The British Empire Library

Symbol Of Authority: The British District Officer in Africa

by Anthony Kirk-Greene

Courtesy of OSPA

Dr T H R Cashmore (Colonial Administrative Service, Kenya 1953-62)
Anthony Kirk-Greene is widely regarded as the acknowledged historian of the Colonial Service. After wartime service in the Indian Army, and then Cambridge, he spent 16 years as a District Officer in Northern Nigeria, ending up training the new breed of African Officers and a spell as Reader of Government at Ahmadu Bellow University. Leaving Nigeria in 1966, he moved to Oxford in 1967. As a Fellow of St Antony's College for the past 38 years he has taught African history both in Oxford and abroad, and published numerous papers and books concerning various aspects of Colonial Service.

His latest book focuses on the District Officer in Africa from 1932 to 1966. He covers all those, be they ADOs, DOs, or DCs (some recruited from old Commonwealth countries) and discusses their motivations in joining, the influence of Sir Ralph Purse, their training in the UK (and its limitations, since in practice much had to be learnt by doing the job). He deals with their service in the field and on safari, stints in the Secretariat or "beachcombing", and with the matter of punishment stations (and punishment postings). There was also that unofficial (and illegal) item the "Goat Bag" (elsewhere known as the "Bull Bag"). "The Goat Bag" helped good causes and urgent works, but was not to be revealed to the auditors.

Finally the book deals with the problems faced by the DOs in the process of decolonisation and reviews the impact they had on that world and what if any impression they left.

How did various groups, be they officials of other departments, missionaries, local politicians, or African government servants, regard the Colonial DO? Kirk-Greene argues that the present generation of ordinary Africans, the men and women in the countryside or city, never saw a Colonial DO, and must depend on tales their parents told them (or on, perhaps, the teachings of modern academics).

In Symbol of Authority, Kirk-Greene has drawn on some 600 memoirs written by DOs or their wives, some published, but the greater part unpublished and lying in the Archives of various institutions, in particular Rhodes House, Oxford. Kirk-Greene regards his work as a "collective portrait" (better described as a collective "self-portrait"). It has many virtues and perhaps a few defects, since recorded memories of a distant past can still play tricks.

Huessler once described certain colonial officers as "organisation eccentrics". My impression was that there were very many of them! As a cadet in my first station I was told by the Education Officer, a blunt Yorkshireman, that "the trouble with you DOs is that you're all the same". On the contrary, it seemed to me that we were a bunch of individualists. But as Kirk-Greene notes, most shared certain things in common, a belief in the Stewardship, Law and Order, an esprit de corps akin to a "brotherhood", and for some, a feeling of superiority. We tended to be paternalistic so it was "my" people, and "my" district and it was one's first district that in memory seemed special to most DOs. Furthermore, each district and each territory was different.

European settlers tended to be more critical of DOs, hence early references to "the Heavenborn", or that hoary old joke, "there was one DO who was so stupid that even other DOs noticed". Early settlers gave one DO in Kisii the nickname of "Puss in Boots" ("a typical official, most of his brains were in his boots").

From the DOs' point of view, the post-war period saw many improvements. The spine pad became a thing of the past. Quinine (overdoses of which could lead to Black Water Fever) was replaced by mepacrine and then by paludrine as the treatment against malaria. The introduction of the kerosene-powered fridge was another blessing, as was improved housing for government officials. The replacement of lengthy sea voyages by air travel was an added bonus. More important still was the relaxation of regulations concerning marriage, the presence of wives, and arrangements for the children to join their parents.

Kirk-Greene has also drawn on the memoirs of the wives to supply a feminine point of view on life in the district. (It is a more moderate and sympathetic account than that of Margery Perham in her Reith Lectures, The Colonial Reckoning. "The administrator had his faults. He could look down on his technical colleagues. He could have too much sense of hierarchy, and his too unoccupied wife could have even more".) Nevertheless, there could be an occasional wife who sought to rule the men who thought they ruled the territory. (One very senior wife in Kenya crisply termed these few as "the Ancient Order of Dragons".)

Kirk-Greene touches on the former practice of officers having affairs with African women, which led to the Crewe Circulars of 1909 banning such behaviour as immoral. Recently this has led some academics and others to widen the debate on the theme of Sex and the Empire. The Circulars were withdrawn in 1934, but some officers undoubtedly continued the practice up to World War II, and even after. (It was termed sometimes as having "sleeping dictionaries".)

Loneliness was, of course, a problem in isolated stations: in the early days deaths by disease or suicide occurred. But hobbies, a great deal of reading, and serious studies of the law, the languages, and local tribal customs helped to occupy the minds of most officers. There was also hunting, shooting, fishing, or sports; and always the saving grace of humour. So one DO in the 1940s renamed his Secret "In" and "Out" files as "God's Eye View" and "Worm's Eye View".

Kirk-Greene has extracted a collection of official abbreviations used in Secretariat minutes (such as "BU" "KIV", "idc" "fyi" or "fya"). But what did one Governor mean by "CCL"? (His Private Secretary translated it as "Couldn't Care Less".) As for a Chief Secretary's "TINHAT", this foxed his staff (readers will find the answer at page 155). One technique for burying a difficult file was to refer it to the Attorney General's Department and ask for a legal opinion.

Perhaps the best ploy devised by a DO in an outstation was in Tanganyika, where a telegram was sent to the High Court in Dar es Salaam; "Please send #50 urgently required for court". (The "court", he had failed to mention, was a "squash" court.) Other matters dealt with in these closely packed pages are the switch of policy in Whitehall from Indirect Rule to Development and the establishment of modern local councils in 1947. In due course decolonisation followed. But the speed of change caught many by surprise.

Kirk-Greene has a great interest in the books that played a part in influencing the young to join the Service and these he lists. He also notes some of the novels, in particular Edgar Wallace's books on Sanders of the River (although it is unlikely that Wallace ever visited British West Africa).

One item, however, included as a novel is the significant Corridors of Wire. But this was written as "faction", not "fiction" (and its author was T Gavaghan - not Garaghan).

The index to Symbol of Authority deals chiefly with individual officers' names. References to specific territories are sparse, eg The Gold Coast is not listed in the index, Kenya comes under the heading of the NED, Nigeria has no entry (but the journal Nigerian Field has).

I believe that Symbol of Authority will appeal greatly to members of the OSPA in particular, for it recaptures a world we have lost. It is to be hoped that it will also be studied by the young, though they may be puzzled by it, and by those strange beings, the expatriate DOs, seemingly from another planet.

British Empire Book
Anthony Kirk-Greene
I B Tauris
1 85043 452 2


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