The British Empire Library

Exporting Empire Africa, Colonial Officials And The Construction Of The Imperial State, c1900-39

by Christopher Prior

Courtesy of OSPA

Terry Barringer (Editor and Bibliographer, Cambridge)
Exporting Empire is published in Manchester University Press's flagship Studies in Imperialism series, which has recently passed its 100th issue, under the general editorship of Professor John MacKenzie, himself no stranger to OSPA or the book reviews pages of the Overseas Pensioner.

Professor MacKenzie introduces this volume with anecdotes of his boyhood in Northern Rhodesia and his early ambition to become a District Officer himself. Instead he became a 'historian wallah', a species regarded wryly or with suspicion or even downright hostility by many former colonial officials. He went through his share of 'post-colonial guilt' but as he came to know many former officials, he realised that "there was a mismatch between the people I met, so often dedicated, charming and thoroughly sympathetic, not least to the aspirations of colonised peoples, and the villains who haunted the pages of some modern scholarship" (p. xvi).

Chris Prior, a 'historian wallah' of a younger generation, does not seek to vilify the Colonial Services but to 'examine what British Colonial officials thought and why' between the end of the Scramble for Africa and the start of the Second World War. The book is a reworked version of his PhD thesis. It is much more readable than most such products. Prior has read and digested a great deal of Colonial O ffic ia ls ' own published and unpublished writings, official correspondence, newspapers, contemporary fiction (Sanders of the River and Mister Johnston), and an impressive range of secondary literature. Sudan and the Sudan Political Service, often treated separately, are discussed alongside the colonies of west, east, central and southern Africa. He stands alongside Anthony Kirk-Greene in his exposition of the Service's 'mindset' and 'mental landscape', revealing as Professor MacKenzie states, "the complexity of individual preferences and experiences, frustrations and desires. Among much else, he demonstrates the practical limitations under which colonial officials operated" (p. xvi).

Four questions especially are addressed. Firstly he explores the formation of officials' ideas and attitudes. How much were these formed in the light of experience? And how much were they preconditioned by upbringing and education and the climate of ideas in Britain? Secondly he explores motivation - ideas of adventure and leadership, duty and service, social status and financial security. Thirdly, he looks at social and intellectual networks, co-operation and clashes between different services, territories and individuals. Fourthly, he enquires into the roots of and threats to officials' belief in themselves and their mission, their attitudes towards economic, infrastructural, educational and political change. His findings are neatly summarised in a short conclusion. Most recruits were ill-informed about the specificities and realities of Empire. In Africa, "the most important networks to which officials had access on a day-to-day basis were the intra-colonial informal networks of gossip" (p.170). Esprit de Corps was patchy. There were personality clashes, there was pride and prejudices about other districts, other colonies, colleagues, superiors and settlers. Idealism was not entirely absent but there was plenty of self-interest (though this did not always take the form of seeking promotion), self-preservation and selfaggrandisement. Feelings about policy, change and modernisation were inevitably mixed.

This is all done without jargon and with an instinct for a telling quotation. Prior is particularly good on the differences between generations, the influence of the new science of anthropology on District Officers and vice versa, on obsessional road building and on attitudes to "the orthodoxy of the interwar period" (p. 165) - Indirect Rule. One could wish for more on relations with African clerks, messengers and servants but cannot have everything in a relatively short book.

My only complaint about this book is that it is not long enough. We can only hope the author will turn his attention to a successor volume, telling the story from 1939 to decolonisation.

British Empire Book
Christopher Prior
Manchester University Press
978 0 7190 8368 6


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