PEOPLE who live in a city get a wholly different impression of it from strangers who look at it from a neighboring hill. The two parties would find difficulty, if they could conduct a discussion by telephone, in coming to any sound conclusions about its architecture or layout. Much the same is true of an institution. It seems desirable, therefore, before discussing any part of that most controversial of institutions, the British Colonial Empire (as distinct from the dominions), to consider frankly the American and British views of it, in the hope that the distance which separates them may at least be measured, and even, possibly, narrowed.

The American view which reaches us through war's interruptions and by way of our shrunken newspapers may be put in the following brief and therefore blunt terms: "The British are guilty of a sin called Empire. They committed it against the American people until these broke clear of British control to become a nation. The Americans are innocent of any such a guilt. They thus are in a moral position to condemn Britain as they watch her continuing in her way of sin against other people. The situation is the more distressing to Americans as they are being asked, in this war, to defend and support the British Empire."

Now let us move over to the British angle of vision: "The American colonists were, in the main, an extension of the British people. They enjoyed a liberty then unknown to colonists of other empires. When a British government foolishly tried to restrict this liberty, the Americans, having reached a situation in which they could dispense with British protection, very rightly asserted their independence. The same expansive energy continued to carry both peoples forward. The Americans, finding a large and undeveloped continent at their doors, drove across it, and, indeed, beyond it. The British, confined to a small island, burst out into large and undeveloped regions overseas. Neither nation allowed the rights or interests of foreign states or of the native inhabitants to stand in the way of their main purpose. The British do not admit, in this context, any fundamental moral difference in the records and character of the two peoples."

All this has to do with past history. But Britain also makes a claim regarding the present and future of her Empire. This, in so far as it refers to one continent, forms the subject of the present article.


Tropical Africa is appropriately chosen to illustrate Britain's position. Of the three main groups of Britain's colonial territories, it is, for obvious strategical and geographical reasons, the one which is likely to emerge from this transforming war with the least change, and to continue the longest thereafter with a minimum of change.

There is one internal reason for this which must be discussed at the start, as it takes us to the heart of the British misunderstanding with America. It is the backwardness of tropical Africa. Critics treat statements of the fact of backwardness with suspicion, on the ground that the British either exaggerate it in words or, still worse, prolong it by policy. Many of us in Britain have shared this view and consequent impatience in some measure. But the word "measure" is all-important. When we in Britain hear it said that the African colonies should be emancipated today or tomorrow we realize that we are working with different conceptions of time and on the basis of utterly different estimates of African realities from those used by American critics. It is ungracious and may be politically embarrassing for Britain to enlarge upon the backwardness of colonial peoples. It also is discouraging to them. That is why the central answer to the demand for their speedy emancipation is seldom given, or given in such general terms that it conveys little meaning and causes much suspicion.

How, then, are the British and Americans to find the common criteria for making the necessary political assessment? It cannot be made in an idealistic vacuum. The only method seems to be to translate Britain's problem into terms of America's own experience. America might, for example, be invited -- though in a spirit far removed from that of tu quoque -- to consider some of her own difficulties in the assimilation of backward citizens. She has found the betterment and education of the American Negroes no easy task, even though these are only a minority, cut off for generations from their African roots and forming a mere fraction of the most active, efficient and prosperous society in the world. There are also the remnants of the American Indians who, as a study of the annual reports of the Office of Indian Affairs reveals, have presented most stubborn problems to those charged with fitting them into their changed environment. It is against such difficulties as these that the immeasurably greater problems of African backwardness should be set.

In British tropical Africa there are nearly 50 million tribesmen, who have broken little or at all with their past, and who, instead of finding themselves a small part of a vast new whole, are subjected to the relatively weak and uneven influence of a mere handful of white officials and missionaries. Add to this the fact that the period during which there has been anything like close and full administration is little more than a generation, even in favored areas, and in others has hardly begun. By far the greater part of British tropical Africa was only being occupied in the early years of this century, and the preliminaries of establishing law and order, roughing out forms of administration, driving the first lines of communication into huge, inhospitable regions, and initiating social services, had hardly been completed by the outbreak of the First World War. Tropical Africa was involved in the hostilities and suffered also from the ensuing shortages of staff. Then followed a peace of boom and slump which struck the new unbalanced tropical economies with peculiarly damaging effect.

