The British Empire Library

An Unexpected Journey: Life in the Colonies at Empire's End: A Woman's Role

by Margaret Reardon

An Unexpected Journey really is something of an unexpected book as it is one of the very few volumes that looks at Colonial Service life almost exclusively through the eyes of a woman. There have been other female writers on the subject, but I really cannot recall any similar memoirs that I have read that gives such a comprehensive treatment to the topic as Margaret Reardon bestows upon it. What makes this book so useful is that Margaret goes into great detail about what we might on the face of it regard as mundane issues in our own lives; describing her housing, transport, employees, wildlife, local facilities. However, her mundane is most certainly our extraordinary. Her vivid descriptions of her everyday life are totally fascinating for us who can never experience her lifestyle, its various settings and her unique experiences as her world simply does not exist anymore. If every person wrote down the level of detail that Margaret provides in this book then the historians of the future would be delighted and over the moon at the richness of material that has been bequeathed to them. As it is, Margaret is something of a rarity which makes her commentary and recollections of what she experienced all the more valuable. So if you are looking for a new and comprehensive perspective on life in the dying days of Empire then an Unexpected Journey for Margaret becomes an unexpected one for us too.

Halhal Eritrea
British Military Outpost
Margaret and her husband Pat had both had a very active Second World War but when it came to a close, Pat was sent to the somewhat unusual posting of Eritrea as part of the British Military Administration and what would later become a United Nations directed mission over the ex-Italian colonies. I must confess that this British administration over the ex-Italian colonies is something of a hole in my own colonial knowledge. There is relatively little written about them. The League of Nations Mandates after World War One taken from Germany and the Ottoman Empire are much better known and understood. Of course, by the end of World War Two, Germany had no more ex-colonies to seize and prepare for self-government. Italy, on the other hand, had an extensive North African Empire it had built up and which was entirely under Allied control by the end of the war. British Army Officers like Pat were asked to administer and offer security to a district of the local population whilst future governmental options were considered. It was a very similar concept to the District Officers in traditional colonies, except that these areas were under military rather than civil control and the administrators had been tasked with preparing the population for self-government in due course. At first, the timetable was vague, but it took 7 to 8 years in general as various options were explored and infrastructure and institutions were strengthened. As I said though, the book focuses more on Margaret than on her husband although obviously where he was posted had a huge bearing on her options and lifestyle. Eritrea from 1945 to 1952 would provide the perfect example of that.

