M.C. Atkinson, An African Life, (Radcliffe Press), 1992
There is a tendency among both African and European historians to write off the colonial era as, in the words of the philosopher Hobbes, 'nasty, brutish and short.' In an historical sense it was certainly short but nasty and brutish are almost the last words which I would use to describe my experiences in Western Nigeria between 1939 and 1959.
The years which my wife and I spent there were very happy ones and we should like to send to its peoples a belated but nonetheless sincere 'thank you' for the friendliness and considera tion which they showed to us. To those Nigerians, whether Chiefs, political leaders or working colleagues, who are mentioned in these pages, my gratitude will, I hope, be apparent. It is, however, as much to the ordinary folk as to their leaders that our thanks are due. And let me not fail to mention my European colleagues - we were part of a Service to which I was proud and happy to belong.
Much of my account of twenty years as an administrative officer is light-hearted in tone. This is as it should be because relations between the Nigerians and ourselves were good practically all the time and we gave them at least as much amusement as they gave us. Relations might occasionally become strained during the tax collection season or when an unusual happening such as the epidemic of witch-hunting described in Chapter 6 occurred but they very quickly returned to normal. Compared with the decade we spent in Northern Ireland, which nevertheless we much enjoyed, or with present-day Britain, life in the latter days of the colonial era was peaceful and free from tension.
Just as the amenities of electric light, fridges and running water found in Abeokuta were absent from the stations I was to inhabit in the use of my time in the bush so work among the Egbas differed a good deal from what I was to experience later. Because DOs, those jacks-of-all-trades, are now creatures of the past, it may be as well to give some idea of how they spent their time. Naturally this varied to some extent from station to station and individual to individual but the following probably gives a reasonable picture of the proportion of time spent on the various items in Western Region stations away from Provincial Headquarters:
1. Hearing complaints of all descriptions 15%
2. Reviewing Native Court cases 15%
3. Answering correspondence, including petitions 10%
4. Attending Council and other meetings 10%
5. Checking Native Authority accounts 10%
6. Dealing with tax collection (seasonal, overall) 5%
7. Investigating crime 5%
8. Supervising the local prison 5%
9. Constructing/inspecting roads, bridges and buildings 5%
10. Running the government local treasury 3%
11. Visiting Schools, dispensaries, infant welfare centres, leper settlements, model . farms, postal agencies, reading rooms and carrying out special assignments 17%
Office working hours were 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. from Monday to Friday and 8 a.m. to 12 noon on Saturday but the greater part of one's work was done outside the office and most of us were unable to do all that we needed to do, much less wanted to do, within the constraints of office hours. Residents were fond of telling new arrivals that Administrative Officers were on duty twenty-four hours a day seven days a week and this was true enough in any kind of emergency.
Part of one's time, and this did vary a good deal between individuals, would be spent on tour living in resthouses in order to carry out any of the functions previously listed except nos. 3, 8 and 10 which could only be dealt with at divisional headquarters. Residents had to send in each month to the Ibadan Secretariat a return of the nights spent on tour by himself, his DOs and ADOs, so that keeping up the touring figures was something one was constantly being enjoined to do. That one received 5/- (25p) a night was an inducement-it may not seem much until one recalls that your cook was expected to feed you for a week on 7/6 and always have enough food on hand to feed three others when in headquarters. On tour he would not have this problem but would have to cope with irregular lunch times; it was not unusual to arrive back at the resthouse for lunch between 4 and 5 p.m.
