The British Empire Library

From Empire to Commonwealth: Reflections on a Career in Britain's Overseas

by John O'Regan

Courtesy of OSPA

Review by John Lonsdale (Director of Studies in History, Trinity College, Cambridge)
The tone of this memoir is set by the photograph on the dust-jacket. It shows Mr D. S. Senanayake, first Prime Minister of the first Colony to achieve independence, on the steps of Ceylon's Parliament Buildings. O'Regan's book reminds us that it was possible for someone whose service began in the mid-1930s to spend most of a long career in knowingly preparing for and then administering successive transfers of power in the dependent Empire, from Ceylon in the East to Jamaica in the West and then back to Nigeria in the middle. And yet the men who did so worked on behalf of an Imperial Government that took little thought on how to maintain administrative morale and standards as, one after the other, employing governments became independent and colonial officials had to decide on how best to safeguard their family's financial future, often in mid-career.

O'Regan's father-in-law Sir Andrew Caldecott fought vigorously, after his retirement as Governor of Ceylon, for a centrally funded colonial administrative service and, failing to persuade HMG, resigned from the Colonial Service Appointments Board in 1947. His subsequent letter to The Times is reproduced as an Appendix here. O'Regan has been able to reconstruct much of the (unsuccessful) battle from his father-in-law's papers, supplemented by his own correspondence from Western Nigeria in the matter, as it affected his personal career in the late 1950s. This book has therefore a special interest for overseas pensioners. They will learn again what they have presumably never forgotten, how much more powerful HM Treasury was than the Colonial Office. O'Regan makes good use of references to letters home and diaries, to recall vivid details of his career. He devotes one third of the book to Ceylon, where he served for his first 14 years, married the Governor's daughter, helped to administer a war economy, and changed his uniform four times in one day, on the King's birthday in 1938. It must have been difficult to love any other posting half as much, but O'Regan had a talent for serving under distinguished governors like Hugh Foot or colourful politicians such as Bustamente in Jamaica or Adebo in Nigeria. It is extraordinary to be reminded how great a disaster was a personal overdraft of #410 in 1954! O'Regan is consistently discreet in his analyses of the politics of the three colonies in which he served (and of Uganda, to which he went as a diplomat on its independence), reserving any serious criticism of overseas rulers to the Shah of Iran, in whose capital his overseas service ended in 1973. But the only enemy in a good humoured memoir is Treasury myopia and parsimony at home.

British Empire Book
John O'Regan
The Radcliffe Press
Articles by Author
Ceylon's Contribution to the War Effort and to the Development of the New Commonwealth


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