The British Empire Library

The Last Days of Empire
and the Worlds of Business and Diplomacy: An Inside Account

by Charles Cullimore

Charles Cullimore has written a memoir about a career that simply could not occur again in terms of its breadth, diversity and also very real difficulties and hardship. It is hard to imagine many aspiring civil servants being prepared to live and raise a family in basic mud-brick housing with no running water, no heating or AC and with scorpions scurrying around. And yet this is exactly the kind of house that greeted Charles and his young family in East Africa in the 1950s. Indeed, memoirs like this one are so important for reminding us of a world that has now passed firmly into the pages of the history books. Sadly, Charles died in February 2021 but we can at least be thankful that he committed some of his remarkable experiences and expertise to paper.

I should point out that I am a firm fan of memoirs. There is nothing like the primary witness accounts of the actual actors involved to get a deeper understanding of places and people and issues which you simply do not get fully from historians writing from afar and often through many sources removed. It helps that amusing anecdotes and the simply bizarre occurrences that can only happen in real life adds a layer of authenticity. It has to be said that Charles and his family had their fair share of the bizarre from the only time they were ever stopped by the police in Australia when they were virtually naked after being caught in an unexpected downpour and then having to sneak into their house whilst a full on house party spilled into their garden to watching a perhaps ill thought out British Council organised 'Macbeth' in post-Idi Amin Uganda with President Museveni who seemed intent on extracting some interesting political lessons from the bard!

Charles' own hinterland also reflects the very different era that he came from. His father was a Protestant rector originally from just outside of Dublin but by the time of Charles' arrival in the world was living and working in Ulster. His father had experienced the original 'Troubles' firsthand and appeared unusually non-sectarian in an era when sectarianism polarised far too many people on the island of Ireland. His mother's family was perhaps from an even more quintessential imperial background with his mother being born in India as his grandfather had been a Colonel in the Indian Army. Sadly both of his grandparents died, the grandmother in India at the tender age of just 21 from dysentery and the grandfather fighting with the Royal Dublin Fusiliers against the Turks in Mesopotamia during World War One. There is a touching part of the book where Charles, as a diplomat in India, visits Bangalore where his mother had been born and his grandmother had passed away. He is understandably delighted to find her grave with help from the local Anglican Cathedral. With such an 'imperial' family and growing up in Ulster with World War Two as the backdrop it is perhaps not too surprising that Charles would follow a career mostly dedicated to service; in the army, in the Overseas Colonial Service and then the Diplomatic Corps. There was a brief interlude in industry with ICI, but the vast majority of his long career was serving the British State and in a truly dizzying array of locations. It is interesting that he chose to join the army at a time when National Service was the norm in Britain but not in Northern Ireland. And yet, Charles felt that he would benefit from a shared experience that the vast majority of his contemporaries would have undergone. This kind of selfless idea of service also feels sadly as if it is from another era.

I was also touched that in his preface, Charles explains that his career was very much a 'joint enterprise' with his wife Val. In fact, he alludes that she herself has her own fascinating Twentieth Century tale to tell coming from a German family that had to endure life in Fascist Germany and dealing with the arrival of the Red Army. It is encouraging that many more spouses and indeed children of Colonial Service and Foreign Service personnel are indeed writing their own recollections of events. These can be every bit as useful and informative as those who were actual office holders. Throughout the book Val is a constant companion who founds interesting official and unofficial roles as they flit across the globe on various postings; a shared endeavour indeed and surely massively complicated with the arrival of children.

By far the most interesting chapter to me was the one on Tanganyika and the Colonial Service. Her Majesty's Overseas Civil Service was distinct from the diplomats of the Foreign Office which he later joined separately. Indeed, individual colonies and in the case of Tanganyika, UN Mandates, had their own terms of service entirely. Interestingly, the fact that his interviewee noticed that he had been a keen actor at university and felt that this would be a useful skill as a District Officer was surprisingly apposite. British rule really was something of a performance art. Indeed a District Officer would have many parts to play from a junior magistrate, to investigating officer, to coroner, to tax collector, to agricultural adviser, to civil engineer, to being an all round trouble shooter and general fixer and often on a shoe-string budget and with very few resources or personnel to call upon. Charles' only real preparation was the one year long Devonshire A course taught at Oxford which included courses on Law, Tropical Agriculturue, Field Engineering, Anthropology and perhaps most importantly of all Swahili. Once in field a young District Officer's responsibilities were substantial indeed. It is telling that Charles gives the number of administrators amongst the whole of Tanganyika during the late 1930s (figures from Anthony Kirk-Greene) as a mere 185 administrative officers and just 120 expatriate police and military personnel. After the war, a few more experts were brought in but the number was still tiny. This was no force of occupation as he makes it clear. The British could only have governed with consent with such an imbalance in numbers. Indeed the numbers for the whole of British controlled Africa are even more remarkable with just 1123 administrators and 938 expatriate military and police. Of course, these called upon local personnel to aid them, but still the fact that barely 2,000 Europeans governed much of Africa is a remarkable statistic if you think about it. Charles also believes that the system in place then was probably more efficient at dealing with development issues than later post-colonial specialist aid agencies. He explains that administrators spoke their language, lived amongst the people, went on safaris to the most obscure parts of their districts and worked with the people. They could also demonstrate how their taxes were being used with various agricultural and engineering schemes. Contrast this with the International Development agencies who flitted in and out of countries with little or no affinity or understanding of the places they were working. Usually, they did not speak the language and once their job had finished they moved on to their next project leaving the locals behind with little or no further support. The fact that serving the local population was all taken in stride was demonstrated when Charles happened to have his wife and child in the Land Rover miles from anywhere when he had to apprehend 5 Maasai warriors armed with their spears over cattle rustling claims. He had to apprehend them and take them to the local prison all with his family in tow. As he says, "it never occurred to me nor, importantly, to them that they could just have told me to get lost. Had they chosen to do so there was no Plan B." This reveals the extent of the consent of the local population and the underlying respect for law and order that allowed the British to administer so much territory and so many people with so very few personnel. Charles' time within the Colonial Service was cut far shorter than he expected when he joined in the 1950s. He debates the pros and cons of the accelerated decolonisation especially after Macmillan's Wind of Change speech in 1960. In the end he understands the policy adopted and can see the wisdom of the hasty retreat even if it was not ideal in hindsight. Interestingly, he gives a copy of the remarkable letter sent to all the Admionistrators by Julius Nyerere to encourage British Administrators to remain in post even after decolonisation in 1961. It is actually a very heart felt and endearing letter from the person who would become the President of Tanzania shortly. When you compare the peaceful departure of the British from East Africa to the Belgian implosion in the Congo or the French difficulties extricating themselves from North Africa Charles' perspective is revealing indeed.

