The British Empire Library

I Remember It Well: Fifty Years Of Colonial Service Personal Reminiscences

edited by David Le Breton

Courtesy of OSPA

Peter J Marshall (Emeritus Professor of Imperial History, King's College, London)
This book is a compilation of 74 short pieces of reminiscence which have previously appeared in the Overseas Pensioner. They tell of experiences in many different parts of the colonial empire. Attractive coloured illustrations of the emblems or badges of the appropriate colonies, together with brief explanations are included after some of the accounts. Readers will, for instance, learn that the strange object in the middle of the Leeward Islands badge is a pineapple, which may be a reference to Sir Bernard Pine, Governor in 1874. The pieces are properly described by Anthony Kirk-Greene in his Foreword as 'vignettes', that is recollections of incidents, places and people. They are concerned to recall and evoke the past, not to expound policy. Many of the pieces focus on memorable episodes in their authors' careers. Some of these, such as Winifred O' Mahony's experiences in the 1955 Barbados hurricane or Colin Everard's predicament of being lost without water in remote mountains in Somalia, were obviously terrifying occasions. Many of the others are recounted with humour. In 1948 it was John Gullick's duty to get the four Undangs, non-royal ruling chiefs of Negri Sembilan, to put their seals to the treaty setting up the new Federation of Malaya. To get this accomplished on time it was necessary to frustrate the understandable desire of the elderly Undang of Johol that it should be done in the proper way by blacking his seal with the aid of a lamp burning coconut oil. Others evoke places, often in lyrical terms. Mary Reid felt herself privileged to visit the 'gentle, civilized world' of Seiyun in the Eastern Aden Protectorate, 'a town of palm groves and gardens, gleaming white villas of up to three storeys, and in its centre, the Sultan's palace, which looked as if it was made of marzipan, towering over the market square'. Kuldip Rai Moman recalls with delight the beauties of the Uganda countryside where he served as a postmaster. Pieces are also focused on memorable people, eminent, as in the case Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, to whom R L Armstrong acted as private secretary when he was Minister of Works, or less eminent but still remarkable, as was 'Sar' Major' Seleimani, ex-KAR, who served with Ian Lindsay in the Kenya Tribal Police. Finally, two remarkable animals are remembered: the dog Ruff and the rhesus monkey Archibald, who helped Muriel Barnett to pick flowers in her Northern Nigerian garden.

Two of the essays are devoted to the lives of men of an earlier generation. Roland Hill writes of Allan Gibb, who served for over twenty years in British Somaliland until his death at the hands of a mob in 1922. From his initial appointment as Sergeant Armourer he rose to becoming a District Commissioner, winning many awards for gallantry in action. 'No British officer', it was said of him, 'has ever had such a wonderful insight into the Somali character nor presented so sound a colloquial knowledge of the Somali language.' Hubert Berkeley served in Upper Perak, Malaya, from 1891 to 1925. He did his best to prevent senior officials from visiting his domain, over which he ruled in a highly personal style. He 'lived, dressed and ate as a Malay', regarding himself as 'a combination of a Malay chief and an English squire'.

There were no doubt people of rich eccentricity capable of striking deeds of derring-do among the cohorts of colonial servants of the 1930s through to the 1960s, from whom the bulk of the contributors to this book are drawn. Their style is generally not, however, that of Sanders of the River. It is much more matter-of-fact and usually self-effacing. Mary Fletcher, after recounting her efforts to care for girls orphaned by famine in the Eastern Aden Protectorate, describes herself as now 'an ordinary UK suburban granny'. Most others seem to have seen themselves as ordinary people carrying out jobs which needed above all professional and often technological expertise. David Le Breton lists at least twenty-five different occupations among the contributors. They range from accountant, agriculture, air traffic control and audit through engineering and entomology to police and postal services. Such a list, he writes, is contrary to the 'common impression that colonial rule chiefly involved civil administration'. Those who were administrators were unlikely to have been able to imitate the cavalier methods of Hubert Berkeley, who claimed that he dispensed 'justice but not law'. John Cooke describes the tasks of a fledgling Tanganyika DO in 1951 as acting as 'a Magistrate of the Third Class, and as the coroner, supervising the Accounts Office, answering Treasury and Audit queries, overseeing our small prison and Police Force, out in the district visiting Native Authority offices and Local Courts, checking case records and Local Treasury accounts, and visiting schools and clinics'.

Colonial civil servants of this period might describe themselves as ordinary people doing ordinary jobs, but the overwhelming impression that this book gives is that the conditions in which they had to perform their duties were often far from ordinary. Nearly all were required to travel incessantly across the huge areas for which they had responsibility. Even in the 1950s the means for doing this were arduous and could involve danger. Officials in African colonies still travelled long distances on foot with carriers in attendance. Shortly after his arrival in Nyasaland, Ted Wilmot was sent on a walking tour or ulendo for seven days in which he was to impart the virtues of 'ridging for soil conservation' to African villagers. At the start he had virtually no Chinyanja with which to communicate with anyone, but he learnt quickly. For the relatively mundane task of seeing how children in Perak in Malaya were getting on with their Domestic Science, Mary Barkway had to make a long march through jungle accompanied by three elephants and much plagued by leeches. Joan Russell, another Education Officer, travelling by river in Nigeria had her journey held up by hippos. Where motor transport could be used, it too had its dangers. Roads could disappear under flood water. Even travelling in the 1950s on the main artery of empire in East Africa, the 'always bumpy and often rutted' mud road from Mombasa to Nairobi, could be hazardous, as B W Thompson found. Getting round the islands that made up Pacific colonies depended on the availability of not always reliable ships.

Poor communications and tight budgets forced colonial officials to be self-reliant and ingenious in solving problems. This book is full of accounts of technical improvisation. John Harris, for instance, was instructed to increase the output of strategically important commodities in Tanganyika during the Second World War. Importing machinery for such tasks as making rope and cordage for the navy from local sisal was out of the question. Harris and his African workers made their own versions of the necessary machines. An even more demanding administration ordered B W Thompson of the East African Meteorological Department to produce rain in a time of drought. Salt was launched into the clouds by a balloon. 'Don't get the idea that the savannahs were ever inundated with rain. They weren't, but at least some rain fell after occasions of seeding, whether due to us or not'.

This Story of rain-making for the Masai and the manner of its telling seems to encapsulate the spirit of this book. It tells of the doings of realistic and resourceful people. Their tone of voice is understated and self-deprecatory. They do not strike heroic poses or utter high-flown sentiments about national duty or spreading civilisation throughout the world. They have a wry scepticism about the designs of the 'Secretariat' in their colonies or the theory that they were taught in some cases on Devonshire courses. At the best, they hope to be able to overcome formidable difficulties so as to effect limited improvements. In so doing they lived eminently useful lives on which they had every right to reflect with a sense of fulfilment.

British Empire Book
David Le Breton
Librario Publishing Ltd
978 190677 518 6
The editor has very kindly made the book available here as a PDF file for anyone to read this book.


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