The British Empire Library

Goodbye Colonialism, Farewell Feudalism: Letters from a District Officer, Barotseland 1959 - 62

by Callum Christie

Review by Pamela Shurmer-Smith (Social Anthropologist, author; Northern Rhodesia/Zambia, 1957-73)
Partly because technology is making self-publishing easier, increasing numbers of former colonial officers are publishing their memoirs, making their personal experiences available not just to family or nostalgic casual readers but also to a new generation of historians. I am an avid collector of memoirs written by people of all backgrounds who lived in Northern Rhodesia as it made the transition into independent Zambia, but know to read them with caution, recognising that (by definition) they rely on memory, that distorting lens though which the present surveys the past. What people become always colours their recollection of former times and colonial memoirists are conscious that postcolonial society is uneasy about its past, making them defensive or apologetic. When one writes of Empire, the view is not just of a different time and distant place but also a different political order, social structure and morality - the way the past is told will inevitably be in the light of knowledge of that difference.

Contemporary personal writing in the form of diaries and letters is a close cousin of the memoir; it retains all the same the rich subjectivity, with a single "I" at the core, but has a different flavour. Whereas a conventional colonial memoir is the story of a young hero written by an elderly person, contemporary writing comes from the standpoint of a young person in a present that is now past; the concerns of the time come through more immediately, the anxieties and frailties are more likely to be represented. Memoirists inevitably believe that there is something interesting and exceptional about their lives (why would they bother to write if this were not the case?) but contemporary writing, particularly in the form of letters, is more often prompted by closer and more personal imperatives. A District Officer in his twenties may well write a weekly letter to his parents in Britain out of duty, knowing that they are worried about him, miss him and have no real idea what he is going through, but he may also write to them as the only people he can trust with his loneliness and frailty. It is no wonder that parents preserve these letters or that they come to light when the young men grown old inherit forgotten remnants, reappraise their significance and offer them up to a wider public. Such letters communicate the lived experience of Empire with undiminished freshness and immediacy - Callum Christie's new book is a valuable addition to this genre.

Candidates selected for Her Majesty's Overseas Civil Service in the late 1950s were a new breed and did not inevitably fit the stereotype of the colonial officer who insisted on dressing for dinner, even when it was taken alone outside his tent. They were, rather, men who had been let in on the "secret" that the days of Empire were numbered and their task was to try to ensure that the great transition was brought about satisfactorily. The emphasis was on "development", even though what this might consist of was often left rather vague. A degree in economics came to be seen as more valuable than one in classics as an indicator of the right material and the service was no longer the exclusive preserve of men with a public school background. Callum Christie was one of these new men, arriving aged 23 in (then) Northern Rhodesia in 1959 with an Economics degree from the University of Aberdeen. He wrote regularly to his parents and two friends. Fortunately, these were all people who were interested in his work as his letters are full of the minutiae of life in Barotseland and the unfolding political situation as Federation becomes increasingly unworkable and Northern Rhodesia edges towards Independence.

Christie is acutely aware of the tensions within Central African society, describing the ingrained racism of many whites raised in Africa, including the Rhodesian-born District Commissioner who would not shake hands with Africans out of deep revulsion, or the old pioneer who railed against Africans but took six local wives and was revered as a benevolent father. He writes about the unthinking racism that made many Europeans comment unfavourably about his inviting African people into his home, about the survey conducted at the Mongu Club to decide the circumstances under which Africans might be admitted (and the decision that there were none). Like most members of the Provincial Administration, Christie saw Federation as a retrogressive move and he sympathised with Zambian opposition to it, charting the movement towards Independence but also the blindness of both European settler and Barotse royalty to its inevitability. His comments are often wonderfully perceptive and irreverent about both establishments, recognising that Barotse feudalism had no more chance of survival in the modern world than British imperialism. Whilst others believed that traditional Barotse royal accommodation to British rule would provide a bulwark against African nationalism, Christie understood the aspirations of the emerging class of young educated African men who rejected the inherent conservatism of the Barotse ruling class and were drawn towards UNIP, but he also recognised that Barotse nationalism was (and is) a potent force within Zambian nationalism.

Where this book differs from many others based on contemporary writing is that he intersperses explanatory passages, filling in background and expanding things that were not covered in detail in the letters themselves. This means that when hindsight lends a new interpretation to events it is clear that this is the view from the present. This device highlights the shifts in language, attitudes and assumptions that have occurred over the past fifty-odd years and forms a sort of dialogue between the past and the present, the young man and the old one. The very last paragraph recounts the Zambian attempt to defuse Barotse nationalism by renaming Barotseland the Western Province. Drawing on his own nationality he says, "As a Scot, I could have told President Kaunda and his Government that this would have a contrary effect. Try telling the Scots that from now on Scotland is to be renamed the Northern Province of Great Britain." (p.302)

In the Introduction to the book Christie recounts his impressions of Barotseland when he revisited in 2012. Unlike those who return to find fault and to discover what has declined, he is delighted at the improvements - new schools, better roads, more bridges, a decent bus service, mobile phones. Now nearly 80, he is clearly still someone who is on the side of progress rather than tradition.

Considerable responsibility was given to very young men in the PA and it is easy to forget that Callum Christie was just 23 to 26 when he wrote the letters that form the basis of this book, covering his first tour from 1959 to 1962. I was delighted to find at the end that Christian, the young woman he'd been writing to, accepted his proposal of marriage when he returned to Scotland on leave. She accompanied him on his next tour, this time to the Luapula Province. We can only hope that there might be some more letters home and a joint memoir of their subsequent life in the run-up to Independence and the years after.

British Empire Book
Callum Christie
Kirkgate Books


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