The British Empire Library

No Telephone to Heaven: From Apex to Nadir - Colonial Service in Nigeria, Aden, the Cameroons and the Gold Coast 1938-61

by Malcolm Milne

Courtesy of OSPA

Review by Peter Bursey
Colonial memoirs, such as No Telephone to Heaven, are important as a record not only of how Britain administered its own empire, but also as a description of life in overseas countries where living conditions are so different to those at home. Future historians and academics from around the world who take an interest in the many aspects of political, economic and social history of countries where Britain has had an impact will find this genre important.

Malcolm Milne began his career as an ADO in Onitsha, Eastern Nigeria and ended his colonial service as acting Commissioner of the Southern Cameroons in 1961. He was a pre-war entrant to the Colonial Service and in 1938 felt he was joining a service with a long future ahead of him. It was a service that was valued and taken seriously by those whose job it was in government to look after British interests in the world. He had enthusiasm and youthfulness on his side. By the time the author left the Service he felt that changing attitudes in London towards the colonies had brought the Colonial Service to its nadir; hence the subtitle of the book. His beliefs were confirmed whilst researching his book at the Public Record Office where he found his last telegram to London from the Southern Cameroons reporting on the departure of the Commissioner. An official had written on it that Mr Milne appeared to have been reading too much Kipling. A dismissive comment to say the least. Examples of Malcolm Milne’s beliefs and values come through in the text time and time again. That he was encouraged to speak his mind but had to do what he was told, is just one of them.

No Telephone to Heaven is an exceptionally good read and does not suffer from an imbalance between the personal and professional experiences of the writer. Many autobiographies tend to contain the more interesting chapters in the first half of the book and then later, as authors hold more senior posts, the text becomes bogged down in the minutiae of committee life and policy work. That these memoirs do not do so is a credit to the thought the author has put into the planning of his book. The chapters on the handover of the Southern Cameroons ensure that these memoirs will be forever cited when the history of the Southern Cameroons is written.

In 1953 the author became Community Development Secretary for the Eastern Provinces. His role was to identify projects whereby a local community could improve its infrastructure with financial support from a central development fund. Projects included road construction, building primary schools, constructing water access points, and setting up home craft training centres. It is easy to see how those in the Colonial Service could achieve job satisfaction. The work they did made a difference to people’s lives and they could see a direct relationship between their role and the outcomes of their decisions. Other episodes of interest in the book include the description of his overland journey to South Africa with his wife Kat in 1942 and his description of the process whereby palm oil was collected and distributed in Eastern Nigeria. The author’s experiences in the native courts must have sharpened and developed his decisiveness and ability to judge, a key ingredient in a person’s character. With an attractive dust cover and 464 pages of fact and anecdote this volume is well worth reading.

British Empire Book
Malcolm Milne
Meon Hill Press


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