The British Empire Library

Remote Corners - A Sierra Leone Memoir

by Harry Mitchell

Courtesy of OSPA

Review by Dougal Reid CMG (Sierra Leone 1949-62, HM Ambassador to Liberia 1980-85}
Harry Mitchell joined the Colonial Administrative Service somewhat hesitantly in 1953 after Cambridge, with no family background of colonial life. After the Devonshire Course in London, he joined five other administrative cadets posted to Sierra Leone in 1954. They had been assured both in London and subsequently in Freetown that a career lay ahead of them in the Colonial Service. The unreality of this soon dawned on some of them who took the difficult but wise decision to leave the Service in time to find an alternative career elsewhere. Harry Mitchell was one of them.

Memoirs of service in Sierra Leone covering the period 1945 to 1961 when Sierra Leone became independent are few. We should therefore be grateful to the author for having kept a careful record of his time in the Provincial Administration from 1954 to 1959. He wrote this book over forty years ago after leaving Sierra Leone and while his memories were still fresh, when working in India in a commercial capacity. He has brought his story up-to-date in a chapter which highlights recent events in Sierra Leone. He traces Sierra Leone's recent troubles to attempts within Sierra Leone, and from neighbouring Liberia, to gain control of the diamond industry and trade. The Colonial Government was only partially successful in this respect during the 1950s, while successor governments had neither the will nor ability to deal effectively with it. To this failure can be attributed the recent civil war and the destruction of Sierra Leone, with the terrible cruelties inflicted upon the inhabitants of what had been, in colonial times, a comparatively peaceful country.

He is sceptical about the value to the British taxpayer and indeed to the people of Sierra Leone of the vast amounts of military expenditure, material help and money which have been given to Sierra Leone in support of President Kabbah. He suggests that the Lfnited Nations could play a useful role in restoring law and order by, as it were, re-colonising former colonies destroyed by internal strife, though he holds out little hope of this being acceptable or practicable.

He contrasts the present unhappy situation with the comparative success of the Colonial Government in maintaining law and order with modest human and material resources in the first half of the Twentieth Century. No more than twenty administrative officers were in place at any given time to run a country the size of Ireland with a population of about three million which was achieved by a measure of bluff by the governing and the consent of the governed.

The Court Messenger Force which played a vital part in the good governance of the provinces is handsomely acknowledged by Mitchell. Its abolition in 1954 by recentlyempowered politicians, to whom its presence was anathema, and its replacement by the Police Force, hitherto largely confined to the Freetown peninsula, saw a gradual reduction of the District Commissioners' authority and effectiveness, which was what the politicians wanted. The replacement of Provincial Commissioners hy Ministers a few years later contributed further to this trend. The 1956 Northern Province uprising against the Chiefs might well have been avoided had the Court Messenger Force been in place.

Harry Mitchell tells his story in a straightforward and attractive style and he gives a clear and detailed account of his work in the Provincial Administration in the 1950s. His descriptive writing is a pleasure to read. He does not ignore the personal challenges he met - loneliness, running a home, maintaining his car and falling into debt - and how he dealt with them. His departure was very much Sierra Leone's loss.

British Empire Book
Harry Mitchell
The Radcliffe Press
1 86064 817 7


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