In stations like Abeokuta which were both provincial and divisional headquarters there were departmental officers to relieve the Administration of items 7, 8 (until the Superintendent of Prisons was transferred from Abeokuta), 9 and 11. There were other factors which cut down the volume of work on items 2 and 4; with only a single native authority (apart from the subordinate Otta NA) there were fewer meetings to attend and because Ake A Court was an appellate court from all others in the division, the DO only had to spend an hour or two on Saturday mornings reviewing native court cases. Hence the pattern of work in Egba ran something like this:
1. Hearing complaints 20%
2. Dealing with petitions 20%
3. Answering correspondence, other than petitions 20%
4. Checking NA accounts 10%
5. Tax collecting 8%
6. Attending meetings 5%
7. Liason with departmental officers 5%
8. Government Treasury 5%
9. Magistrates court 5%
10. Reviewing native court cases 2%
The most wearisome task was the answering of petitions. Other superiors in Ibadan and Lagos were insistent that there was a principle which must be preserved at all costs-that the least of His Majesty's subjects or protected persons had the right of petition up to the Throne itself. Abeokuta was particularly prolific in petitioners and the conjunction of these two factors meant that one of the Egba Division's four administrative officers, fortunately for me it was the senior ADO, had to spend practically all his time dealing with the outpourings of the local letter-writers. Petitioners, except where the letter-writer was himself the petitioner, were usually illiterate and the amount the scribes were supposed to charge them was laid down by law and had to be recorded on each copy of the petition. One did not have to be unduly cynical to suspect that the amount set down did not always tally with the amount actually paid.
A petition could be addressed to any one of six persons. In ascending order they were the DO, the Resident, the Chief Commissioner, the Governor, the Secretary of State for the Colonies, and His Majesty. Petitions addressed to the higher authorities had to pass through each of the lower ones and the number of copies required was equal to the number of rungs in the ladder plus one. Thus a petition addressed to the DO had to be sent in duplicate; one to His Majesty in septuplicate. A reply was always sent, eventually. A petition to the Governor would, on average, receive a reply within nine months; one to the Secretary of State or His Majesty (which meant the same thing in practice) was likely to take anything up to fifteen months wending its way up the line and down the line. As often as not, the reply was to the effect that the addressee had nothing to add to the advice already given by the DO/Resident/His Honour the Chief Commissioner/His Excellency the Governor but it was always headed and tailed in the same way:
I have the honour to refer to your petition of . . . and I am directed to inform you that.
I have the honour to be, Sir,
Your most humble, obedient Servant
One petitioner filled seven office files averaging 200 pages each in a single year, but he was a letter-writer.
There was the occasional petition which relieved the monotony because of its conscious or unconscious humour. The prolific letter-writer mentioned above once wrote a seven-page effusion accusing DO Newington at length of raping his wife, indecently assaulting his daughter, wounding his brother, and using such bad words on petition that he could not even understand them. He ended his petition, 'I can only conclude from all the above that the DO does not love me at all.'
On Monday night 5th Janurary we dined with Lady Cromer and her son Evelyn Baring. He is a splendid specimen of a young man, about 6ft 3 and broad. He's in the Indian Civil Service and is over here on behalf of the Indian Government trying to soften down the anti-Indian legislation which the South African Government are proposing to pass. He was extremely interesting about the position in India, very moderate in his views and obviously liking the Indian peasant. He is going back to a Frontier Station where his work will be mostly political, and he is very keen on it. I should think he ought to do well.
Friday 9 to Tuesday 13 January (back at Mafeking)
Pongo is an intense joy and sticks to me like a shadow--trots along by my pony to the office and back, curls up in my office all the morning and occupies the best chair in my study when I work at home. We are known as the 'fighting dog and man' and I'm bound to say he'll go for anything that walks or crawls, other dogs, bulls, goats, spikder, scorpions, rats, snakes or anything else. He's a great comfort and quick as lightning after mice.
Altogether things aren't too bad, though official troubles never cease. The latest are a threatened invasion of locusts and rumoured spread of Tsetse fly.
So we are busy preparing plans for a locust campaign, enrolling volunteers, instructing natives, lyaing in a store of drums of poison stuff and pumps to spray fire and poison on the locusts if and when they arrive--a warm welcome.
Tsetse is more difficult--but we are experimenting with a new fly trap invented by one Harris which is supposed to be wonderful--it catches them by the millions apparently. However I believe the Tsetse scare to be unfounded--but as i have to send six hundred miles to verify the reports, I can't decide in five minutes!
