Colonialism and the District Administrator

Reflecting on a colonial past is hard but must be done sensibly

In a 2005 speech at Oxford University former Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh gave a quiet but significant nod to some of the positives of India’s colonial legacy. When discussing British Imperial rule can conjure images of all-out subjugation, or is darkly evoked in movies like Avatar, reflecting on colonialism’s positive attributes can be a tricky and awkward task.

From ‘courts, clerks and contracts’ to the benefits of the English language, Singh’s thoughtful reflections cast light not only on Britain’s rule of India but other far-away places touched and governed by British institutions, laws and customs.

Among the islands of the South Pacific the British applied a similar governance template to its commitments in the sub-continent and parts of Africa. The steady decline of the French, Spanish and Portuguese Empires, and the Allied ascendance after World War Two meant that, from the impenetrable highlands of Papua New Guinea to the remote archipelagos of the Solomon Islands, the British Empire (and by de facto Australia) had responsibilities to the local inhabitants in these isolated parts of the world.

Unfortunately many believe that the British actively underdeveloped these areas or spent their days preoccupied only with class, rank and ceremony.

Perhaps the prime counter-example of this, however, is the role of the District Administrator. Deployed by the British Colonial Service the ‘DA’ was responsible for ‘peace, order and good government’ often among thousands of people and across as many square miles.

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