The British Empire Library

Tepid Whisky by Paraffin Lamp
Life and Work in Outposts of the British Empire in the Twentieth Century

by Robin Bromby

Robin Bromby has written a highly accessible book describing how the vast day to day administration of the vast Empire was undertaken. In particular he looks at the staff who were recruited and who were then sent to some of the most remote corners of the planet to operate on shoe-string budgets and with minimal accessible support to administer sometimes vast areas of land. I would say there are three key facts that I drew from this book. First of all you quickly appreciate the sheer variety of colonies and posts and how the Empire was anything but a well-oiled, homogenous organisation all singing from the same song sheet. The author patiently explains the various types of colony and the crucial difference between directly administered areas and protectorates often and confusingly occurring within the same colony. The second key learned is how London insisted that colonies aspired to be self-financing. This was all very well for colonies with large populations or having profitable products to export or being on vital trade routes. It was another matter entirely for more remote or sparsely populated colonies for example British Somaliland or the tiny Islands scattered across the enormous Pacific Ocean. The third key concept to grasp is that the Empire evolved and changed over time. It was a dynamic organisation that had different priorities and different technological and communications abilities throughout its long history. The abilities of administrators in the 1950s to effect change was vastly more than it was in the 1850s and certainly than in the 1750s. This book helps illustrate how the British Empire evolved over time although it should be noted that this was still modified by the first point made above i.e. that the colonies were often very different from one another and often had to go on their own separate journeys of developmental evolution. The core of this book really helps us to understand these three factors of diversity, budgetary constraints and change. There are far too many people willing to pigeon hole the entire British Empire into a convenient ideological framework. Books like Robin Bromby's help us to understand that there were nuances and differences and that the Empire of the twentieth century had little in common with that of previous centuries and that its administrators were an entirely different breed from their predecessors.

I should also like to complement the author on his organisation and layout of this book. It has nice illustrations throughout, clear maps, very comprehensive timelines, appendices, an index but most impressively of all are the pen portraits of the administrators he is discussing. It truly is fascinating to see just how cosmopolitan these imperial servants were both in origins and in their careers. They certainly were not all setting off from Britain, many of them hailed from the colonies themselves or even further afield. Of course in the era of Empire, the vast majority regarded themselves as British regardless of whether they were born in Calcutta, St Kitts or Calgary. Having said that, it was interesting to read the contention that a possible reason that James Brooke who went on tot ake on the unique role of Rajah of Sarawak may have had a predilection for benign authoritarianism because of the fact that he had been born and brought up in Benares - so a colonial upbringing may have allowed some colonial servants at least to provide more diversity of perspective than you might expect. The one area of confluence may have been education in the private schools and universities of England. Indeed it appears that Oxford and Cambridge supplied a particularly high proportion of personnel over the years, although not necessarily the academic high flyers, but more likely the athletes and sportsmen. Those sporting 'Oxbridge Blues' were often seen by the recruiters to be resilient and strong enough and feel empowered enough to work in harsh and remote locations with a confidence that might belie their age and experience. Self-assuredness was a prized asset especially when living miles away from civilisation and days or even weeks away from any possible support or help. Over time, there was an increasing professionalisation of the recruitment process and in the terms of service for the civil servants. The key name behind this was Ralph Furse who came to dominate the recruitment process from the 1920s onwards. He elevated the importance of interviews over academic credentials. He also began the process of removing 'influence' from the well connected seeking favours for friends and family. Indeed by the end of this book you do learn to appreciate just how uncorrupt the service tended to be given the enormous powers in the hands of people far away from any oversight. The amount of trust was phenomenal and with very few exceptions seems to have been honoured.

One other interesting aspect of this book is how the author picks out some of the more unusual and isolated colonies to discuss and consider. For example the tiny enclave of Weihaiwei which has the distinction of being the first colony to be returned to its original owner in 1930. The section on the British Somaliland is similarly fascinating. To say that British Somaliland was basic in its utilities, its infrastructure and isolated is something of an understatement. One can understand why wives and children were discouraged from accompanying their husbands to what was a very challenging environment. Sudan also gets a chapter to itself in order to explain the peculiar Sudan Political Service that grew out of the Anglo-Egyptian joint administration of the territory. This particular batch of administrators regarded themselves as the elite of the elite which is not surprising when you consider the truly vast areas administered by this tiny coterie of dedicated administrators; only 500 ever served the Sudan Political Service which reveals just how big an area they must have looked after individually and how stable their careers must have been considering that it was something of a closed service within a service. It was also one of the more abstemious and moral areas under British control and indeed staff were not even allowed to be married there until after 1916. Moral probity was probably more important in the ultra conservative Muslim part of the country but it probably helped lend credibility and respect from the population at large. It is also telling that these administrators managed to keep the notoriously unstable Sudan relatively peaceful up until independence. There is a nice quote which explains the contradictions of their elite status: "The better and more zealously we carried out our tasks, the sooner the Sudanese would wish us to go." Independence did arrive in 1956 followed by a succession of military coups and unstable governance.

