The British Empire Library

Retreat from Africa

by Patrick Mullins

Courtesy of OSPA

Review by Marian Muir (Nyasaland 1950-64)
What a delightful book this is. Beautifully written, factual, humorous, with superb descriptions of personalities. For anyone with an interest in Africa in general it is eminently readable: for an ex-Nyasalander it is a must, taking pride of place in the bookcase.

Patrick Mullins fell in love with Africa during leave from the Navy, and knew inevitably that he would return; this he did nine years later at the age of 29 when he joined the Colonial Service. He was posted to West Africa where changes were already in evidence, and it was obvious that self rule was coming sooner rather than later. Early in his tour he realised how far-seeing David Livingstone had been a century earlier when he wrote "With colonies it is the same as with children - they receive protection for a time and obey from a feeling of weakness and attachment: but beyond the time at which they require a right to think for themselves the attempt to perpetuate subordination necessarily engenders a hatred which effectually extinguishes the feeble gratitude that man in any condition is capable of cherishing". How true that proved to be. After a relatively short posting to the Gold Coast - told with great humour - he accepted a posting to Nyasaland.

He found this lovely impoverished, mission-orientated country on the point of being incorporated into the Federation, along with Northern and Southern Rhodesia, a confusing state of affairs for the average African to understand. Being posted initially to Zomba, he found himself in the somewhat rarified atmosphere of the Secretariat and, as a bachelor, much in demand socially. He enjoyed the beautiful scenery of Zomba mountain, Mlanje and Dedza plateaux, and took an hilarious trip in Paddy Stuart's plane, Paddy being a larger-than-life character from the Civil Aviation Dept., sadly to meet an untimely end.

The description of his various postings are most interesting; the Northern Province involving extensive ulendos requiring persuasive powers in an attempt to win over the African farmer to the point of view that the Agricultural Rules were for his benefit and not the reverse: to Chiradzulu, an envied posting because of its swimming pool, decrepit though it was: to Chikawa on the Lower River, being a nightmare healthwise but with the saving grace of a brand new large Boma building, and spending a great deal of time dealing with witchcraft offences and illegal brewing. On to Fort Johnston at the southern end of the Lake, and finishing his Colonial Service career where he started - in Zomba.

For some considerable time there had been feelings of unrest. Federation was not working and Dr. Banda was becoming increasingly a force to be reckoned with. It was evident he was here to stay. The security situation latterly became comic-opera: Blantyre was awash with journalists, all centred yall's Hotel. It was a bad time for the Administration, no-one really knowing exactly what was going on.

With Independence the author, like many others, decided to leave. His book tells honestly and interestingly of the day to day life of a Colonial Administrative Officer, taking the reader through the pre-Federation days to Independence. He tells his story in a compelling manner: he knew his job. He is of the opinion, shared by many, that we dragged our feet for too long and did too little financially. Nyasaland was always at the back of the queue where handouts were concerned. There always appeared to be more urgent cases.... He asks "Are they better off now?" From my observations on a nostalgic trip back last year I venture to suggest not. He says he left with sadness. Oh dear, so did I!

British Empire Book
Patrick Mullins
Pentland Press


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