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'.