The British Empire Library

Britain's Imperial Administrators, 1858-1966

by Anthony Kirk-Greene

Courtesy of OSPA

Review by David Killingray (Professor of modern History, Goldsmiths College London)
Authors often explain their background so it is not inappropriate for a reviewer to do the same. My antipathy to the business of empire was shaped by the Suez fiasco and the Algerian war and further encouraged by the anti-colonial rhetoric popular among students in the late 1950s. And yet at the same time I had a quiet admiration for district officers and a sneaking desire to be cast in that heroic mould derived from juvenile reading of G. A. Henty, The Wide World Magazine, and boys' adventure stories published between the wars. To command my patch of Empire with its 'open air and wide open spaces', imbued with 'ideas of truth, honesty, fair play and decency' seemed indeed to be a noble career. However my school, a secondary modern, would not have met with the approval of Purse's successors, and I would have been no more than one of the NCOs of Empire, at best perhaps a foreman platelayer! That romantic view of empire is a constant reason why young men opted to join the Colonial Service and it runs as a steady theme throughout Anthony Kirk-Greene's splendid socio-institutional history of Britain's Imperial Administrators.

Anthony Kirk-Greene probably needs no introduction as an imperial historian. He is an 'insider' having served first in the Indian Army and then in the Colonial Service in Nigeria. But as an academic at Oxford since the 1960s he has also become a leading historian of Africa and particularly of imperial administration. So this book is the fruit of his encyclopaedic and prosopographic knowledge of colonial service and servants, a product of well-ordered scholarship which follows hard on his recently published On Crown Service (1999). Writing such a work is not helped by the closure of official personnel files which would have helped to shed light on the ramifications of appointments, movements and promotions (and, of course, demotions!). Not that there is any shortage of first hand material on the conduct of colonial service; memoirs and biographies continue to flow from the presses, commercial and private, to join the analytical scholarly studies which indicate a continuing healthy interest in the study of colonialism in university curricula.

The central focus of this study is the field administrator, called by various names but essentially the DO described in chapter one, in the three major services - the Indian Civil Service (ICS), the Sudan Political Service (SPS), and the Colonial Administrative Service (CAS). The administrators were drawn from a public school elite, invariably had attended Oxbridge even if only for a course in colonial administration, and were bound together by an esprit de corps. They were also male and, until the early 1940s, exclusively white. A few women were appointed to secretariats but none as field administrators. Race difference and discrimination was at the heart of the imperial venture although in India the Charter Act of 1833 laid down that 'natives' should not be excluded from office in the East India Company on account of colour or religion. Indigenization began in 1864, was speeded-up by the Lee Commission of 1924, so that by 1940 a substantial part of the ICS was composed of Indian officers. In Africa the process was far more wary, marked by a deep distrust of African abilities, meagre investment in secondary and higher education, and an inability to adequately assess the consequences of the increasing tempo of economic and political change. The first two African ADCs were only appointed, in the Gold Coast, in 1942. In the Sudan the impending political transfer of power led to a belated crash programme of localisation in the early 1950s. The French policy and experience, briefly discussed in chapter 5 on the CAS, offered an alternative model which would have met some of the criticisms by African nationalists of the colour-coded administrative system. As Kirk-Greene argues, and surely rightly, the creation of a subordinate service (Malaya was an exception), as Hailey had recommended in 1941, would have gone a great way to provide for an adequate, well-positioned, experienced and politically independent civil service at the time of the transfer of power in the late 1950s and through the 1960s.