Africa is a hard country to live in . In spite of its beauty and its wonderful climate one has to fight ceaselessly to live--drought, floods, hail, locusts, Tsetse, cattle disease, fever, etc. But after all, it's all this battling that makes life worth living--it would be indeed be dull to sit down in Whitehall and deal with papers after this!
Monday 26 January
A telegram just in reporting a fracas near Francistown (three hundred miles up north) between Bamangwato and Masarwa--apparently a few dead and wounded. So I'm off by the night mail, leaving here 8:30 pm and arriving at Francistown midday tomorrow--I hope to be in time for the fun.
The Drurys left this morning by car for Rhodesia--they stopped at the Camp on their way and everyone turned out and gave them a rousing send-off. I'm sorry they're leaving as he is a good fellow, and Mrs. Drury the ablest woman in the Protectorate. The pity is that she always ran him, and people didn't like it--really they were jealous of her.
Tuesday 27 January
The fracas is not as serious as was thought at first. Apparently a party of five Bamangwato raided another cattlepost belonging to other Bamangwato and seized and took away three Masarwa (two men and one woman). The Masarwa are a subject race whom the Bamangwato regard as slaves--which of course we won't tolerate.
They beat one Mosarwa to death, and almost killed the other two--they were all left lying in the bush until the woman crawled to the nearest native huts and gave the alarm. Then our police got busy, motor-cars were rushed out, and the Medical Officer brought in the Masarwa. Police scoured the country, got on the spoor of the raiding party and captured several. The Medical Officer told me he had counted over three hundred wounds on the body of the man who died! I inspected the other two: the man had over two hundred wounds and the woman over seventy! I have never seen such a foul sight in my life--and by heavens if it can be brought home to these devils they shall hang.
I caught the 10:30 night mail home. Just as the train was starting a trooper rode up and reported that they had captured all the Bamangwato concerned in the murder and that they confessed. So now I'll have two murder cases to try--a nasty business.
Wednesday 28 January
After a good night I spent the morning on the train talking to Jennings the London Missionary Society man. A poisonous toad who has been responsible for most of the trouble we have had with Tshekedi and the Bamangwato tribe about mining and other matters.
I spoke to him for the good of his soul and I think we've fixed the basis of an agreement--but whether he'll stick to it or not is another matter.
Thursday 29 to Saturday 31 January
Thursday and Friday were a really terrific drive completing the budget proposals for 1931-32--a ghastly business as the Railway Comapny are trying to rob us of £30,000 in income tax and I can't see easily how on earth I'm going to make it up. But it's got to be done.
On Saturday morning we made up our minds to dash off to inspect Lehututu, an outpost in the desert, four hundred miles away and very little known. No Resident Commissioner has ever been there! and I have always meant to go as soon as possible.
Wednesday 4 to Saturday 7 February
A very strenuous week in the Office preparatory to our departure for Lehututu. I have made up my mind that we cannot stand this enslavement of the Masarwa by the Bamangwato any more, and I have proposed a cocked hat official enquiry into the whole question. This will raise Hail Columbia and make the Colonial Office wild--as the policy hitherto has been hush-hush. But there is bound to be a row about the Masarwa sooner or later, and then I shall be damned for having allowed it to go on. So I've decided to make the row myself and a drastic dispatch has gone Home--great fun, another hairy battle.
I also had a bad interview with that poisonous little rat Tshekedi, Chief of the Bamangwato. He is a nasty piece of work. He has deliberately disobeyed an order issued by the Secretary of State for the Colonies, the High Commissioner, and myself! The day is rapidly approaching when he will find himself 'in the consomme'--and that will mean another good old row with the tribe, who are about 60,000 strong.
