18

Renascent Africa

The Gold Coast and Nigeria

The British anticipated turmoil in Asia after the Second World War but they were optimistic about the stability of their African possessions. Indeed, they discerned in Africa the lineaments of a new Raj, with its axes on the Volta, the Nile and the Limpopo. It would be another barrack in an alien sea, a vast tropical plantation, a bottomless pit of mineral wealth. After all, Africa had provided a million men to fight on the side of the Allies, many of them conscripted from such remote areas that they stared “with astonishment at cars and lorries.”1 Compensating for the losses caused by Japanese conquests, Britain’s seventeen African dependencies had supplied the sinews of war in huge quantities—cotton, sisal, tea, cocoa, palm oil, bauxite, tin, copper, rubber and much else. Moreover, the colonial authorities were able to harness inconceivable amounts of muscle power. Often they employed forced labour, notoriously in the open cast tin mines of the Jos Plateau in northern Nigeria, where 200,000 peasants were treated as serfs. Such exploitation rested on a continuing assumption that Africans were among the most primitive races in the Empire, perhaps even a “sub-human species.”2 As such, they would obey their superiors with canine fidelity. Wondering about his next proconsular billet, Sir Ronald Storrs wrote in 1930: “More than 26 years’ service with the ancient, frequently hostile, always corrupt but never uninteresting civilisation of the Near and Middle East have wholly unfitted me for the dog-like loyalty of devoted blacks.”3

Between the wars even quite an enlightened District Commissioner such as Charles Arden-Clarke expected abject submission from the Nigerian “savages” to whom he was “something like judge, emperor and pope rolled into one.” He recorded,

Every native one meets kicks off his sandals, if he happens to be wearing any, gets off the path, gets down on his haunches and touches the ground with his right hand or both hands, at the same time murmuring “Zaiki” or “O Lion.” If he is feeling very respectful he says “O Lion King of the World.” Sometimes we passed through a village market place. Immediately everyone gets down and a great sigh of “Zaiki” goes up to the heavens.4

Such genuflexions were understandable in view of Arden-Clarke’s propensity to enforce order by means of the whip, the torch and the noose. As he acknowledged, they also magnified Englishmen’s ideas of their own importance in the scheme of creation. Thus it was generally thought in London that Africans were so backward that “many generations”5 or “centuries”6 or “an infinity of time”7 must pass before they could rule themselves. Herbert Morrison said that granting them self-government would be like giving a child of ten “a latch-key, a bank account and a shot gun.”8

On the other hand, it was clear even from a distance that the second global conflict was stirring Africa much more than had the first. True, little fighting took place south of the Sahara. But one campaign actually signalled the turn of the colonial tide just after it had reached full flood. When the Italians surrendered in Ethiopia in 1941, the Emperor Haile Selassie was restored to his throne, though with British strings attached. Elsewhere the impact of the war was less direct but more profound. The Atlantic Charter inspired the educated elite from the Atlas Mountains to the Drakensberg. Talk of Indian independence galvanised African nationalists. The war widened the horizons, developed the skills and enhanced the confidence of many who took part in it. The fact that “civilised” Europeans were killing each other (and being killed by Asiatics) helped to shatter “the crumbling edifice of white superiority.”9 So did the appearance of many working-class European and American soldiers, who did manual work and mingled with Africans in dance halls, bars and brothels.

Incoming troops were instructed:

In all contact with the natives, let your first thought be the preservation of your own dignity. The natives are accustomed to dealing with very few white people and those they meet hold positions of authority. The British are looked up to, put on a very high level. Don’t bring that level down by undue familiarity.10

The authorities also tried to promote African loyalty, though their efforts sometimes backfired. One poster depicted black soldiers in smart khaki uniforms but insultingly gave them “the bright scarlet lips of a Nigger minstrel on Brighton beach.”11 Another contrasted Mussolini’s regimented, rifle-bearing youth with cheerful, ragged British Boy Scouts—Africans admired the former, as readers of Evelyn Waugh’s Black Mischief, which had satirised a similar propaganda campaign, might have anticipated. What really altered the African worldview was the economic revolution sparked off by the conflict. Business boomed. New factories rose to fill import gaps (beer and cigarettes, for example) and to process raw materials such as cotton, fish and palm oil. Towns filled with wage-labourers, who were susceptible to radical ideas. However, state controls caused serious grievances, Africans being systematically exploited because of their political impotence. Inflation raised the cost of imported goods while the price of their exports was fixed to enable colonial governments to sell them profitably on the world market, thus helping Britain to pay for the war and to shore up the pound. In Accra, Lagos, Nairobi and Salisbury intellectuals dreamed of the “risorgimento of the African.”12

Although hopeful that Africa could become Britain’s third empire, greater than those of America or India, the Colonial Office did worry about the awakening colossus. As early as 1942 it recognised that exhausted little post-war Britain would have to find a new approach towards its African possessions.

