The British Empire Library

Hailey: A Study in British Imperialism, 1872-1969

by John W. Cell

Courtesy of OSPA

Review by A.H.M. Kirk-Greene (Nigeria 1950-66, lecturer in Modern History of Africa, Oxford University)
I have long been puzzled by the fact (the paradox, in Professor Cell's mind) that the accepted pre-eminent 'Africanist' of the 20th century should have been an Indian, not an African, Proconsul - unless of course it is simply a case of the outsider being able to see most of the game. For, taking Lord Lugard's place as the authority on African administration. Lord Hailey impinged on 'us', as it were, only after retiring from forty years in the Indian Civil Service. He came into contact with the Colonial Service in four principal contexts: in planning (rather than writing) his encyclopaedic, 1600 pp. An African Survey (1938); in his penetrating, incisive and highly confidential report on Native Administration and Political Development in British Tropical Africa (1941, though not made public till 1979); in his work on the post-war reforms of the Colonial Service; and in his somewhat disappointing four volumes on Native Administration in the British African Territories (1950-53). Whether Cell is correct in being more charitable to the 'Revised 1956' edition of the African Survey than I am is not really an issue: like the Watson Commission's jaundiced view of the so-called 'advanced' Gold Coast constitution of 1946, we are in agreement that the 1957 Survey was more or less outmoded at birth. What Cell now does is to explode the common myth that Hailey was a great Africanist. Rather, and in no way belittling the stature of the man, he was a great man who devoted the last quarter of his life to Africa: "Ultimately, what mattered was not so much the intrinsic qualities of his (African) writing as the significance readers attached to them. It was not so much what he said as the fact that he said it."

If this is the first full-length study, profoundly researched and effectively written with welcome clarity, of Lord Hailey (1872-1969), John Cell is at pains to emphasise that it is more about the 'times' than the 'life' of this distinguished scholar-administrator, imperialist par excellence. Born in 1872 and educated at Corpus Christi College, Oxford, where he took a First (the Oxford years are unexpectedly thin: could the College really not provide more about one of its Honorary Fellows?), Malcolm Hailey followed his brother into the Indian Civil Service. A brilliant career ensued, culminating in two memberships of the Viceroy's Council, the Chief Commissionership of New Delhi (1912) and the Governorship of the Punjab (1924) and the United Provinces (1928), and one of the few elevations of an ICS officer to the peerage. Retiring from India in 1934, Hailey, as we have seen, took up Africa. His last of a score of publications on Africa (against a mere three on India) came in 1963. Hailey was then 89.

Cell believes that after 1949 Hailey began to see himself as an anachronism. He was still a fervent imperialist, in the post-war world of fervid anti-colonialism - Cell's "Defender of the Faith" - but already that was a label beginning to go out of fashion. Workaholic extraordinaire, he wrote in his nineties that "I do not think life is really worth living unless it is weighted with definite responsibilities". In John Cell's epitaph, Hailey had outlived the British Empire he had served with such dedication and distinction.

This biography is a superb achievement, brilliantly depicting both Hailey, the eminent imperial administrator, and the colonialism-to-decolonization context in which he played such a central role across fifty years and two continents. For me, this is emphatically the Book of the Year - and maybe of many yet to come.

British Empire Book
John W. Cell
Cambridge University Press


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