The British Empire Library

Intermediaries, Interpreters, And Clerks: African Employees In The Making Of Colonial Africa

Edited by Benjamin N Lawrance, Emily Lynn Osborn and Richard L Roberts

Courtesy of OSPA

T H R Cashmore (Kenya 1953-62)
This book is the product of a conference held at Stanford in which some 23 academics (mostly American) took part. 14 essays are printed making a diverse study concerning the importance of Africans as interpreters in influencing or misleading the colonial administrators. One westernised African clerk, who served in French West Africa, put it as operating "under the very noses of the administration so as sometimes to put matters on a slightly different course or even prevent certain ill-intentioned administrators or heads of political bureaux from achieving their goals".

Two essays relate to 19th century South Africa. Four relate to French and British West Africa; two others to Kenya, and one to Tanganyika. There are also more general topics: the editors' introduction African Intermediaries and the "'Bargain' of Collaboration", and Martin Klein's African Participation in Colonial Rule: the Role of Clerks, Interpreters, and Other Intermediaries.

The crux of the problem is language (and the implied ignorance or stupidity of the alien administrator). To what degree was there a simple misunderstanding between rulers and ruled; or deliberate misinterpretation? Many pioneer colonial administrators in the field - with exceptions - lacked adequate language skills. To add to their difficulties was the great variety of local native languages or dialects. As time passed lingua francas spread (Swahili in Eastern Africa) and French or English became more widely used by the growing numbers of westernised Africans. Also later expatriate administrative officers were expected to learn at least one local language. But frequent postings did not help.

An example of the confusion that could arise, so that expatriate officers might end up in total disagreement, is illustrated in David Pratten's account of the "Man-Leopard Murders" in 1946-48 in South Eastern Nigeria. Nearly 200 people were killed, and 77 men convicted and executed. A key role in convincing the authorities that the murders were the work of a traditional Ibibio cult was that of Usen Udo Usen, a Mission product, interpreter, district clerk, and also member of the progressive Ibibio Union. The DO Abak and the senior police officer were both convinced that they were faced with cult murders and that Usen was right. A successor DO, however, was less confident and organized a leopard hunt which convinced him that leopards, not men, were involved. (This officer was swiftly removed.) Although Usen was honoured after his death by the colonial authorities, he was denounced and rejected by his own people.

Another aspect is the range of "collaboration". Here the essayists limit their examples mainly to the interpreters (administrative or court) or the clerks at the district offices or for the native tribunals (one or two might be better classed as personal servants or spies). But the collaborators cover a wider field; from chiefs and headmen to emirs and native kings; from tribal police to Arab or Goan clerks.

Two essays on native courts in the Nyanza province of Kenya deal with the improper influence or corruption in the last decades of colonial rule. One case in Kakamega involving African Independent Church property lasted from 1946 to 1954 and went to unsuccessful appeal. Having studied the court record and later interviewed the individuals involved, the author's conclusion was that "the interests of court officials and their role in Kenya's colonial past has been pivotal in understanding present-day corruption and inefficiency in Kenya and much of Africa".

Some may think the implicit criticism of expatriate officers unfair. Or wonder whether expatriate academics also have problems in using interpreters or intermediaries. But the majority of these essays are focused on the African Employees in the Making of Colonial Africdi, not on how far the past created present ills.

British Empire Book
Benjamin N Lawrance, Emily Lynn Osborn and Richard L Roberts
The University of Wisconsin Press
978 0 299 21950 5


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