Charles did not take Nyerere's kind offer to remain in Tanganyika for the perhaps noble reason that he felt that if any British did remain then it should be the more long serving and experienced administrators who had built up more expertise. He felt that junior administrators should be Africans who would then learn from the experienced old hands and then cascade down that expertise to future generations of district officers. He returned to Britain and spent some time with ICI before returning to government service as a late entrant member of the Diplomatic Corps. Undoubtedly his time in the Colonial Service served him well in preparing him for a diverse series of postings in Cold War-wracked West Germany, India, Australia and then back to Africa as the High Commissioner for Uganda. This last posting was after the particularly tumultuous period of Idi Amin, Obote and Okello. Uganda needed stabilisation and friends urgently and Charles Cullimore was in a position to use his particular expertise in African affairs to influence the new President Musaveni and nudge it back to the road to normality. He throws some fascinating light on to this character who himself would remain in post far too long but as Charles explains he was far more tolerant and liberal in his early years and seemed if anything to be nostalgic for British involvement and expertise in his country's affairs. It seemed that Charles was often trying to prevent the British being relied on too much. Again, there haven't been too many empires in history who have left their colonies with as much good will as the British in most of Africa seemed to have managed.

It should be said that this is, compared to many memoirs, a brief book. He explains that he never kept a detailed diary and so this is largely retrospective remembering without the very detailed notes and examples that a diarist may have relied upon. There are some fascinating characters that I would have loved for him to have expanded upon. For example, Herr Tschoepe who provided them with fresh fruit in Tanganyika when they lived over a hundred miles from the nearest shop. He had apparently been the driver of the only truck used by General von Lettow Vorbeck in his remarkable war waged against the British throughout the entirety of World War One. What a tale he could have told. Later there was a pilgrimmage to the famous explorer Wilfred Thesiger who only gets a few tantalising sentences. Despite the relative brevity, I have to say that compared to many memoirs there is much more analysis attached to the political and diplomatic issues that arose through Charles' career. I do think this helps bring this memoir to a higher plane of usefulness to anyone interested in diplomacy or public administration and of course late imperial history. He throws fascinating insights into subjects as diverse as the Commonwealth, the European Union, aid and development, migration, leadership and many more subjects besides.... They are very well thought out and quietly forceful as he considers all sides before evaluating them in full. In many ways this is done in the style of his diplomatic style. He is very much a protagonist for the understated diplomat who gets things done quietly without the glare of publicity and for the benefit of all the parties involved. Perhaps his Northern Irish non-sectarian background prepared him for this world view or just his wide range of experiences in the field. Either way, he quietly espouses the role of the unsung hero who does the right thing for the right reason and does not seek any unnecessary credit. This seems a far cry from the present era of social media, PR machines and instant sound bites but you cannot help but feel that Charles' view is a much more dignified and probably effective way of doing diplomacy. I do recommend this book which gives you a real flavour of Britain's changing role in the second half of the Twentieth Century and how that was managed by its administrators and diplomats. Historians should be glad to have such an eloquent primary 'inside account' to call upon. Diplomats are usually masters in biting their lip and remaining in the shadows. It is very useful to have the opportunity to peer behind the diplomatic curtain of some important and perhaps some of the more unusual international relationships and see some light shone on important historical events.

I should also add that I did have the pleasure of meeting and talking with Charles, and his charming wife Val, on a number of occasions through the Overseas Services Pensioners' Association of whom he was the last President. He was as engaging and interesting in person as he has shown himself to have been on paper. It is sad that he passed away but it is a small mercy that he at least had time to write, publish and share his experiences and wisdom of his remarkably diverse career.

British Empire Book
Charles Cullimore
Pen and Sword
Pen and Sword


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