Even Margaret’s journey to Eritrea is something of an eye opener to post-war conditions and the typical transportation of the era. Most people were keen to be going in the other direction as demobilisation escalated. The long and arduous journey at least had the compensations of revealing foods and items that had long been rationed back in Britain. A combination of sea liner and military aircraft eventually deposited young Margaret in Asmara in Eritrea at what was effectively a bare landing strip in the bush with no buildings whatsoever. What a young bride was to make of her first impressions of her new life are interesting to contemplate, but as it transpires, Margaret was made of sterner stuff. Pat had been assigned to a role overseeing the local prison service. Being an ex-Italian colony, Italian culture, architecture and language were the norm. There was also a complicated religious and tribal set up in the colony as Coptic Christians and Muslims, Europeans and various tribes all had their own cultures and identities. It was interesting to read that there was a non-fraternisation policy in force at first with their defeated foes. Over time though, this became less and less rigidly enforced and young Margaret seems to have enjoyed the relative cosmopolitan and Continental lifestyle left behind by the Italians. It also appears that the administrators were instructed not to teach their servants English as they did not want the servants to overhear any confidential conversations. However, Margaret was convinced that this was perhaps a legacy of fighting a war and that this suspicious mindset would eventually subside. Conditions were incredibly basic though. Her fridge was effectively an old ammunition box with ice in it, slippers had to be left upside down so that scorpions and spiders wouldn’t hide away in them. Bed legs and kitchen table legs kept in paraffin to stop ants from devouring them at night or any food on the table. The Public Works Department supplied only the hardiest and most basic of furniture which rarely matched and often was dilapidated. Rabies was rampant in the area and the threat from Shifta rebels meant that Margaret often accompanied her husband around his area of operations holding a machine gun on her lap. Being a woman, Margaret was able to go to areas that her husband, and other men, were prohibited from seeing. When she did join him on safaris, she was allowed to visit women’s quarters and see how women were treated. She was also able to aid male doctors who otherwise were not permitted to see or talk to women without the husband being present and often not even then. Out on these safaris, they would have to create a zariba of thorns around their camp so that large cats or hyenas would not be too inquisitive during the night. Margaret certainly does not give a hagiographic account of life. She points out the joys and pleasures in their life together but she also illustrates the difficulties and realities. If our car breaks down we might call the AA, when they broke down, they had to wait 3 hours in the blazing sunshine before seeing a camel off in the distance who then rode off to get help several hours later. She explains the difficulties of giving birth locally and then raising a baby in such primitive conditions and explains the lengths she had to go to sterilise everything and ensure her son took his medication and prophylactics for malaria. She also throws in some fascinating insights into colonial conventions that may well seem idiosyncratic and anachronistic to us but were fundamental to them at the time such as her husband dressing up in his white uniform even in the bush and she herself dressing in a black dress and wearing hat and gloves in the heat of Africa. She explains “local people did not like standards to slip as it made them feel devalued.” It showed respect to the local tribal leader that a government representative was willing to go through these formalities whilst conducting official business. It helps explain why so few administrators were needed to administer such vast distances and with such large populations as respect was earned and was mutual. It appears that the difficulties lay over the UN’s proposed plans for the mandate. The burning question was whether Eritrea and Ethiopia should be amalgamated or not. Italian colonials were slowly seeping away as they could see that the writing was on the wall for their previous lifestyle. Highlander Eritreans tended to be more sympathetic to union with Ethiopia due to their tribal and religious affinities. The largely Muslim lowlanders tended to be more pro-status quo and wished the British to stay on. Unfortunately, that was not an option that the UN were willing to consider. Margaret explains the role her husband had to play in trying to convince the local population of the merits of joining with Ethiopia. He did actually stay on for a while after the British had formally handed over the government to Ethiopia as an adviser. However, he quickly became disillusioned when he witnessed for himself the Ethiopian bureaucracy and suspicion of the Muslim areas in particular. He came to the conclusion that Ethiopia was smothering Eritrea’s aspirations and freedoms. It was to be an unhappy union and divorce finally occurred in 1991 although only after a long and bitter violent strugge.. It has to be said that the forced union to Ethiopia had been a UN imposed solution that Britain (and the old colonial power of Italy) had been most unhappy to implement as this book testifies. Certainly, Margaret believes that it should have been given the option of joining the Commonwealth at least. Despite all these political difficulties it appears that Pat and Margaret really enjoyed their lifestyle and living amongst the local people for whom they cared deeply for and respected enormously. It was clear that a career in the Colonial Service would be the logical next step in their lives.

Halhal Eritrea
Bagamoyo Boma
Pat and Margaret’s next chapter would be in Tanganyika. This had been the League of Nations Mandate which had been converted to a United Nations one. Tanganyika was a relatively poor colony and it appears Pat and Margaret were invariably sent to the poorest parts of this poor colony. A 15 hour excruciatingly slow train ride took them from the coast to their first post. I have to say that I had never heard that dogs were expected to travel in boxes hanging underneath the train. Terrifying for the dogs, but fascinating to pick up these snippets of flavoursome detail. The housing was as basic as anything they had yet experienced, with a thunder box toilet outside. Margaret explains how they would smash tea trays to scare away any wildlife when going to bring in the laundry at dusk. No electricity and water was an incredibly precious commodity especially during the frequent droughts. Margaret found the servants more problematic than they had been in Eritrea; stealing items, drinking their alcohol and even using their toothbrushes. Throughout the book, Margaret explains that the use of servants was one way that money was circulated into the local economy and was also one area of interaction between Europeans and Africans. She does make it clear that far from living a privileged and well paid lifestyle, their pay was basic to say the least and certainly by the time expectations of having servants and of entertaining guests was factored in their meagre pay packets were depleted yet further. And of course, it could be very difficult for wives like Margaret to find suitable paid employment in the places she found herself. Besides, it was often expected that the wife of a Colonial Officer do various community and voluntary positions as a matter of course leaving even less chance of a professional career. In addition, a wife's behaviour was overseen and taken into account by the local bureaucracy when jobs and positions were considered. It is clear that her husband was a scrupulously honest and hard working man. It was interesting to read how anti-corruption measures were built into their terms of service, and obviously embedded themselves into the Colonial Service. For example, she explains that they were only ever permitted to accept any gifts, and then only small ones, at Christmas time. Otherwise, any gifts were considered a bribe. Margaret almost certainly did not appreciate it, but her very basic housing with awful furniture was actually the byproduct of a scrupulously honest system of colonial government where the Colonial Government appreciated that any money spent on their administrators was raised from the already very poor local population. People assume that the British Empire was one big administration with strings being pulled and largesse flowing from London. Nothing could be further from the truth. Each colony was expected to be self-sufficient financially as much as possible. The only real exceptions were natural emergencies and defence issues. So although the Reardons had very basic living quarters in many ways this is a small testimony to the relative honest administration of the Tanganyika colony as a whole.

