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Return to the Islands


page 209



I was too busy obeying orders and learning about people in my apprentice days to be worrying much about what the Colonial Office really did mean by that terrifying phrase 'qualities of leadership,' and kind Mr. Johnson had retired by the time I got back to London. I never heard the answer; but I do not think it matters, because whatever the official ideal of leadership may have been in 1913, it is doubtless as dead today as the old imperialism that fostered it. The Heaven-born Big-White-Master theory of colonial administration began to crack up generously with the publication of Lord Lugard's epoch-making Dual Mandate in 1921, and great influences in the Colonial Office were pushing open back-doors in Whitehall for its relegation to viewless junk-yards during the late 'twenties and early 'thirties of the century.

It was in about the early 'thirties that officers of my generation in the Pacific were first really prodded into sitting up and taking notice that our duty as officials was to operate less like page 210the rulers, and more like the stewards, of the people among whom we worked. I cannot remember that the ideal of stewardship was ever propounded to us in so many words as an official doctrine. I don't think it ever was. It merely integrated itself in our minds from the changed nature of the orders we received from Downing Street. These not only told us in greater detail than ever before what to do and how to do it, but they called for results, and reports upon results into the bargain. Their insistences drilled us into accepting a part of our minimum routine a number of field activities which, until then, had been left very much to our personal choice. Our service began to look more like a service and less like a squirearchy. In short, we had to hop around doing things for the simple sake of being worth the salaries the local tax-payers paid us. It was very good for all of us, from Governors down to cadets.

The new philosophy filtered through to us over the next few years in varying states of dilution or concentration. Political changes at home were not the only reason for that. There was also a tough Old Guard of senior officials both in Whitehall and in the field who did not take kindly to the accelerated decay of the proconsular tradition. But there was continual pressure for the review, and revision, and more vigorous administration of laws affecting the fundamental rights of underprivileged peoples. We groaned at the endless questionnaires; we pointed out that dozens of its assumptions were false, scores of its suppositions mere mare's-nests; and what we said was often true; half the stuff that came down to us was grotesquely wide of the mark. But the other half went straight to the bull's-eye. The circular instructions on a vast range of subjects addressed to Governors in the field played a critical part in educating all of us up to a modern view of our colonial obligations.

As early as 1936, long forward strides in the delegation of power to colonial peoples began to be taken. From that year onwards, the official blocs which had traditionally dominated page 211the vote in many local legislatures began to be cut down to three members and superseded by large majorities of non-officials. Wherever that has been achieved (and the pace and scope of reforms have increased much of late) the Governor of a colony no longer operates as the celestial autocrat of his political breakfast-table. Apart from the exercise of his strictly bridled reserve powers—which happens once in a blue moon— the enormous majority of his business is confined to administering the government within the limits of local laws passed by the representatives of the people. In effect, where once his sole ultimate obligations were to take orders from a super-celestial Secretary of State sitting in Whitehall and to see that the official bloc passed them into law, he now owes a two-fold loyalty. On one side, he is still the servant of the United Kingdom which appointed him; on the other, he is the servant of the community whose free vote provides his salary and finances the public service which he controls.

The old imperialism never did want for Governors and field-officers eager to lend themselves wholly to the service of the peoples they were sent to rule. But that was the greatness of the men, not of the system. The truest kind of leadership in those days was to be one of an almost forgotten host working in the colonies to give the he by tacit example to every truculence of the Jingo doctrine. Not the imperialism of Britain, but the liberalism of individual Britons, plugging along at their jobs in the field, was the force that held the affections of simple peoples true to the mother-country throughout the long era of autocratic rule.

In its own way our system worked, on the whole, with real benevolence among simple peoples. When we got into the field we saw it inspiring many of our senior officers to earnest work, and often deep self-sacrifice, in desolate places. We took these as our heroes and tried to follow in their footsteps. It was very seldom that we ran up against an open difference of opinion between an unsophisticated population and Whitehall. When we did, we took it for granted that somebody must page 212evenntually play the part of the good little boy, and that this somebody mustn't—couldn't possibly be—a Secretary of State (or even an Assistant Under Secretary of State) for the Colonies. It was our job to convey this politely to our villagers, and we generally managed to do so because they truly were our friends. We did not stop to think then how much more the maintenance of Pax Britannica owed to their marvellous patience and courtesy with us than to the inherent virtue of ourselves or our system.

