The British Empire Library

Five Years In The White Man's Grave: An Education Officer in Nigeria, 1928-33

by Geoffrey Webb

Courtesy of OSPA

A H M Kirk-Greene (N Nigeria 1950-65)
This is a really delightful memoir of a member of the Colonial Education Service, Geoffrey Webb, who worked in Nigeria from 1928 to 1933 - a period piece, maybe, in literal terms, but nevertheless a first-class read for those of us who, years later, 'were also there'. Skilfully edited and privately published by one of his sons (another son, Adrian, was an ADO in N Nigeria in the 1950s), the text is derived from an earlier version written by Geoffrey Webb and published serially in the Leicester Evening Mail over two weeks in November 1936. Webb was by then very much a local sporting hero, as the secretary of the Leicestershire County Cricket Club who had played for the county as well as, earlier, for Nigeria against the Gold Coast. The book is richly enhanced by a number of Geoffrey Webb's fascinating period-photographs (and one superb water-colour).

While the internal chronology of Webb's memoir follows the familiar pattern of the voyage out followed by two or three closely described tours (in Webb's case, covering postings to Bomu, Zaria, Kaduna, Bida and Ilorin), a special attraction for today's readers will be the joy of reading such a graphic account from another, much older, generation. Unusual among the Colonial Service memoirs which have become familiar reading since the 1980s, here is a classic of a much earlier Colonial Service era. This lively and valuable memoir thus holds a special attraction for today's readers, many of whom will see and sense echoes of their own experience many years later. It is the almost tangible intensity of personal relations with Nigerians as much as the standard pleasures (and problems) of life and society on a small station - people and pets, bush-touring, and one's colleagues and seniors - and a wholly new kind of life in a wholly new kind of country, that will emerge with poignancy and pleasure to grip many a reader.

For those who subsequently followed Webb to Northern Nigeria, there is already a strong link. For Webb was the co-author, with F W Taylor, of Labarun AVadun Hausawa (1932), the classic text on which all learners of the Hausa language were brought up. I was also struck by how, now and again, reading a joke or an amusing story, some of the seemingly standard examples of 'Nigerian' Colonial Service humour - for instance the story at pl2 about the DO who used to instil anxiety into those who worked with him by leaving his glass eye in the office to watch them when he was away - can be encountered in East or Central African lore too, thereby perhaps suggesting the structural basics of some kind of pan-African Colonial Service culture of humour. This may be found in humorous verse as well as in common anecdotage.

Five Years is surely one of the most attractive, honest and readable personal memoirs of Colonial Service work and life in an earlier Nigeria that I have had the pleasure of reading since Martin Kisch's pre-WWI Letters and Sketches from Northern Nigeria (1910, reprinted 1992). In the terms of both Colonial Service and Nigerian history of 'Those Were the Days' context, here is a truly enjoyable and valuable new source for us all.

British Empire Book
Geoffrey Webb
Legini Press


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