Sunday 8 February
Mrs. Douthirt arrived today. She is that wonderful old American lady, who goes wandering about Africa, Asia, Australia and America, all alone with a couple of handbags and a cheque book. We met her some five or six years ago in one of those poisonous little boats that potter about the Red Sea when we were trying to get to Aden and had got to Berbera instead. Her latest effort was to drop down in South West Africa, reach Windhoek, and get the taxi driver there to take her on to the Portuguese Congo! The papers were full of it last year. Directly she heard of our trip to Lehututu was on she had to come too.
So now the party will be as follows:
Lorry No. 1. Driven by Sharp our guide, with Chase perched on the seat beside him. Behind, one hundred gallons petrol, fifty gallons water, food, kit and tents and bedding, onto which two native police will cling.
"Topsy". Ninon and I with Dr. Dyke, driven by our faithful Marzipan (Matsepane), who is convinced we will all die of thirst in the desert.
Lorry No. 2. Driven by an unknown white man with Mrs. Douthirt perched on the seat next to him. More water, petrol, spare tyres and food etc. One more native servant will cling on to the top.
Wednesday 11 February
I had a hugely successful meeting with a crowd of LMS missionaries who had the cheek to write me an offensive letter and go back on arrangements formally agreed with us. So I had the pleasure of telling them just where they got off--and generally wiping the floor with them--it was a real joy. Of course they climbed down and said they meant nothing of the sort, etc., and they took back their letter and we parted as brothers!
A bad crowd--they ought to be doing 'time'.
Bryan used to go to his office, a flat-roofed, mud bulding which looked more like a barn, at half-past seven every morning. He returned for breakfast regularly at half-past nine and by ten o'clock he was away again until three in the afternoon, when he returned for lunch. 'No wife with any brains is ever bored in Nigeria. There is so much in the country of interest,' I remember being told on board the Abosso by those who should know. Nevertheless, after an hour of sitting reading or knitting, the time was still only eleven and there seemed to be nothing to do until lunch time, three solid hours away. Perhaps I could be taking an interest in the house and indeed I had made some tactful suggestions to Usuman about ways in which 'we' might improve it, but he seemed quite unable to understand my English. Tanko and Musa spoke nothing but Hausa.
'So much in the country of interest,' I repeated to myself one morning when the silence of the DO's house had become more than I could bear. 'Well, why not go out and find it?' I put on my terai and sunglasses and set forth in the blazing sun. Following a footpath which led across the park-like clearing surrounding the DOs hourse, I soon found myself in the bush. It so happened that Bryan returned from his office early that day and was horrified when he found me not there.
'Where is missus?'
Usuman did not know. He had been asleep under a mango tree just outside the boy's quarters. At last a policeman was found who said he had seen me walking down the path leading to the bush. He had probably thought me quite mad, like all white women. So I was discovered, not far way, sitting on an antihill and watching some lizards.
'Really,' Bryan protested. 'You mustn't go wandering about the bush by yourself like that. There are such things as dangerous animals, and dangerous people too, religious fanatics for instance.' He then told me how he himself had been attacked by two Muslim fanatics only a few years before.
There had been several outbreaks of religious violence about this time and one district officer had been seriously wounded. 'Even now,' Bryan concluded, 'There are dangerous men amongst the mentally unhinged and you find them sometimes, wandering by themselves in the bush.'
That dangerous animals, and particularly reptiles, existed I was soon to discover for myself. Bryan told the policeman normaally on duty guarding the house, to follow me if I went out by myself again. I did, of course, repeatedly, and found that trying to elude 'my' policeman was an excellent cure for boredom.
Stanley Portal Hyatt, The Old Transport Road, (African Book Society), 1994 (originally published 1914)
Life in South Africa always revolves around the canteen. Eliminate the whisky, and half the little veld-townships would cease to exist.
Personally, I blame no man for drinking heavily in South Africa. I did so myself, comparatively speaking. I was only a youngster, reallly--I was about nineteen when I landed there--but soon I was able to hold my own fairly well. On the mines, and in those wrteched little townships, the canteen was, of necessity, the centre of social life. The white women were so very few that, save in a few rare instances, they had no effect on the community in general.