A nearer view of African backwardness may help to explain both the problem and the pace of its solution. The writer can claim to have such a view in some degree, having spent several years studying and travelling in almost every part of British tropical Africa and the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan, not only by plane, motor car, river steamer and railway, but on horse, mule, camel and foot.

Except in a few favored regions of the vast area in question, most of the people with whom the first British administrators in the first decade of the twentieth century had to deal lived on a bare subsistence basis in little dark huts made of sticks or mud. Their lives were bound down to poverty, not by any inherent racial inferiority but by the violent whims of a capricious climate and the attacks of wild beasts, tribal enemies and the tropical diseases which flourished in their own bodies and those of their domestic animals. Moreover, they were divided into many hundreds of completely independent units, mutually hostile, and possessing hundreds of different languages and cultures. These material facts are also facts of great political importance. No "progress" by American standards was possible until British administrative officials -- often with proportion of one to thousands or even tens of thousands of Africans -- had checked tribal wars, won some measure of confidence from conservative and suspicious chiefs and elders, and shifted a subsistence economy, in some fractional part, to an export and money basis. Only so could they raise taxes with which to finance the first desperately needed social services and public works. It is necessary to say all this because so many critics of European administration in Africa, even those who have made brief visits to the continent, ascribe the poverty, which despite all the changes of the last quarter of a century is still an outstanding feature of African life, to the neglect or even the positive action of the British Government.

To deal with poverty, ignorance and inertia on the immense scale in which it exists in tropical Africa demands, ideally, a proportionately immense effort. This has to be generated in the metropolitan country, and to do so between the two world wars did not prove easy for the British, distracted by many internal problems, new and old, as well as external dangers. Since we live in a real world and not an ideal one, it may be asked what other country in those particular years would have had the knowledge and devotion to do better. Perhaps Britain might have learned more from Russia's experience in raising the standard of living of masses of people. The two cases are not, however, really comparable. The culture-bearers in Russia were some millions in number, if we count members of the Party and their assistants, and they had leaders who were fired by revolutionary ideas and were ruthless in method. Their task was to push their influence outward over a vast but continuous stretch of territory and to act upon peoples with whom they shared common languages and a long history and who were not divided from them by any single clear racial gulf. In order to judge accurately the effort that has been made in British Africa we would not only have to be aware of the varying conditions of a dozen different territories, but to read the annual reports for each territory of almost a dozen departments of government over as many years, and also to survey the scientific researches that lie behind the activities of these departments. An understanding of the subject as a whole must be based on a knowledge of these details. Fortunately Lord Hailey has summarized much of this vast material in his great "African Survey." Certainly no critic would be justified in judging the British record who had not studied at least that work.

The charge that all this African poverty and backwardness is due mainly to British exploitation is a blind sweeping blow that utterly fails to hit the really vulnerable spots. Africa is a poor continent in almost every way apart from some very localized mineral wealth. The whole of Africa south of the Sahara provided in 1929 only 2.8 percent of world exports. Even the proportion of primary products for 1935 was only 2.8 percent. It must be remembered that these figures include the Union of South Africa, a self-governing member of the British Commonwealth, and all the non-British territories. British tropical Africa offered no essential product in important quantity except Northern Rhodesia's 12 percent (1934) of the world's copper. Among foodstuffs, the only striking figure is 57 percent of the world's cocoa. It contributes 43 percent (1933) of its palm-oil, which is, of course, only one of the world's nine main vegetable oils. To see the development of African production in terms of immense British profits is to disregard all the published figures, except in rare and generally short-lived instances; to connect it with monopoly is to ignore the outstanding problem of colonial economics, which, in many of the interwar years, was to find markets at prices which would repay cost of production to European and African farmers.

