From Michael Etherton, former lecturer in English and Drama, University of Zambia, Lusaka and Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, Nigeria; Field Director for VSO in various countries,then Regional Director, VSO, South and Central Asia.
Goodbye Colonialism, Farewell Feudalism: Letters from a District Officer, Barotseland 1959-1962, by Callum Christie
I greatly enjoyed reading your book, and have been stimulated by it, not just because of my personal connections – with you and also with Zambia – but because it has been so well conceived as a book. Your persona, as writer – of letters home in your early twenties and, now, of a commentary for the 2016 reader – is personal and yet unobtrusive. Your ego never gets in the way of the account of what you did and what you saw and what you thought. That’s a remarkable achievement. Your maturity and sanity as a young man in his early twenties is truly amazing.
I also like the structure: the way you have presented your letters, the unfolding narrative of the raw recruit to accomplished young administrator as the place [Senanga / Barotseland] experiences profound change and political upheaval, fulfilling the title of the book. The commentary and the footnotes are economical and to the point. They endorse the historical thrust of the book, so it is less of a memoir of yourself and more objective of the time and place in which you found yourself.
Reading the book, I found myself, as your reader, in complete agreement with your assessment of the whites, their racism and their determination to keep control. I think you have nuanced very well – in your youthful letters – the white neurotic racism of both younger and older Rhodesians. It was exactly thus.
I was particularly engrossed in the account of your work in Kasama, Mongu and Senanga in 1961 and 1962, when the Independence struggle intensified and you became involved in an extraordinarily interesting way. Your honesty in maintaining public order, as was your bounden duty, with soldiers and colleagues whose behaviour appalled you, captures very well the moral quagmire of the UNIP independence struggle, and the uncertainties of village Africans in the face of – for them – an obscurely changing political order. I also marvelled at the physical strain of it all: the night marches, dawn raids on villages – the dangers of the actual terrain – and having to prosecute actions and a defence you were not in agreement with.
Indeed I was staggered, earlier in the book, at your long treks, from village to village, in Senanga, the long hours of work in the bush coupled with the problems of the climate. For me, as the 2016 reader of your lighthearted and optimistic letters to your parents and [your girlfriend], I personally experienced the hard reality of what you actually endured, only because I know [about] the heat and dust and flies and mosquitos, lack of potable water, etc., etc.
Your account of hunting and shooting gives a much better insight for the reader today of that bush world of the British colonial administration. I enjoyed particularly the account of your nighttime crocodile hunt [p.190 et seq.].
Thank you, Callum, for such a stimulating read.
Book Review from Andrew Gordon, former executive, Anglo American Corporation, Lusaka, Melbourne and London.
“Goodbye Colonialism, Farewell Feudalism:Letters from a District Officer, Barotseland 1959-62”
By Callum Christie
This is a remarkable and attractive book. Posted from university to Barotseland (the far west of modern Zambia), Callum Christie recorded, in letters to his parents and friends, a vivid description of the life of a district officer in the final days of colonial administration. The letters are book-ended with a clear explanation of the political and social context of 1959-62, which was far from simple, and of subsequent resulting events. The book is illustrated with colour photographs of remarkable quality, based as they are on the technology of another age.
Colonial memoir is a far from unoccupied field, but this book is distinctive for three reasons.
First, these are good letters and one can see why they were treasured by the recipients. And for us, they have the immediacy, truth and freshness that you do not find in the memoir penned in retirement. The reader is effectively ‘in the picture’ and shares the adventure and the experience.
Second, the viewpoint. Mr Christie left for Northern Rhodesia well briefed with the latest academic and government thinking on the future of colonial Africa and the new relationships that would have to be built, yet his work was to be among colleagues for many of whom these ideas were seen as a betrayal. The author’s moral and political position remains clear, but he succeeds in handling the awkward situation with insight and skill.
Third, the location. Barotseland, originally ‘acquired’ by Cecil Rhodes with promise of protection by the ‘Great White Queen’, was now a well-administered, peaceful province in an area surrounded by trouble: a sleepy and corrupt Portugal awaiting its hour to the west, a Congo about to go up in flames to the north, rising political consciousness and dissatisfaction in the Copperbelt to the east and embarrassingly assertive white supremacy to the south. Barotseland remained a traditional feudal society, no doubt beyond its time and no doubt at some cost to the British taxpayer, but peaceful, though uncomfortable with the new political movements of Northern Rhodesia. The precarious situation of the traditional rulers and their subjects is well brought out in the letters.
The book makes no political point beyond the opinions expressed by the young official in his letters at the time. Yet it does summon up thoughts as to how we collectively remember the past. Modern teaching on the colonial period is dominated by the collisions, the unfortunate incidents and latterly the agonies of post-war change. We forget that all over the Empire and over many years there were conscientious administrators, well-trained and fair-minded, maintaining peace, the rule of law and civic virtue among people who were generally acquiescent, as is evident from the tiny number of staff required. Mr Christie’s book places us in that relatively ordered world.
The system had its shortcomings, of course, but one does feel, reading this book, that the underlying values transmitted by colonial staff (grown from our nation’s character and its philosophers) were generally good for the world and that the record compares not unfavourably with that of other European powers of the period. It is a theme which could perhaps , at this distance, be given a more balanced exposure, perhaps in a series of African stories on television, for which this book would be one of many available sources.
