The British Empire Library

Aspects Of Empire: A New Corona Anthology

by Anthony Kirk-Greene

Courtesy of OSPA

Wm. Roger Louis University of Texas
Anthony Kirk-Greene is the doyen of British colonial history, to the present generation as authoritative and fair-minded as Margery Perham was in earlier decades. After fighting in the Indian Army during the Second World War, he studied at Cambridge and then entered the Colonial Service in 1950. After seventeen years in Africa, he became a Fellow of St Antony's College, Oxford. His work thus carries the dual imprint of practical experience and academic judgment.

Aspects of Empire is the second anthology drawn from the journal Corona, which was published by the Colonial Service from 1949 to 1962. The first. Glimpses of Empire, was published in 2001 and dealt with the Colonial Service (or colonial services, often in the plural because of specialized services in education, forestry, agriculture, and medicine). The present anthology deals mainly with the Colonial Office in the era of decolonization. The word decolonization is used throughout the volume, but it was disliked in the Colonial Office itself--especially by the Permanent Under-Secretary, Sir Hilton Poynton, who believed it reflected the language of the United Nations rather than the British colonial tradition. Kirk-Greene makes clear that it has simply become conventional usage.

Corona's purpose was to provide comment and encourage discussion on the problems of the colonial empire worldwide, though in practice Africa dominated. Historically, the point of chronological departure is the tenure of Arthur Creech Jones, Secretary of State for the Colonies, 1946-1950. Creech Jones articulated the principle of granting self-government and eventual independence at a measured pace. The question of speed in fact becomes the most contentious point in the articles and comments in Aspects of Empire. At the beginning of the 1950s the Colonial Office still believed that the initiative rested with the British themselves and that slow and controlled progress towards self-government was the best policy. The transformation came in the 1960s, when colony after colony surged towards independence. The change of pace was brought about not only by Asian and African nationalism--as well as by the hostile international climate at the United Nations and the sporadic antagonism of the United States--but above all because of cost cutting within the British government. When Harold Macmillan became Prime Minister in 1957, he cast a sceptical eye on the expense of colonial commitments. The turning point came in the years 1959- 1961, during the tenure of lain Macleod as Colonial Secretary. Macleod deliberately threw his support behind independence movements in Africa. Why did he feel compelled to grant Africans independence faster, and with less preparation, than had been intended? Though the answer is more implicit than explicit, Macleod guided the Colonial Office in the calculation that the dangers of moving too slowly were greater than those that might result from granting independence as quickly as possible.

The question of pace generated tension between the Colonial Service and the Colonial Office, the latter staffed by Whitehall civil servants. Members of the Colonial Service, from the Pacific Islands and the West Indies as well as Africa, served only occasionally in London and were known as 'beachcombers'. Sir Charles Jeffries emphasizes the dichotomy in one of the last articles in the collection. Jeffries served in the Colonial Office from 1917 to 1956. Writing in the early 1960s, he thus had an incomparable grasp of the evolution of British policy from one of caution to one of independence, 'in a shorter space of time than the boldest prophet would have contemplated'. He lamented the lack of preparation and above all the termination of the Colonial Service at a time when many of the colonial officers were at the peaks of the careers.

Three points reveal judgments that were controversial at the time and remain so today. One was the assessment of the Mau Mau 'intractables', who, in the words of J. B. W. Breckenridge, were 'hardly normal people--they shambled as they walked in an animal way, with their mouths half open and their eyes narrowed to a slit.'

The second point emphasizes the view at the time, voiced in Parliament, that the British government, in the judgment of Lord Salisbury, was moving much too fast in central Africa and handing over British colonial rule to 'puppets or demagogues'.

The last point is less tendentious but nevertheless curious because of Sir Hilton Poynton's dislike of UN visiting missions and 'the persistent and misguided attempt by the United Nations to meddle in our affairs'. He took exactly the opposite view of Sir Hugh Foot (Lord Caradon), whose service included stints in Cyprus, Jamaica, and Nigeria and who later became Ambassador to the United Nations. Caradon regarded debates in New York as a good place to proclaim the achievements of British colonial administration.

The British colonial empire was held together by public servants known collectively or symbolically as district officers. The point is well summarized by Sir Hilary Blood, who served in Ceylon, Grenada, Sierra Leone, the Gambia, Barbados, and Mauritius:

A District Officer in Fiji was doing work closely resembling that of a District Officer in the Gambia: an Assistant Secretary wrote the same sort of minutes in Cyprus as in Singapore: there was little difference between the problems of one Medical Officer or another whether he was stationed in Trinidad or in Tanganyika-- and the same applied to Education Officers, Agricultural Officers and all the other technically skilled members of the Service. The Service spoke a common language: it developed its own form of pride, its own standards, its own sense of duty.

Though the focus of the volume is on the Colonial Office, Kirk-Greene's own sentiments about the Colonial Service would probably be similar. Kirk-Greene has performed an immense service. Aspects of Empire will help promote intellectual and academic interest in the history of both the Colonial Office and the Colonial Service.

British Empire Book
Anthony Kirk-Greene
I B Tauris
978 1 84885 514 4


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