Discriminating criticism would probably find its best target in the practice of collecting large numbers of raw tribal laborers in certain mining areas. Since southern Africa is no longer an imperial responsibility, this criticism must in the present connection be directed mainly to the copper belt in Northern Rhodesia. Here British and American capital is permitted by the colonial government to maintain two complementary evils. One is the concentration of about 26,000 Africans (prewar figures), some of them from distant areas, as so-called "migrant labor." These men, adults in their prime, leave their homes for a year or more at a time to work in the mines, thereby seriously disturbing tribal and family life. The men may gain physically from regular rations and labor, but they are unlikely to become good farmers, husbands, fathers or members of the tribe. Most of the women stay home and try to do all the heavy agricultural work; but some follow the men to the labor lines to become prostitutes. The complementary evil is that the men are for the most part treated and paid as temporary bachelor labor. The influence of white labor from the south is working successfully to establish a color-bar to prevent the blacks from improving their skill and pay; and government and industry are excused from the burden of providing the social services that established married labor would require. The native reserves are often very poor farming land. They provide cheap breeding-grounds for labor, inadequate maintenance for wives and children and a scrap-heap for discarded miners. In the last few years native labor riots have twice had to be put down with bloodshed. It is true that some doubts about the system are at last being expressed and some alleviations are under way. The factors in the problem have been summarized here in strong terms, however, to show that indefinite and generalized allegations about exploitation are far less effective than criticisms which go straight to a few real targets.

The same could be said of the frequent charges against the white settlers in Kenya. There are important inequities in the situation in that colony. But when American critics assert that the Kenya settlers have all the best land, while the natives are confined to the poorest, British critics of many specific conditions existing there are obliged to swing around and hammer in some facts on those who they had hoped were their allies. The truth is that though much of the "white highlands" is good land, much is dry and suited only for ranching, while the two largest, continuous blocks of fertile, well-watered territory are, with very minor encroachments, still in the hands of their original African owners.

American criticism seldom seems to be very specific about economic exploitation. The strongest attacks on imperialism from an economic point of view, inspired by Communist doctrine, seem to come from Negro intellectuals who have grievances of their own against white capitalism. They quite understandably find an ideological safety-valve for these grievances in attacks on the British Empire. It was the writer's impression when in America some years ago that this also was the case even then.


The main weight of American criticism falls squarely upon the political aspect of British imperialism. This part of the charge seems to us to be couched, as was indicated at the beginning of this article, in somewhat fundamentalist terms. These conjure up a picture of a strong Power destroying the independence of the weak and keeping under subjection nations which (in the inappropriate words applied to the Sudan by Gladstone, who tended to be fundamentalist himself when in opposition) are "rightly struggling to be free."

Unfortunately the conditions which made it so easy to annex colonial territories at the start make it correspondingly difficult to free them. Once modern means of transport had brought Europeans armed with modern weapons to the fringes of primitive lands, annexation by European governments became an urgent necessity. Up to that moment primitive society, however static and simple, had been fitted through centuries to its environment, and had its own equilibrium and vitality. But now with drink and rifles at their command, and new, dangerous ideas and ambitions, foreign and native adventurers had acquired terrible power. They could corrupt or destroy tribes which were unable to defend themselves or even to understand what was happening and what could happen to them. The worst of European governments -- and the worst was very bad -- was better than the alternative chaos. To understand this we have only to note what happened where pioneers outran government control on the moving frontiers of North America and South Africa, or when European and Egyptian slave-traders penetrated the innocent sanctuaries of the equatorial Nile or the first scum of traders reaching New Zealand exchanged guns, spirits and poison for tattooed heads and other native products. In the late nineteenth century Britain joined with a will in the process of African annexation. There was a time just after the middle of the century, however, when expansion there was contrary to her policy and her economic interest. Yet even in that period she found herself forced by the necessities of the situation in West Africa, and sometimes by the demands of the local tribes, to maintain or extend the power of her grudging settlements on the coast.

Since these annexations, Britain may perhaps be accused of lacking clarity of purpose and a sense of urgency in her task of educating tropical Africans for self-government. But there was never any possibility that self-government would be denied to them. Colonial officials from the first began shaping tribal institutions into local governments, even when they worked to no final design. They were acting upon a tradition which led to the development of dominion status for white colonies; there was no reason why it should cease to operate for brown or black ones.

The progress of some non-African colonies has already made this clear. Ceylon, the only colony comparable to the Philippines in its history and civilization, had before this war reached the threshold of responsible government. Twelve years ago it was given adult suffrage for men and women, by which 50 members of a State Council of 61 are elected. This Council is divided into seven committees which are in charge of the main branches of government and select seven out of the ten ministers. In the administration only the highest directing posts are still reserved for Englishmen. The island has been offered full responsible government after the war under a constitution drawn up by the peoples' representatives. A similar promise has been made to Malta. Jamaica has been offered a constitution, upon lines hammered out by its own leaders, somewhat on the Ceylon model, including adult suffrage.