Callum Christie has given us an authentic picture of a niche of old Africa confronting change, if not with reluctance, certainly with mixed feelings. In his book we hear the quiet voices formerly shouted down by the rhetoric of liberation. Many will be grateful to him for that.
Review by Pamela Shurmer-Smith in The Overseas Pensioner; Social Anthropologist, author of “Remnants of Empire: Memory and and Northern Rhodesia’s White Diaspora”.
GOODBYE COLONIALISM, FAREWELL FEUDALISM:
LETTERS FROM A DISTRICT OFFICER
By Callum Christie
I am an avid collector of memoirs written by people of all backgrounds who lived in Northern Rhodesia as it made the transition into independent Zambia, but know to read them with caution, recognising that (by definition) they rely on memory, that distorting lens though which the present surveys the past.
Contemporary personal writing in the form of diaries and letters is a close cousin of the memoir; it retains all the same subjectivity, with a single “I”at the core, but has a different flavour. Whereas a conventional colonial memoir is the story of a young hero written by an elderly person, contemporary writing comes from the standpoint of a young person in a present that is now past; the concerns of the time come through more immediately, the anxieties and frailties are more likely to be represented. Memoirists inevitably believe that there is something interesting and exceptional about their lives (why would they bother to write if this were not the case?) but contemporary writing, particularly in the form of letters, is more often prompted by closer and more personal imperatives. A District Officer in his twenties may well write a weekly letter to his parents in Britain out of duty, knowing that they are worried about him, miss him and have no real idea what he is going through, but he may also write to them as the only people he can trust with his loneliness and frailty. It is no wonder that parents preserve these letters or that they come to light when the young men grown old inherit forgotten remnants, reappraise their significance and offer them up to a wider public. Such letters communicate the lived experience of Empire with undiminished freshness and immediacy – Callum Christie’s new book is a valuable addition to this genre.
Most of the candidates selected for Her Majesty’s Overseas Civil Service in the late 1950s were a new breed and did not inevitably fit the stereotype of the colonial officer who insisted on dressing for dinner, even when it was taken alone outside his tent. They were, rather, men who had been let in on the “secret” that the days of Empire were numbered and their task was to try to ensure that the great transition was brought about satisfactorily. The emphasis was on “development”, even though what this might consist of was often left rather vague. A degree in economics came to be seen as more valuable than one in classics as an indicator of the right material and the service was no longer the exclusive preserve of men with a public school background. Callum Christie was one of these new men, arriving aged 23 in (then) Northern Rhodesia in 1959 with an Economics degree from the University of Aberdeen. He wrote regularly to his parents and two friends. Fortunately, these were all people who were interested in his work as his letters are full of the minutiae of life in Barotseland and the unfolding political situation as Federation becomes increasingly unworkable and Zambia edges towards Independence.
Christie is acutely aware of the tensions within Central African society, describing the ingrained racism of many whites raised in Africa, including the Rhodesian born District Commissioner who would not shake hands with Africans out of deep revulsion, the old pioneer who railed against Africans but took six local wives and was revered as a benevolent father. He writes about the unthinking racism that made many Europeans comment unfavourably about his inviting African people into his home, about the survey conducted at the Mongu Club to decide the circumstances under which Africans might be admitted (and the decision that there were none). Like most members of the Provincial Administration, Christie saw Federation as a retrogressive move and he sympathised with Zambian opposition to it, charting the movement towards Independence but also the blindness of both European settler and Barotse royalty to its inevitability. His comments are often wonderfully perceptive and irreverent about both establishments, recognising that Barotse feudalism had no more chance of survival in the modern world than British imperialism. Whilst others believed that traditional Barotse royal accommodation to British rule would provide a bulwark against African nationalism, Christie understood the aspirations of the emerging class of young educated African men who rejected the inherent conservatism of the Barotse ruling class and were drawn towards UNIP, but he also recognised that Barotse nationalism was (and is) a potent force within Zambian nationalism.
Where this book differs from many others based on contemporary writing is that he intersperses explanatory passages, filling in background and expanding things that were not covered in detail in the letters themselves. This means that when hindsight lends a new interpretation to events it is clear that this is the view from the present. This device highlights the shifts in language, attitudes and assumptions that have occurred over the past fifty-odd years and forms a sort of dialogue between the past and the present, the young man and the old one. The very last paragraph recounts the Zambian attempt to defuse Barotse nationalism by renaming Barotseland the Western Province. Drawing on his own nationality he says, “As a Scot, I could have told President Kaunda and his Government that this would have a contrary effect. Try telling the Scots that from now on Scotland is to be renamed the Northern Province of Great Britain.” (p.302)
In the Introduction to the book Christie recounts his impressions of Barotseland when he revisited in 2012. Unlike those who return to find fault and to discover what has declined, he is delighted at the improvements – new schools, better roads, more bridges, a decent bus service, mobile phones. Now nearly 80, he is clearly still someone who is on the side of progress rather than tradition. Considerable responsibility was given to very young men in the PA and it is easy to forget that Callum Christie was just 23 to 26 when he wrote the letters that form the basis of this book, covering his first tour from 1959 to 1962.