The organisation and direction of a wide-spread and haphazardly gathered Empire rested mainly with three departments of state, the India, Colonial, and Foreign Offices. The red portions of the world map reflected a diverse enterprise ranging from the vast population of India to remote and thinly inhabited islands, and consisting of directly administered territories, protectorates, territories inherited from or still subject to company rule, princely states, and the informal imperial influence exercised mainly in China and the Middle East. Besides the main administrative services in India (discussed in ch. 4), Sudan (ditto ch. 6), and the CAS for most of the dependent empire there were additionally those employed by the chartered companies, and also the Consular Service which earlier had responsibility for bits of empire (ch. 3). The modern structure of colonial administration was essentially the child of Chamberlain's reforming zeal in the late 1890s, and it is that system which occupies most of this study of men and methods down to the formation of HMOCS in the mid 1950s (conflicting dates for its formation are given on pp. 53 and 264) and that Service's final demise with the return of Hong Kong to China in 1997.

In part I, Kirk-Greene discusses the 'Environment' of administration, outlining the history and development of the various services. Some had idiosyncratic rules and regulations, for example probationers in the Indian Political Service were not allowed to get married: 'Subalterns of the Poona Horse', the Commanding Officer told one candidate, 'are expected to spend their money on polo ponies, not on wives'. Although competence in riding a horse was considered very important for those joining the ICS the author stresses that this did not make that body an aristocratic service; it may have been upper class abroad but in many respects it was middle class at home. Self-confidence may have declined as career prospects waned within the ICS in the 1930s and 40s but men continued to join the service although few, confronted with the political realities of Indian politics, can have imagined that their imperial term of office would last very long.

The DO's function was three-fold: fiscal, the collection of taxes, magisterial (the maintenance of law and order), and an executive role directing the administration of a district. Authority may have rested on an element of prefectorial self-confident bluff (and of course local collaborators and consent), but ultimately it was backed-up by all the force that Empire could muster, a topic which is looked at in a concluding chapter. The Indian system of administration - that 'steel frame' dating back to 1858 - offered a distinguished career (plus ICS after your name) with a continuity where sons might follow fathers, a system of succession far less likely in the much shorter-lived CAS or in the even briefer span of years for the SPS. Roles within the ICS were in some respects different from those in the other services, involving famine control (the great Bengal famine of 1942, for example), and dealing with communal disturbances. In other parts of the Empire, large scale famine was rare and despite occasional outbreaks of serious disorder the 'thin white line' could effectively control with a minimum of anxiety.

The rewards of colonial service were considerable, certainly when compared to many a home civil service post. Many a man must have looked approvingly at the opportunities offered by colonial service and compared it to the prospect of the 7.25 each morning to a desk-bound job in London. There was not only the opportunity for a young man to exercise command sustained by high-minded purpose but also regular paid leave, allowances, and, although perhaps not much thought about at the time, reasonable pension provision. For a small number there might be the ultimate reward of a top job, perhaps even gubernatorial office, a position discussed in the seventh chapter of this book. That was not always a well rewarded post. Guggisberg, one of Africa's most distinguished and far-seeing governors, retired to modest circumstances to Bexhill on Sea and died with less than 2,000 pounds to his name. Rewards, in the sense of honours and 'gongs' did not always follow a successful period of office; Arden-Clarke did not go to the Lords although lesser colonial figures had done so. Pension provision loomed large in the final days of Empire, as is well known to anybody who has worked through CO files concerned with the process of decolonisation. That is a vital part of the story of the end of Empire as are also the questions of localization, early retirement and post-service employment, dealt with usefully and carefully and at some length in Part III of Kirk-Greene's book.

Who should read this book? Former colonial administrators will surely wish to read it, not least because it provides very well that fuller picture of the service to which they devoted a good part of their lives. As one former Colonial Office man said, having bought at no mean cost a recent volume of the British Documents on the End of Empire'. T am reading it to see what actually went on around me at the time'. Those, and there are many, who are engaged in studying the business of Empire will find rewarding insights in the clarity of analysis, and also the statistical data, in Part 1 ('Environment'), and Part II ('Governance') which looks at the ICS, CAS and SPS. And are there any shortcomings? Some will be sorry that further space was not given to discuss the administrative system in the West Indian and Pacific colonies. And perhaps there is a lack of critical edge about the personnel of colonial rale. The story offered focuses steadily on those who were 'good at the job', as probably most were, but in a socio-institutional study surely balance required a little more acknowledgement of the isolation, loneliness, sense of inadequacy, drunkenness, sexual frustration and psychiatric breakdown in the various services which led to administrative failure.

