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Go out and govern New South Wales

‘In the mists and damp of the Scottish Highlands, 61-year-old Sir Bartle Frere was writing a letter.

23 April 2011

12:00 AM

23 April 2011

12:00 AM

Running the Show: Governors of the British Empire Stephanie Williams

Viking, pp.493, 20

‘In the mists and damp of the Scottish Highlands, 61-year-old Sir Bartle Frere was writing a letter.

‘In the mists and damp of the Scottish Highlands, 61-year-old Sir Bartle Frere was writing a letter. Straight-backed, grey-haired, he had the bright eye and bristled moustache of an ageing fox-terrier.’ Reading this, at the beginning of a chapter, we cannot be sure whether what follows will be Lytton Strachey or John Buchan. The tale might go either way. The letter might be either an invitation to shoot grouse or in answer to a summons to cope with a crisis threatening the British empire.

The second guess would be right. The letter was replying to a request from the Colonial Secretary Lord Carnarvon to take up a special appointment in South Africa, namely to fuse the Cape Colony and Natal with the Boer republic of Transvaal and the Orange Free State. Sir Bartle was not a man to hesitate. He accepted with particular zest because he was asked to carry out a plan dear to his heart. He had long been keen to transform a group of rather messy colonies into a tidy confederation under the British Crown.

Within a few weeks he was dining with the Queen at Windsor and settling his salary with the Secretary of State. By the spring of 1877 he was installed in Cape Town. The sequel was his harsh ultimatum to the Zulus, and the disaster of Isandlwana, redeemed to some extent by the gallantry of Rorke’s Drift. Michael Caine has helped to make the story familiar, using the usual British device of conceding defeat behind a smokescreen of heroism.

Stephanie Willams shows a strong grasp of narrative as she develops her account of selected colonial governors in the decades between 1857 and 1912. She emphasises that there was no stereotype of a colonial governor; they were a decidedly mixed bunch. India was never a colony, so there are no viceroys. One or two are grandees. The Marquis of Lorne, heir to the dukedom of Argyll, married Queen Victoria’s daughter Louise. The marriage was not a success, and they had no children. But Lorne, as governor general, made a historic expedition in Canada as far West as Calgary, designed as the terminal of the Canadian Pacific Railway. The railway opened up land for ranching cattle and growing wheat. Lorne’s task was to persuade the Indians that their future depended on finding jobs in a land dominated by whites. He had learned to love Canada, but in this task he failed; not least because of the attitudes across the border. ‘Yankees shoot them whenever they see them, which I think monstrous and abominable’ he wrote to Queen Victoria.

Williams, herself a Canadian, deals fairly with this issue, as she does with all the awkward choices which faced colonial governors, and shows no bias against imperial rule. There was a natural sympathy between the Governor and the governed, and therefore an antipathy to planters, settlers, and indeed all intruders whose arrival theatened to upset the established order of things.

Sir Arthur Gordon, for example, was ‘a small man with dark thinning hair and a wispy beard, a rather limp appearance, short sighted and ill at ease’. But he was the youngest son of a prime minister, Lord Aberdeen, and moved easily through the corridors of power. He worked with Gladstone in the Ionian Isles, later by himself in New Brunswick, Trinidad, Mauritius and eventually Fiji. In Fiji he took on the planters, and established the structure of representative institutions which safeguards Fijian rights. Faced with rebellion, he preferred to muster a Fijian militia rather than rely on British soldiers, thus avoiding the appearance of a race war.

Returning unwillingly to Fiji, he left behind his wife and children, and wrote to Gladstone:

I gave up my wife, my children, my comfortable home, my good library, my nice garden, to go and live among natives who don’t know anything of one’s work for them, and among whites who hate one for interfering with their ‘British liberty’ to do as they like with the blacks.

But he had no doubt where his duty lay.

Williams gives much space to the wives. They often produced a baby each year, but were expected to play a full part in their husband’s activities. Lady Tennyson noticed that the garish colours favoured by the citizens of Adelaide drew much more attention than her own restrained dresses. She suffered from the muscular grip of Australian men as she shook hands, ‘which made me many times about to disgrace myself by screaming out.’

Williams covers a great deal of ground from the Falklands to the Caribbean to Hong Kong. She compresses her narrative so that we are introduced to a notable character on almost every page. During her chosen period, the empire not only grew but changed character. The buccaneering types who represented Britain when Queen Victoria came to the throne mutated into the stiff formalisation of Edwardian life, complete with plumes of white swan worn with the black silk cocked hat. Noisy nationalist politicians began to complicate the lives of governors, whose predecessors had concentrated on dealing with epidemics of measles or the spread of the sleeping sickness induced by the tsetse fly. There were greats like Lugard, the architect of indirect rule of Nigeria, and Frank Swettenham, the master of Malaya. The Fabian, Sydney Oliver, had to handle the Kingston earthquake while corresponding with Bernard Shaw. His politics nearly got him into trouble with the Colonial Secretary, Joe Chamberlain. ‘I will not have any politics in the Colonial Office’ he wrote, ‘and if Mr Oliver cannot keep his personal views to himself he had better resign and the whole world may have the benefit of his socialism.’

In Kenya, Sir Percy Girouard allowed himself to be bulldozed by Lord Delamere into ordering the Masai to leave Laikipia for white settlements. Sir Hugh Clifford made his reputation in Ceylon and inspired Noel Coward to write ‘Mad Dogs and Englishmen’; he wrote novels himself, knew Conrad and became increasingly odd, ending his life in the Priory at Roehampton.

Behind the plumage there was a touch of eccentricity about most of the governors portrayed here. Otherwise they would hardly have chosen to pick up the white man’s burden. They make an excellent book.

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