Stephanie Williams Author
Joseph Chamberlain, Colonial Secretary, caricatured in the Liberal Westminster Gazette

Running the Show

Governors of the British Empire 1857 - 1912 Running the Show book cover
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What was it like to be a governor of a British colony? To be suddenly despatched across the world to a place of which you knew nothing? Who would do the job? How were they chosen? What were they actually doing, so far away from home?

I am a Canadian who grew up on one of the bigger pink bits of the traditional map of the British Empire. The picture I had of cosy, civilised Britain was so unlike my own home in the Ontario backwoods that when I accidentally came across a file in the National Archives full of personal remarks by some of Queen Victoria’s governors trying to survive in the outposts of Empire, I found myself in sudden sympathy. What was it like to find yourself suddenly catapulted into running a place of which you knew nothing?

‘How much are you paid?’ the questions began. ‘How many bedrooms are there in Government House?’ ‘How many servants do you have?’

The frankness of the governors’ remarks amazed me. Some sounded disdainful: others maintained ludicrous expectations – needing to retain a perfectly trained English butler in the gritty diamond rush of the Transvaal. Many sounded exhausted, beleaguered and ill. Most were surprised that London took any interest in their situation at all.

Running the Show is a book about ordinary men, trying to do a job of work. Made up of episodes from the lives of governors serving around the world, it presents a kaleidoscope of people, places and events – and stories of how, for better or worse, attempts were made to order them. Drawing on private letters, diaries and Colonial Office dispatches, their stories will entertain, enlighten and surprise. At a time when the world has shrunk , when globalization has become the catchline of our times, and when in Britain people are beginning to look at the empire again, no longer so much in guilt as curiosity, Running the Show will throw new light on how the countries that once made up the British Empire came to be the way they are today.

Seventeen year old Hugh Clifford, shortly after his arrival in Malaya, in 1883. Seventeen year old Hugh Clifford, shortly after his arrival in Malaya, in 1883.
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You hardly need to go beyond the indexes of all the volumes that have been written about the history of the British Empire to discover that virtually nothing has been written about the men who governed the colonies. Even in local histories governors appear as little more than ciphers, remembered as founders or innovators or villains, in the names of towns or, more usually, streets.

So I began to dig: Colonial Office dispatches, private letters and diaries, nineteenth century memoirs and dusty biographies from the early twentieth century. The people that I began to uncover were nothing like what I expected. Men like John Glover, who left home at the age of eleven to go away to sea, and by the age of twenty-five was in the forefront of the fight against slavery, in charge of Lagos. Arthur Charles Hamilton Gordon, cosseted younger son of the fourth earl of Aberdeen and prime minister of England, confounded expectations as the first British governor of Fiji, living in a house made of grass alongside chieftains who were cannibals. Yet he declared them every ounce his social equal, and devised a system of liberal government that uniquely combined their traditions and British justice. Then there was fifty-year old William Bloomfield Douglas, first resident of today’s Darwin in northern Australia, reported as hard-drinking, choleric, and a bully to his subordinates. Yet he recorded a relentless battle against fever, dysentery and mental illness in his diary. There was no typical Victorian governor.

Once in post, governors had few resources – a handful of troops and not much cash. Communications with London took weeks. Many lived surrounded by potentially hostile inhabitants. Governors had to come to terms with them, accept and understand them. In West Africa they led an ongoing fight against slavery. In the West Indies, and colonies like Mauritius and the Seychelles, governors had to stand up for the rule of law, defending the weak against the power of the few, often facing a battle with the vested interests of white planters and businessmen.

The picture of the Victorian governor that began to emerge was one of a man operating with his shirt sleeves rolled up, working long hours, living by his wits, riding hard, commissioning surveys and systems of sanitation, negotiating with tribesmen, drafting laws that would form the basis of a society to come, and losing sleep at night. The danger of disease was a constant theme in memoirs and letters: these were men obsessed with their health. No one knew what caused malaria or other tropical fevers. Large doses of quinine, the remedy of the time, were almost as painful as attacks themselves. For scores of governors recurring illness took a terrible toll, and permanently ruined their health.

But their freedom of action was remarkable. Governors had exceptional power to make of a place what they would. They laid out towns, built railways, created assemblies, drafted laws, set up schools, hospitals, galleries and learned societies: stuff that we now take for granted, but which defined the character of places and the societies that came after them.

The Garden - Government House St Vincent 1879 'The Garden'
Government House St. Vincent 1879
Photo credit - National Archives
Some drank too much, or were irascible or difficult. Others were weak and incompetent. But – surprisingly -- almost all were incorruptible. Power was the attraction, but the costs were high. Governors tended to marry late – when on home leave, well into their forties. Many then spent months, even years, separated from their wives and especially their children, sent back to relatives or to school in England. Many recorded isolation and heartbreaking loneliness. They were exasperated with the formality of their lives and the requirements of precedence. All agreed that no one in London understood their jobs, or appreciated the difficulties that they had to face. ‘Why, some of them seem to think that you can govern a West Indian colony with a fiddle and a ham-bone,’ Sir Courtenay Knollys remarked to a fellow governor when he arrived to take over Antigua in 1895. Finally, the job was expensive, and often cost a good deal of private income to keep the flag flying.

Meanwhile back home in England, the Colonial Office was regarded as a backwater. Most of the places it administered were beyond the pale of civilisation –if anyone had heard of them at all. A position in the colonies had nothing like the glamour of India, with its vast wealth, and vice-regal status. With the exception of governor-general of Canada, the Cape, or commander-in-chief of Gibraltar or Malta, a colonial governor was usually seen as someone who been passed over at home, relegated to a small provincial society of second-raters abroad.

Victorians, products of another age, Sometimes their actions, views on law and order, and attitudes to the ‘natives’ will be disturbing, even shocking. But this is not a book about the rights and wrongs of colonialism: the point is to let these people speak for themselves – so that we can understand them better.

Read an extract

John Glover goes to Africa