`Noble savagery` versus `civilising duty`

Christopher Prior, University of Durham
Researching the Colonial and Postcolonial workshop
*not to be cited or quoted without written permission of the author*
‘Noble savagery’ versus ‘civilising duty’?:
Postcolonialism, British elites and Africa 1918-1930
This paper concerns British elites and Africa between the end of World War One and the
end of the twenties. Elites in this instance will be taken to mean those metropolitan actors
involved in making governmental policy on Africa, either by seeing through the enactment
of measures themselves, or by being what were viewed as pre-eminent commentators. The
focus is on indirect rule, the policy of using local notables to rule on behalf of, and
supervised by, the colonial state, a policy most famously put forward by Lord Lugard in
1922’s The Dual Mandate.
For some postcolonialists, those that engaged with empire were constantly riven by tension.
This is a natural result of highly-politicized postcolonialist attempts to unsettle what were
previously relatively stable concepts of empire.1 For Homi Bhabha, for example, a colonizing
power advocates a ‘colonial mimicry’, that is, it wants those it ruled over to become a
‘reformed, recognizable Other, as a subject of difference that is almost the same, but not quite.’2 Such
mimicry is ‘constructed around an ambivalence’; the ‘authority of that mode of colonial
discourse… is therefore stricken by an indeterminacy: mimicry emerges as the representation
of a difference that is itself a process of disavowal’.3 In other words, for Bhabha, the
‘civilizing mission’ is constantly grounded in ambiguity, as the British wish for the ‘Other’ to
be altered, but at the same time require a difference, a space between ‘them’ and ‘us’. This
space was necessary in order that the British were able to lay claim to their status as the
colonizer. Closely linked to this, on the one hand they wanted to change Africa, in keeping
with established notions of the ‘civilising mission’ and paternalism, and to keep it the same,
to protect the ‘noble savage’ from what were felt to be the worst excesses of Western
This is not a wholly postcolonialist occurrence. For example, the views of Donald Cameron,
governor of Tanganyika from 1925 until he took up the equivalent post in Nigeria in 1931,
are deemed ‘paradoxical’ by James Graham because the administrator believed that
Quoted in Xie, “Rethinking the problem,” 7; see also Spivak, Critique of postcolonial reason, 190.
Bhabha, Location of culture, 86; italics in original.
3 Ibid, 86; italics in original.
Christopher Prior, University of Durham
Researching the Colonial and Postcolonial workshop
‘Tanganyika had to be trained in, yet protected from, the ways of the modern world through
indirect rule.’4
For other modern scholars, the policy of indirect rule is wholly bound up in the static. It is a
conservative doctrine designed to both keep all those horrible natives at bay, and as part of a
relativistic British attempt to seal the continent off from developments and concomitant
worries omnipresent elsewhere in the world, wrapped up in a wider reluctance to allow
change to occur. Specialists have made this case, such as Martin Daly with regards to the
Sudan, as have David Cannadine and Ronald Hyam with regards to Africa in general.5 But
the policy as envisaged by elites was more proactively interventionist and more coherent,
more consistent, than these different sets of arguments would suggest. Instead, the
utilisation of what were deemed to be ‘traditional’ social structures was seen as the best
means of effecting change, of ensuring that British conceptions of ‘fair play’ and
accountability were introduced, alongside more concrete things such as bureaucratic
efficiency, roads and simplified capitalist markets.
Of course, this does not mean that the way by which the British actually acted in Africa were
as pro-change as all of this, and it is possible that the British were merely paying lip-service
to development. However, reasons of brevity prevent the reality on the ground from being
looked at. The latest research undertaken by the present author has suggested that this
reality was similar, if not identical, to British theoretical models of what should be done, but
for now discussion will be restricted to the point that the public face of empire, as espoused
by those in positions of the highest discursive authority, was more interventionist than has
hitherto been believed by most scholars.
For Lugard, it was the ‘task of civilisation’ to ‘put an end to slavery, to establish Courts of
Law, to inculcate in the natives a sense of individual responsibility, of liberty, and of justice,
and to teach their rulers how to apply these principles’.6 ‘To the twentieth century’, he wrote,
‘belongs the heritage of the tropics and the task of their development’.7 In fact, he deemed
changes such as this to be a necessity. Because European rule in Africa ‘must inevitably tend
to break down the old tribal discipline’, the British administrator must ‘accelerate the slow
Graham, “Indirect Rule,” 3.
This concentration upon the ‘reactionary’ side of indirect rule is widespread; see, for example, Cannadine,
Ornamentalism, 139-40; Hyam, Britain’s imperial century, 269; Daly, Imperial Sudan, 26-9; for a rare corrective
against this, see Bush, Imperialism, race and resistance, 33-4.
6 Lugard, Dual mandate, 5, 93, see also 608.
7 Ibid, 6.
Christopher Prior, University of Durham
Researching the Colonial and Postcolonial workshop
process of evolution, from the most primitive stage of the family group – which owes no
other allegiance than the patriarchal – through the tribal stage, to the stage where the
authority of a chief is recognised.’8
There was a clear commitment from Lugard to change from the very off. In 1893, he had
Let us… clear the ground of all high-coloured nonsense – of ‘kingly hearts’ beating in the
bosoms of slaves… and taking the African as he is – as centuries of wrongs have made him –
apply ourselves to raise him to a higher level.9
Lugard’s ideas as to the necessity of change via the mediating influence of the local ‘chiefs’
were advocated by the elites surrounding him, from the anthropologists such as Diedrich
Westermann, who claimed that Lugard was a ‘genius’, and by missionaries, such as Joseph
Oldham and Edwin Smith of the International Missionary Council and Alexander Fraser,
missionary, educationist, and first principal of the government secondary school at Achimota
in the Gold Coast. They were also taken as the best means of engendering change by the
most significant imperial political figures of the day, such as Leo Amery, Secretary of State
for the Colonies between 1924 and 1929, and William Ormsby-Gore, who would later go on
to hold the same post in the ’thirties.
But this elite was not just keen to change what they felt to be the horrible things about
Africa’s supposedly dark and brutish past. In contrast to what postcolonialists have argued,
the British felt that they were able to disconnect what was to be changed from what they felt
was not. Lugard and his peers were confident as to their ability to remodel Africa in the ways
they saw best without fear of ramifications. Irrespective of the reality we see in retrospect,
they felt that they were genuinely offering up coherent plans for change. For Lugard, the
African community may ‘without much difficulty, and practically without any radical
upsetting of the tribal code of discipline’ adopt ‘standards and methods more in accord with
our ideas of justice and of efficiency’.10 No plan for reform was perfect but, for Lugard,
some were clearly better than others. Turbulence was a necessary rite of passage of a
paternalistic plan, but a minor rite of passage.
The two principal reasons behind why he and others felt they could effect coherent plans for
change were the lines of demarcation race was felt to provide and an imperial confidence
that was undiminished even after 1918.
Lugard, “Problems of Equatorial Africa,” 218-9; see also Lugard, Dual mandate, 217.
Lugard, East African empire, Volume One, 28, see also 71, 73-5, 192, 283-4.
10 Lugard, “Problems of Equatorial Africa,” 219.
Christopher Prior, University of Durham
Researching the Colonial and Postcolonial workshop
After all, racial characteristics were felt to indicate what was to be changed, and what was to
remain the same. What Lugard wanted in Africa was a stable ‘inter-relation of colour’, where
there was
complete uniformity in ideals, absolute equality in the paths of knowledge and culture, equal
opportunity for those who strive, equal admiration for those who achieve; in matters social and
racial a separate path, each pursuing his own inherited traditions, preserving his own race-purity
and race-pride; equality in things spiritual; agreed divergence in the physical and material.11
In The Dual Mandate Lugard elaborated upon this convergence of the universal and the
specific when he noted that principles ‘do not change, but their mode of application may and
should vary with the customs, the traditions, and the prejudices of each unit’.12 This is a
crucial point, allowing as it did a stable model of change to exist within a framework of a
societal system tied to cultural stasis or, at least, a stasis that was to be reached once
traditional systems had been ‘reformed’. Such a vantage point was borne of a wellestablished philosophical stance; some Enlightenment thinkers had believed that ‘moral
universalism was not incommensurate with cultural pluralism’.13 Thus, while ‘the day is long
past since we could assume that our own particular systems were the best for all the world’
the aim of the British was to ‘adapt the African to civilised standards (or adapt those
standards to his comprehension and needs)’.14 Lugard was not alone in making such claims.
Furthermore, it was felt that the so-called racial characteristics of the African would keep the
essence of the African intact whatever plans for change were directed his way. Ormsby-Gore
stated he had ‘no fears regarding the future of the Negro peoples for whom we act to-day as
leaders and trustees’, because the African had a ‘capacity for resistance to anything that may
be put upon them’ that was ‘truly wonderful’.15 For pre-eminent interwar biologist Julian
Huxley, the Africans’ ‘qualities of virility, of cheerfulness, [and] of adaptability… make it
difficult to be gloomy about his future’.16
In addition, the British were more positive about their own ability to effect change where
this was felt necessary, and to avoid the introduction of characteristics that they felt were not
suited to Africa, because they had a greater degree of self-confidence than is usually
suggested by interwar histories. It has been customary for the interwar period to be depicted
Lugard, “The colour problem,” 283; later reiterated in Lugard, Dual mandate, 87.
Ibid, 193-4.
