The British Empire Library

A View From Within: The Last Years of British Rule in South-East Asia.

by Christopher Blake

Courtesy of OSPA

Review by Anthony Kirk-Greene (N Nigeria 1950-66)
Subtitled (a little grandly, perhaps) "The Last Years of British Rule in South-East Asia", this is both one individual's view of the decline and fall of the British Empire in the region seen through his own eyes and sensitive mind and a highly welcome autobiographical account of one of the latter day (1946-58) members of the Malayan Civil Service. Commissioned into the wartime Indian Army (what was then the 17th Dogra Regiment), Blake came into the Colonial Service through the British Military Administration (neatly described - I had almost written caricatured - in Ch.3) in 1945/6 and hence into the M.C.S. There he served until 1958, as District Officer (including Upper Perak, once the all-but private domain of the all-but legendary Hubert Berkeley who remained in and 'reigned' over the same district for 27 years) and, less happily it seems, as Private Secretary to the Governor of Singapore, Sir Franklin Gimson (Singapore was outside the controversial and abortive Malayan Union). There were, too, spells as Magistrate and in the Secretariat; eight months on the Second Devonshire Course at L.S.E.; and, of course, first-hand experience of what was wryly called the Emergency - Christopher Blake's ten-year "War by Any Other Name". For him, it all culminated in merdeka in 1957, followed by retirement to England the following year.

Chapters 2-10 form the heart of this interesting and well-written memoir of one who was among the last British colonial administrative officers in South-East Asia. The writer has a keen eye for pen-portraits, especially of his range of senior officers, and, save in a few coy instances (e.g. pp. 44, 81, 89, 136 - and the beloved, rugged character at p. 121) all yielding to a little research, he is, despite his own disclaimer, helpful in identifying people. The quality of his narrative is enhanced by some fifty photographs, two excellent maps, and an adequate index. The book is well printed and bound, a pleasure to handle and a real publishing success at only 10 pounds.

In his brief Foreword Sir Robin Black, the penultimate Governor of Singapore (1955-57), has a cautious phrase which reflects some of my own doubts about the wisdom and the worth of Christopher Blake's final chapter, titled "The Reckoning". The courteous Sir Robin accepts that the reader may or may not "go all the way with some of Blake's judgements". Less diplomatically, this reviewer simply thinks it would have been a better book without the borderlinely ponderous judgement on "the imperial dilemma... the apologia of an old koi hai" (Blake's condemnations, not mine). Honestly, the author himself admits that this chapter is in no way part of the narrative, consisting for the most part of "flights of fancy"; true, he even encourages the reader to skip it if we wish; yet I for one could have done without even that option, and would gladly have seen the last chapter omitted and the 25 pages - a whole eighth of the narrative - given over to yet more of Christopher Blake's welcome and enjoyable reminiscences of his career in the M.C.S.

British Empire Book
Christopher Blake
Mendip Publishing


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