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Commonwealth Journalists' Association

HM Queen Elizabeth II with the Heads of Government and leading representatives from 32 Commonwealth countries pose for this picture in the music room of Buckingham Palace before attending a banquet in the palace. © Commonwealth Secretariat

By Kaye Whiteman, CJA member, writing for Business Day

The long dead British Empire continues to exercise a spectral thrall. This featured in this column seven weeks ago, but I return to it because there was not enough space for the book that triggered my ruminations: Ghosts of Empire by Kwasi Kwarteng, It is one of several books that currently reappraising what might seem a tired old subject, but in the present strange mood now prevalent, it is worth more examination.

It is as if Dean Acheson’s famous sixty-year old animadversion that the British had lost an empire but not found a role has become a self-fulfilling prophesy. With David Cameron’s stand against the European Union, and Scotland threatening secession, my own description of “delusional atavism” seems ever more timely.

Kwarteng’s book is a useful reminder that Britain’s empire left many uncomfortable legacies on which the author focuses attention. There is Iraq, which has pride of place in the first four chapters (ultimately a British invented disaster) Kashmir, Burma and Sudan. But there is also Nigeria, where the British role, and that of the characters who shaped it, is particularly absorbing.

Readers may wonder why, as I pointed out, Kwarteng chose to write two chapters on Nigeria, rather than his own original country of Ghana. This may have been prudence, or at least discretion, but Nigerians should be grateful for his perceptive analysis and bringing to vivid life some of the more extraordinary, and in cases alarming, Brits that history determined should be involved in ruling, or even helping almost crazily to create, the arbitrary entity that was baptised Nigeria in January1897, even before it was properly knit uneasily together in the ill-fated amalgamation of 1914.

Responsible for the naming (on the pages of The Times of London) was a journalist, Flora Shaw. She was, Kwarteng relates, involved in an improbable romantic triangle with the two most infamous of Nigeria’s progenitors, George Goldie (with whom she was in love) and Frederick Lugard, with whom she made a semi-political marriage when they were both in their forties. Goldie refused her marriage offer (and turned down her bizarre suggestion that Nigeria be called ‘Goldesia’). When Lugard proposed, Kwarteng observes sardonically that “she finally married an imperial administrator and superman worthy of her hand.”

Both men get the Kwarteng treatment in his chapter Indirect Rule, and they both make fascinating if deeply contrasting subject matter. Goldie was an adventurer whose dream as a child was to “colour the map red”. He was violent and ambitious, a believer in trade whose Royal Niger Company (expanding through trickery and willpower) was as much at the heart of what became Nigeria as Lugard’s Northern conquests or his authoritarian role.

Enjoyable too is the description of that other imperial adventuress Mary Kingsley, who did so much to generate interest in West Africa. She swore like a trooper, a talent derived perhaps from her frequentation of “old coasters” and had an acid tongue. She said Flora Shaw “talked like a Times leader.” Kwarteng could add that, in the short period she travelled in Africa before her death at the age of thirty-eight during the Boer War, she campaigned vigorously on the virtues of trade against exploitative plantation economies.

The second Nigeria chapter, The Yellow Sun, considers post-independence Nigeria, especially the thirty-month civil war (that’s the damaging legacy part). It reveals yet again Kwarteng’s concern with class. He is concerned with the public school basis for the colonial service, hierarchical and snobbish, and though he underplays it, racist. He explores the impact of British class involvement on Nigerians, in particular Ahmadu Bello and Emeka Ojukwu. Bello was a “conservative anglophile”, who loved English country life. Ojukwu’s English gentleman image is also touched on by the author – the moneyed origins, the cultivated voice, the red sports car at Oxford. Perhaps Kwarteng’s fascination here comes from being an Old Etonian with a Cambridge PhD, now a Tory MP

“Class is central to the British Empire”, he says portentously, although it is only one theme in this rich and complex study. I’m not sure what he is proving, but it adds to its fluent readability. Figures like Lord Curzon, Viceroy of India, naturally upper class, contrast with Lord Milner, more obscure in origin, yet probably one of the most effective of all the imperialists, with his finger in so many pies, many of them rooted in South Africa.

One illustration from my experience researching the history of West Africa magazine: Milner was the guiding force, and its first Chairman, just three months before he entered Lloyd George’s war cabinet. Other imperial institutions, like the mysterious Round Table, also find Milner at its origins.

This is not a pro-empire book. Britain’s role comes across as cruel and arrogant and immersed in fantasy. But for those trying to understand the people (often, as Kwarteng says “anarchic individualists”) who carved it out and ran it, however badly or chaotically, it is a rich mine.

Reposted from Business Day. See: