The British Empire Library

Colony To Nation: British Administrators in Kenya 1940-1963

edited by Sir John Johnson

Courtesy of OSPA

Review by Christine Nicholls (StAntony's College, Oxford)
The former High Commissioner to Kenya Sir John Johnson has had the welcome idea of collecting together reminiscences of British administrators of Kenya for the twenty-three years prior to the country's attainment of independence. He has produced a book which is strikingly useful as a historical source as well as being a pleasure to read as an account of those officials' experiences. There are stories amusing and poignant, enlightening and informative. We find out what life was like in the boma and the Secretariat, in the Council of Ministers, the Cabinet Office, Government House and the Legislative Council, and even in the Colonial Office in London. People's foibles and inefficiencies are not glossed over, as in the passage in which Peter Gordon recounts his difficulties obtaining a decision from an officer who dithered endlessly over every paper submitted to him. A barrier of files hid him from view as you entered his office; others, in neat piles, lined the walls, and carpeted the floor. It was deeply frustrating when a file you had passed to him perhaps two or three months before arrived on your desk with the words "Please speak" inscribed beneath your painstakingly composed minute. You presented yourself. A minute's perusal, and then, "Ah, Yes. Now what was it I wanted to say? Perhaps I'd better have another look at it. Just leave the file with me, please".

The officials have a good eye for the absurd and one of them recalls with glee that a member of the Legislative Council inserted in the speeches sent to him for proof reading '(laughter)', '(loud laughter)' and '(prolonged applause)'. We learn much about the Governors and Colonial Secretaries, particularly Alan Lennox-Boyd, under whom the officials worked. There is plenty about the duties and opinions of the man in the field, particularly when it came to keeping the peace. Those in the north were always kept on their toes by Somali disputes. Sometimes the man on the spot was more concerned with doing justice than observing the letter of the law, a view not always shared with the Nairobi Judges. But running through the contributions is the administrators' perennial concern for the welfare of the Africans. Then the outbreak of the Mau Mau rebellion put huge burdens upon them, as they had to implement government land reform and villagization and cope with the return from detention camps of thousands of detainees. Of particular interest are the stories of localizing services with extreme rapidity in the gallop towards independence, unforeseen a few years beforehand. Officials set to with a generosity they may be forgiven for not having felt as they worked their way out of their jobs.

As would be expected of the work of colonial administrators, the contributions are well written and the editing accomplished. Well arranged, the book is easy to find one's way around, with themed entries grouped together in sections. Useful thumbnail sketches of the administrators are given at the end of the book, and Sir John Johnson provides a conclusion in which he draws up a balance sheet of achievements and failures. The failures were the inability to prevent the Mau Mau rebellion, though measures to counter it, such as land consolidation, he sees as having created some of the more successful small-holding farming in sub-Saharan Africa. It was also a mistake to delay Africanization of the civil service for so long. On the success side of the balance sheet are placed the stability of the country in the immediate post-independence period, 'a signal tribute to the work described in these pages'. The book is a most useful addition to accounts of the period and should be bought by many for enjoyment. It is also a unique historical source and doubtless will be used by students and historians for many years to come.

British Empire Book
Sir John Johnson
The Erskine Press
1 85297 074 X


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