Masters of all they surveyed?

Britain's Imperial Administrators 1858-1966
September 29, 2000

Anthony Kirk-Greene, having served in the Indian army during the second world war and graduated from Cambridge afterwards, entered the Colonial Administrative Service in 1950 and spent the next 17 years in Africa. There followed an accomplished career at Oxford where, besides being a fellow of St Antony's, he was the first holder of a lectureship in modern African history. He is a prolific author on 20th-century colonial history and now, in retirement, he has been working on a two-volume study bringing together for the first time the Indian Civil Service, the Colonial Administrative Service and the Sudan Political Service. The volume under review is primarily an institutional history covering the years between 1858 (when the Crown took formal control of the administration of India) and 1966 (when the Colonial Office was closed); in the second volume we are promised a more personal account of those who served as district officers in Africa.

The central thesis of Kirk-Greene's book is that, for all its tremendous variety, the British empire was held together by public servants largely recruited in Britain and typified by the district officer - the man on the spot who was the visible sign of government. It is salutary to be reminded just how complex, and ramshackle, the administration of the British empire was. Bits and pieces were added as time passed, and never, in its whole history, was there a coherent approach to colonial government from the metropolis. Different departments in Whitehall had different outlooks; responsibilities were shifted around. There was eventually an India Office and a Colonial Office, but sometimes it was difficult to avoid conflicts of interest with the Foreign Office, and each guarded its turf with vigilance, as when after the first world war the Colonial Office and the Foreign Office fought for control of the Middle East.

The different territories had different traditions, but from the later 19th century a general pattern emerged: whatever he was called, the district officer became the linchpin of colonial administration. Kirk-Greene describes in detail the organisation of the three major colonial services, the social and educational background of their officers, how those men were recruited, what their employment prospects were, and, in the part of the book that is informed by personal experience, how the men in the colonial services adapted to the dissolution of empire.

The typical district officer came overwhelmingly through public and grammar schools (but from an enormous number of such schools) and predominantly, but by no means exclusively, from Oxford and Cambridge. Technical knowledge (until the end of empire) was not so highly valued as reliability, honesty and "good character". The leading schools prided themselves on providing a socialising as well as an academic education: classics, cricket and the cane, as their curriculum might be characterised; and they produced men of independence, but good team players also, who exhibited a high sense of social responsibility.

While earlier in India, and later in Africa, some families developed a tradition of colonial service, recruitment was socially far more diverse than the educational background of successful candidates might imply. The pay was reasonable and the conditions of service were good. A man in his 20s could take on responsibilities undreamed of at home, and he could work, largely without supervision or interference, in beautiful and interesting parts of the world. There were, of course, drawbacks: life could be physically demanding, the young man was not likely to get really rich, nor be able to live a normal family life; and he would find, on returning to England after relatively early retirement (if he had survived, that is), that he who had once ruled a million in a territory the size of a large English county was not particularly well regarded as he settled in to a second career as the bursar of a school or took up charitable work. Still, on setting out, the prospect of an active and unusual career and the thrill of doing something out of the ordinary carried the day.

Kirk-Greene's study is tremendously strong on detail, and is particularly valuable for that; but his work prompts more general reflections. Colonial rule comes across as a pretty minimal form of government. In saying this, one is not denying its arbitrary and sometimes brutal character; but government in most of the overseas British empire was not actually competent to do very much beyond maintaining law and order - certainly not to be an effective exploiter of colonial resources or a developer of colonial societies. In India, British rule rested on and developed from sophisticated systems of government that tied the resources of the country to the needs of the overlord. But those needs were to ensure a steady flow of revenue, sufficient to pay for an army and police, and to cover the costs of collection. Curzon, seeking to use the power of the state to do more things than that in India, hit the mark with his famous statement that the government of India was "a mighty and miraculous machine for doing nothing". In many of the 20th-century African colonies, the role of government was even more vestigial. The politically influential anthropologist Margery Perham did much to promote the notion that colonial administration should simply provide a scaffolding, to be removed in due time, within which indigenous institutions could grow. As Kirk-Greene points out, all too often the scaffolding surrounded empty space: indeed, it is both remarkable and creditable that when, from the 1950s, a more robust concept of the state came forward, and when it seemed as though colonial rule would be dismantled today rather than tomorrow, a great deal was achieved very quickly. Significantly, this inadequacy of government did not afflict the self-governing dominions; but there they had no colonial administration as such. Only the top man was appointed from London: the rest of the government was staffed by locals and through political bodies was made responsive to local needs from an early date. It was, of course, in these countries (and in the other well-developed economies of America and Europe) that, throughout Britain's imperial century, her true interests lay.

Kirk-Greene's analysis also prompts reflections on British metropolitan society. Criticism is often voiced of its elitist and class-ridden structure, and its reluctance to change. British educational institutions, especially the public schools and the older universities, are frequently blamed for perpetuating an outmoded class system and of bolstering privilege. Yet the evidence presented in this book would support an argument that, in the social changes from the mid-19th century onwards, these very institutions responded in an open and meritocratic way. British society changed by allowing considerable upward mobility through its schools and universities by means of competition and examination rather than by maintenance of patronage and privilege. Kirk-Greene emphasises the importance of the public and grammar schools in preparing men for imperial service. Yet those going to the colonies constituted but a tiny fraction of those going through the schools and universities. Their prime responsibility was to qualify men for life at home: in the professions, public service, business, finance, industry and commerce. Perhaps 21st-century Britain seems to some to be inadequately reformed not because an imperial past lies heavily upon it but rather because mainstream British culture values character, conformity and social cohesion above individual success, liberty and enterprise. From this perspective, the colonial officer was something of an eccentric, and undervalued, aberration from the norm.

Gordon Johnson is president, Wolfson College, Cambridge.


Britain's Imperial Administrators 1858-1966

Author - Anthony Kirk-Greene
ISBN - 0 333 73297 9
Publisher - Macmillan
Price - £50.00
Pages - 347

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