The British Empire Library

Exit From Empire: A Biography of Sir Richard Turnbull

by Colin Baker

Courtesy of OSPA

Review by George Shepperson (Professor Emeritus of Commonwealth and American History, University of Edinburgh)
Sir Richard Turnbull
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'.

British Empire Book
Colin Baker
Mpemba Books


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