I’ve set aside Burying the Bones, by Hilary Spurling, for a few days whilst I read Running the Show: Governors of the British Empire 1857-1912, by Stephanies Williams.
Running the Show is just up my street. I love books like this one, which trace the early impact of the West on developing countries.
As a result of watching numerous old movies, we all probably have an image in our heads of a typical colonial governor of the late Nineteenth Century – we think of supercilious, haughty upper class twits, appointed through patronage rather than skill, who are in charge of immense tracts of land and who rule by whim, impervious to the needs and wishes of the local inhabitants. Well, there were probably characters of that ilk, but most governors were not like that at all.
Many grew up in humble circumstances, often in Ireland, and many were capable officers in the army or others who had worked their way up through hard work and dedication. Very often, once in situ, they protected the needs of the local inhabitants against the actions of the settlers, who wanted to exploit their new lands to the utmost and who saw ‘the natives’ as mere inconveniences. As a result, the governors often received bad local press.
Here’s a good quote: “In spite of its unvarnished confidence in British racial superiority, the Colonial Office in London, to whom the governors were responsible, consistently stood up for what the officials saw as fair play and justice towards subject peoples.” It was often when the settlers got the upper hand, and against the governors and London’s wishes, that attrocities occurred.
Governors had a lot of power. They were responsible for law and order, revenue and expenditure, and leading society in the colonies. Often, they had precious few resporces to get the job done.