The British Empire Library

A Sudan Sunset

by Michael and Anne Tibbs

Courtesy of OSPA

Review by S S Richardson (Sudan Political Service 1946-54, HMOCS Northern Nigeria 1954-68. University of Mauritius 1968-69, University of Canberra, Australia 1969-85)
Michael and Anne Tibbs have broken new ground in colonial memorabilia with their publication of A Sudan Sunset, a simple, story of how a District Commissioner and his young wife coped with their time in the outback of Kordofan Province in the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan.

At the philosophical and sentimental level, District Commissioners in the Sudan Political Service were type-cast - fair minded, liberally educated and freely accessible agents of the Government in Khartoum. They did what was right by their own lights and tackled their various administrative duties in their Districts with minimal resort to the bureaucracy of Central Government. For months in the rainy season, many roads were impassable to lorry traffic. Postal services were infrequent. Basic public utilities including a system of telegraph and power supply were generally non-existent in the outlying districts. The measure of success for a District Commissioner was reflected in the number of days spent on trek in the bush and his ability to summarise succinctly the state of play in his district in his monthly report to his Provincial Governor.

The required qualifications for substantive appointment were simply a pass mark in a Government examination in Arabic and in the elements of Sudan Statute law. A few officers took an exceptional interest in magisterial work and others learned the hard way to build laterite roads and to construct substantial buildings, .schools and dispensaries. Some planted rose gardens and grew fruit and vegetables in spare time. Clever Provincial Governors shuffled the pack from time to time to spread the benefits of particular demonstrated talents in the Districts. Michael Tibbs was an all-rounder.

The social round for British officers and their families stationed in remote Districts was necessarily limited and of their own making. They were supported by locally knowledgeable and experienced Mamurs, non-commissioned administrators raised and paid in the Turkish tradition to take care of routine, and by detachments of the Sudan Police and clerical services.

Michael and Anne Tibbs write enthusiastically of the warmth of their welcome into Sudanese homes and family life. They shared with the people their festivals, their joys and sorrows, their expectations and their successes and failures. Many a glass of sweet tea and bitter coffee were consumed in passing the time of the day with 'the poor man at the gate'. During days of trekking on horseback with the Baggara. the Tibbs would have discussed the origins of the cosmos, the meaning of the stars in the sky, tribal folk lore and customs, the rains, the crops and cattle. This was the common experience of officers in the Political Service throughout their careers and accounts, I like to assume, for the lasting friendships between the British in retirement and the Sudanese which have survived the recriminations, the sadness and the disappointment which have soured Anglo-Sudanese relationships for half a century.

When the sun set on British administration in the Sudan, deci.sions were taken by the Co-domini with scant reference to the Sudan Civil Service or to the wishes of the Sudanese in the Provinces.

Michael and Anne Tibbs confirm my understanding that the fellahin and their tribal leaders in Kordofan and Darfur never comprehended the reasons for the abrupt departure of their trusted British District Commissioners although they were not opposed to self government or independence of their country. Most of us simply worked on in our offices, calmly and undismayed, until the day appointed by the Co-domini for our departure. Within a matter of months, the established administration was showing signs of breaking down. I am not at all sure that the Sudan Political Service was, in any sense, successful in preparing the Sudanese for .self-government. The highly personali.sed British prefectorial system in the Provinces has not turned out to be a sound foundation upon which to build a new Sudan. I do not think that it was ever intended to be and the Colonial Office had no better results elsewhere in Africa despite an intensive training programme for indigenous civil servants extending over twenty years.

Michael and Anne have provided historians and political scientists with a ball by ball account of the personal involvement of a young British family in the government of a racially volatile and potentially explosive District in Western Kordofan during the run up to independence. Anne herself has drawn all the fascinating illustrations which illuminate the text which has been largely knitted together with extracts of letters sent by the Tibbs to their families and friends at home in the early fifties. Anne has brilliantly captured in her drawings and photographs a record of life in the Districts as we knew it in the days of the Political Service.

Politics and the rights and wrongs of the Sudan's fifty years dependence upon the Condominium have no place in this book. The Tibbs simply want to thank the Sudanese for the privilege of working with them and to pass on the story to their grandchildren. Nowadays, it is the fashion to find some good in colonialism after all. This superb plain tale will provide searchers after truth with plenty of ammunition to refute the view that the British Empire was governed by Di.strict Officers 'strutting through the tropics in solar topees'. The Tibbs have succeeded in elevating the few of us still alive to the status of legend in our time.

British Empire Book
Michael and Anne Tibbs
Michael and Anne Tibbs


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