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
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
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
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.