The British Empire Library

The Last of the Proconsuls: Letters of Sir James Robertson

Edited by Graham F. Thomas

Courtesy of OSPA

Review by Gawain Bell (Sudan. Palestine, Nigeria. South Pacific 1931-1970)
This book is not - as the title might suggest - a biography of the late Sir James Robertson, although the Last of the Proconsuls could very well be applied to him. Rather, it consists in the greater part (86 pages out of a total of 139) of some seventy letters written by Sir James to Mr Graham Thomas between 1951 and 1983, interspersed with a short personal memoir written by the editor and an essay introducing each of the four sections into which the book is divided. These four sections, as well as the great majority of Sir James' letters, concern the political and constitutional history of the Sudan between 1950 and 1983.

Mr Thomas, at one time a parliamentary candidate in the United Kingdom, served in the Sudan during and after Sir James' time there, first in the Education Department and later in the Civil Secretary's Office. During this period he took a great interest in Sudan politics, then developing so swiftly and so dramatically, and came to know intimately many of the Sudanese political leaders. This concentration on the Sudan tends to unbalance the completeness of the picture of Robertson as the last of the Proconsuls, but Thomas' experience was limited to the Sudan and unfortunately he had no opportunity to follow similar developments in Nigeria under Robertson's Governor-Generalship. Nonetheless this does not altogether detract from the impression the letters give of one of the great contributors to the history of the last days of Empire in Africa. The care with which Robertson wrote such full and conscientious replies to Thomas will be no surprise to those who knew him. Thomas came to his relationship with Robertson as a complete stranger both in background and, in some respects, in sympathies. But one of Sir James' great qualities was that he was never remote or unapproachable. The letters show that their joint concern with the problems of an independent Sudan brought them, and subsequently their families, into a close and longstanding association. The letters also indicate with great clarity Robertson's gift for friendship towards a wide range of people and his readiness to take infinite trouble for those who turned to him for help or advice. These were characteristics which later made themselves manifest in his outstanding success and popularity as the first President of the Overseas Service Pensioners' Association, an appointment he held from 1960 to 1971. When he gave up the Presidency, such was the warmth of feeling and respect in which he was held, that the constitution of the Association was amended to provide for his appointment as Patron. He held this position up to the time of his death in 1983.

To those who were fortunate enough to work with him in the Sudan or Nigeria he was above all a leader who saw it as his principal duty to bring together disparate and often mutually hostile or suspicious elements into an association which was to form - at least for a time - two viable nation states. Many of these seventy or so letters, limited in scope as they inevitably are, show nevertheless that aim at work. The Last of the Proconsuls will doubtless come to be a valuable source material to those who will seek to assess the contribution men, such as Sir James, made to the story of the sunset of the British Empire.

British Empire Book
Graham F. Thomas
The Radcliffe Press


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