The wildlife in Tanganyika appears to have been even more concerning than it had been in Eritrea. In addition to the snakes, ants, mosquitos, scorpions, there were far more hyenas, big cats and even lions wandering around the garden. It is useful to be reminded that the all important malaria nets around beds were as much about keeping snakes, scorpions and ants out of their beds during the day as it was to stop mosquitos coming in at night. Margaret also reminds us of the naive and frankly dangerous ways of pest control. Tsetse Control used DDT to kill off spawning grounds but also to fumigate houses and this at a time that Margaret may well have been carrying a child of her own. DDT may have been good at killing insects but its side effects could be dangerous to expectant mothers too. There is a funny description of what must be regarded as the trip to hell when a pregnant Margaret and Pat relocated to Bagamoyo. Apart from the stress of packing up everything and organising the despatch, en route the roof rack fell of the car and so everything had to be repacked into the car. Their pet kittens escaped and the dogs went berserk in the car. All this happening over the bumpy roads in a car without air conditioning in the heat of the African sun. Bizarrely, an incident related to this journey reveals just how small and tight knit the European community could be. Pat had thrown away the sign to their house due to having to repack everything in the car after the roof rack had fallen off. So he must have been amazed a few months later when a game ranger knocked at his door to return the found sign to its rightful owner! There is some real humour throughout the book. As I said before Margaret may just be recounting her normal life but in reality it was anything but normal. I loved reading about how a 21 gun salute at a local ceremony saw donkeys stampede which set off the local children to run like crazy. Margaret’s life was no ordinary life. Having said that, she also explains the darker events such as the way that Belgian refugees fled from Congo and how the train loads were mistreated by local Africans who made sinister gestures, comments and even threw stones at the trains. Margaret herself, who was bringing supplies and aid to the poor Belgians, remarked that things were never the same again after she had witnessed this treatment. In general they had found Tanganyika hard going. They found the housing particularly poor, the bureaucracy was stifling and the people seemed less friendly and aspirational than they had been in Eritrea. Having said that, or perhaps because of the relative hardships, they had made good friends and colleagues there. She had actually come into contact with the Socialist leader Nyerere who would later take over in independent Tanganyika. Another telling insight from Margaret was when she said “My honest opinion is that the average Africa is at heart a capitalist, he has always seen a value in and wants to own houses, land, wives and animals. These days he also wants consumer goods and cars…” If only Africa’s post-colonial political leaders had listened they wouldn’t have had to have done so much damage to their economies and cultures over the years before discovering for themselves the wisdom of Margaret’s words.

