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.