Even in tropical Africa there has been some advance. Thus, in west Africa, elected African members were added to the Legislative Councils in the early 1920's, and anyone who cares to read the proceedings can judge how great an influence these outspoken men are able to exert, in spite of the official majority. Quite recently, African members have been added to the Governor's Executive Council, the all-important, confidential body in which policy is discussed and legislation planned, and steps have been taken to increase the number and status of Africans in the civil service. The administrative service has hitherto been regarded as the holy of holies, but last year, in the Gold Coast, two young Africans, one a graduate of Oxford and the other of Cambridge, received appointments. In Nigeria, a committee upon which African chiefs and "intelligentsia" sat with officials has just recommended the same step.

All this represents an advance in the central, foreign organization imposed over a large area which had never known any unity before. Hitherto the more important task has been that of "indirect rule," the recognition and education of tribal communities as local governments. It is a highly flexible, illogical and empirical method, and it takes a hundred shapes according to the heterogeneous realities of tribal life to which it adapts itself. It has received its clearest form in Nigeria as a result first of the inspired expediency, and then of the wise rationalization, of Lord Lugard. Under "indirect rule" the people themselves carry out the vast majority of their affairs -- judicial, administrative and financial -- under British guidance. It is true that there have been places and periods in which British officials have been too lethargic in acceptance of an only partially reformed native government. Let it be admitted, also, that indirect rule could, at its worst, offer a temptation to preserve old lordships in the common interests of conservative chiefs and alien imperialists. In Africa, however, in contrast with some of the Indian states, even where the traditional forms of tribal government appear unaffected, the content is deeply changed. In more advanced units, tribal government includes an audited local revenue, with a civil list; a police force; a public works department; reformed, supervised law courts; schools, hospitals and dispensaries; perhaps a forest department drawing its own royalties from foreign concessionaires or even exploiting its own timber. No more economical and penetrating expedient could have been devised for teaching peoples divided into small tribes the meaning of modern government and civic responsibility. We are now reaching a point where better ways of linking local and central government are required, and these are being developed. In the Gold Coast Colony the chiefs -- extremely democratic potentates who rule by and through their peoples' will and are frequently "destooled" -- are grouped into three provincial councils which elect representatives to the central Legislative Councils, where they sit alongside, and coöperate fully with, the elected, urban members. In the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan which is administered by British officials, a central Advisory Council has been set up this year, composed of representatives from Province Councils which, in turn, are really federations of tribal governments.

To the doctrinaire emancipator these must seem small advances. In order to appreciate their importance it is necessary to leave the sophisticated-looking capitals and ports, with their African lawyers, clergy, civil servants and merchants, and go on to see -- as in Nigeria -- the millions living their almost untouched life in the roadless bush; to visit the naked pagans on hill and plateau; to listen to court cases of witchcraft and inter-tribal fights and occasionally of cannibalism and ritual murder and the pawning of children.

Disunity as well as backwardness adds to the political problem. The semi-civilized Moslem emirates of northern Nigeria represent a different race and culture from the true Negro south, and they always regarded it as a land of pagans whom it was a duty to conquer or enslave. The Sudan is similarly cut in two. Such regional differences, in addition to tribal divisions, are deeper than those that have cracked some eastern European states. To say this is not to argue for eternal tutelage, but to suggest the necessity for a period in which African peoples may develop a common education -- a habit of coöperation. The Gold Coast is more homogeneous and the southern of its three sections more ready for further constitutional advance than any other part of British tropical Africa. (One of its African Executive Councillors has recently been expounding his very sensible views about this in a committee room of the House of Commons and at Chatham House.) But Sierra Leone has its rift, an accident of history which, as in Liberia, planted a handful of freed slaves generations ago on the coast. They hardly show the sense of beneficent responsibility defined as "trusteeship" toward the primitive population of the large hinterland. And the Gambia, two river-banks cut off by another accident of history, is about as ready to stand alone as, shall we say, a Samoan island.

