The British Empire Library

Nigerian Kaleidoscope: Memoirs of a Colonial Servant

by Sir Rex Niven

Courtesy of OSPA

Review by Anthony Kirk-Greene (N Nigeria 1950-66)
Colonial Service biographies and memoirs, in such scant supply a generation ago, have started to become something of a mini-industry, by young scholar and retired colonial civil servant alike. The good ones offer a lot to a lot of readers. They inform or confirm to the historian of empire what it was like to be a grassroots colonial official, and they tell the historian of the Third World what that was like, too, in those far-off days of the inter-war period (Sir Rex went out to Nigeria in, believe it or not, 1921). Then, quite apart from what they tell of Africa and colonial administration, they furnish valuable insights, wittingly or not, into a segment of Britain's social history, biographical as well as autobiographical. Lastly, but often just as importantly, they give us pleasure by recalling people and places and happenings that we ourselves know or knew of. In the best of them, we find plenty of good anecdote, humour and authoritative explanation to add to our knowledge of Colonial Service life and leisure.

The Niven volume fits happily into all these categories. With a career of forty years in Nigeria and service in five provinces (if one upsets chronology by putting Bornu and Plateau before Kano, Kabba and Bauchi, it is only because that is where he often seemed to have made his longest-lasting mark), and several periods spent in both the Lagos and Kaduna Secretariats as well as a couple of 'Acting' spells in Government House, it is not surprising that Sir Rex's memoirs generously supply the endless variety of colours and scenes that his title implies. Your reviewer, when only a quarter-way through the text, lost count of his positively favourite Niven stories, safe in the knowledge that he now has more than enough titbits and historical background to illustrate any talk on colonial Nigeria. From Sir Rex's generous acknowledgement to those who typed his manuscript, it would seem that this book was many years in the making: if so, like the baby elephant, which also emerges from a prodigious period of gestation, the result turns out to be eminently worth the waiting for.

In the context of Colonial Service memoirs. Northern Nigeria's post-war knights have done us well. Sir Bryan Sharwood Smith published his autobiography some twelve year ago: Sir Arthur Weatherhead has deposited his in the British Empire archives at Oxford, and Sir Gawain Bell has almost finished writing his; and Sir Kenneth Maddocks, while not writing his own life-story, has edited and published his wife's letters written from Northern Nigeria before, during and just after the War. Now we have Sir Rex Niven's important, entertaining and rich reminiscences. Nigerian Kaleidoscope may not, alas!, be the kind of book that everyone can afford to buy in these days of penury and pension, but it is certainly the book that every old Nigerian hand should badger his public library to have on its biography shelves.

British Empire Book
Sir Rex Niven
C Hurst & Co Publishers Ltd


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