The book also explains that there were very real physical dangers to administering these areas. West Africa was known as the White Man's Grave for a reason and disease and climate could take a terrible toll on these colonial servants. Even if they survived bouts of malaria or yellow fever, their health could be undermined permanently. Many retired early or due to ill health. Then there was the wildlife earnestly trying to kill you or keep you at bay, be it snakes falling from the ceiling, poisonous spiders scurrying across the floor or one intrepid administrator being pulled over a crocodile infested river to get to his first posting. Given the lack of doctors and very basic medical care available, any minor wound could take on serious dimensions. The lack of dentists also sends a shiver down the spine of the reader - ad hoc dentistry being one of the many duties carried out by these administrators on one another. Also in the era before electrification and especially refrigeration, trying to keep food edible in the tropics was something of a challenge. It is perhaps understandable why authorities sought to keep wives and children away for as long as they did. It was only really in the twentieth century that technology and communications began to make some of the more isolated posts more bearable. It is clear though that this career would put a strain on family life one way or another. Invariably children were sent to private school somewhere as there were just not the educational facilities available for the vast majority of postings and then the wives would have to make the agonising choice of being separated from her husband or from her children. By the way I do not wish to infer that all colonial servants were men, but most administrators certainly were. There were jobs felt to be more appropriate to women such as nursing or secretarial jobs and they are covered in this book. But the over-arching culture at the time believed that women who married would leave their jobs to focus on their family and children and the colonial service was no exception to this mindset.

I would also like to point out that this is no hagiographic Whig-like march of progress analysis of the Empire. The author makes legitimate criticisms and points out failures where they occurred. Overwhelmingly these were due to those budgetary constraints whereby colonies were supposed to be self-financing. This laissez-faire approach to colonialism meant that it was not such a drag on the British taxpayer who may have wearied of imperial burdens sooner had it been so. However, it also meant that the poorest and most under developed parts of Empire tended to receive the least resources to develop the infrastructure and resources of that locale despite their needs being the highest for such investment. Richer colonies had more resources to develop and could draw on the expertise and technology of Britain and the wider Empire but poorer colonies, such as the Gambia, invariably stayed poor. This only really changed in the aftermath of the Second World War when it was paradoxically the Labour government who had always been more hostile to Empire who increased the spending and recruitment of specialists as a sense of duty impelled them to develop the colonies they had inherited more effectively. This money was not always spent wisely but it is telling that the workforce in the colonial service increased from 7000 in 1939 to 18000 by 1956. Of course the decolonisation process which Labour began earnestly would undermine the Colonial Service as a viable career. It also accelerated thoughts of independence to those peoples and colonies who had yet to achieve it. There was a telling quote from Aden when a local chief says to an administrator "You have gone away everywhere else. What reason have we got to remain loyal to you." Once the dam had been breached it was only a matter of time before the entire imperial edifice was washed away. It did not help that the more viable and prosperous colonies were the ones more likely to be granted independence earlier leaving the more problematic and more expensive to develop ones behind. Eventually the vast majority were granted independence and those too small or too isolated were ultimately brought under the control of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office where they remain to this day.

I have to say that I really enjoyed this book as the author has a very engaging way of communicating on the page. Now I read more imperial literature than most people do and yet there was plenty of new information, fascinating quotes and endearing characters in this book to hold my attention and want to learn more. The vast majority of these colonial servants appeared to me to care deeply about the peoples they presided over and were willing to put up with the kinds of hardships, dangers and isolation that it is hard for a modern audience to fully appreciate. As individuals they did their best even if the administration above them had more limited aims lest it burden them with expenses beyond what the colony or the British taxpayer could sustain. These administrators tried to bring keep the peace, to oversee the construction of infrastructure and provide basic services to disparate peoples in isolated communities in geographically varied locations. They may have been overly paternalistic at times, but their motivations were invariably to put the people they were responsible for ahead of any lofty imperial ambitions. They got better at their jobs over time and received more appropriate training and more specialists were recruited as the Empire moved from benign neglect to active development. The author closes with an American academic quoting: "Speaking broadly, British colonial civil servants impress one as hard-working, conscientious and efficient". After having read this book it is hard to disagree with that analysis.

British Empire Book
Robin Bromby
Highgate Publishing


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