Nineteenth century concepts of empire are dead. Forces released by the war are gathering great velocity…populations in Africa will seek…a wider measure of control over their own affairs. To surmount this danger will require statesmanship, or we shall lose the African continent as we did the American in the eighteenth century.13

Progressive officials thus began to think less in terms of trusteeship, with its antique connotations, and more of partnership with Africans. They aimed to replace Lugard’s system of indirect rule through tribal chiefs with a form of local democracy. In due course they revived the idea that the Empire was a self-liquidating entity and asserted that decolonisation was the “culmination of an evolutionary process which can be traced back to the end of the 18th century”14—a claim justifiable in itself but specious when used to suggest that the whole undertaking was the result of a grand design. They looked for a steady access of influence through an orderly transfer of power. In places such as Kenya and Rhodesia the presence of white settler communities made that impossible. But for most countries, and all those in West Africa, the key question was not whether, but when, self-government should be granted. The pace of change was crucial, since any miscalculation might provoke Communist insurgency or nationalist insurrection. The Colonial Office was confident that it could retain the initiative, despite the fundamental contradiction of its position. Critics pointed out that since the British interpreted the white man’s burden as training their “wards in the exercise of freedom and democracy” they were invoking forces that would compel them “to lay down the burden prematurely.”15

The fifth Pan-African Congress, held at Chorlton Town Hall in Manchester in 1945, warned that the future could hold bullets as well as ballots. It declared that Africans might “have to appeal to force in an effort to achieve freedom.”16 Future leaders such as Kwame Nkrumah and Jomo Kenyatta attended the Congress. Prominent, too, were ideologues such as W. E. B. Du Bois and George Padmore, who said that, whereas Rome had failed to save itself by abandoning its colonies, Britain could succeed—by making its own liberated colonies “the foundations of a new Commonwealth.”17 But for the first time trade unionists and other representatives of working people were also present. By demanding freedom now, said Nkrumah, they “shot into limbo the gradualist aspirations of our African middle classes and intellectuals.”18 They also sharpened the Colonial Office’s dilemma. How fast should Britain’s African colonies become independent members of the Commonwealth?

The Gold Coast, now Ghana, provided the first answer to that question. It was seen as a “model colony,”19 well suited to pioneer the process of imperial mutation in Africa. After centuries of trading with Europe, the Gold Coast had reached a sophisticated state of development. It had prospered thanks to gold, then slaves, then palm oil and finally cocoa, a wholly indigenous enterprise. By the outbreak of the Second World War the Gold Coast’s glossy beans made half the world’s chocolate. Affluence afforded education. During the nineteenth century missions had multiplied and by 1881 five thousand children were being taught in 139 primary schools, all in the south. An African professional class emerged even as the tenuous control of British merchants turned into a colonial administration, which subjugated the war-like Ashanti and defined the national frontiers.

By 1901 the country had three components, a fourth in the shape of the west Togoland mandate being added after 1918. First there was the Coastal Colony, a low-lying belt of arid scrub pierced by towering silk cotton trees and coconut palms. Secondly, there was the Ashanti hinterland of thick tropical rainforest whose King was called the Asanthene. Third came the Northern Territories, burnt savannah drained by the Black and White Volta rivers and scourged by the harmattan. This was the chill, dusty “wind of the white horsemen,”20 which had hidden desert raiders and which turned the land dull grey or lurid ochre. Its inhabitants, illiterate, acephalous and mostly pagan, often bore elaborate facial scars. The Ashanti called them odonkos (slaves) and the British, noting their taste for mashed (but not eviscerated) dogs and rats, complained of “sights fit to turn one’s stomach.”21 The southern part of the Gold Coast was by far the most advanced, thanks partly to improved communications. By 1903 the railway reached as far north as Kumasi, in the steamy heart of the West African jungle. Simultaneously the first roads began to push inland. A few even had experimental tarred surfaces—when these gave carriers sore feet an attempt was made to tar the soles of the black folk. Governors welcomed other signs of progress. The head chief of Srah had formed a drum and fife band, indicating a wholesome “disposition on the part of the natives to abandon the hideous performances on tom-toms, gong-gongs and native horns in favour of music of a more civilised character.” King Mate Kole discarded his traditional dress and asked permission to wear a European outfit. The Colonial Office approved, but it added superciliously that “if the King is to wear this uniform, which seems to be something between that of a Turkish general officer and a superior kind of postman, he certainly ought to have brass spurs on his patent leather boots.”22

Whitehall might condescend but at the turn of the century the newly formed Aborigines’ Rights Protection Society, the seed of a nationalist movement, thwarted a British attempt to assign unoccupied land in the Gold Coast to the Crown. Its people were developing a West African consciousness and a tendency, as Mary Kingsley had put it, to think black. Moreover, Africans continued to hold senior posts in government service as they had long done—in 1850 there had even been a half-African Lieutenant-Governor. To be sure, white officials increasingly replaced black as medical advances made West Africa safer, if by no means safe. If the Grim Reaper was so busy in 1898 that the Lagos Standard asked for relief for overworked grave diggers, a member of the Accra Club could complain as late as 1939 that his only exercise was “walking as a pall-bearer behind the funerals of my friends. People die out here for no reason at all.”23 Yet by then there were enough African lawyers, doctors, clergymen, journalists and teachers to present a growing challenge both to the British and to the traditional chiefly order. Between the wars, though, society was still relatively homogeneous.

