The title ‘Pink Stripes and Obedient Servants’ definitely might baffle the uninitiated but the author explains why this indeed is the perfect title for his book. The ‘Pink Stripes’ refers to the slightly odd way that Mandates were shown on old maps of the British Empire. These mandates were awarded to Britain by the League of Nations after World War One from the defeated Central Powers. It therefore was governed by the British but on behalf of the League of Nations (and later United Nations). This odd category meant that they were marked in maps as pink stripes.. The ‘Obedient Servants’ refers to the ubiquitous sign off on official correspondence in the hey day of the bureaucratic Empire; “I have the Honour to be, Sir, Your Obedient Servant”. John Ainley obviously came to associate this term with his official role as Agricultural Officer in Tanganyika.
The author headed out to East Africa in 1949 as a 23 year old Agricultural Field Officer. He represented the new breed of technocrats of the post-war period as the Labour government massively increased personnel going out to help development in its colonies. No longer were colonies pure bureaucratic entities seeking self-sufficiency to defray costs. The Attlee Government of 1945 (and subsequent Conservative governments) decided that they had a responsibility to develop their colonies to make them more resilient economically and in preparation for self-government or perhaps even independence (although this was still thought to be many years away for the less developed colonies like in Africa). This new democratic sentiment also extended to the fact that they were taking non University educated officers like John Ainley . The author spells out the differences between being hired by the Crown Agents as opposed to directly by the Colonial Office - the latter had better terms and conditions. Indeed, John Ainley had assumed that he would be embarking on a full career when he left Yorkshire for East Africa. Harold Macmillan’s ‘Wind of Change’ speech in 1960 would cut that career short. This realisation that all Overseas Civil Servants were going to have their career opportunities curtailed saw a more relaxed treatment of these various branches and in 1954 the two branches were amalgamated into Her Majesty’s Overseas Civil Service.
I should say that John Ainley is an accomplished communicator (which is not always true of memoirists) and his prose dances off the page very lightly indeed. Of course, he has fascinating tales to tell but he lays them out with clarity and insight. His career in Tanganyika coincided with remarkable changes in communication and technology. It is interesting to read of his initial sailings which must have changed little since the Victorian era in many ways and then compare them with the growing influence and availability of air transport (although even this was still laborious in the days before jets and requiring frequent layovers and basic facilities on the ground and in the air). Similarly infrastructure was virtually non-existent in his initial postings with dirt roads at the mercy of the elements being few and far between and just two rail tracks in the entire nation. His first posting to Iringa required a 430 mile trip from Dar-es-Salaam with the first 270 miles by a train on one of those single track lines travelling at little more than 20mph and then the rest of the journey by a rather hair raising bus ride climbing inexorably up to the highlands of Iringa.
Being an Agricultural Officer, the author’s primary job was to support commercial and subsistence farmers. It is always interesting at how these books throw some interesting light on the darkest corners of Empire. The author explains how at Iringa there was a sizeable population of Greek, Turkish and Cypriot tobacco farmers who would be growing leaf primarily to sell to British American Tobacco who indeed had a representative in the area. I’m not sure I realised just how many of these Mediterranean farmers were in East Africa and must have had something to do with the early Turkish tobacco plantations disrupted by the First World War and subsequent expulsions of Greeks from much of Anatolia in the subsequent Greek-Turkish War. He explains how this area was far more cosmopolitan than he had realised and of course included many Asians who provided many of the commercial services to Africans and Europeans alike. He goes on to say that there was never any formal colour bar to the various groups not mixing and nobody ever told him not to mix, but that there were de facto colour bars that saw many of the communities tend to stick to their own groups. Although professionally and personally they did indeed mix but also gave each other’s communities space and respect.
John’s first responsibility was to build two large fishponds to breed Tilapia. He soon realised that he was going to need to learn Swahili to get the most out of his workforce and that he was going be given a lot of responsibility at a young age and with little or no communications available. He would have to be resilient and show initiative. He does get some ‘expertise’ from an old hand in using dynamite to clear a pathway through some rocks but even this nearly goes awry as the old hand had only picked up explosives experience through trial and error himself. It is hard to think of just how much responsibility was placed on such young shoulders in such isolated places. But of course this isolation would allow civil servants like John Ainley to gain the trust of the local population and get to know their language and customs. These Civil Servants committed for the long run and we see throughout the book that their loyalties are always to the locals and doing everything they can to help them grow more resilient crops or to diversify to give them more income, food streams and abilities to withstand natural disasters. This was a period when famines and drought were very much realities and subsistence farming was still the norm.
It was interesting to read though how the author felt that Mandates like Tanganyika did not get as much money and investment as direct ruled colonies like neighbouring Kenya received. One does wonder if this might actually not have been a blessing rather than a curse as perhaps much of that direct investment was to benefit European cultivators of cash crops rather than to help subsistence farmers increase their yields and drought resistance. It is clear that attempts were made to diversify the agricultural economy in preparation for self-rule which soon became preparation for outright independence. The author does note a steady increase in investment ideas in Tanganyika although by no means were all of these successful. I suppose it should also be remembered that Britain herself was hardly flush with excess money in the wake of World War Two. Nevertheless, money was made available in addition to the increased personnel.
One consequence of the flood of these new post-war Civil Servants was that housing was in short supply. It had always been basic with no running water, no electricity and no phones. We learn that many of his postings still relied on telegraph systems. Radio would be one innovation that would come along, but that was broadcast sparingly for just an hour or two a day. Although it was intriguing to learn how the author became involved in the Tanganyikan equivalent of the Archers as they sought to use radio broadcasts to educate farmers across the country through an engaging format. The fact that they had to have travelling radio sets to allow potential listeners to hear their output should have hinted at just how few people were going to be able listen in. But it does hint at the era of experimentation. The author later gets another position working with a Swahili Agricultural Magazine for the same reasons. Despite little or no communications we do learn of the impressive speed of the bush telegraph and how important news seemed to get through to even the most remote locations with remarkable rapidity. One example he gives is one of the rare examples of a corrupt District Officer fired for a role in the poaching of ivory. This event got to the author despite him being some 200 miles away from the closest town out on a foot safari and literally in the middle of nowhere!
Such an isolated life leads to constant discussions of wildlife be they hyenas surrounding camps whilst out on safaris, a poisonous snake that drops from a tree in the middle of a Baraza (public meeting), hippos coming up into the garden (and indeed an intriguing new golf club rule that allowed golfers to move the ball out of a hippo paw print without penalty!). Then there are the locusts and lake flies that could be so numerous as to black out the sky or appear as clouds wisping off the lake waters. It should be said that not all of the Agricultural advice would stand the test of time, notably the use of DDT which was regarded as something of a wonder insecticide. From an agricultural perspective it did seem to work and they conducted scientific trials to prove so and to prove to local populations of its efficacy. Alas, they did not fully appreciate the deeper effects it would have on sustained exposure and especially for anyone pregnant. It was not until 1962 that its deleterious effects were beginning to be questioned.
The lack of transport infrastructure explains the reliance still on the foot safari. In fact, it was expected that the officers would spend the majority of their time out and about evaluating land, listening to complaints and educating local farmers on best practice. Again, this would give the officers an intimate understanding of both the landscape and the peoples they came across. It is interesting to read later on in the book post-independence when advisers from America and China turn up to try and compete for the affections of the newly independent state and their lack of understanding for the limitations and potential of the landscape. It is also interesting to note that agricultural production took a severe downturn in the years after the British granted Independence in 1961. The author did actually stay on until 1964 as part of the handover process, although he could see that the Africanisation process would mean that his own career prospects would have been reduced if he stayed longer. He also was wary of the attempted coup in 1964 which was only put down thanks to the intervention of the Royal Navy and Royal Marines. By this time, he and his then young family were based at Bukoba but the fact that he was a Tanganyikan Civil Servant by this time meant that he was unsure what his fate might be if the regime were to fall. This was no mere academic consideration given the collapse that had occurred in nearby Belgian Congo and also in Rwanda and the increasingly unstable Uganda. The fate of Post-Independent African states was becoming something of a lottery and the 39 year old author decided to take his wife and young children back to Britain and to start a new life again.
