Colonialism and the District Administrator

by seangljacobs

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.

Before iPads or Global Positioning Systems the DA’s role in the Pacific Islands evolved daily between part engineer, part aid worker, part surveyor to policeman, legislator and medical examiner. At times DAs even stepped in as headmasters and teachers during gaps in school programs, while other duties could range from building airstrips to officiating weddings.

The personal accounts of these men, as expected, are tremendous. Hours of hiking (or paddling) in fearsome heat, often with limited supplies and conversing in local dialect, would end up with anything from adjudicating tribal violence to administrating voter enrolment. As recalls James Tedder, a DA in the Solomon Islands from 1952 to 1974, ‘I had learned to deal with all types of situation, from village arguments to solving building problems, to complex court cases and even to balancing the cash book.’

Many inhabitants suffered greatly from poor health – mainly yaws, tuberculosis and malaria – and medicine was an obvious essential alongside building transport and communication links. The remoteness of the areas DAs covered could not be understated. In many instances locals had not seen a white man and, especially in parts of Papua New Guinea, DAs were believed to be ghosts from the spirit world.

Local opposition was not always difficult but traditional customs, usually mixed with patches of anti-modernity, could make the DA’s role tougher. Rather than govern by force, however, the DA was overwhelmingly consultative. Persuasion and consultation were essential in laying the groundwork for democracy and the mechanics of local government. ‘Voters had to be enrolled,’ reflects Tedder, ‘elections held and Councils guided into their work.’

Top down solutions from London, despite what some may perceive, were not feasible. From issues like crop diversification to the justice system a ‘one size fits all approach’ would simply fail. DAs and colonial officials often sought localised solutions to cash crops that would limit the need for central authority and, where appropriate, dovetail with customary beliefs and local culture to administer justice.

The British Colonial Service did not take just anyone for the DA position – selection was rigorous. University education – then not as common – was often a prerequisite and training in law, anthropology and medicine core essentials. Book smarts, however, had to be matched by the rigours of ‘hands on’ experience.

A ‘stuffy elitism’ was certainly common among officials but the more serious colonial operators were alive to its shortcomings. Sir Paul Hasluck, for example, observing Papua New Guinea in the 1950s, wrote in A Time for Building he was ‘revolted at the imitation of British colonial modes and manners by some of the Australians who were there to serve the Australian government.’

Hasluck, to be sure, was not a lowly complaining civil servant but Australian federal Minister for Territories (and later Governor-General) with supreme responsibility for New Guinea. ‘People were imitating the outward signs [of a colonial officer],’ he added, ‘but missing the inward grace.’

Although the pomp and ceremony surrounding the British Monarchy has abated in recent years the royal reception has not budged. Today the Monarchy enjoys significant popularity in the Pacific Islands symbolising, at least, a lack of grievance.

Preparing for self-government and independence made up the final pieces of the DA’s work. As the tide of British colonialism receded considerable pressure mounted from the United Nations Committee on Decolonisation and the British government itself. Rather than a bitter hold for power many accounts judge the pace of retreat as simply too hasty.

Corruption, after four decades of colonial departure, has been endemic in the Pacific Islands. A resultant lack of accountability has reduced government services to ineffective.

Why, after all, is colonial reflection important? Mainly because the colonial blueprint staggers on in the Pacific Islands: Westminster government, parliamentary procedure, elections and the broader rule of law. Many are quick to comment on the failure of these institutions but, without any seismic change in sight, I firmly believe the next generation of Pacific Islanders have to be proud of the institutions they have inherited.

India, as Manmohan Singh proudly reflects, has made its British institutions distinctively Indian. The Pacific Islands are no different. Reflecting sensibly upon the colonial period, where civil servants and the government worked hard to improve the lives of people, is not a legacy worth running away from but worth re-discovering.