Alan Cuthbert Maxwell Burnswas born on 9 November 1887, at Basseterre, St Kitts, the fourth son and fifth child of James Burns (1852-1896), treasurer of the presidency of St Christopher-Nevis and member of the executive council of the Leeward Islands, and his wife, Agnes Zulma Delisle (1854-1914). One of his brothers, Cecil Delisle, was an academic; another, Robert Edward Burns, like their father and grandfather, was in the colonial service; and a third, Emil, was a leading British communist. He was educated at St Edmund's College, Ware, the oldest Catholic school in England, but had to leave early because his family could not pay the fees. Aged only seventeen, Burns was appointed to the treasury and customs department of St Kitts in 1905. His appointment in 1909 as clerk to the magistrate of Basseterre was followed by that of deputy coroner and justice of the peace for St Kitts, magistrate on Anguilla, and in 1912 clerk and provincial secretary to the administrator of Dominica.
In 1912 Burns became supervisor of customs in Nigeria, and served in Koko and Lagos. No sooner had he earned promotion to the central secretariat cadre than he enlisted in the Nigeria regiment. In 1914 he married Kathleen (Kate) Fitzpatrick (d. 1970), daughter of Robert Altman Hardtman, an Antigua sugar planter, and his wife, Alice; they had two daughters. He saw service in the Cameroons campaign, became adjutant of the Nigeria land contingent, and took part in the Egbe expedition of 1918. As private secretary to Sir Frederick Lugard and then to Sir Hugh Clifford, Burns (like the latter, a Roman Catholic) confirmed his reputation as a highly efficient staff officer, and he was soon mounting the promotional secretariat ladder for colonial service high-climbers. A proving period as colonial secretary of the Bahamas from 1924 to 1929, during which he acted as governor, was followed by his return to Nigeria, for further grooming for high office, as deputy chief secretary. In 1934 he was given his first governorship, British Honduras.
In 1940 Burns was seconded to the Colonial Office on special duty in the rank of assistant under-secretary, as part of the wartime experiment of bringing a serving governor into Whitehall. He became governor of the Gold Coast in 1941, and acted as governor of Nigeria for five months in 1942. At his initiative, and to his unending pride, in 1942 he persuaded a reluctant Colonial Office to admit Africans on to the executive council of the governor of the Gold Coast, and to sanction the appointment of Africans as district commissioners there. He also inspired the constitutional advances of 1946, which provided for an unofficial majority in the Gold Coast legislative council. The fact that the Watson commission inquiring into the Accra riots of 1948 stigmatized the Burns constitution as outmoded at birth perhaps reflects more on the Gold Coast's capacity for political pioneering than on Burns's foresight. His last year in Accra was marred by the so-called 'juju' Kyebi murder case. The confusion and dithering in London--Rathbone's 'grisly minuet' over his exercise of the royal prerogative prompted Burns to offer his resignation. In 1945 his name had been put forward by the Colonial Office for the governorship of the new Malayan Union, but the colonial secretary's nomination was not accepted by Downing Street. From 1947 until his retirement in 1956 Burns, following the pro-consular footsteps of his old master Lugard after the First World War, became Britain's representative on the Trusteeship Council of the United Nations. At the age of seventy-two he accepted the chairmanship of an inquiry into land resources and population problems in Fiji.
Burns was a typical example of a scholar-administrator. A scrupulous and hard-working official, he also delved into African history, so that his well-travelled career was marked by a number of authoritative books. His first contained an index to the laws of the Leeward Islands. In 1917 he began a comprehensive annual review, the Nigeria Handbook; he also initiated the Nigeria Civil Service List. His History of Nigeria, first published in 1929, reached its eighth revised edition in 1972. After his retirement from the colonial service he published four books: Colour Prejudice (1948), originally written when he was governor of British Honduras; History of the British West Indies (1954); the autobiography Colonial Civil Servant (1949); and In Defence of Colonies (1957), a riposte to the positive anti-colonialism of the United Nations which he had found so disillusioning. On completion of his Fiji mission, he published a volume on that country in the Corona series Fiji : The Corona Library (1963), and in his nineties he contributed to the BBC series of reminiscences Tales from the Dark Continent.
Burns's recreations were cricket, writing, ornithology (he maintained an aviary in Christiansborg Castle), and bridge (at one time in the 1920s he was bridge correspondent of the Daily Telegraph and he wrote a book on the game). He served as a purposeful president of the Hakluyt Society, chairman of the Royal Commonwealth Society library committee, and as a council member of the Zoological Society. He had an assertive humanity, 'a way of going to see for himself, cutting out red tape, and getting on with things' (Parkinson, 108), and an ever ready humour. Sparing with words, he was never short on kindness or courtesy. In character and the stout expression of his opinions he was a big man, straight dealing, and impatient of cant. Burns was appointed CMG in 1927, KCMG in 1936, and GCMG in 1946. He was made a knight of the order of St John of Jerusalem in 1942. He died on 29 September 1980 at the Westminster Hospital, London.
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