The British Empire Library

From Obscurity To Bright Dawn: How Nyasaland became Malawi, An Insider's Account

by Henry Phillips

Courtesy of OSPA

Review by Colin Baker (Nyasaland, Malawi, 1954 - 71)
Over the years. Sir Henry Phillips's family pressed him to write his memoirs. He agreed to do this and to start when he reached the age of eighty years. For his eightieth birthday they gave him a word processor, and he devoted much of the following three years to writing the memoirs his family sought. The result is From Obscurity to Bright Dawn, which extends far beyond family interest and importance, since the post-war political history of Nyasaland is firmly woven into the fabric of the autobiography.

The book's interest and importance derive from the remarkable changes of which the author was an intimate part during his eighteen years in Nyasaland's Administration. Serving under the last four of the country's thirteen Governors, he worked very closely with the last three. He witnessed at first hand the whole life span of the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland, from inception to abolition. As an administrator in a remote rural district when he arrived in 1946, he led a life not greatly differing from that of his colonial predecessors decades earlier. When he left, in 1964 at independence, he did so as the last expatriate minister and the confidant of Nyasaland's first, and only. Prime Minister. All this in eighteen years. His autobiography is a microcosm of post-war colonial history. His intimacy with the country continued well into the 1980s when he was successively managing director of Standard Bank's Finance and Development Corporation, and a board member of a company promoting equity investment in Africa and of Malawi's National Bank. His is truly an insider's account.

Phillips first covers his time in Karonga district: a fascinating and varied picture of life just after the war: the jack-of-all-trades work; the hardships, joys, and frustrations; and the primitive charm of remote rural Nyasaland.

After two years in district work, he went to the secretariat and spent the remainder of his administrative career in finance and development. Despite being notoriously onerous, he seems to have enjoyed preparing the annual estimates. He enjoyed, too, the rewarding experience of working closely with Governor Colby, a man devoted to rapid economic development.

In 1952 the Governor created the post of supernumerary Development Secretary to retain Phillips in Nyasaland rather than have him transferred elsewhere. A year later, the Federation having come into being, he was seconded to the Federal Treasury in Southern Rhodesia. He was struck by the different conditions of service, and attitudes, of Southern Rhodesian civil servants when compared with those of Nyasaland. The initial work on the Apportionment Committee was 'a boring job'. In his subsequent appointment as under-secretary, concerned with financing development projects, keeping an eye on constructing the customs tariff, being involved in preparing four successive budgets, he was on happier and 'gratifyingly familiar ground'. On the whole, life 'even at under-secretary level, tended to be unexciting' and he had relatively little difficulty in accepting the offer of promotion to Financial Secretary in Nyasaland and returning there in 1957.

In the next seven years he witnessed, and took part in, a period of remarkable change in Nyasaland. In 1958 Dr Banda returned after 40 years absence, and tbe subsequent escalation of political activity resulted in a state of emergency being declared and Banda, with over a thousand Congress supporters, being locked up. The changes were accelerated by Devlin's report into the disturbances, Macmillan's sensing the way the wind was blowing in Africa and Macleod's appointment as Colonial Secretary. In I960 Banda and all other detainees were released. The following year, elected African ministers entered Executive Council for the first time and dominated its proceedings. 1963 saw the removal of all ex officio members, save Phillips, from the cabinet, now under Banda as Prime Minister. At the end of that year the Federation was abolished. On 6 July 1964, in the bright dawn of independence, obscure Nyasaland became Malawi. Phillips was an intimate part of these changes, especially the vital financial and economic aspects of secession from the Federation and political independence from Britain.

Through periodic visits and other contacts over the next two to three decades, Phillips witnessed Malawi's progress: the remarkable infrastructural development of the first decade; then the balance of payment problems as the price of oil increased and that of Malawi's major exports declined; and the humanitarian welcoming of hundreds of thousands of refugees from Mozambique. Later he sensed Banda's increasing remoteness from everyday government.

Henry Phillips's practical contribution to the development of Nyasaland - Malawi and its emergence from obscurity to bright dawn was outstanding. His autobiographical contribution to the literature on Central Africa, too, is considerable, not only in its clear readability but perhaps especially in its balanced account of Dr Banda. Very importantly, it does not neglect - as tends to be the practice - Banda's political and economic contributions during the early and middle years after his return to Nyasaland - Malawi.

British Empire Book
Henry Phillips
The Radcliffe Press


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