The British Empire Library

Yesterday's Rulers: The Making of the British Colonial Service

by Professor Robert Heussler.

Courtesy of OSPA

Review by J.J.T.
Some time ago I was talking to an African who had held a post in colonial times in a District which I had once administered. After independence he himself had been placed in charge of the same area.

I asked him if he considered such men as myself to have been imperialistic in our administrative attitudes. No, he answered, certainly not. We had been far too busy with day to day affairs, too fully stretched by local problems -- as he had been, also.

Dr. Heussler, with his specialised interest in the study of imperialism, might have found this reply worthy of comment, particularly in relation to his latest book which exhibits imperialists at work, because they emerge refreshingly free from any pejorative interpretation of the word -- and for the same reason.

Dr. Heussler's earlier books have not left him unscathed by other scholars who have accused him of a partiality towards his main subjects which sometimes transforms geese into swans and blinkers him to their political imperfections. If it is culpable to write a study of administration which concentrates more on persons than policies, then his latest book may expect some buffets. But academic circles will not deny his claim that there is a growing scholarly interest in the historical role of Europeans in other parts of the world and that the production of close, precise monographs is a safeguard against generalizations without sufficient evidence.

In non-academic circles, at least, there will be gratitude to an American scholar who deploys so powerful a body of evidence to show that the men in the Districts did not sit and wait for policies to descend upon them from above but on their own initiative set about the jobs that wanted doing. "...In much of the work that District Officers initiated or pursued on their own, the views they entertained of native rights and of what kind of society should be aimed at tended to remain implicit, unvoiced or unexplained, even to oneself. Often things were done from reasons that sprang from an officer's personal interests combined with opportunities peculiar to the District where he found himself. . . . there was the Golden Rule, true enough: 'Thou shalt collect thy tax, thou shalt not worry thy Government'. Everyone got the same circulars from Dar Es Salaam and filled up the same returns . . . . but with routine satisfied, one's attention was inevitably drawn to the limitless potential for agricultural and other development that every part of the country provided..."

This book makes no pretentious claims. It is, as it declares itself to be, simply an account on District Administration. Dr. Heussler pleads no causes and judges no issues. With great patience and months of hard work, by evidence culled from scores of documents in Britain and Tanzania and by a multitude of personal contacts, he has set out to show what the field administrator did, what motivated him and what were some of the conditions under which he worked. He corrects, however, the not uncommon impression that all Colonial Service officers were pressed from the same mould. His book makes its point without argument: British colonial history cannot be divorced from the individualism of those who were concerned with administration in practice rather than in theory.

It is impossible for those who were not part of the Colonial Service to understand the mystique it had for its members. Readers of Dr. Heussler's small book, and especially those who met him during its preparation, will feel with pleasure and respect

British Empire Book
Professor Robert Heussler
Syracuse University Press


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