Response from Professor H J Cooke
May I refer to Professor Killingray's review of Anthony Kirk-Greene's book Britain's Imperial Administrators 1858-1966. I must admit to not having read the latter as yet, being rather frightened off by its very high price. I cannot therefore comment on the quality of the review per se. However I do have some comments to make on a number of Killingray's remarks, which I suspect will be shared by many of my former colleagues in the Colonial Administrative Service. I speak of Tanganyika and the Colonial Administrative Service in which I worked there, but I doubt if places elsewhere were very different.

Professor Killingray makes no bones about his antipathy to things imperial, stating this quite honestly and clearly in the second line of his essay. He then amplifies this in a rather tongue in cheek reference to "Boys' Own Paper" urges, which his secondary modern school seemingly did not encourage. In his main review he repeats a series of rather tatty old canards which have little if any basis in truth or in the real experiences of the men (and later women) on the ground at the sharp end of the so-called "imperial experience". Let me repeat some of these, and point out their fallacies, which by frequent ill-informed repetition have become the equivalent of received wisdom. "The administrators were drawn from a public school elite, invariably had attended Oxbridge even if only for a course in colonial administration, and were bound together by an esprit de corps."

Many of us were from public schools (so what?), but so were many people in other professions, and especially after 1945 many like myself came from the Grammar Schools, and would have been highly amused at the idea of being regarded as an elite. We went to Oxford or Cambridge, after our normal universities, because they were easily identified, and had space and appropriate staff to cope with us. We did not study "colonial administration", but rather very practical subjects such as inter alia language, law, tropical agriculture, and basic survey and field engineering. The only truism in the statement above concerns the esprit de corps, which was very real, and founded on a pride in incorruptibility and genuine concern and friendship for the populations we worked with.

"In Africa the process was far more wary, marked by a deep distrust of African capabilities, meagre investment in secondary and higher education, and an inability to adequately assess the consequences of the increasing tempo of economic and political change."

I wonder if Prof. Killingray and many like him have ever thought of the enormous task of education that faced the first colonial and missionary teachers in lands (in Africa) where modern education especially of girls was unknown, a common lingua franca largely unavailable, and most vernaculars unstudied and unrecorded. That we moved in the short space of time available to us from primary to tertiary education was truly remarkable, but is seldom acknowledged. I had the experience, as I am sure did many others of having to literally pressgang children into .school, but pressure eventually paid off, and led to a flood with which our successors have not been able to cope. We were in fact acutely aware of the pace of political and economic change, but also knew that this was very patchy. Some districts were still very backward, but in Tanganyika districts like Moshi and Bukoba had excellent development. Much of this was swept away by rigid centralisation after independence.

"The DO's function was threefold: fiscal, the collection of taxes, magisterial (the maintenance of law and order) and an executive role directing the administration of a district. Authority may have rested on an element of prefectorial self-confident bluff (and of course local collaborators and consent) but ultimately it was backed up by all the force that Empire could muster."