When we turn to east and central Africa, we find another obstacle to self-government. It is a major difficulty which has common features with America's own great racial problem, although American opinion seldom seems to give much weight to it. The population figures for these countries, with those for the southern self-governing territories (Southern Rhodesia and the Union of South Africa) added for comparison, reveal the racial composition and suggest what the problem is:

Country Africans Europeans Indians
South Africa 6,596,689 2,003,512 989,352 1
Southern Rhodesia 1,319,000 60,720 2,460
Northern Rhodesia 1,366,425 13,155 1,174
Nyasaland 1,672,787 1,847 1,748
Tanganyika 5,217,345 9,165 33,900
Kenya 3,280,777 20,894 44,635 2
Uganda 3,725,798 2,282 19,141
1 Including colored.
2 Arabs 14,077.

What of self-government under such conditions? The white minorities of the two southern territories have self-government and have used it to set up an economically and politically stratified society. The white minorities of the center and east look to them for their model. Yet British opinion, risking as deep and dangerous a clash as once split the United States, refuses to allow minority rule in the name of colonial self-government. Attempts of whites to construct eastern and central federations have hitherto broken against this British opinion, which supports the Africans of the territories next to Kenya and Southern Rhodesia in their fear of the dominant white settler influence.

If a regional council is established for Africa, or for this half of it, and the great conflict of principles noted above comes to an issue, what would be the opinion of an American representative? Would he ask for self-government? If so, self-government for whom? If he condemned the color-bar of South Africa, he would condemn one of the main results of the grant of colonial self-government. (For just as, by the evidence of American historians, Britain strove to protect the Red Indians from the colonists and so added fuel to the revolutionary fire, so in South Africa, she struggled to the last in the interests of the natives.) And Britain still maintains a refusal, which is most embarrassing to herself, to hand over her three remaining native protectorates to the Union.

Would the American representative be directed to oppose white groups, when, as in the Southern States, these refuse to tolerate the exercise of full rights of citizenship by Negroes? He would observe that the Negroes in Africa are immeasurably more numerous and backward than those in America, and whereas equal rights for one-tenth of the population, and that tenth largely assimilated, could never be a serious danger to the whole American nation, the colonists in Africa can claim with some justice that for them it might mean the utter submergence of their one percent or less under a vast flood of barbarism. Might he not in the end be inclined to agree that, in this dilemma, the arbitral power of the British Government must for the present be maintained?

If we turn back to the economic questions which were raised earlier, we see that here too an American regional representative will face some awkward problems. We in Britain have spent the last quarter of a century learning that a democratic polity is largely sterile unless wedded to a democratic economy. Most people here in Britain think the public interest requires that the huge powers of big business be brought under greater control by the state. Is not this control much more necessary where these business interests operate upon the weak and ignorant African peoples? There are many here, even in the right wing, who support the idea of a large infusion of socialization in the colonies. The Nigerian Governor who kept the coal fields as a state concern, and his successor who warned off Lord Leverhulme when he came there demanding big plantations, were no Socialists. It is very probable that in order to hold the ring long enough for Africans to take their first feeble steps in retail and wholesale trade, in coöperative production and in industry, an increasing measure of government financial assistance, with control of outside capital, may be found necessary. Investment may not therefore be in the form of the "private capital, free capital and competitive capital" which the president of the United States Chamber of Commerce advocated in England a few months ago.

British policy in this matter has not yet taken shape. A compromise has to be found between a policy which discourages the external equity capital which is so much needed, and one which exploits the natural and human resources of the colonies -- an exploitation which offends the rising standards of public morality and the emerging political and economic consciences of the colonial peoples themselves. The discussion, in which Lord Hailey has taken a lead, has covered: the possibility of creating a general investment fund upon which enterprises sponsored or approved by colonial governments could draw; the possible creation of public utility companies in which the governments held a controlling proportion of the shares; and a stricter and more scientific control of the direction of investment and the conditions of its operation. Obviously the emphasis might vary according to which political party was in power in Britain, especially since policy on the periphery in such matters is bound to be a reflection of that in the metropolis. But there is no reason to fear that the Labor Party, which has recently issued the most moderate and well-informed of all its colonial statements, is likely to embark upon sudden and violent measures. Foreign investment has, indeed, always been welcomed in British colonies and is needed more than ever in the coming years. But it carries political as well as social dangers. Situations might arise in which a weak people might be politically independent and yet economically subject, or might be in the political empire of one Power but in the economic empire of another. What nation, we may ask, will prevent its investors from despoiling a territory, will discourage color-bars and will foster long-term loans, bearing little or even no interest, as investments in the people themselves? Only, perhaps, the nation that knows from long experience the need for this restraint, and has the imperial pride and sense of obligation that arise from intimate personal relationships with its wards. If we can achieve this restraint, will American investors and their representatives help us to maintain it?

