The British Empire Library

Then the Wind Changed in Africa: Nigerian Letters of Robert Hepburn Wright

Edited by Robert Pearce

Courtesy of OSPA

Review by Richard Barlow-Poole (Northern Nigeria, 1947-68)
This is the fifth book about Nigeria published by The Radcliffe Press of which Tony Kirk-Greene, lecturer in Modern History of Africa, Oxford, is the general editor, and here he writes a general foreword. The editor is Robert Pearce, the biographer of Sir Bernard Bourdillon, to whom Wright was private secretary. All the letters in the book were written to Wright's father, who took the trouble to have his son's letters typed. The bound volumes of the letters have been deposited with the Oxford Colonial Archive Project in Rhodes House at Oxford.

Robert Wright, through Trevor Clark's book A Right Honourable Gentleman (1991) has become known as the mentor of Sir Abubaker Tafawa Balewa. Trevor Clark describes Wright as "generally a companionable and courteous bachelor, a Harrovian from a successful Warwickshire family, with means enough to make his natural independence of mind and spirit effective". The first letter is dated 19 August 1936 from Katsina, his first posting, and the last letter is dated 13 March 1949 from Yelwa, Bauchi Province. The Editor explains that after that Wright's letters tailed off, partly due to the deteriorating health of his father, who died in 1952.

Any reader who hopes to obtain some information about Wright's role as mentor will be disappointed. Abubaker Tafawa Balewa is only mentioned once by name in the letters (p.124) (An index reference to p.l07 is an error). The letters are concerned very much with flora and fauna, the climate, touring (particularly in connection with Wright's duties with the sleeping sickness teams), entertainments, life and visitors at Government House in Lagos and in Cyprus, and RAF training in Southern Rhodesia. Letter writing is now a lost art but these letters are so well written and describe places and events so vividly that they will be of interest to all, particularly to former serving officers in Nigeria, and more especially to those who served in the old Katsina, Niger, Bauchi and Plateau Provinces. There are many apt comments with which any colonialist will agree (for example, p.52) "No posting orders can be too sudden or eccentric for us," and on experts (p.l04) "how do they find such extraordinary people?") The editor lets the letters speak for themselves. This reader would have welcomed some editorial notes giving, for example, the names of officers concerned where a letter reads (p.4) "The Resident took me in," (p.7) "sitting beside the D.O." or (p.21)"the present Resident and D.O. who can't stand the sight of each other".

One letter, dated 30 June 1941 from Government House Lagos (a long and typical piece of descriptive writing), strikes a chord to the reader in 1993, in the view expressed by King Peter of Yugoslavia and his entourage that "the Germans may be our conquerors but the Croatians are our enemies". Wright adds "And these are the people whom - in our wisdom - we tried to harness in one team and then added Slovenes - for whom neither has any use - to help them pull together". Nigeria has had, and still has, the same problem of harnessing different people into one team to work together.

In 1947 Wright transferred to the Education Department, an unusual move for an administrative officer. In one letter Wright writes "I am fairly seriously considering an eventual move to the Education Department, where I might be of use as a person and not a mechanical watchdog on regulations". In November 1955 he took early retirement at the age of 43. Trevor Clark reports that Wright's response to the question which Abubaker Tafawa Balewa constantly put to so many of the expatriates to whom he said farewell," Why are you leaving us when so much remains to be done?", had to be in part that he was sickened by Britain's apparent eagerness to shed responsibility, particularly in the failure to exercise reasonable restraint on the Sardauna (of Sokoto). Yet was not Wright himself (then Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Education, Kaduna) evading responsibility - just at a time when his experience and friendship with Northern legislators was most needed?

The editor and Wright had first agreed on the title for the book to be Enjoying the Empire. This reader believes that this would have been a more apt title to describe these letters. By the time the last letter was written, in March 1949, the wind which changed Africa had only just begun to blow.

Jomo's Jailor, by Elizabeth Watkins has been reviewed elsewhere. The reviewer writes "L.E. Whitehouse was a bachelor and backwoodsman who rated job satisfaction far higher than promotion" and goes on "but as things happened he probably had a greater effect on Kenya after Independence than all the Provincial Commissioners and Secretariat luminaries put together". The same could be said of Robert Wright: his influence was more in the time of pre-independence, but in one sense it lasted until Abubaker Tafawa Balewa's tragic assassination in January 1966.

British Empire Book
Robert Pearce
The Radcliffe Press


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