Our fiscal work, apart from normal preparations of district estimates, control of expenditure etc, was almost entirely concerned with teaching local treasury clerks out in the districts, how to collect local authority taxes and to keep good books of account. It also involved working with and, when required, assisting Local Authority treasurers in keeping their central accounts, and preparing annual estimates of revenue and expenditure in accordance with the expressed wishes of the local authority councils, which were elected by the people once they were ready for it. In Bukoba, one of the Tanganyika districts in which I worked, I was an ex-officio member of the Buhaya Council Finance Committee which consisted of local businessmen and co-operative society councillors, canny men of the world, and economically and politically astute, who most certainly could not be dictated to. They simply sought my advice when they felt they needed it and wanted it. There was no prefectorial bluff involved. The gentlemen with whom I worked would have laughed to scorn any suggestion of it, and would certainly have resented any suggestion that they were local "collaborators" or "Uncle Toms". Most were members of the Tanganyika African National Union. "All the force of the Empire" usually consisted of a few African policemen with ancient rifles, and would not have frightened anybody. Such things as riot squads were only present in some provinces, while the KAR were far away, and without any means of rapid reaction should it have been required. While in smaller districts without a Resident Magistrate we functioned as Magistrates administering the Criminal and Penal codes, much of our legal work involved checking local court records out at the Local Courts which administered local customary or tribal law. Perhaps more important and certainly more interesting was the task of hearing appeals against the decisions of the local courts. This was highly valued by local people because they knew we were impartial and not subject to local skulduggery. All District Officers were always involved with a multitude of people with problems, grievances, complaints etc. which had to be dealt with. In Africa the DO was known as "Bwana Shaitri" in Swahili, meaning one who deals with all matters and affairs. The present state of law and order, and indeed the rule of law in much of contemporary Africa, or even in supposedly more "advanced" countries, can only raise a wry and very sad grimace.

"The rewards of colonial service were considerable, certainly when compared to many a home civil service post. There was also . . . regular leave, allowances and . . . reasonable pension provision. Pension provision loomed large in the final days of empire, as is well known by anyone who has worked through CO files."

These are strange contentions. The young man who went out to the African colonies knew perfectly well to what he was going, but he went because he wanted to go. He chose his career as did the lawyer, doctor, teacher, business man etc., who stayed at home. He knew that there would be no theatres, big shops, good hospitals, local transport, organised sports, and all the comfortable paraphernalia of life at home, but that there would be remoteness, often poor housing (for which he had to pay a small percentage of his salary), no electricity except in the bigger stations, no commercial entertainments, no easily accessible hospitals or often even a nearby doctor, difficult and slow communications, an often harsh and trying climate, lots of nasty insects and other unfriendly beasts, tropical diseases etc etc. He was not better paid because of all this, and there were no allowances and perks, all of which are demanded as normal by the modern expatriates (as they are now known). He got his salary and the rest was up to him. He could expect a pension, but so could any professional anywhere. Payment of between 5% to 6% of salary was also compulsory as was his contribution to a Widows and Orphans Pension Scheme. As for pension and redundancy payments on the abrupt ending of an imperial career, surely nobody in his right mind could question the desirability and legitimacy of such payments, which certainly exercised the minds of officers on the brink of being thrust out of their chosen careers into an unknown future. Finally at the end of his review, Killingray refers to "isolation, loneliness, sense of inadequacy, drunkenness, sexual frustration, and psychiatric breakdown in the various services which led to administrative failure".

Again a very strange statement. All these faults and failings were no doubt present amongst a few people of the colonial administrations, but so they are indeed in society at large, and are in no way specific to overseas service. 1 would go as far as to say that in my own experience I can think of far more individuals suffering from the inadequacies and sickness that he mentions amongst people in this country than I could amongst the men and women I knew and knew of in Tanganyika (Tanzania) and Botswana where I worked for forty years both before and after independence.

Professor Killingray I think depends overmuch on what he has gleaned from official documents and bureaucratic papers in dusty archives. He should read the memoirs etc of the men and women who actually worked in the colonies, my own amongst them, or perhaps talk to us, in other words do a bit of oral history. That is still possible, and from us he may come to know what it was really like to be a DO, the workhorse of what is today known amongst the "experts" as "development". Prefectorial derring-do had nothing to do with it, but we did derive a tremendous sense of satisfaction from doing a responsible and fascinating job, working with and for endlessly interesting people in environments that the stay-at-home knew nothing of, and which the young today can only dream about. Incidentally, I wonder if Prof. Killingray knows that Nyerere invited a number of us back to Tanzania for the Tenth Anniversary of Independence celebrations in 1971 and at a State Banquet stated publicly in a major speech that he had invited us back as friends.