Men drank--we all drank--because there was nothing else to do. The weaklings died quickly, of course; and some who were not altogether weak died too. Most of the men of those days are dead--nine-tenths of them are dead, I suppose--which is one of the reasons why, to-day, I am amongst the most lonely of mankind, why because, when I write of those old days, the tears will insist on coming into my eyes.
I suppose that a scientific observer, having watched the Home-born men in Rhodesia in those days, weight them up mentally, tabulated their characteristics, woudl have come to the conclusion that the majority of them consisted of atavisms. They were not normal products of the nineteenth century; there was no taint of the Victorian Age on them, no smugness, no false sentiment, no fear...
...There is none of that spirit in South Africa to-day. Most of the men who did the Pioneer work are dead, and the majority of the remainder shook the dust of the country off their feet when the spoils of war were handed back to the Boers. 'Civis Romanus sum' is ever the motto of the Pionner. He comes from Home, and he hopes, when he has made his money, to return Home to spend it. The very idea of Colonial self-government is detestable to him. Being a Public School man, he has been taught, and remembers vaguely, that the Roman Empire fell when the Provincials were allowed to become Roman citizens.
[Warning: this one is racist and offensive in spots. It's also quite weird, which is why I include it here.]
"Colonisation Through the Bed", by Dr. Barot, 1902
How should the European conduct himself in West Africa? For those who lack the moral strength necessary to endure two years of absolute continence, only one line of conduct is possible: a temporary union with a well-chosen native woman. Such a union generally lasts throughout a tour of duty. The reasons which make it necessary are:
Health Precautions . A woman chosen in these conditions is generally healthy; while black prostitutes, not being submitted to medical inspection, are almost always infected. Many black women, especially Fulas, are relatively faithful, whatever may have been said about them; whether out of self-esteem or honesty they not deceive the European whom they have agreed to marry temporarily.
Respect . A marriage contracted with an influential chief's daughter may serve to tighten the bonds of sympathy which bind the Negro to the European and facilitate the administration of the country. Among certain peoples, the Baoule for example, the women, who are all-powerful, come readily to us, and will be one of our strongest instruments of pacification. It should be remember that most of the treaties signed with great Negro chiefs have been ratified by a white man's marriage with one of their daughters.
Discipline The European who has no native wife is not well regarded by soldiers, servants and married natives placed under his orders, who are always afraid that he will abuse his position. The Negroes are very jealous of their wives and examples may be cited of Europeans who have met their death through having, in a moment of aberration or oblivioun, sought to possess married negresses.
Hygiene The European who has a native wife, if she is not too unintelligent, finally becomes a little attached to her; she diverts him, cares for him, dispels boredom and sometimes prevents him from indulging in alcoholism or sexual debauchery, which are unfortunately so common in hot countries.
Instruction Finally, a union with a native woman is one of the surest ways to learn the native language quickly, to penetrate to the heart of secret customs, to learn the songs and legends of peoples (which are often very pretty)--in a word to understand the black soul.
After deciding to take a wife, one conforms to the custom of the country in which one finds oneself. The parents or masters of the young lady are asked for her hand. The amount of bride-price payable is settled with them, and when agreement is reached the woman is taken away without futher formality. This act must always be brought to the notice of the local Commandant.
The love feasts and festivities usual in Negro marriages are not appropriate when Europeans are involved.
On returning to France one sends the young lady back to her family, after making her a present which will immediately assure her of a husband. Former wives of Europeans are in great demand among the Negroes and can generally make very good marriages.
Certainly, from the point of view of strict morality these unions are to be condemned; but one must take account of the differences of civilisation and environment of the country and of the conditions of life in which one finds oneself in the colonies and apply to these temporary unions the formula we used about polygamy: a necessary evil.
Of course, if these unions should lead to the birth of children, the father (if he is sure of the fact) will have to concern himself with their future...The whole problem of adapting our races to these climates lies there; it is by creating mulatto races that we most easily Gallicise West Africa.
