The British Empire Library

Twilight On The Zambezi: Late Colonialism In Central Africa

by Eugenia W Herbert

Courtesy of OSPA

Review by Anthony Kirk-Greene (N Nigeria 1950-65)
A major feature of the Colonial Service literature over the past two decades is what has grown to be labelled 'CS memoirs'. Leaving aside the perennial parade of gubernatorial reminiscences, it is hard to think of more than a score of personal accounts of the life and work at the District Officer level published before 1950. Today they number nearly a hundred. The genre may be said to comprise four categories. These are: (i) biography, predominantly of governors and rarely of DCs; (ii) autobiography, a personal account of one's life, frequently 'written for our children' and thus often overburdened with family history and domestic details; (iii) the memoir, a narrative account of one's memory of certain events and people and so of wider appeal than (ii); and (iv) a newcomer, the collective or service memoir, an edited volume of short memoirs by a dozen or more associated contributors. This model was launched by Brown and Brown for the Uganda Administration (1996), since followed by multiauthored collections on the services in Eastern Nigeria, Sudan, Kenya and Northern Nigeria.

In a number of ways Eugenia Herbert's brilliant narrative of Barotseland in 1959, taken as the "high noon" of empire on the upper Zambezi for both the DC and his staff and for the Barotse Native Authority, represents a related form of colonial administration memoir. She draws extensively on the memories of and interviews with DCs and on their files and reports, much of it unpublished and quite inaccessible outside Lusaka. The theme, handled in an original and telling manner, is the examination of the year 1959 as it was lived and viewed, simultaneously and serially, from four linked perspectives. These are, in ever-widening circles of focus, the Kalabo boma, the NA headquarters at Libonda, the settler-dominated capital of Salisbury, and the Whitehall network in London. This is local administrative and metropolitan history at their mutual best. Based on a huge knowledge of the literature on colonial administration and a close reading of boma files, the story is told - presumably for reasons of graphicness, though it is open to question whether the strategy is successfully sustainable over 140 pages - in what anthropologists have long described as the 'ethnographic present', all the way from the opening sentence "Noontime ... The DC comes home for lunch" (pll) to the closing "The Prime Minister is playing a dangerous game ... Many DCs are pleasantly surprised by the news of the [Monckton] Commission" (p149).

In her choice of the view from the territorial capital as the staging post between District and Colonial Office, Dr Herbert opts for Salisbury and not Lusaka. This highlights, of course, the dominance of the settler-centred Central African Federation in the constitutional growth of Northern Rhodesia in the 1950s. While this downgrading of Lusaka in no way masks the importance of the aims of Kaunda or the activities of UNIP, and deliberately allows full attention to the ambitions of Welensky, it does mean that the positive figure of the Governor, Sir Arthur Benson (no friend of the imposed Federation), barely features in the vital chapter on the territorial view, leaving him to appear principally in the view from London. This was not the opinion of most DCs who, as Robin Short shows in his African Sunset (Johnson, 1973), vigorously respected Benson's empathy with them and the encouragement of his hands-on attitude to the imperative of maintaining law and order in the districts. Where Herbert notably breaks the mould in analysing colonial field administration is in her imaginative decision to complement 'the view from the boma' by portraying 'the view from the kuta', the Barotse Native Authority headquarters. In this, the Kalabo District Tour Reports between 1954 and 1960 have been scrupulously examined and rewardingly trawled. Here, then, is her neat concept of an "antipathy, even cacophony, of voices, all eager to tell their version of what happened" (p.xix). The result will enable students of colonial rule to replace the arid abstractions of 'coloniaUsm' and 'nationalism' with compelling insights into the realities of what it was like on the ground for both the rulers and the ruled.

Twilight on the Zambezi offers a prismatic insight into what the late colonial period meant, at the local boma and NA and at the imperial capital levels, in one up-country district of Central Africa. As such, it will deservedly earn recognition as a valuable contribution to the literature on colonial administration at the eventide of empire and as a classic portrayal of what the shift into imperial reverse gear meant to those involved, above all those in the boma and the kuta.

British Empire Book
Eugenia W Herbert
Palgrave Macmillan
0 312 29431 X


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