Pat and Margaret appear to have had a happier time in Bechuanaland. Again, I had not realised that the colony was still administered from Mafeking in South Africa as late as 1965. Consequently, Pat and Margaret straddled the two cultures of South Africa and Bechuanaland for a little while at least. South Africa must have seemed like a land of plenty after the many years of hardship in East Africa. And it appears for a while that Margaret may have been a little seduced by the luxuries of the modern world. However, the realities and contradictions of apartheid and the inequalities of South Africa in the 1960s lay heavily over the opportunities for a luxurious lifestyle. As it was, Bechuanaland was modernising quickly - much faster than Tanganyika had. The new capital of Gaberones was laid out like an American grid city with much better quality housing than they had experienced to date. There was also more English spoken amongst the African population and just a more relaxed atmosphere in general. Margaret and Pat were to come across King Seretse Khama and his English wife, Ruth frequently. Indeed their children interacted frequently and even attended the same schools. Bechuanaland was a protectorate rather than a colony and so there was much more African involvement in its day to day running. Pat was more of an adviser than an administrator. Margaret herself got involved with the local cooperative movement and was asked by Seretse Khama to advise on all sorts of projects. Bechuanaland hurtled towards independence in 1966 but this time Pat and Margaret stayed on in the newly independent nation. Margaret was more impressed with the local attitude to independence than she had been in Tanganyika. Here she felt that they just wanted to get on with life, whereas in Tanganyika she felt that many assumed that their lives would improve massively for no extra effort and that Europeans would provide for their new Socialist utopia. In what was now Botswana, Pat was to be an adviser to the African minister for tourism, water, minerals and industrial development. You would think that these were pretty crucial areas for any new country. There was a lot of cocktail parties and diplomatic niceties to observe. Over time though, Pat did think that nepotism and lack of professionalism in the newly independent nation was undermining his authority and ability to do his job. His first minister had been very pleasant to work with, but the second was a big step down in abilities and aspirations. A run in with the local police over a superficial matter further undermined their confidence and Pat decided to look for a transfer. Margaret herself would see that her cooperative would also come under a similar kind of nepotism and favouritism. For people used to working with incorruptible and honest colleagues which the Colonial Service embodied, any kind of corruption, however minor, can be particularly galling.

The next chapter in their lives after Africa was to be in the Pacific. The tide of empire was receding rapidly, but it had not quite yet reached these Pacific Ocean Islands. Pat’s new position was as the Financial Officer in the Gilbert and Ellice Islands. This was a new culture again although one in a relatively confined space. Having said that the actual colony was spread out over 2 million square miles but with tiny individual islands although often over crowded for their size. A new beach side house was provided. It was still basic in amenities even if with sensational ocean views, surrounded by wholly new flora and fauna. It was also interesting to read of their new diet thanks to the availability (or lack) of local foods and due to the considerable strains put on the infrequent supply chains bringing foodstuffs to the islands. When they first arrived, ship was still the primary mode of transport, although airfields began to be expanded upon and developed over the years they were there. This time there was no malaria, but tropical diseases still occurred including Dengue Fever and more worrying still a nasty bout of Cholera after prolonged rain had seen the water table overfill. There was effectively no plumbing on the island for the vast majority of the population. Anyone needing the loo just let the Pacific Ocean reclaim it. Perhaps it is not too surprising that public health issues would arise from this fact. This appears to have been one of their happier postings. Another insight was that Margaret felt that the local population took the best from all the cultures that they encountered. She felt they were a happy and content culture. However, she does not overly sanitise and whitewash their time there. For instance, she remarks about some of the issues of sexuality and of a particularly nasty gang rape that occurred to a European lady. This is not a saccharine but an honest account of her experiences there. But yet again the tide of Empire began to ebb away and independence beckoned here too.

