British Colonial Service historiography has now emerged as an extremely important area
of study. That pertaining to Africa was often ignored by scholars in the immediate post-
independence decades of the 1960s through the 1980s. In part, this was due to a
failure to recognise that there were clear lines of historical continuity between the colonial and post-independence eras, and that colonial administrators were often agents of change
who greatly facilitated the liberation of subject peoples.
The neglect to which this field of study has been subject is clearly evidenced by the
paucity of published works dedicated to it. Until very recently, one would have had to
consult Sir Anton Bertram's The Colonial Service (1930) or else, Sir Charles Jeffries'
The Colonial Empire and its Civil Service (1938). This slim literature has now been greatly
enriched by Anthony Kirk-Green's On Crown Service: A History of HM Colonial and
Overseas Civil Services, 1837-1997(1999). To such comprehensive secondary sources,
have been added a growing number of primary documents including the memoirs of
Colonial administrators. Taken together, these works not only provide excellent insights
into colonial policies and relations between administrators and the ruled, but also permit
informed interpretations of the many social, cultural, economic and political connections
between the imperial past and the present in Africa.
Terence Gavaghan's Of Lions and Dung Beetles chronicles his life and experiences as a
Colonial administrator in Kenya from 1944 to 1963, and as such is of the memoir genre.
Several characteristics place it in a superior class and set it apart from other volumes of
this type. The author's service in several different districts of Kenya brought him into
contact with most of the country's diverse population groups and their unique cultural,
social and economic characteristics. His years of service coincided with the post-World
War II devolution of the British Empire, and in Kenya, with the slow and at times violent
movement towards independence. Gavaghan is a very insightful and talented writer who
consistently enriches his narrative with splendid descriptions of people and places, and
thoughtful analyses of events. Through him, one learns of the complex social hierarchy
of the Colonial Administrative Serviced (CAS), which reflected the class stratification of the
metropole and of the ramified relationships between the branches of colonial government.
In this account, Africans are not cast as a group of anonymous extras, but rather are brought forth as individuals whose characters are fully developed and placed in the broader
Context of the times. Their aspirations and travails are objectively recounted, as are their
Interactions with a colonial government which they sometimes resented but upon which
Their security and well-being often depended.
That Gavaghan was able to establish close relationships with so many Africans then and
later speaks to his great interpersonal skills as well as his willingness to breach the social
restraints of a rigid and hierarchical European class system. In so doing, he was better able
to apply colonial policy at a local level so that it best met the needs of Africans.
The author has arranged his account in a chronological manner structured around his
Various postings. These included Kitui, Nyanza, Kisii, Kisumu, Mandera, Kakamega,
Mombasa Taita-Taveta, Kiambu, Samburu and Nyeri. Throughout these assignments, he had to deal with issues as diverse as nomadic Samburu grazing practices and land consolidation
among the agricultural Kikuyu. His detailed and interesting accounts of these provide a
window into the daily life of a district commissioner and the challenges he faced trying
to resolve local problems equitably.
Toward the end of his career as a colonial servant, Gavaghan was assigned greater and
broader responsibilities beginning in 1957 with his appointment as Officer-in-Charge of
Rehabilitation of Mau Mau detainees.
He later became Under-Secretary for Africanisation of the Overseas Civil Service, and
Interim Permanent Secretary in the cabinet office. In 1962-63, the United Nations
asked him to assume the chairmanship of the Administrative, Unification Commission of
independent Somalia/Somaliland. Then, between 1966 and 1973 he served as a consultant for several United Nations agencies and a number of non-governmental voluntary organisations. The latter international assignments provided him with a unique perspective
from which to evaluate and recount his earlier career as a colonial administrator in an
important part of the world at the twilight of the British Empire.
During the decades of the 1960s through the 1980s, scholarly writings tended to showcase
the negative aspects of the colonial experience on African societies. Without dismissing these, the pendulum has now swung to a more central position in which the many positive
aspects of the British colonial period are also acknowledged. Gavaghan's Of Lions and Dung Beetles presents many of these, while fully acknowledging the failings of colonial rule.
As a result, his well-written and balanced volume is a valuable historical contribution to
a fuller understanding of Britain's imperial past.
Reading this quirkily titled book has reminded me of you, the carefree childhood that
we enjoyed under yours and Mum's benevolent eye, and of the comings and goings of
officials and others as you all "bucketed along" administering the people of Kenya. Deft
character descriptions make it a vivid and engaging story.
Sue and I were only four and a half when Terence Gavaghan came to Kakamega and we
scarcely remember him but he remembers you as "a monumental figure... called Ngombe
because of his bulk not his brains. His hunched shoulder muscles usurped his neck and
tendrils of russet hair overlaid a worried forehead. Innocent blue eyes were set in florid
cheeks and quietly breathy utterances were economical. They hid a shrewd and lively mind
which could outmatch many an unwary sophisticate."
Gavaghan is not afraid to be frank. I try to remind myself not to think how the Turkana
road labourers on the Moyale/Mandera road picked up hydatid cysts. And I wonder, Dad,
what you would have thought of his references to sexual relations with African women? I
thought this was frowned upon. He disarmingly insists that these relations were voluntary
and sweet but I cannot help wondering if the ladies' families did not lurk in the background
hoping to take advantage of such indiscretions.
He recounts his role - which you commended - in resolving the tricky problem of the
Dini ya Misambwa, that mystical cult that erupted amongst the turbulent Kltosh. He was a
DO in Kiambu in 1950 when the Kikuyu began to tear themselves asunder by the Mau
Mau. "While deep rooted conviction, fanatical belief, rage, hate, induced hysteria, even
narcotics, could actuate hitherto unexpected fearlessness in the commission of terroristic
acts, extraordinary bravery was also displayed in the calm acceptance of Christian
martyrdom. "Faith of our fathers ... we will be true to thee till death" was lived out by
many Kikuyu in the undeclared conflict looming ahead".
It was after he had been charged with invigorating the sullen congestion clogging the
release of Mau Mau detainees that Gavaghan blithely caught a political potato that would
have been too hot for almost anyone. How could he have foreseen the climate of political
expediency that impugned the Administration's decent and faithful service to the people of
Kenya? And later it would appear that he was still caught in the political mangle when he
was abruptly removed from his post as DC Kiambu. This was done in a wounding manner
that would have been unlawful today and which weighed heavily on him during the latter
days of his service.
In helping to champion a restitution of the Colonial Service's place in history, often
twisted by sloppy study and biased ideology, I am encouraged that students of the period
will learn from this colourful account of the relaxed interaction enjoyed by Administrators
and their "parishioners". Mutual regard was usually warm and genuine. I believe that some
of the finest jobs in the world must have been DO Mandera, DC Maralal, Kiambu or
Kakamega. Those of you who served in Kenya were indeed most fortunate, despite the
pressures you were under trying to hold the ring among such a diverse populace.
If you had still been with us you would have enjoyed this book which is written with
charm and wit. I think you would have agreed with me that Terence Gavaghan's rich,
sometimes racy fluency paints a marvellous picture of that short-lived and yet great