In making these remarks, perhaps I should add that my second career was as an academic, in Tanzania and Botswana, and I did not leave Africa on retirement until 1991.1 am fully aware of the dangers of the Ivory Tower.

Response from D G P Taylor
Professor Cooke's response about Professor Killingray's review of Tony Kirk- Greene's book contains much about which I (like him a former Tanganyika DO) would like to take issue but I will confine myself to a few main points.

  • I consider Professor Killingray's piece overall a fair review of a book which I have taken the trouble to acquire and read. Professor Killingray is careful to admit to his prejudices but to concede his attraction to, and admiration for, the work of the Colonial Service.

  • The book itself broadly confirms the statement that over the period 1858 to 1966 colonial administrators throughout the Empire were drawn from public schools, though Tanganyika DOs of my generation were certainly from an increasing variety of social backgrounds.

  • In Tanganyika the fact was that the Provincial Administration was ill-prepared for the speed with which political pressures required Africanisation to take place. This was no reflection on the efforts of colonial or missionary teachers but, exactly as Killingray says, of 'an inability to adequately assess the consequences of the increasing tempo of economic and political change'. The fault, if fault there was in a complex situation involving a great many different factors, was more than anything that of politicians in London.

  • In my experience Killingray's sentence 'Authority may have rested on an element of prefectorial self-confident bluff ... and consent but ultimately it was backed up by all the force the Empire could muster' is exactly right. My District Commissioner and I resolved without fuss an ugly situation developing in a local township armed only with tennis racquets (prefectorial bluff) but a few weeks earlier the appearance, though not the employment, of a squad of riot police (all the force that the Empire could muster) had been needed in the same area to enforce compliance with a rinderpest campaign. Once the bluff was called only the application of a wholly unacceptable and impossibly costly amount of force could prevent the coming of independence, as all colonial nations in Africa discovered sooner or later - and white South Africans.

  • Professor Killingray's reference to 'the rewards of colonial service' makes it clear that he is referring to the overall quality of the colonial life and its satisfactions, not merely its material rewards. Nowhere does he question the legitimacy of pension or redundancy payments.

  • Professor Killingray says that the study required 'a little more acknowledgement of the isolation, lawlessness, sense of inadequacy, drunkenness, sexual frustration and psychiatric breakdown' etc of the 'personnel of colonial rule'. It is not a 'strange statement', merely a sensible reflection on the book which says little if anything about the failures of colonial administrators and indeed says of the selection of colonial administrators 'Failures were few and far between, and disasters minimal'. Professor Killingray in no way implies that there was widespread drunkenness or psychiatric breakdown amongst colonial administrators, merely that it happened from time to time, which it did, and that more might have been said about it. The problems of 'isolation, loneliness ... sense of inadequacy and sexual frustration' were surely present in the lives of many DOs but not normally acknowledged in colonial memoirs and, failing firm and readily available evidence, not easily dealt with in a work of scholarship.

  • Professor Cooke's coup de grace, as he sees it, in mentioning his invitation from Nyerere proves nothing that we did not know already, that Nyerere was a man unaffected by stereotypes or prejudices and that the Provincial Administration in Tanganyika were generally well thought of by Tanganyikans.

    The debate about the role and success of the Colonial Service will run and run. These exchanges demonstrate that both the detached judgement of academics and the passion and practical experience of former practitioners have their part to play. We are fortunate in having in Tony Kirk-Greene a man who has both in equal measure.

  • Response from Richard Barlow-Poole
    May I say how whole heartedly I agree with Professor H J Cooke's comments on Professor Killingray's review of the above book. At the end of it he adds a tribute from President Nyerere at Tanzania.

    May I recall, from the other side of Africa, the tribute paid by the late the Rt. Hon. Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, KBE, PC, Prime Minister of the Eederation of Nigeria, on Independence Day, October 1 I960 when he said:

    "We are grateful to the British officers whom we have known, first as masters and then as leaders and, finally, as partners but always as friends".

    British Empire Book
    Anthony Kirk-Greene
    Palgrave Macmillan


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