Towards the end of this stimulating and substantial biography of the last Governor of
Tanganyika, Sir Richard Turnbull (1909 - 1998), its author, Professor
Emeritus Colin Baker, calls him 'a remarkable man'. The same might be said of
Baker himself. His career spans the Colonial Service and academe; and he has to his credit
eighteen books, three of them on governors of Nyasaland which have prepared him well
for his massive researches into the long and complicated life of, for many, the controversial
Sir Richard Turnbull. Who, indeed, but Colin Baker would have had the energy and the
determination to track down, through mazes of often intricate and irritating documentation
and oral evidence, the heights and depths of the eighty-nine years of this biographee?
Discussing Colin Baker's three Nyasaland gubernatorial biographies in the
Millennium Edition of The Society of Malawi Journal, I wrote 'unburdened by the
psychoanalytic apparatus which bedevils so many modern studies of colonial
personalities, these are "no nonsense" biographies which set their subjects
sympathetically but not uncritically within the context of their social origins and their
subsequent careers.' Similarly Exit from Empire is a 'no nonsense' biography.
However, because of the complications of the biographee's personality, often expressed
in what Baker, in merciful understatement, calls 'Turnbull's use of coarse language' in
private letters, diaries and recorded conversations, there are times in this fascinating
biography when one can almost see Colin Baker feeling his way towards a Freudian
interpretation of Sir Richard Turnbull's eighty-nine years. Indeed, there is a quotation
from Sigmund Freud on his eightieth birthday on the title page and another reference to
his ideas in the notes at the end of the book. But both of these Freudian references are
outside the main text of this biography; and Colin Baker is clearly leaving it to the
readers to make up their own minds about the complications of Turnbull's personality.
Colin Baker comes down on the positive side when summing up Sir Richard's career:
'In Britain's exit from her empire, Richard Turnbull could take pride in the major
part he had played in three of her colonies. He had directly overseen the peaceful
and speedy transition of Tanganyika to independence. He had indirectly - through
creating Tanganyika's precedent - helped to bring Kenya to independence
significantly more quickly than would otherwise have been the case, and as
chairman of the Kenya Central Land Board he had helped solve the potentially
disastrous land problem there. In Southern Arabia he had kept the Government's
head above water and the lid on the political and security pot, thereby saving many
lives and retaining at least an element of hope'.
There is much in this biography which should interest students of and participants in
the ending of the British Empire. In particular, the third part on Tanganyika, I believe,
will be drawn upon heavily by the author-to-be of the long-awaited, full-scale biography
of Julius Nyerere. I knew him well during his undergraduate years from 1949 to 1952 at
the University of Edinburgh. When he returned to Tanganyika and the leadership of
TANU, he was a talented and sophisticated young man, a charmer of no mean ability.
I doubt if Sir Richard had ever met an African like him. Does Colin Baker make this
completely clear? I am not sure.
He does, however, provide many valuable observations on the political scene in
Tanganyika during Turnbull's time there. Not the least of these are Colin Baker's notes
on Nyerere and other African political leaders.
For example, he contrasts effectively
Nyerere's visionary ideas on economics with the more practical attitude to economic
development in the new African states which was taken by Dunduzu Chisiza, the
Secretary-General of the Nyasaland African Congress. Baker also makes some
interesting observations on another politician of Nyasaland derivation: Oscar Kambona
who stood on the militant, left wing of TANU and was often an embarrassment to
Julius Nyerere. Colin Baker, in my opinion, plays down convincingly the widespread
view that Tanganyika would flare into insurrection unless the British Government
surrendered to the demands of TANU and the country's militants.
It was said of Sir Richard Turnbull that 'he was intrinsically English and rather
pooh-poohed those of his acquaintances who put on Scottish airs.' Nevertheless this
well-researched biography provides evidence to indicate that Turnbull had no little
respect for Scots and their culture; and in his retirement he lived in Scotland for almost
eighteen years. His wife, Beatrice, upon whose loyalty, abilities and tact he relied heavily
throughout his career, was a Glaswegian who, having graduated from the University of
Glasgow, became the Personal Assistant of the BBC's quintessentially Scottish Director-General, Sir John Reith. Perhaps inspired by his wife, Turnbull became a devotee of
Scottish country dancing; and this impressive biography includes a fascinating
photograph of him engaging in this terpsichorean pastime in Dar es Salaam.
Furthermore, Colin Baker points out that Sir Richard took a 'considerable pride in being
a member of the Turnbull clan' which had its centre in Jedburgh. It was in a Presbyterian
church in this Scottish lowland town that Sir Richard Turnbull and his wife were buried.
Beatrice Turnbull died twelve years before her husband. One cannot but be very
sympathetic towards Sir Richard, left alone and ailing and being obliged to make
frequent moves, one of which was for a long stay in a care home in Kelso, another
Scottish border town, during a dozen difficult years. His eyesight, which was always
defective, weakened during his old age; and he had to read with a magnifying glass.
For one who loved reading, this was a bitter blow.
Lord Dennis Healey, looking back on his days as Defence Secretary and remembering
Sir Richard Turnbull in Aden, called him 'a tough administrator'. But, by the time of his
death, four days before Christmas in 1998, Sir Richard had become, as his favourite poet
William Cowper once called himself, 'a stricken deer'.