13 Wheen, Mumbo-jumbo, 189, forms part of a hilarious endorsement of such post-Enlightenment values.
14 Lugard, “Studying our primitive races,” 8.
15 Amery and Ormsby-Gore, “Problems and development,” 335.
16 Huxley, Africa view, 145, see also 163.
Christopher Prior, University of Durham
Researching the Colonial and Postcolonial workshop
as one of turbulence and unhappiness in Britain; for this one need only witness ominous
historical titles such as Britain’s locust years 1918-1940, which reinforce the arguments made by
the pre-eminent giant of the historical field, Eric Hobsbawm.17 Keith Jeffery is not alone in
arguing that Britain faced economic difficulties in reverting to peacetime at the end of the
1910s, which set the tone for the remainder of the period,18 while Robert Skidelsky has
contended that an inability of both Labour and National Governments to deal with the crash
of 1929 helped create a mood of ‘national self-doubt’, it requiring Dunkirk to ‘give the
British faith in themselves once again’.19
Economically this is inaccurate. There was a marked divergence between the experiences of
the working and middle classes in the interwar period. Taxation favoured the middle classes,
and even those middle class occupations most sensitive to economic change saw nowhere
near the magnitude of joblessness suffered by the working class, with unemployment rates
among managers and administrators in the twelve major industrial groups averaging only
1.9% in 1931.20 Furthermore, a strong media attention to the fact that Britain was faring
much better than the other nations of Europe reassured the newspaper readers of Britain at
their breakfast tables each morning.
This reassurance extended to assuaging fears of possible communist subterfuge in the
country. Though too big a topic to be discussed here, an examination of the papers of the
centrist and right-wing press reveals an alternation between declarations of confidence in the
ability of the Conservatives to work peaceably with the moderate left to both achieve
consensus and keep the far left out of power, and declarations of confidence in the ability of
both right and centre to rein in this moderate left when it was felt that they were becoming
out of hand.21 In addition, Ian Kershaw has shown that fears as to the ramifications of the
rise of the dictators in Europe did not emerge until much later than might otherwise be
assumed, and even when details of Nazi brutality began to emerge, it was generally deemed
McElwee, Britain’s locust years, passim; Hobsbawm, On history, 338.
Jeffery, British army, 161-2.
19 Skidelsky, Politicians and the slump, 386-7; this is supported by Marwick, Total war, 210, 226-41; see also Clarke,
Hope and glory, 3; Murray, Making of British policy, 26-7, 32.
20 McKibbin, Classes and cultures, 60-1, 161.
21 See, for example, “So far, so good,” in The Times, 28 March 1919, 13; see also “Students of socialism,” in The
Times, 31 August 1923, 9; “Direct and political action,” in The Times, 26 June 1919, 13; “A call to work,” in The
Times, 28 August 1919, 11; “Industrial strife in America,” in The Times, 28 October 1919, 13; “Another pause
for reflection,” in The Times, 16 April 1921, 9; “Can Labour last?,” in The Observer, 20 April 1924, 10; “What’s
in a name?,” in The Observer, 9 October 1927, 16.
Christopher Prior, University of Durham
Researching the Colonial and Postcolonial workshop
that there was no reason to see such activity as indicative of future NSDAP foreign policy.22
So, until the mid- to late-thirties, until Abyssinia, the Sudetenland and the consequent failure
of appeasement, nothing seriously undermined the faith, as expressed by the key
commentators of the time, in the future of Britain and in her ability to make the world a
better place through her empire.
Thus, even if the boys’ own tub-thumping of a pre-1914 world had dissipated, a selfconfidence had not. Instead, the British felt that they could change Africa how they best saw
fit, and in a consistent manner. This consistency was informed by the lines of demarcation
felt to have been provided by a racial natural order of things. Britain, it was felt, still had a
proactive developmental role to play in colouring the map a deeper shade of red.
Kershaw, Making friends, 26-33; “Herr Hitler’s successes,” in The Times, 26 April 1932, 17.
Christopher Prior, University of Durham
Researching the Colonial and Postcolonial workshop
Amery, L., and W. Ormsby-Gore. “Problems and development in Africa.” Journal of the Royal African
Society 28 (1929): 325-39.
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Bush, Barbara. Imperialism, Race and Resistance: Africa and Britain, 1919-1945. London: Routledge, 1999.
Cannadine, David. Ornamentalism: How the British Saw Their Empire. London: Penguin, 2001.
Clarke, Peter. Hope and Glory: Britain 1900-2000. 2nd ed. London: Penguin, 2004.
Daly, Martin. Imperial Sudan: The Anglo-Egyptian Condominium, 1934-1956. Cambridge: Cambridge
University, 1991.
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---, “The Colour Problem.” The Edinburgh Review 233 (1921): 267-83.
---, The Dual Mandate in British Tropical Africa. 3rd ed. Edinburgh: William Blackwood, 1926.
---, “Problems of Equatorial Africa.” Journal of the Royal Institute of International Affairs 6 (1927): 214-32.
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Influences on Policy-making.” Ph.D. diss., University of Newcastle, 2001.
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Mass.: Harvard University, 1999.
Christopher Prior, University of Durham
Researching the Colonial and Postcolonial workshop
Wheen, Francis. How Mumbo-jumbo Conquered the World: A Short History of Modern Delusions. London:
Harper Perennial, 2004.
Xie, Shaobo. “Rethinking the Problem of Postcolonialism.” New Literary History 28 (1997): 7-19.