The British Empire Library

Occasional Papers Of The OSPA Research Project At The Institute Of Commonwealth Studies, University Of London

1) Empire and After
2) How Green was our Empire? Environment, Development and the Colonial Service
3) The United Kingdom Overseas Territories Past, Present & Future

Edited by Michael Twaddle, Terry Barringer, David Killingray and David Taylor

Courtesy of OSPA

Bill Kirkman (Wolfson College, Cambridge)
The link between these three volumes is the fact that they are all products of the OSPA Research Project. They are, however, very different in content and approach. The essence of Empire and After is that most of the contributors served in the colonies, and what they are offering, therefore, is first hand knowledge based on experience. In How Green was our Empire?, similarly, the contributors are writing from first hand experience in the field. The focus of the third volume, by contrast, is on a continuing 'colonial' issue - establishing what is the appropriate relationship between the United Kingdom and those possessions, to use a non PC term, which are not independent and, more importantly, do not wish to be.

No one would suggest that the people who were players in the process of decolonisation are those best fitted to reaching sound historical judgments on that process, or on the colonial era itself. Their experience, recollected and set out in this way, however, is invaluable source material. The OSPA Research Project has set out to gather and present the same kind of material as was gathered, forty years ago, through the oral archive of the Oxford Colonial Records Project.

Writing in Empire & After John Smith, who served in Northern Nigeria before and after independence, and later was governor of the Gilbert & Ellice Islands, and played a crucial role in the OSPA project, puts it well. 'We are writing about matters once central to our lives and of which we believe we have the right to be proud, but we must be realistic and consider the context in which we write. Service memoirs can neither supplant seriously researched history, political or other science nor have the impact of a novel' (p5). The contributors do not attempt to supplant the work of professional historians, but they fulfil an important role in reminding us both of a great deal of devoted service to 'their' countries and, more importantly, of the limited resources at their command.

In his chapter on education in Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia), for example, Peter Snelson describes the legacy of the British South Africa Company, under whose rule the provision of education was left to the missionary societies. A later policy of building a sound foundation of village education in the 1930s was hampered by lack of money at a time of world-wide depression, and a fall in the price of copper. Even after the second world war, in the period leading to independence in 1964, 'shortage of money remained, of course, the main constraint on growth' (p28). Peter Snelson wryly comments: 'The Attlee government in Britain made history by nationalising the country's major industries - steel, coal, power supply, the railways etc. What a pity it did not help the government of Northern Rhodesia to buy out the BSAC royalties, as Arthur Wina, Zambia's first Minister of Finance, did in 1964'.

The range, geographically and chronologically, in the first volume is wide: Asylum for Vietnamese Boat People in Hong Kong, policing in Nigeria, the role of language and sport in nation building, the complications of politics and boundaries in Uganda. The flavour and emphasis provided by the different contributors are, obviously, varied, but none of them writes with unrealistic yearning for a mythical golden age.

It is easy to make judgments with the benefit of hindsight, and there have been many criticisms of colonial rulers in their treatment of the natural resources of the colonies - criticisms which appeared in The Times at the time of the OSPA conference which was the subject of the second volume of these papers. They produced a response from Henry Osmaston, one of the conference participants, whose 'short, dignified rejoinder', to quote Terry Barringer in her introduction, 'emphasised the commitment of people like himself in the Colonial Forestry Service to conservation and sustainable development. His contribution was acclaimed by retired Colonial officers, many of them equally irritated and hurt by what they perceived as years of politically correct but ill-informed jibes at "colonisers" and "colonials". Representatives of a younger generation of academics and practitioners in the field also welcomed this letter' (pi).

Environmental history has been 'something of a growth industry in the last twenty years', to quote Terry Barringer again (p2) and it is salutary to be reminded, in Anthony Kirk-Greene's contribution to this volume, how few people were recruited into the 'green' services before 1939 (p24). As he also points out, however, distinguished institutions for the training of 'green' officers were developing in the 1920s (the Imperial College of Tropical Agriculture, in the West Indies, opened in 1921, later to be integrated with the training of Colonial Agricultural Service probationers at Cambridge, and the similar integration of the Imperial Forestry Institute in Oxford - established in 1905 - with the training of Colonial Forestry Service members).

One of the issues explored by different contributors is the competing claims of people and animals. Caroline Cowan (a Ph D candidate in the Department of Geography at Cambridge) touches on this in her article on the Tsavo National Park in Kenya. She notes the criteria for Kenya National Parks laid down by the Game Policy Committee: that humans should have no rights in National Park areas and preferably should not live there; that there should be no economic development; that they should be large in size and with a range of habitat; that there should be a wide and representative selection of fauna (p61). It is not at all surprising that such a clear division was at times controversial. One has only to consider today's arguments in the UK over the extent and sanctity of the green belt to be reminded that clear-cut policies are easier to achieve in theory than in practice.

There are some excellent anecdotes in this volume. Ted Wilmot, for example, who served in Nyasaland in the Colonial Agricultural Service from 1950 and retired as Deputy Secretary from independent Malawi in 1972, recalls a meeting on agricultural matters addressed by President Banda. T said to him, "Your Excellency, had I not known you, your address could have come quite comfortably from a Colonial Administrative Officer". He replied "Ah! Mr Wilmot, the message is the same but the methods are different. You people forced, I encourage." (This may have been true regarding Agriculture, but could not adequately describe political processes of the period)', as Mr Wilmot shrewdly comments (pi22).

Another anecdote in Ted Wilmot's chapter describes his (post-war) recruitment interview.

I was asked three questions. 1) "Could I set a plough?" "Yes". 2) "Could I teach an African to set a plough?" "It would depend on the African". 3) "Could I build myself a house?" "If I had to, then I would" ........... I was allowed in. There was one supplementary question: 4) "Could I keep wicket?"

It is an amusing reminder of the habits of a (not so long) bygone age - and will doubtless horrify those for whom recruitment has become a complicated science. If they read this volume they will do well to reflect that unscientific recruitment produced some pretty good results.

The third of these volumes deals with the complications of what might be called the residue of the end of the colonial era. It is interesting to be reminded (by David Killingray in his chapter setting out the origins of the UK overseas territories) that what he calls the Imperial fragments are 'related to Britain (United Kingdom Overseas Territories), France (Departements d'Outre-Mer, and Territoires d'Outre-Mer until 2002), the Netherlands (Aruba and De Nederlandse Antillen), Portugal (Azores, Madeira), Spain (Balearic Islands, Canary Islands, Ceuta and Melilla), Denmark (Greenland, Faeroes), the United States (Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, US Virgin Islands, Guam, Freely-Associated States in the Pacific), Australia (External Territories) and New Zealand (Territories Overseas and Self-Governing Territories)'. The inclusion in that list of the United States will surprise some people.

As the editors point out, there are great differences between the French and the British approaches to the relationship with their overseas territories, a relationship in the British case reflecting a measure of pragmatism (pi). This is underlined neatly in the chapter on UK policy towards the Caribbean overseas territories in the new millennium, by Helen Hintjens and Dorothea Hodge. Commenting that the uneasy constitutional relationship with the UK is not as unusual as one might expect - echoed as it is by the uneasy relationship of the Dutch and French Caribbean territories with their respective metropolitan 'parents' - they quote an Anguillan politician who described the British approach as "aggressively non-interventionist" (p. 87).

The fact that this chapter is concerned with the current millennium emphasises the significant point that, whereas in the second half of the Twentieth Century there was wide agreement on the rightness of ending colonial rule (even if there were arguments about the detail of how it should be achieved) the remaining small territories present quite different issues. British policy broadly favours independence when it is desired, but is not concerned with forcing it on unwilling recipients. What to do about those unwilling recipients is, as this volume demonstrates, not always easy to decide.

The classic example of difficulty is, of course, Gibraltar. Martin Blinkhorn, in his chapter A Question of Identity: how the People of Gibraltar became Gibraltarians, sets the current situation very clearly in the complex context of relations with Spain. He draws attention to the crucial, and little recognised, fact that there has been a long period of demographic hispanicization which (as is widely recognised) has not led to the kind of political consequences that might have been expected. In short, it 'has failed to generate political hispanicization' (p49).

Taken together, these three volumes perform a most valuable service. They provide a wide variety of first hand insights into the colonies as they moved rapidly towards independence, insights which will be invaluable to historians attempting to deal accurately and fairly with that period. And, in the third volume, they point to a whole range of problems which did not die with the end of the colonial era.

British Empire Book
Michael Twaddle, Terry Barringer, David Killingray and David Taylor
I B Tauris
185507 1339
185507 1355
185507 1363
OSPA Project Publications Officer, Institute of Commonwealth Studies, London University, 28 Russell Square, London WCIB 5DS


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