Tuesday, May 8, 2012

The Colonial Office List

One of my favourite books is the 1911 edition of The Colonial Office List, that annual compendium of useful information pertaining to the administration of the British Empire. At this date, the Empire spread across five continents, namely (1. Europe): Gibraltar; Malta; and Cyprus; (2. Asia): the Indian Empire (which, though administered separately through the India Office, consisted of territories approximately corresponding with modern India, Pakistan, the Northwest Frontier with Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Burma); Ceylon (Sri Lanka), which was never part of the Indian Empire; Hong Kong and Weihaiwei (in other words Weihai in the Shandong Province of modern China); the Straits Settlements (Singapore); the Federated Malay States, North Borneo, and Sarawak (most of modern Malaysia and Brunei); (3. Africa): Ascension Island; the Cape of Good Hope, Natal, Transvaal, Swaziland, and the Orange River Colony (most of modern South Africa); Basutoland (Lesotho); the Bechuanaland protectorate (Botswana); Mauritius; the Seychelles; St. Helena; Sierra Leone; Gambia and the Rio Pongas; the Gold Coast (Ghana); Southern Nigeria; Northern Nigeria; Nyasaland (comprising parts of modern Zimbabwe, Zambia, and Malawi); British East Africa (essentially Kenya); Somaliland (Somalia); the Uganda protectorate; Tanganyika and Zanzibar (Tanzania); (4. Americas): Bermuda; Canada; Newfoundland and Labrador, which were not yet part of Canada; British Guiana; British Honduras; the Bahamas; Barbados; Jamaica; Turks and Caicos; Trinidad and Tobago; Grenada; St. Lucia; St. Vincent; Antigua; Dominica; Montserrat; St. Kitts and Nevis; the Virgin Islands; the Falkland Islands and South Georgia; (5. Australasia): Australia (comprising New South Wales, Tasmania, Western Australia, South Australia, Victoria, and Queensland); New Zealand; Fiji; Papua; the New Hebrides (Vanuatu); the Pitcairn and Solomon Islands; Norfolk Island; Lord Howe Island; Tuvalu; the Union Islands; the British Antarctic Territory, and various other small Pacific territories—with a total population (not including indigenous peoples) of slightly more than 55.6 million Anglo-Celtic settlers. The minister of the crown responsible for running this vast accumulation, upon which the sun never set, was the secretary of state for the colonies, a comparatively junior cabinet minister, who was assisted in this awesome task by four private secretaries (three of them assistants) who reported directly, and a department of state consisting of two permanent under-secretaries; four permanent assistant under-secretaries; a chief clerk; a “legal assistant,” seven “principal clerks,” nine “first class clerks,” and sixteen “second class clerks,” a librarian, two accountants, a chief registrar, his deputy, and two assistants; two copyists; two printers; two office keepers; seventeen messengers (six of them pensioners), and a porter. This tallies at forty-one staff, and eighteen domestics—who kept fires lit, ran errands, and made the tea. The office structure was geographical, and divided into (1) the dominions division (in which only eight staff looked after Canada, South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand); (2) the crown colonies division, a much larger group of more junior clerks; (3) the so-called general department, a kind of odd-bins; (4) the accounts department; and (5) the legal department. In each case, the oversight of multiple territories and colonial possessions in each region was allotted to small teams of responsible clerks who, it was hoped, developed specialist knowledge of the relevant files for each place. The colonial office was assisted in its economic remit by a separate colonial audit department that was in turn supplied with reports furnished by single auditors posted in the more prosperous colonies. In most cases these solitary watchers over each colonial ledger were regarded with suspicion by men in the field, who resented the inference that they required supervision, checks and balances. The whole system appears to have been based on the presumption that under normal circumstances the Empire would take care of itself, and any emergencies could be handled locally by the small army of colonial governors and crown agents administering each colony with the support of imperial forces either already present in the region, or else dispatchable at relatively short notice by order of the Admiralty. Even so, the legal department of the colonial office (consisting of only two hard-working clerks) was expected to peruse all legislation enacted by colonial parliaments, as well as to monitor the proper constitutional conduct of governors and executive councils in crown colonies that did not yet possess legislatures. The system was further complicated from time to time by the direct involvement in colonial affairs of up to four other cabinet ministers: the foreign secretary, when colonial affairs collided with British foreign relations, as in the 1898 Fashoda crisis, or else when British diplomatic representatives exercised what amounted to the political control of countries that were not technically colonies, e.g. Lord Cromer, who though merely British consul-general effectively ran Egypt as a sort of appendage to the Suez Canal; the secretary of state for India; the secretary of state for war (when the British army regularly interacted with colonial defense arrangements), and the First Sea Lord (the Royal Navy). As well, the dominions adopted the habit of posting agents-general to London, whose task was to represent the colonial interest in Whitehall when, in the view of the settlers, that interest was not always set in a satisfactory order of priority by or within the colonial office itself. In other words, there existed at least six completely separate and not always harmonious avenues of communication back and forth between the imperial capital and the colonial outpost. That the Empire managed to function at all with such a tiny staff, such immense problems of communication, and so many day-to-day conundrums, issues, and concerns all regularly flowing inwards by confidential dispatch from governors to the desk of the secretary of state himself is something of a major miracle. Yet The Colonial Office List goes a little way towards telling you how they did it.

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