The author makes it clear that Africa would always hold an important part in his heart. He was proud of his service and was fortunate to have been invited to meet Her Majesty the Queen in 1999 when she attended a service of dedication to mark the official ending of Her Majesty’s Overseas Civil Service at Westminster Abbey. It was a fitting end to that post-war generation of idealistic men and women who went out to the colonies with the best of intentions and did all that they could to impart their expertise and advice in some of the most isolated parts of the world. Books like ‘Pink Stripes and Obedient Servants’ illustrate how the HMOCS, almost by accident, became one of the most efficient and committed development agencies in history. They had experience and structures to draw upon but also brought a new spirit of magnanimity and optimism to their endeavours. These were not the rapacious colonisers depicted too simplistically by too many who fail to understand that the British Empire went through many phases and acted differently in different colonies anyway. People need to read books like this to understand how Empire evolved and how its servants just tried to do the best they could.
Review by R W Neath
Having worked almost as many years in Tanganyika as the author, like him in the
field as well as at Dar es Salaam headquarters, I had immense pleasure in reading this
book. We went out in the same ship in 1949 and at subsequent periods some of the stations
to which we were posted coincided. There are several books of memoirs from those (like
me) who worked in the Administration, but very few from engineers, geologists,
agriculturalists, who had the task of developing the country's infrastructure. This one is a
notable exception because, against a broad background depicting what it was like to live in
Tanganyika in the Fifties and Sixties, it encapsulates the career and experiences of an
agriculturalist who clearly made a mark in his own important field. His story is well put
together in good readable English. It could interest anyone, I believe, who served in
Tanganyika, whatever their field or background, and who loved the country.
The "pink stripes" in the title refer to the old map colours whereby Tanganyika was
shown as a Trust Territory of the United Nations administered by the British until
Independence in 1961.
The author is an astute observer who adds to the interest of his tale with well
researched snippets of history and where appropriate some useful statistics always
clearly put and never overdone.
As for any of us, his career began with the long sea journey from England to
Mombasa and Dar es Salaam. His account evokes vividly the special atmosphere of
places like Port Said and Aden where the ships always called, the reception and briefing
one got at the Secretariat on arrival and the excitement of going up-country by train to
one's first posting.
The problem of finding accommodation, especially when one arrived as a bachelor,
getting involved in whatever social life there was (usually revolving around the Club),
going on safari for the first time when one depended so much on the resourcefulness of
one's cook for a meal at the end of the day, are all recalled. Whatever the hour, a
government officer on safari could always be called upon to deal with a dangerous bush
fire or cope with effects of a violent tropical storm. Unless he visited some isolated
mission station, he might never speak a word of English for weeks on end.
Ainley was in Tanganyika at a time of fairly rapid change. Communications improved
over the years, some places got electricity while the advent of radio, both local and from
overseas, speeded up the political process. In 1958 and 1960 parliamentary elections
were held, a precursor to the Independence celebrations of 1961 in which everyone got
involved or had some role to play.
All these things are interestingly covered as well as developments in the post
Independence period like the failed "villagisation", the Army Mutiny of 1964, the influx
of so many 'advisers' from overseas with little real knowledge or experience of the
problems which the country was facing.
Like so many in Tanganyika the author worked in interesting places and had a
fulfilling career, and whatever jobs he did afterwards when he came back to England, it
seems he missed so often 'the vast panorama of Africa with its endless horizons, blue
skies and tropical sun', just as most of us do. A very enjoyable book.