Saturday, December 25, 2010

London 2

This week, whilst kicking my heels in London, I chanced upon a gem of a book in a remote corner of Hatchard’s of Piccadilly. It is an anthology drawn from Corona, the journal of Her Majesty’s Colonial Service, 1948–1962. The selection was made for I. B. Tauris in 2001 by Anthony Kirk-Greene, formerly of the Nigerian Administrative Service, and it shines brilliant beams of light over the multitude of tasks carried out by members of the last and probably most able generation of British colonial administrators, and every sort of problem they weighed on long tours of duty. It also captures the complex moods brought on by the withdrawal from India and partition, ranging from bombast to pathos. British officials singlehandedly juggled any number of responsibilities that in most jurisdictions are now handled by whole departments of state, and handled each with impressive efficiency, and despatch. In most cases there was very little supporting infrastructure, quite often none at all, and rapidly dwindling support in Whitehall, on the contrary: Harold Macmillan’s Wind of Change rhetoric made it clear that the days of colonial administration were drawing to a close, yet morale remained determinedly high. How did these men and women spend their time? Here’s how: Trying to defuse lethal sectarian violence between villagers in the Gwoza District of Nigeria; completing tours of inspection of the “ulu” in Sarawak, in other words “impenetrable jungle coupled with discomfort and/or romance among the head hunters,” or the far more pleasant ulendo of the northern province of Nyasaland; enforcing regulations according to which the licence of an Indian proprietor of a coffee shop in Malaya could be renewed upon his passing a scrupulous medical examination; improving methods of disposing of slaughter-waste and dung in rural Kenya; calculating and levying royalties on the export of guano from the Gilbert and Ellice Islands, paying the salary of the wireless operator, and returning to H.M. Treasury his income tax; preventing French planters from selling cheap, actually lethal home-made liquor to thirsty sugar cane workers in the New Hebrides; gathering intelligence concerning the Mau Mau; persuading the Sultan of Perak to prevent the stoning to death of a young couple who confessed to adultery in Terengganu; finding an affordable boarding school in England for the son and daughters of a young district commissioner temporarily detained on official business in Micronesia; investigating the connection, if any, between the discovery of the remains of a giraffe (game properly belonging to the local chief, and therefore protected) and the cultivation of illegal narcotics in Barotseland; authorizing during “Good Manners Week” a dicey experimental landing by a Polish test pilot of a Dakota and then a bigger, heavier DC–3 on the newly completed but temporary landing strip on St. Vincent; sourcing adequate supplies of toothpaste and mosquito netting in Uganda; monitoring food hygiene in Hong Kong, specifically making discreet inquiries as to the real origin of snake, bear’s paws, and other delicacies putatively shipped from northern China; mastering the tribal politics of the two chiefdoms and eleven sub-chiefdoms of the Ha people of Kibondo, a region lying roughly half way between Lake Tanganyika and the Belgian Trust Territory of Rwanda; eradicating malaria in Cyprus; insuring the delivery of UNICEF milk to children throughout the Windward Islands; single-handedly providing medical attention to the entire population of the Falklands; doing battle with the tick, the worm, and the tsetse fly in Sukumaland; draining swamps in Selangor, the better to create and irrigate viable rice paddies; finding ways to prevent soil erosion in Fiji, without setting Fijian labourers against Indian farmers; collecting statistics relating to the better regulation of forestry in Hausaland; adjusting and refining the school curriculum in Antigua and Montserrat; defending from inter-clan hostilities the new trade unions of West Africa; maintaining port facilities in North Borneo, adapting them for the use of tankers should oil ever be discovered (it was, to the infinite delight of the Sultan of Brunei), and trying to keep the harbour master off his grog; insuring that officials of the Public Works Department and non-English-speaking Chinese draughtsmen were on the same page in respect of tall buildings that were creeping onto increasingly vertiginous sites in Hong Kong, with poor drainage and scarifying exposure to typhoons; keeping the peace in Jerusalem; meting out justice to surprisingly violent Norwegian sealers on South Georgia; studying cyclonic conditions and other meteorological phenomena on Mauritius with an eye to their global application; acting as returning officer in federal elections in the Malay states, and at the same time serving as registrar of births, deaths, and marriages, collector of land revenue, and chairman of the liquor licencing commission; running (for an official of the Home Office”) a Mrs. Boye, wife of the manager of the Vanikoro Kauri Timber Company, who for many years in the Solomon Islands very effectively spied for H.M. government, mostly on the United States Navy; helping to prevent most forms of medical malpractice as an especially watchful operating theatre sister in Gibraltar, Nicosia, Nairobi, and then Mombasa— she saw everything, and was intimidated by no surgeon, however eminent; encouraging bridge parties and Scottish dancing as morale-building distractions during the hurricane season in British Honduras, with mixed success; providing to the Foreign Office a crisp assessment of the personal character and political ability and/or limitations of His late Majesty King Malietoa Tanumafili II of Western Samoa; auditing the public accounts of St. Helena, Ascension, and Tristan da Cunha—perhaps the most spectacularly boring occupation ever devised by man, even worse than proofreading the telephone directory (as Nick Trumble once pointed out to me, someone must have had to do it); and, perhaps above all, moving—constantly moving; moving so often that up sticks was for hundreds of British colonial officials and their families the domestic occupation of a lifetime, and retiring to somewhere in West Sussex or Shropshire or Devon or Midlothian during the mid- to late 1960s the most painful, bewildering, and dislocating transition of all. Beyond all this, there are telling flecks of detail contained in the crisp and straightforward advertising copy. Life insurance policies tailored for colonial servants by Acworth, Gaywood & Co., of Essex Street, Strand, balanced the extremely high premiums against the real likelihood of ill health, the perils of local riot and warfare, or misadventure at sea or in the air. The National Bank of India at 26, Bishopsgate, offered superior banking facilities in Kenya, Zanzibar, and Aden. Listings of sporting, theatrical, musical, cricket, and tennis highlights of the London season provided a convenient framework for planning your home leave. Lawn & Alder of 32, Sackville Street, W.1., offered personal shopping services: no matter what the need may be, a tropical suit, a domestic utensil, a silver trophy, or a newspaper subscription, the L. & A. service is always at your bidding. Wanted: Administrative Officer’s sword. T. N. Rosser, Glenfield Crescent, Galashiels.A marvelous, engrossing read, especially in the circumstances. (See London 1.)

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