The British Empire Library

Letters Home

by Keith Arrowsmith

Courtesy of OSPA

Review by Terry Barringer (Wolfson College, Cambridge)
Keith Arrowsmith has published two previous books. Bush Paths (Pentland Press, 1991), a short anecdotal account of his time as an Administrative Officer in Eastern Nigeria 1949-1957 and a full-length memoir The Changing Scenes of Life: from the Colonial Service to the European Civil Service (Radcliffe Press, 2014). He joined the Colonial Service after war service in India and South East Asia, worked in Eastern Nigeria, Uganda and, his birthplace. Hong Kong. His final post was with the Directorate General for Agriculture of the European Commission. Both volumes were reviewed enthusiastically by Anthony Kirk-Greene.

Now Arrowsmith has made available the collection of 50 letters he wrote home to his parents in 1949-50 while on his first tour in Eastern Nigeria. He drew on this material for the earlier books but it is good to have the letters together in this handy and readable compilation.

Arrowsmith emerges as a cheerful, adaptable, thoroughly decent young man who wrote to his parents every week on air letter forms. I cannot help reflecting that the speed and efficiency of postal communication between Britain and Nigeria was better then than it is now. He played chess, bridge, hockey, tennis and ping pong. He tried his hand at gardening and had some success with sunflowers. He read when he had time especially during convalescence after minor operation - magazines and an eclectic range of books which included Agatha Christie, Evelyn Waugh, the New Testament and Sophocles in translation. He appreciated his car "Dinah-the-Minor" and he really appreciated his wireless, which kept him in touch with the rest of the world.

He tells his parents quite a lot about what he was eating and endearingly confessed to a secret over-indulgence in ginger biscuits. A vicar's son, he went to Evensong, got on well with missionaries of all stripes and helped out at the CMS youth club.

When he started in the office at Port Harcourt there was not too much to do and plenty of time to teach himself to type and learn Igbo. Duties and responsibilities soon multiplied. Many of the letters describe reviewing native court judgements and court work in general, supervision of prisons (inmates and warders), and road building. There is a nice account of preparing the estimates for the first time. Arrowsmith always acted with diligence even in such tasks as inspecting insalubrious public latrines or supervising a flogging. 'Two warders gave them their 12 strokes each... it did not strike me as too bad - I can remember frequently undergoing similar punishment myself, (p. 97) was the comment of the public schoolboy. A more congenial duty was conducting his first wedding under the Marriage Ordinance.

The letters are never dull or merely dutiful. I particularly enjoyed the account of Empire Day in Ogoni (p.34) and the vignette of American Baptist ladies at Joinkrama in the bush. They ran a clinic, maternity home and embryonic hospital. They lived in a 'well-furnished' house with 'excellent' food, an 'impressive' refrigerator, a 'homey atmosphere'. 'In the evenings [they] appeared in stylish new length frocks, beautifying themselves at the same time with a discreet use of make-up...' The CMS ladies, on the other hand, were kept on 'embarrassingly short commons' (p. 109).

Only once is there a sour note in his correspondence. Letter 34 contains some very jaundiced comments about educated Nigerians especially Oxbridge graduates, doctors, lawyers and gentlemen of the press.

"Our aim is to educate these people to our own ideals and beliefs, but paradoxically the result is to make them less attractive as individuals and hostile as subjects of the same crown." (p. 77)

He has few grumbles though he regrets the lack of unattached young women. He's not in it for the money:

"There is not a lot of money in the job of assistant district officer. By the time one has paid one's boys and cleared one's bills for food, which comes to a fair sum - food being expensive, and put by for one's various insurances there is not a great deal left out of one's pay packet - particularly when one is paying off an advance, granted for the purchase of a car, in 24 monthly instalments." (p. 74)

Arrowsmith worked hard and found satisfaction in his work.

"My wants are few... Each day has something attempted, something done. Though in the heat of the day I am often irascible, in the evening when work is over for the day I can usually feel that my labours have been worthwhile - and I go fairly early to bed to be ready to be able to tackle to my best whatever the morrow may bring forth." (p. 70)

In Letter 32, Arrowsmith writes,

"Well I wonder what news you would like to hear about this week. I should be interested to be told whether these weekly letters I write make you feel that you can to some extent picture my life as an assistant district officer and the surroundings in which I work." (p. 72)

Whatever his parents felt (and surely they pored over them), the letters are a wonderful resource for anyone who wants to know about the life, work, leisure and attitudes of a young colonial officer.

British Empire Book
Keith Arrowsmith
Custom Books
The author will allow us to reproduce his book in full here on this website or as a PDF


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