When the World Was Red

By Herbert, Eugenia W. | African Studies Review, April 2003 | Go to article overview

When the World Was Red


Herbert, Eugenia W., African Studies Review


WHEN THE WORLD WAS RED Anthony Kirk-Greene. Britain's Imperial Administrators, 1858-1966 Basingstoke: Macmillan/New York: St. Martin's Press, 2000. xv + 347 pp. Map. Tables. Notes. Thematic bibliography. Index. $79.95. Cloth. $22.95. Paper.

Anthony Kirk-Greene. Glimpses of Empire: A Corona Anthology. London/New York: LB. Tauris, 2001. xxvi + 302 pp. Illustrations. Index of authors. Price not reported. Cloth.

Douglas Rimmer and Anthony Kirk-Greene, eds. The British Intellectual Engagement with Africa in the Twentieth Century. Basingstoke: Macmillan/New York: St. Martin's Press, 2000. xii + 267 pp. Maps. Index. $69.95. Cloth.

Anthony Kirk-Greene is the doyen of the historical study of British colonial administrators, having labored in what was for decades a distinctly unfashionable vineyard as far as Africanists were concerned. This was understandable at a time when imperial history was out of favor and when colonized people demanded to be the primary actors in their own dramas. But, as John Lonsdale has pointed out, colonial administrators are very much a part of this history; their role cannot simply be subsumed under the broad rubric of "colonialism" or seen as an extension of homeland politics. In Britain's Imperial Administrators, Kirk-Greene offers us the fruits of many years' labor and the reflections of a career that began with his own service as district officer in northern Nigeria.

It is easy to forget that on the eve of the second World War the British Empire, then at its height, "comprised... over a quarter of the world's inhabited landmass, eighty times the size of Great Britain" (23), not including the territories administered by Britain or its dominions on behalf of the League of Nations or the category of possessions known quaintly as "Miscellaneous Islands." The Empire had been acquired in such a haphazard way (if not exactly in a fit of absent-mindedness) that it is hardly surprising that it resisted unified administration at the top. Kirk-Greene provides an historical overview of how the various parts of the Empire came under British rule, summarizing the crucial role of chartered companies in many parts of the world and the subsequent creation of the India Office and Colonial Office as their holdings gradually came under the direct purview of Whitehall. Just to complicate matters, Sudan was administered by the Foreign Office.

As he points out in his introduction, the Indian Civil Service (ICS) "has been subjected to intense academic scrutiny" (1) since it was disbanded with Indian independence, but the same cannot be said for the Sudan Political Service (SPS) or for the Colonial Administrative Service (CAS) which, in characteristically British fashion, handled everything that didn't come under the ICS or the SPS, including Africa. The great virtue of KirkGreene's study is that it looks for the first time at the three services that, whatever their internal sense of difference, symbolized British overseas rule, "often reflecting shared background, education, training and motivation" (1). He does this, too, from the ground up-from the recruitment of junior officers to the proconsuls at the top-and he follows the story from the origins of each service to the period of decolonization.

One of the most interesting features of part 1, "Environment," is the author's analysis of what it actually means to speak of an administrative elite, what Philip Mason referred to as "picked men, picked from picked men" (quoted 7). In opposition to the theoreticians of the "new sociology," Kirk-Greene argues that class was at best a "secondary, not a primary construct" in the formation of the colonial services, for unlike the army and diplomacy, they did not require private means: "In those new civil services the element of class became not that of family, the primary context of English class, but of class formation, of elitist moulding: not of birth but of nurturing" (9). The great engine of this imperial socialization was the Victorian public school, which proliferated at almost the same rate as imperial acquisitions during the nineteenth century. …

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