The British Empire Library

A Speck in the Ocean of Time

by Veronica Bellers

Courtesy of OSPA

Review by Dr. Kwasi Kwarteng, MP (author of Ghosts of Empire - Bloomsbury, 2011)
A Speck in the Ocean of Time is an engaging and colourful book. The title of the book refers to an anthropology lecturer at Cambridge University in 1930 who said that “white settlement in Africa is but a speck in the ocean of time.” This book charmingly relates the story of Pat O’Dwyer and a number of others who went out to Africa to serve in the Colonial Service in the early 1930s. The world depicted in the book could not be further removed from our globalised world of 2015.

Until the early 1950s British graduates, mainly in their early to mid 20s, would be sent out to far-flung parts of the Empire to serve as district commissioners. In the Sudan, for example, the typical district commissioner would have a smattering of Arabic and some legal training, from which he was expected to preside over an area which could sometimes be as big as Wales. Many of the recruits to the Sudan Political Service (SPS) were talented sportsmen, generally from Oxford or Cambridge Universities. As everyone knows, any person who represents either university against the other earns a “Blue”. The name Sudan comes from the Arabic Bilad al-Sudan, meaning Land of the Blacks. This led to the famous description of Sudan as being a Land of Blacks run by Blues.

The world of the district commissioner in Africa could be tough and austere. All sorts of random challenges could present themselves. One such figure, Major Clarence Buxton MC, described his situation in Kenya with blunt precision - “the position isn’t easy or comfortable.” Other figures in Kenya included such characters as Sir Edward Grigg who was appointed Governor of Kenya in 1925. He was a humane figure and, according to the Dictionary of National Biography, his “wife’s instinctive sympathy for all races, expressed particularly in her patronage of nursing and maternity services, enhanced the distinction of her husband’s administration”.

Veronica Bellers’ book is stuffed with anecdotes and reminiscences of a bygone era. There are pictures of young men from Oxbridge in sportswear which are now nearly 100 years old in some cases. The book is almost exclusively concerned with the African continent. Many would argue that the British Empire’s engagement in Africa is far less widely appreciated and understood than the Raj in India, yet the challenges in Africa for the budding young imperiaiist were arguably greater. The district commissioners (DCs) operated in far greater isolation than their counterparts in India and elsewhere.

It’s difficult to do justice to such a book as Veronica Bellers’ account in a short review. The book is full of detail and vivid memories. It conveys a way of life which has been totally lost. It also describes the mutual incomprehension often experienced by the British and Sudanese tribesmen; yet there are also stories of mutual admiration and respect. In Nigeria, mosquitoes were a real hazard. Life for a DC could be boringly monotonous, but there was no doubting the commitment and discipline of the colonial officials. They really got to know the life of “the natives” and were generally hardworking. Often the DCs complained about the food. “Chicken, chicken, chicken... every day and every meal. Unless you open a tin there is no other staple food to eat.”

The world evoked in books such as A Speck in the Ocean of Time is rapidly receding out of living memory. Accounts such as those found in this book are invaluable sources to a bygone age. The author is to be commended for a full, vivid and engaging account, replete with details about a little appreciated part of the British Empire.

British Empire Book
Veronica Bellers
CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform


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