The British Empire Library

The Iconography Of Independence: Freedoms At Midnight

edited by Robert Holland, Susan Williams and Terry Barringer

Courtesy of OSPA

A H M Kirk-Greene {Nigeria 1950-65)
Those readers who, like many of us, blink three times, think twice, and then gulp once when they come across terms like 'iconography', need have no fear about this splendid book. After all, the word "Independence" in the title will reassure the many members who were involved in the process of colonial self-government, while the subtitle Freedoms at Midnight is likely to strike a chord, recalling the defining moment described by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru just before India's Independence Day on 15 August 1947, immortalizing the concept of the "stroke of the midnight hour".

When I first read the contributions presented at the conference held at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies in June 2007, it immediately occurred to me that here was superb material for an important and enjoyable book. The guest editors of the special issue of The Round Table, the Commonwealth Journal of International Affairs, in October 2008, clearly had the same idea. Now they have not only brought together the eight papers presented in The Round Table, but have filled a major gap in the journal's Special Issue by adding a fine study of Malaya's Merdeka Day (31 August 1957) by A J Stockwell.

Six chapters recall and review the 'midnight hour' of British territories around the globe, forming India and Pakistan, Ghana, Guyana, Zimbabwe and Malaya. These narrative country studies of independence are placed in context with a parallel pair of exceptionally good wider studies of the experience that made up the 'midnight hour'. Independence Day Ceremonials in Historical Perspective by David Cannadine and Independence Day and the Crown by as a post-war chronological table of independence. To these must be added an admirable overview by the three editors, who conclude that insofar as there might be a model for the celebration of independence from Britain, it would be India in 1947 and Hong Kong forty years later, together "the most carefully planned and the most spectacular". They must also be congratulated on the very helpful abstracts of each chapter, at pp vii-viii.

Many readers will search for an account of or references to the 'midnight hour' experience of their own territory. Yet however territorially patriotic one may be, nobody should miss the two wider chapters by Cannadine and Murphy. Indeed, those OSPA members who may have considered answering Brian Stewart's call in the Overseas Pensioner (No 97) for memoirs of Coronation celebrations (though I am sorry to hear that it will not now be realised) would be interested to read Murphy's survey as well as consulting their own diaries and letters. Hopefully they also saw last year's extensive TV programme on the royal tour of the Commonwealth in 1963.

Finally, a comment on the two useful 'midnight hour' tables, one (pp 16-17) listing British Colonial independence dates 1947-1997, along with any royal participation; the other a post-war chronology listing the independence dates of every colonial territory together with the name of each former colonial power and the name of the new state. A few problems arise in the latter (pp 131-133). It is confusing to read that Tanganyika became independent on 26 April 1961 when those who were involved know the date as 9 December 1961. It is misleading to name Germany as the former colonial power in connection with Namibia's independence in 1990. Wisely, no mention of Germany as a former colonial power when listing the independence dates of the Cameroons or Tanganyika. And surely the New Hebrides, which became Vanuatu in 1980, was not a British colony but an Anglo-French condominium!

These minor blips apart, The Iconography of Independence will be a first-class read for OSPA members, so many of whom were deeply involved in the run-up to independence and often present at the 'midnight hour'. It is full of interesting accounts and perceptive observations, altogether a well-researched and excellently written examination of the exciting and historic colonial phenomenon of 'freedom at midnight'.

British Empire Book
Robert Holland, Susan Williams and Terry Barringer
978 0415 55145 8


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