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.

British Empire Book
Elizabeth Watkins
The Radcliffe Press


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