The British Empire Library

The Daily Telegraph Book Of Imperial And Commonwealth Obituaries

edited by David Twiston-Davies

Courtesy of OSPA

Anthony Kirk-Greene (N. Nigeria 1950-65)
The Daily Telegraph has, over the past three decades, notably led the way in the number of obituaries of Colonial Service officers published in the national press. This is a tribute which I would like to make before reviewing Twiston Davies' excellent collection. When in 1986 he, along with his colleague Hugh Massingberd, undertook the reconstruction of the D.T.'s obituary page, they found they had "two main stories to cover": both world wars and the Empire. While this is Twiston Davies' sixth such book, it is the first to address the Empire.

Given the vast field of obituaries published over the past twenty years, readers will want to know what criteria Twiston Davies has used during the critical process of deciding whom to select. Fame alone was not a factor. Many middle-ranking DCs have earned an obituary in the D.T. just as readily as the one-time denizens of Government House. It may not be too far off the mark to suggest that the ultimate criterion here in weighing up one person's claim over another's has been whether, other things being equal, he or she could be recognized as a "colourful" rather than a conventional figure. The editor's important introduction (he is the D,T.s chief obituary writer), makes clear his preference for careers "imbued with exotic light .... ranging from the wise, the idealistic and the hardworking to the foolish and the wicked". Among such colourful imperial characters are Desmond O'Hagan, who as a young DO in Kenya adopted a baby elephant which insisted on sleeping in his bedroom; Rex Niven, whose book written while he was a Resident, How Nigeria is Governed, prompted the Governor to minute "Thank God I know at last"; Ralph Lownie, the Kenya magistrate who allegedly hired a servant to polish his chamber-pot; and Hamilton Naki, who started life as a hospital gardener in Cape Town and became one of South Africa's most brilliant surgeons.

The hundred plus obituaries are presented in a series of Commonwealth geographic groupings, such as the Indian Sub-Continent (the most extensive of them all, nearly a sixth of the book), the major regions of Africa, Asian colonies like Malaya and Hong Kong, Australasia, and "outposts". Initially, I was in disbelief at not finding any "Sudan" obituary, but I discovered Allan Arthur (ex-ICS) and John Owen, director of Tanzania's National Parks in the 1960s, who joined the Sudan Political Service in the mid-30's and famously recorded the Governor's welcome on his arrival in Khartoum: "I don't want to see you again until you can play polo".

Although the majority of the obituaries are of internationally known Commonwealth personalities, keen OSPA readers will have plenty of fun and pride in tracking down such one-time Colonial Service colleagues as George Sinclair, Jim Ellis, Anthony Abell, George Patterson, Lord MacLehose and William Stafford.

All in all a splendid book - and great reading too. This is no Who's Who-style volume, weighing in at half a stone and 2500 pages, but just a neat, novel-sized book to own and enjoy. As I reached the final entry, I was smitten with the Oliver Twist pang: "Please, sir, I want some more".

British Empire Book
David Twiston-Davies
Frontline Books
978 1 84832 524 1


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