As cadets, we had to pass examinations in native languages, which opened the door to personal conversation with the people. There was much house-to-house visitation in the villages, and we did try to learn a little about native customs; but when it came to manners, we felt that here was a subject which we had to teach rather than learn. Setting aside high ceremonial occasions, it occurred to few European officers of the day that their own behaviour as guests could possibly be criticized by their village hosts.

I often heard authority say in those days that sympathy is a quality which cannot be taught, anyhow, to officers who have it not within them. That was the usual starting-point for criticism of plans to improve our understanding of colonial populations through the teaching of ethnology and history. It took some time for us to worry out our answers. The one that I always liked best was that what most men need or expect from their neighbours in any environment is not a diurnal gush of sympathetic emotion over the hedge, but just a silent respect for their private occasions. Romans are ultimately convinced of the stranger's goodwill towards them, not by the extent to which he does as Romans do, but by the extent to which he avoids treading upon their innocent grass-plots. Workaday sympathy for neighbours is, in fact, most commonly expressed through a number of civilized avoidances, which are usually drilled into one during childhood by a series of fundamental Don'ts. The very least that ethnology and history have to teach any colonial administrative service is a list of such page 213local Don'ts. On that minimum claim alone they qualify for the attention of anyone—whether administrator, or missionary, or business man—who really wants to be accepted as a desirable import by the colonial community of his choice.

As time went on, we were encouraged to take up ethnology more seriously by the establishment of courses in that subject for administrative recruits in England. But I think that the generality of us went on for a long time looking upon the study of native custom rather as a pleasantly recondite personal hobby than as a means of getting down to the bedrock of a people's will to live, work and develop under the impact of European ideas. To borrow the memorable phrase of an African spokesman recently heard on the air, our kindness consisted mostly of treating local populations as babies to be spoonfed, whether they liked the spoon or not. Generally speaking, we were earnest in the delegation of authority by limited instalments on the lines of Lord Lugard's teaching. But I must admit that the policy appealed to us most of all as a convenient device for enlisting the collaboration of local bodies in our particular way of cultivating the imperial rose-garden. Some time was to pass before we began to look upon it as a technique for the gradual transfer of political initiative from ourselves to them. Our official ideal, in the last analysis, was to rule rather than to find out how far the people's national genius could be canalized or developed in the direction of self-rule.

'Partnership' is now the word used to define Britain's relationship with her colonies. It is a good word to connote the just balance of initiative between home and colonial governments, pending a time when full autonomy for all can be achieved. But it fails entirely to cover the functions or motives of the intermediary between the partners—the Colonial Service, as such. Co-equal partners may deal in government, but the service in their dual employ simply serves. Colonial administrations today are agents, not rulers. Stewardship is their ultimate business in the field, and it is page 214part of their stewardship to keep their employers—Britain on one hand, the colonies of their service on the other—on constant terms of mutual understanding and sympathy. Theirs is a continuous, two-way, holding-together service of representation and interpretation. There never was an age when they wielded less political power or had the chance to wield so mighty a personal influence for political peace and human unity.

Because of the loss of political initiative and the increase of psychological responsibility (or, as I privately and sentimentally prefer to say, because now not heads and hands alone, but hearts also must be officially engaged in the work of stewardship), the personal capacity of the administrative officer in the field to understand and interpret his community is today more important than ever it was before. The Colonial Office has recognized the demand and risen to it. Its courses of training for aspirants to colonial service have been profoundly and, as I think, nobly refashioned of late. The intentions of the courses established at Oxford, Cambridge and London are to send out young men educated in political and economic subjects, endowed with an ideal of interdepartmental team-work in the field, pre-sensitized to the cultures of the peoples they are to serve, and inspired with a will to speed forward the enlistment of local genius in the development of free local institutions.

Voices have been raised to conjecture drearily that the courses may flood the colonies with a breed of arrogant young doctrinaires, impatient of the slowness of simple peoples in responding to schemes devised for their own benefit. Pups, in short, just as my Old Man of Ocean Island was calling me and my species all those years ago. The Old Guard dies hard and its criticisms always carefully sidestep every vital, heartening fact. The main fact about the present training scheme is, of course, that it stands for an official ideal of administration fit at last to inspire a whole Service instead of leaving the Service to be uplifted, as of old, only here and there from with-page 215in itself by a leaven of inspired officers. This is leadership coming from the right direction—the top—the Colonial Office, and it is enough, by my reckoning, to send young men into the field today a great deal less puzzled about the leaderly qualities expected of them than I was in 1913.

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