Isak Dinesen, Out of Africa, (Vintage Books), 1985. (Orig. pub. 1937)
As for me, from my first weeks in Africa, I had felt a great affection for the Natives. It was a strong feeling that embraced all ages and both sexes. The discovery of the dark races was to me a magnificent enlargement of all my world. If a person with an inborn sympathy for animals had grown up in a milieu where there were no animals, and had come into contact with animals late in life; or if a person with an instinctive taste for woods and forest had entered a forest for the first time at the age of twenty; or if some one with an ear for music had happened to hear music for the first time when he was already grown hup; their cases might have been similar to mine. After i met with the Natives, I set out the routine of my daily life to the Orchestra...
...It was not easy to get to know the Natives. They were quick of hearing, and evanescent; if you frightened them, they would withdraw into a world of their own, in a second, like the wild animals which at an abrupt movement from you are gone,--simply are not there. Unless you knew a Native well, it was almost impossible to get a straight answer from him. To a direct question as to many cows he had, he had an eluding reply,--'As many as I told you yesterday.' It goes aginst the feelings of Europeans to be answered in such a manner, it very likely goes against the feelings of the Natives to be questioned in this way. If we pressed or pursued them, to get an explanation of their behaviour out of them, they receded as long as they possibly could, and then they used a grotesque humorous fantasy to lead us on the wrong track. Even small children in this situation had all the quality of old Poker-players, who do not mind if you overvalue or undervalue their hand, so long as you do not know its real nature. When we really did break into the Natives' existence, they behaved like ants, when you poke a stick into their ant-hill; they wiped out the damage with an unwearied energy, swiftly and silently,--as if obliterating an unseemly action.
We could not know, and could not imagine, what dangers they feared from our hands.
The peoples of color are unquestionably not black, yellow, red but certainly white. And they're only white because there's no mark yet that indicates their quality. Open your eyes and look! Look closely, observe ten white faces--that's at least ten different colors. but for whites these aren't true colors because they're artificial. Blacks, who confront whites and dispute their right to existence, know better. After all, didn't they arrive in the land of the Redskins before the Statue of Liberty and the other pilgrims? Haven't they worked this land with their hands, flooded it with sweath, populated it with dreams, and charmed it with songs? The color white is too fresh; it hasn't had enough time to stick to the skin! Whites suffer knowing this. The child's grown up and is no longer afraid of either the ogre or the Grand Wizard with his colored face. Now when the Ku Klux Klan makes its nightly rounds, American black kids clap their hands to make the Grand Wizard dance. They, too, have turned a page in their history.
And so I wind up back where I began, a white man in the white suburbs of white South Africa, bobbing up and down on the cross of my ambiguities and pondering the only meaningful choice that is mine to make: to stay here or go away. i could board a plane and leave, I suppose, but I've done that too often before, and each flight has left me more diminished, more often dishonored than the one before. A tombstone is still waiting for me in Los Angeles, reading 'He Ran Away.' I don't want to be buried under such an epitaph, and moreover, I don't want to die of boredom, which is another reason why I stay. There's something to be said for living on the edge, in a country where rival kingdoms of consciousness overlap and interact in strange and intoxicating ways. There's a Zulu witchdoctor in the house next door, and the ether is full of exotic musics and voices that speak in tongues. On Saturday night a procession of African Zionists looms out of the darkness like a hallucination from a Marquez novel, wearing robes, bearing crosses, beating drums and singing. I could spend the rest of my life in Los Angeles, and never ever see anything quite so magical. This is where I come from, and this is where I will stay.
That being the case, there is only one path for the likes of me, the path that leads into Africa, the path of no guarantees...The place where we are going will clearly be very different from the whites-only moonbase where I was born. Strange terrors and ecstacies await us in Africa, but that is the choice we face: either we take up arms and fight, or we open the door to Africa and set forth into the unknown.