The British Empire Library

Into Africa: The Imperial Life Of Margery Perham

by C Brad Faught

Courtesy of OSPA

Professor John M Mackenzie (Edinburgh)
Over forty years ago, I had the good fortune to have lunch with Dame Margery Perham.

Now I find from Faught's biography that she was regarded as a rather fearsome and formidable presence, someone who terrified even the 'not easily cowed' Professor David Fieldhouse. Indeed, he described himself as being 'dead scared' of her. For my part, I found her nothing other than a rather sweet elderly lady, even if I felt myself in the presence of someone who had played a major part in the recent history of Africa, in key events and in contact with leading personalities. But I had two great advantages in the encounter. One was my relative youth. The other was the fact that I had only recently heard her 'The Time of my Life' talk broadcast on BBC Radio 4 in January 1970. I told her this immediately and she was delighted. We had a ready-made opening topic for our conversation, the astonishing time she spent in Somaliland In 1921, visiting her sister and brother-in-law. I had also heard her celebrated Reith lectures and had bought the subsequent book The Colonial Reckoning. For her part she questioned me closely about southern Africa in general and Rhodesia (as Zimbabwe still was) in particular, for I had been there fairly recently. We also talked about my research on African labour migration. It Is an encounter I shall always treasure.

Now I can flesh that meeting out with a great deal more information about her life and work.

And it was indeed a remarkable life with some astonishing work at the very centre of the affairs of Africa in the last colonial decades. Like all extraordinary people, she was a person of great contrasts and paradoxes. She was somebody who had many loves, a sisterly one for her brother Edgar, tragically killed in the First World War like so many of his generation, daughterly affection for Lord Lugard, whom she came to know well as his friend and future biographer, as well as unrequited romantic love (almost certainly) for her brother-in-law in Somaliland, Major Harry Rayne, for Captain Hugh Ashton in Basutoland, for Douglas Newbold (the celebrated governor of Kordofan) in the Sudan, but she never married and almost certainly never consummated any of her passions. She was a woman in the thick of the affairs of men, yet had no time for feminism. She trained many men for the Colonial Service; she advised governments and sat on committees; but she never had any formal political or administrative role. She was accused (by Walter Crocker for example) of being too naively impressed by the officers of the Colonial Service whom she admired, yet she could also be a thorn In their sides with her firmly held views, not least on African advancement, women's education, and the facing down of settler power. She became an associate of Arthur Creech Jones, Labour Colonial Secretary, and a close friend of a number of African nationalist politicians, attending independence celebrations as an honoured guest. She could, In other words, appear to some to be thoroughly conservative, to others a dangerous radical.

Her life was also a series of dramatic turning points. She went to Oxford at that fateful moment in the autumn of 1914. Her time as a young academic at Sheffield was uncomfortable and depressing, but her therapeutic sabbatical in Somaliland was a revelation, the initiation into her greatest love of all, Africa. After her return to Oxford and the publication of her two novels (Major Dane's Garden and Josie Vine), she encountered Lugard, the most celebrated colonial figure of the age, in Geneva in 1927. Then her appointment to a Rhodes Trust travelling scholarship to survey the 'native administration' of the Empire was perhaps the greatest turning point of all. In eighteen months she travelled in North America, the Pacific, New Zealand and Australia, and, of course, Africa. She returned as a major authority on imperial affairs. She never looked back. She topped up her knowledge with studies in anthropology with Malinowski, and before the Second World War she returned to West Africa and to the Sudan. Few people had her breadth of expertise and even fewer had travelled so widely and so deeply, fiercely studying papers, policies and people wherever she went. She moved from Government House to Government House, fearlessly interrogating governors (helped by her social class and Oxford cachet), but she also roughed It in the bush and on at least one occasion, stayed in an African hut.

She encountered the 'Happy Valley' set in Kenya, knew Delamere, Denys Finch Hatton, and Bror Blixen, disliked the Governor Sir Edward Grigg (and the feeling was mutual - he thought she was actually working against the principles of Cecil Rhodes and consequently of his Trust), and of course had her famous tussle with Elspeth Huxley on the powers and reputation of settlers (a celebrated correspondence, conducted with mutual respect, and subsequently published as a book). Yet she sometimes seemed to illustrate the characteristics of white settlers. She had a lifelong love of sport, including hockey, tennis and golf. She was an avid and capable rider. She could shoot and enjoyed the experience of big game hunting. And she was perfectly capable of roughing it in the bush. She contracted that great scourge of the African traveller, malaria, and was a frequent sufferer (something I appreciate since this was also my fate when travelling in a remote corner of North-East Zambia.) But she also loved the comforts of Government Houses and their convenient limousines. She was partisan, always relieved when she found herself back in British territory (out of the French Empire, for example) and in the company of her fellow Britons.

