The British Empire Library

A Caribbean Identity: Memoirs of the Colonial Service

by A S Frankson

Courtesy of OSPA

Richard Posnett (Uganda 1941-64; Governor, Belize 1972-76, Governor, Bermuda 1980-83)
Mr Frankson's account of his life and work in the Colonial Service is not what one expects from the pen of a former District Officer, but it is well written and gives us a valuable record, not so much for what he did as a civil servant but on account of his unusual background. He was first appointed to a post in the education field in British Honduras, later renamed Belize. After a while, when he showed his competence, Frankson transferred to the Administrative Service where he worked first in the field as a District Commissioner and later at headquarters in the Secretariat. However unlike most of his colleagues he was not a Briton but a Jamaican, born and bred. He thus had a privileged personal view of the Service, observing colonial rule through the eyes of the ruled as well as of the rulers so as to achieve a kind of binocular vision which has enabled him to write tellingly about it, to give top marks to British Colonial Service, and to discount the popular concept that colonial rule is always bad.

The Second Edition of his book, now with a new title, starts with a useful Preface about the author and his ancestors in Jamaica, a tale told in the third person but strangely failing to mention who wrote the Preface. However the author's first chapter, with the title Who am /?, gives a vivid picture of his origins and their surprising variety, not only of blood lines including slaves as well as slave-owners, but of language and culture. He seeks to make clear the differences from such a wide palette of colours - Spanish, Dutch, French, British, Portuguese and all the varieties of nonwhite from Carib, Maya, African and many others - yet also to warn about the assumption that 'black' implies 'African'.

He shows splendid erudition about the multiple 'tribal' groupings which have emerged from conquests, whether military or economic, from abroad or domestic, many of them now with their own distinct languages, like the Garifuna.

The author emphasises the difference between blood and culture and, in his own case, concludes that, though his skin is black, "I am a Westerner, since it is our culture, not the blood in our veins, that indicates who we are." One is led to wonder how Barack Obama would react to this.

Turning to his own career, the author joined the Colonial Service as an Education Officer, having trained as a teacher, and his writing shows a compelling mastery of language. Unlike most officers of HMOCS he was recruited in Jamaica and assigned to work in British Honduras where education had fallen badly behind, having no local teacher-training establishment. The author then tells in some detail how he managed to get about the country, by bicycle, boat, or on foot, and his narrative has strange overtones of George Borrow's wanderings in Spain 150 years ago.

After a training assignment in London the author was posted as District Commissioner to Toledo District in the south adjoining the Guatemalan border, where the Ketchi branch of the ancient Maya people still live with their own language and culture. Frankson's arrival in Toledo was greeted initially with overt hostility by the local people, apparently because of his Jamaican origin. He seems to have overcome this and was later posted to work in the Ministry as an Assistant Secretary where his duties followed a fairly normal course.

On the approach to independence the author became indirectly involved with briefing Ministers on constitutional and related matters, but he seems to have been little concerned with the public fear that independence might provoke the Guatemalans to invade as they had long threatened to do. This was a real fear in Belize and loomed large in the efforts of Mr Price to win popular support for independence by seeking a defence agreement with Britain which London at first declined to give. It was only when the Guatemalans made the mistake of complaining at the UN about British forces in Belize, and getting hopelessly outvoted, that independence with security became possible. (Mr Frankson's book does not cover that development but I have told that story in my own book: The Scent of Eucalyptus)

When the author finally retired from the Colonial Service he was offered an interesting task with the US Peace Corps, about which he has some amusing points to make before his final summing up and Epilogue. If the reader gets this far he will have enjoyed some well-told tales about the Colonial Service and the Caribbean Identity.

British Empire Book
A S Frankson
The Radcliffe Press
978 1 84511 591 3


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