The British Empire Library

I Have The Honour To Be

by Tom Russell

Courtesy of OSPA

Review by John Smith (Nigeria 1951-70, Western Pacific 1970-78)
Unusually, probably uniquely, Tom Russell spent over fifty continuous years in the direct service of British dependencies, applying for the Colonial Administrative Service in 1946 after war service as a paratrooper and eventually retiring as the UK representative of the Cayman Islands in 2000. Unusually, too, all his service was spent dealing with the problems of small territories in the Western Pacific and the West Indies. His memoirs offer a vivid and well informed insight both into colonial administration in its final phase, the last fifty years of a story that began five hundred years earlier and is an integral part not only of the history of Britain but of many other countries throughout the world, and into the problems of small states. The discerning reader will also quickly realise that at every turn these memoirs reveal the commitment, the integrity, the camaraderie, the modest expectations and the hardships which were the hallmark of colonial service.

While many of his colleagues used the preparatory courses to an overseas career as a pleasant interlude in which to enjoy one's self and perhaps seek a fiancee, Tom Russell (who had found his on war service in North Africa) embarked upon a diploma in anthropology under the renowned Raymond Firth. It proved an excellent grounding for the Solomon Islands, his first posting. His understanding of and respect for the culture, his empathy with the people and his linguistic skills were of immense value in sustaining effective relations between governors and governed at all levels of his career from District Officer to Chief Secretary. Those of us who came to the Solomons from elsewhere, often to senior posts, could always rely upon Tom Russell to interpret issues and save us from making fools of ourselves. He devotes a chapter to a clear exposition of 'Marching Rule', a complex and potential revolutionary movement in the postwar period when United States occupation was fresh in memory. An understanding of 'Marching Rule' remained vital for the administration as much as twenty or thirty years later.

The smaller Pacific dependencies were Cinderellas of empire, unlikely to engage the attention of the Colonial Office until the bulk of empire in Africa had been dismantled. For many years the assumption had been that they were too small ever to be viable either politically or economically. The administration had to manage as best it could with very limited resources. Fiji's independence in 1970, however, was the signal that the road to independence was clear for the Solomon Islands. It was to be achieved eight years later. There was a lot of catching up to be done. As Financial Secretary, Tom Russell fought for aid and initiated development programmes which needed time in which to mature and produce long term benefits. As Chief Secretary he encouraged and oversaw constitutional progress in an endeavour to establish effective local responsibility and accountability. But there was never enough time and in Tom Russell's view independence came too soon, long before the Solomon Islands was in any way a nation.

Expectations were too high and Russell usefully provides an analysis of post independence decisions, such as the devolution of power from a strong central authority, which ultimately led to the collapse of law and order in recent years. The Solomon Islands now classifies as a failed state and Russell makes the fair point that past administrators cannot shelter behind the fact that it was well administered while they held the reins of power; they must acknowledge some of the blame.

Could Britain have insisted in the seventies on a longer period of tutelage and retained the confidence of Solomon Islanders and their political representatives? At the time, good government seemed no substitute for self-government despite the Solomon Islands being poor, grant-aided, its people lacking in education and many of the skills required of a modern state, and inexperienced in government. Independence was what the world expected. By comparison, the Cayman Islands, where Tom Russell went as Governor on well-deserved promotion, is rich, self-sufficient, its people well educated, possessing many of the required skills and accustomed to their own legislature since 1832. Despite international pressure, the Cayman Islands has never sought independence. It now enjoys the new status of Overseas Territory, a development for the remaining dependencies in which Tom Russell played a major role. It is paradoxical that the better prepared, more capable and ready for independence of the two colonies in which he served has declined to seek it. Part of the reason can, perhaps, be found in the initial structure of the population, the early access to education and the opportunity to reach the highest levels of public service, all helping to provide the confidence to be different and the realisation that for a small island state the international stage can be daunting. Had the Solomon Islands enjoyed similar opportunities, perhaps Solomon Islanders would have been as cautious about independence as Caymanians. Tom Russell is not, however, sanguine about the future for the Caymans. Fifty years of experience, fighting the cause of the people he administered, alerts him to the inevitability of a clash of interests and to the ease with which misunderstandings can arise. He warns of the potential difficulties that lie ahead in maintaining the trust essential to the success of the new partnership.

The Overseas Service is no more. Relations with the overseas territories will be very different to the inter-state relations usually handled by diplomats. Those who find themselves responsible for the Caymans and its sister territories will find Tom Russell's book a very useful reminder of what those differences are for many years to come.

British Empire Book
Tom Russell
The Memoir Club
1 84104 047 9


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