With her very first sentence, Alice Boase enlists the sympathy of every ex-colonial
child. "To the best of my knowledge", she wrote "I had never set eyes on the
woman whose attentions I was determined to resist". How many of us, abandoned, as we
believed, to the care of relatives in England, had stared in disbelief at some strange person
we knew we must call Mummy, but who also seemed, unaccountably, to have the right to tell us to go to bed. We never understood, how could we, the agonies this stranger had
suffered during three, four, or even five years of separation from her children.
Born in 1910, Alice Boase was only two years old when her parents left her to voyage
up mosquito-humming rivers and hammock-laden trails to a magistrate's job in presentday
Malawi. They had been there since 1901, long before the days of trains or
aeroplanes, but, the difficulties of transport aside, their lives were not so very different
from what many of us experienced before, and even after the second world war, and
which were deemed quite unsuitable for white children.
When Alice Boase's father had asked a Colonial Office official how they were
supposed to get to Nyasaland, he replied vaguely, "Oh, take a boat to Aden and then go
overland" (shades of my own Colonial Office interview when it was suggested that being
so tall would help me "dominate the natives"). And once in Nyasaland, the absence of
amenities like running water and electricity meant, at the turn of the century as in the
1930s, constipation-inducing pit-latrines with snakes at the bottom, refrigerationless
wire-meshed meat safes, blackened wood-burning Dover Stoves and inadequate water
tanks collecting rain from baking corrugated iron roofs.
These and many other insights into the colonial life are, for those who shared them,
the greatest attraction of Alice Boase's posthumous memoirs. A later section of the
book, chronicling the distinguished legal career of her brother John is perhaps of less
interest, with its standard recitation of postings and duties.
After her father moved to Uganda as Chief Justice, Alice married her medical officer
husband and stayed there until 1956, when Arthur Boase joined the St. John's Eye
Hospital in Jerusalem. They thus missed Uganda's Independence in 1962, but Alice was
nevertheless very much involved in the early stirrings of democracy in Uganda, first as a
member of the Municipal Council and then as an appointed member of the Legislative
Council (the fiedgling parliament). She was also, along with my own (Andrew's) mother,
a founding member of the Uganda Council of Women, a body of formidable ladies of all
races, which emphatically disproved the myth of the subordination of women in Africa.
How Alice combined all this with raising a family of ten children was a mystery to us
all. Although I (Patricia) was also brought up in Kampala in close proximity to the elder
Boase children, they were always an enigma. We assumed that there were so many of
them that they looked after each other and did not need much independent company.
And yet a contribution to the memoir by David, Alice's second son, suggests a less
cohesive group. "We had long shaken off the control of the Ayah and Mum and Dad
placed no restrictions on us, probably because they could not be enforced".
Another admission by Alice herself perhaps provides a further, but equally puzzling
clue. She twice admits that she never really liked living in Africa and was rather relieved
when they left. This we find astonishing. How could she have been so involved, beyond
any conceivable call of duty, in the public affairs of Africa as well as what must have
been the overwhelming private needs of her huge family, (which was the despair of
every Public Works Department official who tried to house them)?
So, at the end, Alice Boase too remains an enigma. Maybe it was her early experience
of thwarted affection that deprived Alice, like others, of some of her roots and that
abiding attachment to places and people that more fortunate children enjoyed? If so she
has our renewed sympathy.