The British Empire Library

Life in the White Man's Grave: A Pictorial Record of the British in West Africa

by Philip Allison

Courtesy of OSPA

Review by Anthony Kirk-Greene (N Nigeria 1950-66)
It is essentially the sub-title which underpins this splendid book by Philip Allison, who served in the Nigerian Forest Service from 1931 to 1960 and then stayed on as a collector of traditional art for the Nigerian Department of Antiquities. For "A Pictorial Record of the British West Africa" at once identifies the genre of book, quickly distinguishing it from a study in necromancy and avoiding the risk of it being catalogued by some do-not-read-beyond-the-spine library assistant under the History of Tropical Medicine or Ghost-Stories. Contrary to the publishers' announcement, this is not "an absorbing account of the last days of Empire". 'Absorbing', yes; but since only one of its fifteen chapters is entitled "Independence" and most of the rest stretch back to slavers and traders, "Missionaries" and "Pioneers", George Goldie and Mary Kingsley, the hint of some study of decolonization, the transfer of power and the end of empire smacks of a positive infringement of the Trade Descriptions Act.

Historical text there is, succinct and informative, with separate short chapters on each of Britain's four West African territories, one on the Jubilee Year (1897, of course, not 1935 or 1977) and one on Lugard. Of perhaps even greater interest to the generality of our readers - certainly to your reviewer - are the 'social' chapters about la vie coloniale: "The Voyage Out", "In the Bush", "Home from Home" and "Culture Contact". Apart from the fine introductory chapter of twenty pages, few of the other ones are more than three pages in length. The whole book has a mere twenty-eight references and names no more than forty books, many published before 1900. There is an index.

So where is the deeper and undeniable value of this minimal text in a book of nearly two hundred pages? The answer lies, grandly and gloriously, in the historical triumph of its illustrations. There are nearly one hundred and fifty (exceptional value for money!), ranging from reproduced illustrations and brass casts to official press photographs, snapshots from family albums and newspaper cartoons. Each carries a serious and substantial caption, while a separate list of acknowledgements indicates the sources.

Philip Allison's fascinating assemblage of illustrations is deliberately complemented by rather than subordinated to his text. The result is no coffee-table book just to impress visitors but a cornucopia of goodies. These instantly recapture innumerable aspects of that life which so many of us enjoyed - and just a few endured - all the way along the West Coast of Africa down to that Bight of Benin where "There's one comes out for forty goes in". A veritable treasure-trove indeed!

British Empire Book
Philip Allison


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