In addition to all of that, she wrote copiously in The Times, served on education commissions, as well as her manifold activities as an Oxford tutor in colonial administration and as an academic writer. She was influential in the development of Nuffield College. Having lost her Christian faith in the First World War, she rediscovered it during the Second and insisted on the building of a chapel in that college. Her two-volume biography of Lugard was published in 1956 and 1960 and, through her Reith lectures and her involvement in many decolonisation and post-decolonisation controversies (not least the Nigerian Civil War), she continued to be an active public figure into old age. In the decade in which she retired from her teaching post in Cxford, the 1960s, she was created a Dame; she became President of the African Studies Association of the UK; and then President of the Universities' Mission to Central Africa. She was only really winding down at the point at which I met her, already in her seventies.

It is thus a really formidable life to write and it needed to be done. The sources constitute a major exploration, almost African in its scale - 770 boxes of documents, letters, diaries, and other materials at Rhodes House in Cxford, as well as many other potential sources, the books, and oral evidence from many who knew her. It was a brave task to take on and Faught was naturally encouraged by that doyen of historians of the Colonial Service, Tony Kirk- Greene. While it was a task that would enhance Faught's standing with some scholars it would win him few friends within some of the dominant trends in the writing of imperial history, notably in North America. The 'post-colonialists', for example, would probably find it hard to honour his work, or at least the balanced approach he adopted, looking for something much more critical. Nevertheless, Faught faces up to some of the challenges. He honestly surveys Perham's loves and emotional life, her contrasting political stances, the problems with some of her writing (for example he found parts of her first novel 'cringe-worthy' to modern sensibilities), her occasionally patronising attitudes towards Africans and their alleged 'backwardness' (it was naturally impossible for her to jump fully out of her generation or her period).

It has been said with much truth that the two (perhaps admirable) commandments of post-colonialism are that 'thou shalt not "other" thy neighbour' and 'thou shalt not "exceptionalise" thyself. Perham probably failed on both of these counts, as did most of her British contemporaries. Africans were certainly 'others' to her, requiring to be gently led towards western education and civilisation, and she did 'exceptionalise' the British as the best colonialists and worthy of their imperial task, though necessarily criticised to improve their reputation yet further. She also adopted Victorian criteria of worth. She was more influenced by appearances than we ought to be, always susceptible to the handsome male (and it was said she definitely preferred the company of men), often scathing about their womenfolk. Even in Fort Lamy, she found the French governor 'most strikingly handsome'. In Cape Town she considered that some of the Afrikaner politicians looked 'sub-normal' while their wives were 'mostly big, fat, red, hard women... bursting out of their party clothes and tight gloves'. The Governor's wife in Northern Rhodesia was 'a large, splendid cabbage rose just tumbling over its prime' (perhaps that was intended as a compliment). Perham would have had no truck at all with 'political correctness'. Does one detect a hint of snobbery in her attitudes, not only her social manners, but also towards the North of England, despite the fact that she was brought up there? Moreover, it has to be said that despite her extraordinary influence on events and on a whole generation of colonial officers, her reputation as an academic is not of the highest. There are no great insights attributed to her, not only as a historian, but also as a scholar of administration and politics. Faught faces up to all of this (perhaps not so much the latter two points, snobbery and scholarly reputation) while also bringing out her real virtues and acute observation of the colonial scene in Africa.

But the biography also disappoints. It is short (was this a publisher's imperative?) and often seems superficial. We seldom discover any depth in Perham's encounters or her conversations. There is no extended discussion of her writings, some of which are passed over with almost no analysis at all (Ten Africans of 1936, for example). While Faught consulted academics, he does not seem to have conducted any interviews with former colonial administrators who attended her courses - did he for example approach OSPA or any of its members? There is no evidence that he did so. In addition to these demerits, the book is sadly full of howlers, starting on the very first page. Inhabitants of Bury will be surprised to discover that they are citizens of a Midlands town. No one seems to have copy edited or peer-reviewed the book with care. The word 'yolk' is confused with 'yoke' producing a startling assertion. There are other solecisms. The index is inadequate - the town of Livingstone is mixed up with David of that ilk and some important places (e.g. Northern and Southern Rhodesia, apparently conflated as Rhodesia) do not appear at all. If Perham had been considering this as an assignment presented to her, she might have avoided the celebrated category 'non satis', but she would almost certainly have struggled to get beyond the mark of Beta. It is workmanlike, but unexciting. It has much of interest, but does not entirely satisfy. Sadly, it needed a much more professional biographer, and perhaps one much more confident about the places Perham visited and the many writings she produced, to bring this off. Still, Faught took it on when others did not and we must be grateful to him for that, not least because it was not a particularly fashionable thing to do - and biographies of personalities whose public standing have slipped from view are never attractive to publishers. Despite my strictures, we owe him some debt.

British Empire Book
C Brad Faught
I B Tauris
978 1 84885 7901


Armed Forces | Art and Culture | Articles | Biographies | Colonies | Discussion | Glossary | Home | Library | Links | Map Room | Sources and Media | Science and Technology | Search | Student Zone | Timelines | TV & Film | Wargames

by Stephen Luscombe