The British Empire Library

West African Interlude

by Richard Terrell

Courtesy of OSPA

Review by S.S.R.
In 1952, Richard Terrell, a Principal in the Home Civil Service, was seconded to Nigeria for a tour as a temporary member of the Administrative Service there. He kept a journal throughout his secondment - a discipline which he had cultivated as "an exercise in the private use of words" after reading Gibbon in the ruins of the fort built by the Emperor Humayun in Delhi.

West African Interlude is a ball by ball account of Terrell's adventures in Nigeria as he recorded them in his diary, a retrieval of the personal experiences of a Whitehall mandarin in the making, who was sent by his far sighted Permanent Under Secretary of State in the Colonial Office to learn as much as possible on the spot about colonial administration in the field. He was the youngest grandfather known to have been sent to West Africa on a public service training exercise.

Terrell was already over forty when he was first appointed a Principal in the Colonial Office. His family background was in India and his father was Chief Justice of Bihar and Orissa. Terrell himself had served with West African troops in Nigeria and Burma and had held down a senior general staff appointment in the army in India.

After India became independent, the writing was on the wall for all to read for the rest of the British Empire. Terrell was soon engulfed by volumes of paper in a desk job in the Colonial Office and was well aware that he was involved with a long drawn out, but important, phase of modern history - in the decolonisation and the creation of a patchwork of independent polities in what was to become known as the Third World. Working in the Colonial Office in the 'fifties and 'sixties was "life in a good cabin aboard a gently sinking ship".

Erstwhile members of the Colonial Service were encouraged by Kirk Greene and many others to record their experiences for the benefit of posterity. In this context, Richard Terrell has set us all a splendid example to follow. His vignette of colonial administration in Nigeria as it was over forty years ago is particularly valuable and comprehensive because after a few months of working in the Secretariat on the Marina waterfront in Lagos, he was posted to the remote district of Gombe in Northern Nigeria as a supernumerary touring officer - the best possible introduction to life in the bush. Like many other newcomers to the Holy North, he was thrown in at the deep end to grapple with the complexities of Indirect Rule, heavily dependent for advice upon the good faith of Southern house boys and a Hausa Speaking Government Messenger. Like most of his contemporaries, he survived on his wits and faith in human nature rather than on his knowledge and professional expertise.

After an arduous touring programme in Gombe District driving along bush tracks and dusty dry season roads, walking, smothered in sweat, for days on end in the Tula hills, which reminded him of the Arakan hill tracts, he supervised elections, checked tax receipts, prospected for well sites, inspected prisons and schools, installed a minor village head in office and observed the hippos in the Gongola river. There was a real sense in which he never came to terms with the strange remoteness of his personal life as a European official in the Muslim North. He found that the absolute celibacy of life in Gombe was too much for his nerves and was glad to be posted to the more relaxed environment of Niger Province in the Middle Belt.

All who have enjoyed comparable experiences in the former African colonies will take to Terrell's journal with enthusiasm. It offers much more than nostalgia for beer, pink gin and curry on Sundays in a bush rest house in the congenial company of John Ross or a whiff of the rugged "no nonsense'' dedication to their profession of men such as Max Backhouse, the Resident in Minna or of Chris Reynolds and a regiment of others in service with the Administration of the North in the fifties. The legal and administrative framework of British Colonial government was remarkably resilient and effective in the promotion of economic and social development.

Terrell has a flair for colourful, descriptive writing and a rare eye for detail. He has a sense for history in the making and a feeling for the often tenuous relationships which existed at the personal level between faceless bureaucrats in Whitehall and the administrators and their families who laboured to give meaning to policies, with which they did not always agree, in lonely, remote stations in the depths of the African Savannah.

British Empire Book
Richard Terrell
Michael Russell Publishing Ltd


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