Here it may be noted that Britain has recently -- and this was in the grim days of 1940 -- made a decisive break with her former financial policy toward the colonies. She had already, in the previous ten years, assisted colonies that were in difficulties to the tune of nearly £12,000,000. This was, however, in the nature of and subject to the restrictions of poor relief, and the grant in the same period of another £7,000,000 for development was on a scale, and under conditions, which did little to break away from the old principle that each colony must be financially self-contained. But in 1940 the need of generous external assistance for development was recognized and an annual grant of £5,500,000 was authorized for ten years. This sum was recognized from the first as being on a preliminary scale, and it is certain to be increased as soon as the end of the war makes it possible to spend even this amount. Already plans for development of all kinds, including research and higher education, are being vigorously worked out in the colonies and in Whitehall. But money is recognized not to be enough. The development must be of people rather than of things, and people are not passive instruments even for the most scientific and beneficent planning. They must be protected from dictation and educated into partnership.

Such, then, is the foundation upon which the postwar international or regional councils which are now being discussed will have to be built, as far as Africa is concerned; and such are some of the problems which they will face. The form of these councils presents another problem, since they might be asked to fulfill at least four purposes, each of them requiring a different type of membership: (1) Coöperation in matters of common concern, such as health, tsetse fly control, communications, etc. (2) The allocation of development funds -- if such can be raised -- and the provision of technical advice. (3) The safeguarding of the interests of the rest of the world (which have still to be defined) with regard to access to raw materials and other economic and political desiderata. (4) The expression of the world conscience with regard to the rights and welfare of the native peoples.

The Mandates Commission did not attempt the first two tasks. It found the third the most practicable. The fourth was, and is, almost impossible for the reason that a common world conscience does not exist. Something has been achieved internationally in the field of native labor, thanks to the skill and persistence of the International Labor Office. But in the more complex issue which is of greatest interest to Americans, the development of self-government, little could -- and can -- be done in Africa, so long as Britain is the only imperial Power there which is educating its subjects for self-government in anything like the sense in which Americans use this term. There has therefore been some bewilderment in England that Americans should have directed their criticism almost exclusively against Britain. Britain (alone, I believe, among imperial Powers) has officially welcomed the idea of regional councils upon which non-imperial Powers could sit. But if American opinion continues to concentrate all its attention and disapproval upon only one of the several empires, will this not provide somewhat incomplete instructions to the American members of such councils?


I have now touched on the chief questions that American criticisms of the British Colonial Empire seem to raise. They are not rhetorical questions designed to wound or retaliate. America's armed partnership with Britain throughout the Empire carries with it a right to criticize. Criticism is indeed the salt of empire, but it needs the full savors of knowledge. The influence cannot be good unless the criticism is fully informed.

As, in this sphere, light succeeds to heat, so the possibilities of coöperation will grow between two nations which have some distinct and complementary qualities to bring to the common fund. In the interests of power for peace, the solid, detached, continental strength of the United States needs to be linked with Britain's heterogeneous dominions and dependencies scattered through every part of the world. If Britain can still rise to her changing tasks she will for a period remain the heart of this Empire, a center that must now express itself less in power than in service. This service will be of various kinds; but in the case of the colonies discussed in this article it will include political control for some time.

The world oscillates between the need for progress and the need for order. Europe is perhaps more conscious than the New World of the moment's need for order. Nationalism, whether old and crafty or young and headstrong, must bow to that necessity, either now or after another world war. This seems hardly the time to weaken or abandon a system which, even if it is called an Empire, has yet shown its capacity to act as a setting and a training ground for weak and immature groups and also to fit itself into a peaceful and coöperative world system.

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  • MARGERY PERHAM, Reader in Colonial Administration, Oxford University; member of the Advisory Committee on Education in the Colonies; author of "Africans and British Rule" and other works
  • More By Margery Perham