The final colonial posting was to the Turks and Caicos Islands in the Caribbean. Alas, this was not to be a happy posting at all. Any expectations of a Caribbean island idyll were all too soon dispelled. By the 1970s you would have thought that the housing would have improved but in one of those penny pinching episodes that costs more than was ever saved, the role of Chief Secretary had been localised and the accompanying house had been sold off. When the ‘local’ Chief Secretary had been found involved with corruption, Pat was sent from Britain to try and regain control and respectability to the administration, but without the house to do the job from. Some highly unsavoury housing was procured from the private market instead. The Turks and Caicos Islands had had an unhappy administrative history being appended to various other imperial jurisdictions over the years who thought little of the small and unimportant islands. Left to flounder, crime, corruption and drug smuggling had become endemic. Any local autonomy that had been granted had been quickly abused by local politicians who were more interested in enriching themselves than their community. There were US military bases which at least afforded some interesting social and cultural opportunities. Rather shockingly, Pat was attacked in his office by a man wielding a steel rod. Even more unbelievably the man was freed on a technicality. It is hard to believe that a public official could be attacked so blatantly at the heart of government and no consequences occurred to the attacker whatsoever. The stress of the position was definitely building and Pat had applied and been granted a transfer to the prestigious role of full Governor to the British Virgin Islands. This should have been the proud culmination of nearly 4 decades of public service. Alas, this was not to be. The final chapter is very touching as Margaret explains how her world collapsed with the sad and very unexpected death of her husband in post still on Grand Turk. As if his job had not been difficult enough the Governor was away and the Attorney General had left for Britain on compassionate leave. Pat was literally holding the senior administration of the colony together by himself when he had a seizure. The manner of his passing also reveals that public servants did not have access to the same high quality health care that we might take for granted back here in Britain. Had he been treated by British doctors in a well funded NHS, perhaps his prognosis might have been different. As it was, poor Margaret, who was looking forward to her husband having his final posting before they could retire together, found herself widowed and quite at a loss. She and her husband had had a remarkable life. They had raised two children in a variety of postings that spanned three continents and had seen at least 4 of their postings transist fully to independence status. They had lived a life full of never to be forgotten experiences and seen peoples and societies that most of us will never encounter. We are fortunate indeed that Margaret has recounted them so diligently and so articulately. This book is a pleasure to read. It never feels a chore and is full of interesting anecdotes. It has humour as well as heartache. I should also mention that there are photographs that help illustrate what their life was like. They say a picture is worth a thousand words, so there are quite a few thousand more words to add to this 340 odd page book. This book is mana from heaven for historians but will be of interest to any general reader too. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Review by Dr Joanna Lewis (Assistant Professor in Imperial and African History, London School of Economics and Political Science)
This is one of the best set of memoirs I have read on what it was like to live the end of empire as a woman, wife and mother. Margaret Reardon has given historians a wonderful gift: a detailed and scholarly account of her experiences married to Patrick Reardon, OBE, as he moved around the British Empire as part of Her Majesty's Overseas Civil Service (tragically dying before taking up the post of Governor of the Virgin Islands in 1981). Despite many moves within and across continents, bringing up two children - Timothy and Catherine - and supporting her husband in his work - Margaret also kept a record of her life and times. Whilst her original diaries, memoirs, official documents, photos and other ephemera have been generously donated to the Bodleian Library, her book offers the reader a brilliant, sharp-eyed and sensitive narrative of the role and experiences of an expatriate woman as the sun slowly set.

Margaret Reardon was born in Mayfair in 1920 to parents in service before her father became Chapel Clerk, then Assistant Librarian at Trinity College, Cambridge. Educated at St Augustine's Primary School and the Central School Cambridge, Margaret jointed the Civil Defence Corps when the Second World War broke out. She then worked for the Women's Auxiliary Territorial Service before becoming part of the secret team attached to the Royal Signals Corps Y Branch, part of Bletchley Park. She married Patrick in 1945, then Captain in the Essex Regiment. Not long after, he was posted overseas as part of the British Army's occupation of a former Italian colony in North-east Africa. A few months later Margaret left England to be with him. One can only imagine how her parents felt saying goodbye to their daughter (who then only weighed seven and a half stone!). She took her Hope Chest, the large wooden trunk her father had made for her to collect items for her own home, and her mother generously donated the family silver. She also took a record-player.

The fact that there are five parts to this memoir tells you immediately that their life together was an adventure that ran and ran. Part One covers seven years spent in Eritrea. Next, we are taken to Tanganyika, between 1953 to 1961, and then to the final African posting: Bechuanaland until 1972. Margaret and family then spent six years in the Gilbert and Ellice Islands, and finally, between 1979-1981, they were posted to the Turks and Caicos Islands. When they left one home, they just took the house name with them for the next.

This is an exceptional memoir for the amount of detailed observation about daily life, local people and events, as well as matters of colonial governance across the globe during decolonization. We are led gently by the hand through a world of scorpion-slippers, rabid dogs, bouts of semiblindness from malaria and its treatments, to running clinics for African women and managing VIP guest visits and tours. It was life of adventure, health challenges, butterfly-collecting but also early on of debt. Astonishingly, the young couple had to provide their own vehicle and refrigerator. Margaret made their clothes; cutting each other's hair was also the norm.

The manuscript is animated with wonderful photos and the quality of the prose is outstanding. Thank you, Margaret, WBE extraordinaire.

British Empire Book
Margaret Reardon
Catherine Armstrong
Additional Photos
Ocean Liners


Armed Forces | Art and Culture | Articles | Biographies | Colonies | Discussion | Glossary | Home | Library | Links | Map Room | Sources and Media | Science and Technology | Search | Student Zone | Timelines | TV & Film | Wargames

by Stephen Luscombe