The British Empire Library

Feathers on the Brain: A Memoir

by Brian Watkins

Courtesy of OSPA

Review by Colin Redston (Administrator, Tristan da Cunha 1981 - 84)
Brian Watkins enjoyed a long and successful career of public service in a variety of roles. After colonial service, first in Sierra Leone and then in Tristan da Cunha, he joined the Diplomatic Service, serving in a number of posts but including one more in a colonial role, that of Deputy Governor of Bermuda. His comments on the essential difference in the work and ethos of colonial officials and diplomats are pertinent.

Sierra Leone was already internally self-governing when Brian became the last British Administrative Officer, appointed in 1959. Most of his service was as ADC and later DC in Port Loko. With Native Authorities in each chiefdom, the role and powers of district officials was much reduced. Brian substituted for his DC at the district's independence celebrations in 1961 but sadly doesn't tell us why the DC declined to attend! He writes amusingly of the Queen's visit and of hectic preparations for a General Election. The country remained peaceful after independence but the fears of an old villager about law and order after the British left were tragically to be proved all too true.

Brian became Administrator of Tristan da Cunha In 1966, some three years after the great majority of the islanders returned home after being evacuated to the UK. I thoroughly enjoyed the account of his time among three hundred independently-minded islanders In the middle of the South Atlantic. He covers the original settlement and gradual development and Is right that, despite their Isolation, Tristan islanders were in many ways fortunate. Philatelic sales and royalties from the crayfishing company were sufficient to provide free education, medical and other services. Indeed one writer described Tristan as a sort of Utopia!

There is almost no comment on the effects of intermarriage on a population which has had very few newcomers over the last hundred years. But this remains a long term problem for Tristan's future. On a related point, there were seven family names on Tristan, not the six mentioned in the book, Andrew Hagan, an American whaling captain, having settled on the island in 1849.

Although life on Tristan was somewhat humdrum the Administrator's varied responsibilities and the fact that he had to deal in person with the islanders' problems meant there was usually enough to keep him occupied. Being your own boss and dealing directly with London had its advantages and the number of capital projects funded during his stay was impressive. Occasional calls by naval and cruise ships, climbing the Peak and visiting Gough Island (now a World Heritage Site) were welcome diversions and Brian seems to have survived his three years on the world's most remote inhabited island extremely well.

Today, Tristan is a totally different place. Satellite communications have made a huge difference. The islanders now have e-mail, Facebook, BBC and ITV programmes and telephones in their homes. Shipping calls are more frequent and educational opportunities improved. They receive great support from the UK-based Tristan da Cunha Association. But the population is ageing and gradually declining.

In 1973 the Governor of Bermuda, Sir Richard Sharples, was assassinated. Nothing as drastic happened during Brian's spell as Deputy Governor (1981- 83), but a complete breakdown of relations with ministers led to the recall of the Governor. The account of this unhappy episode and his part in it makes fascinating reading.

British Empire Book
Brian Watkins
Hardwick Hill Publishing


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