The British Empire Library

Oscar from Africa: Biography of O.F. Watkins

by Elizabeth Watkins

Courtesy of OSPA

Review by John Johnson (Colonial Administration, Kenya 1955-1964; British High Commissioner, Kenya 1986-1990)
Elizabeth Watkins has done it again. She has illuminated another phase of Kenya's Colonial history with a lucid biography. First it was Whitehouse, now it is her father, Oscar Watkins.

I first read of Oscar Watkins in Geoffrey Hodges' Kariakor. the Carrier Corps. the Story of the Military Labour Forces in the Conquest of German East Africa, 1914-1918. His role in protecting the health and interests of the unfortunate porters who struggled through Tanganyika was legendary. Some were still alive in Embu in the 1950s and I heard their tales of toil and deprivation. Their memorial stands in the centre of Nairobi today: one of three fine figures on a plinth.

Oscar was a creature of his time. Like many others he volunteered to fight in the Boer War and later entered the Colonial Service in Kenya. There are so many links, both official and settler, between South Africa and Kenya in the first decade of this century. But he was not a conformist. He believed in revealing the facts in a culture that was given to confidentiality. And he was not given to propitiating his seniors.

The description 'too cerebral to be popular' tells so much of Oscar and of the Colonial Service. Kenya was run on a shoestring. The early Governors were mostly mediocre and believed in keeping the settlers sweet. Sir Percy Girouard was one of the better ones. But he had little influence over personnel policy. It must have been wrong for young Oscar to have seven stations in fifteen months.

Oscar just did not fit in; he was not a team player. He was side-lined into the Education Department. As African Industries Officer, a non-job to keep him out of mischief, Oscar toured the country looking for new development potential. He was soon so senior that promotion could no longer be denied to him. So he was offered the residency of Swaziland which he refused.

Both Oscar and his wife fell foul of the powers-that-be. She had stood as a candidate for the Legislative Council in support of the small farmers against the large estates and lost narrowly. The Secretary of State noted on Oscar's file: "Mrs Watkins would be of great value if they would only try to use her instead of repressing the irrepressible''. Eventually Oscar returned to the Administration to act as Provincial Commissioner in Mombasa and substantively to Eldoret and Ngong. He had sacrificed his career to his principles.

So much for the biographical detail. Elizabeth Watkins deftly outlines the big issues of Kenya politics; farm labour, land tenure and the crucial Morris Carter Commission, the development of local councils and rising dissidence among the Kikuyu. It is a full story, well told. And it is good to recall that 'Wispers', Oscar's home near Muthaiga, is still lived in by his family.

Review from Kenya Regiment Sitrep June 2017
The tenants of Wispers Farm, Kiambu wanted to break their tenancy agreement at whatever cost. But why on earth ... ?

" ... it is the-man in grey. Every night he appears at exactly ten o'clock." There was no doubt that the ghost in grey was Oscar Ferris Watkins. "When our hall clock struck ten," wrote his daughter, Elizabeth, "my father, who was always dressed in grey, would put aside whatever he was reading, and go to the door, open it, and pause for the crowd of dogs to precede him. He followed them for a fifteen minute walk. When he came back he would turn down the wicks of the hurricane lanterns, which were left on all night, place them at strategic points in the passage.

Then, with his reading lamp in his hand, he would take each dog to its own basket, at least one dog to each daughter's room ... "

Colonel Watkins had been dead four years or more when those tenants of Wispers Farm beat a hasty retreat from his ethereal self.

All his life he was strangely psychic. On 23 December 1943, his 66th birthday, he told his wife and daughters,"You know, I never thought to see this day, since I had a dream more than 20 years ago, when we first came to ‘Wispers’, and saw my grave under the big tree. It had a Celtic cross on it and was carved the date of my death, 1943. I must have been mistaken, it must have been 1945 or 1948"

None of his family could look at him because they knew better than he how desperately ill he was and four days later, before the old year turned into the new, he was dead. But Elizabeth Watkins' book about her father [Hardback - ISBN: 9781850439486. Publication Date: 31 Dec 1995 Number of Pages: 256] is more meaty than ghostly for it tells the story of his life, his work and his contribution to Kenya as an official in the Colonial Administration. From the days of the Imperial East Africa Company before the turn of the century, “it was the officials who organized the inoculation and vaccination programmes that changed the mortality statistics, who pioneered the roads, welcomed missionaries in some areas and excluded them from others, encouraged traders of cloth and tools, banned sellers of alcohol and firearms. Most of the men employed to make these decisions were professional or university men and a sense of fair play loomed large in their reports”. As Winston Churchill reported in 'My African Journey' in 1908, 'they regarded themselves as guardians of native interests and natives' rights against those who only care about exploiting the country and its people’.

Oscar began his work in Takaungu in 1908, an area ‘entirely unsurveyed, the roads are native tracks, often running for 30 miles at a time through bush or forest without a break or village ... ‘

Twenty five years later, when he reached the official retirement age for the Colonial Service, there was a network of roads throughout the country, even if cars did sink into them up to the axles in the rains. Schools, a judicial system and a medical service were established and developing fast. It always staggers me how much was achieved in the span of sixty six years of Colonial administration; a period which saw two world wars and the greatest economic depression the world has ever known.

During those years the British officials nurtured the people of Kenya. They worked hard, they cared greatly for the men and women they served. It was something of a joke that a DC in, say, Narok would fight tooth and nail against, say, the DC in Machakos; that is, until he was posted to Machakos where his passionate allegiance would be reversed. Their integrity was without question. Many were ambitious, and Watkins was one of them, but self-enrichment was unthinkable.

But in 1933, Oscar reached the Colonial Office retirement age. There was still so much to be done and he hated to bow out. His wife wrote glumly of "the dinner at which they told us what jolly good fellows we were, and we wondered vaguely if we would ever feel jolly again."

For anyone who is interested in the history of Kenya this book is both instructive and fascinating. It is well researched and well written. And for those who doubt the contribution of the British DC there might well be some food for thought, as well as an enjoyable read. Colonel Watkins and his wife were energetic champions of the African, often to the detriment of their popularity amongst their colleagues.

By writing the story of her father Elizabeth Watkins has left a hurricane lamp in Kenya's historical corridor, along which have passed the ghosts of all those men (and women) in the first half of the century who ensured harmony, justice and security while the young country gathered itself up to take its place among the world of nations.

British Empire Book
Elizabeth Watkins
The Radcliffe Press


Armed Forces | Art and Culture | Articles | Biographies | Colonies | Discussion | Glossary | Home | Library | Links | Map Room | Sources and Media | Science and Technology | Search | Student Zone | Timelines | TV & Film | Wargames

by Stephen Luscombe