almost wholly expatriate staff was "insulated from the political world". Although de Bunsen considered he had "always been on the edge of politics but never quite inside it" he had already learned that in Africa "education and politics are one and indivisible". At this juncture, so soon after de Bunsen's arrival, the

Principal resigned and the Vice-Principal was due to leave on retirement. Once again he found himself pitchforked upwards - as Principal (acting, to start with), a post in Administration "which only a year before (he had) deliberately quitted for teaching''. The rest is history, recounted from a personal viewpoint which complements admirably the earlier (1964) history of Makerere, Margaret Macpherson's Chronicle of Makerere University College 1922 to 1962 (CUP). As de Bunsen endearingly writes, "I kept pinching my unacademic self, so improbably translated from the Elementary Schools of Liverpool and Sheffield and Palestine into the Principalship of a University in the making in Africa''. He met with much opposition, especially in arranging the special relationship with the University of London (opposed inter alios by his former Master of Balliol, the redoubtable A.D. Lindsay). I would question his conclusion that "without this Makerere generation, the East African countries could hardly have won or sustained their Independence".

There was sadness attached to de Bunsen's departure from the African scene. He had happily handed over to a Ugandan the Principalship of Makerere when he assumed the Vice-Chancellorship of the new Federal University. He was asked at the end of his two year appointment, by the representatives of Kenya and Tanganyika on the new University council, to stay on. But, alas, not by Uganda's representative. Despite pressure from Kenya and Tanganyika to stay, de Bunsen felt retirement was the only way out of the impasse.

The last six pages of the book, devoted to de Bunsen's subsequent appointment as Principal of an Anglican training college in Chester, will prove to be something of an anti-climax to the readers of this journal. He was knighted in 1962, the year of Uganda's Independence, for his service as Principal of the College which, as he acknowledged, " entered national Independence vulnerably, with no overriding policy for the Africanisation of its s ta ff'. In this regard it certainly lagged behind the Colonial Administration. Yet de Bunsen was scarcely flattering to the readers of this journal, "too many ex-colonials, unable to let go, talking tirelessly of an Africa they thought they knew as if it still existed, unfitted to turn to fresh enterprises and new ideas in England". . . . (!!!)

Throughout the book de Bunsen is generous in his tributes to colleagues and others for their contribution towards Makerere's progress to full University status and onward as part of a Federal University of East Africa - however short-lived ("a last minute legacy of the Colonial regime which . . . . fell apart after eight years"). He speaks highly of the first Registrar, Lindsay Young, from whom your reviewer took over briefly when Young went on leave soon after his appointment and handed over the complete files of the university in two cardboard Nestle milk cartons.

There emerges from the well produced pages of this book a portrait of an honourable and upright man devoted to the causes he undertook and wholly uncorrupted by the many successes and happily few failures of his career. Your reviewer last visited Makerere at the height (or depth, rather) of Amin's misrule. The infrastructure and services on the 'Hill' had all but disappeared but there were students and staff working on still recognised degree courses. De Bunsen's contribution to that survival stands out clearly from this publication. He and his wife, whom he married in 1975 after retirement, must have been much comforted by the warmth of their reception when, at the invitation of the University Senate, he remmed to give the Foundation Address.

British Empire Book
Bernard de Bunsen
Titus Wilson


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