Unlike Nigeria, the Gold Coast seemed to be a nation in the making. The different ethnic groups had cultural similarities. The main languages spoken by the country’s four million people were related and English was becoming a lingua franca. Whether in the expanding coastal towns of the Fanti, in the old kingdom of Ashanti, or in the scattered northern settlements of the Frafra, there was a common respect for ancestors, customs and kinship obligations. There was a general reverence for the throne or stool, especially for the Golden Stool of Ashanti with its paraphernalia of “gold finger rings, silver neck-plates, talisman sandals, umbrella crest, elephant tail, palanquin cushions, and so forth.”24 Brought down from heaven in a black cloud, according to myth, this Stool enshrined the soul of the Ashanti people. But chiefs never quite became gods. Indeed, they could be deposed, or “de-stooled,” by popular demand—through an incipient process of democracy.

The British, who had first weakened native rulers, now upheld them; and none did so more ardently than the most popular inter-war Governor, Sir Gordon Guggisberg. Tall, gaunt and handsome, he was a mixture of patriarch, engineer and Scoutmaster. He aimed to conduct the people of the Gold Coast along the broad “Highway of Progress.” Under his guidance they would advance “by gentle gradients over the Ridges of Difficulty and by easy curves around the Swamps of Doubt and Superstition, to those far-off Cities of Promise—the Cities of Final Development, Wealth and Happiness.”25 Drawing more inspiration from Baden-Powell than from Bunyan, Guggisberg fostered vocational training and made practical improvements. He built a deep-water harbour at Takoradi, a boon to a country that had relied on surf boats. He founded Achimota teacher training college. He completed Korle Bu hospital. He expanded the road and rail network. Guggisberg, a Jew whom his white enemies denounced as “the Niggers’ friend,”26 believed in promoting Africans to responsible positions. But he followed Lugard in preferring grizzled old chiefs to bright young men or so-called “verandah boys,” impoverished youths who slept on the verandahs of the urban rich. Guggisberg admitted to the charge of running a “grandmotherly administration” and said that its purpose was to prevent “a child running before it can walk.”27

The cliché incensed educated Africans, more and more of whom regarded colonial rule as a façade of benevolence barely concealing a sink of oppression. It was typified by Accra, where “vast, vulgarly ostentatious Government buildings,” replete with balustrades, gables and “stone gingerbread icing,”28 overshadowed a warren of concrete boxes with corrugated-iron roofs, thatched cabins and mud huts standing in a slough of their own detritus. For all the European architectural grandeur, there was no modern sewage system. The black slums around Ussher Fort had open drains, scavenged by pigs and dogs. The white bungalows of Victoriaborg had septic tanks, which polluted the sandy ground; and town council men (tankas) collected night soil for the trains that transported it to the sea. To the dismay of Sir Alan Burns, who became Governor in 1941, his own headquarters, Christiansborg Castle, contained only “thunder-boxes.”

He quickly installed water closets, one of many modifications to the fortified trading post built by the Danes in the seventeenth century with stone brought from home as ballast in slave ships. Often changing hands and occasionally battered by earthquakes, Christiansborg had even served briefly as a lunatic asylum. Now it consisted of a cluster of white wooden buildings perched on massive cliff-top ramparts dotted with rusty cannons in which kingfishers made their nests. Supposed to be haunted, the whole place was permanently damp from the spray of huge Atlantic rollers. Apart from constructing an aviary, the portly, efficient Burns made few improvements. As a former secretary to both Lugard and Sir Hugh Clifford, he was by no means an unequivocal champion of progress. For example, he deplored the unfortunate African addiction to European dancing, especially to “a kind of jitterbugging” known as the “High Life.”29 But Burns had to cope with much labour unrest during the war and he detected the nationalist spirit abroad. He responded to it while trying to maintain the initiative. “The secret of good administration is always to be one jump ahead of the people,” he said. “Give them what they want before they know they want it.”30 So Burns persuaded a gingerly Colonial Office, still “sure that we have unlimited time in which to work” in Africa,31 to advance natives of the Gold Coast in local and central government. And in 1946 he secured a new constitution providing for the election of eighteen members of his thirty-strong Legislative Council. In fact most of these new members were not directly elected but nominated by chiefs and the Governor himself retained ample reserve powers. Nevertheless Africans were now in the majority and they had taken a significant step towards self-government. Burns thus hoped to forestall trouble from the educated elite who were, he acknowledged, “less amenable to our suggestions, less friendly, and less willing to accept us as supermen.”32

“The people are really happy,” Burns boasted, “and really satisfied with the new Constitution.”33 He regarded it as the fulfilment of his labours. Of course, the Colonial Office would continue with the “the slow work of nation-building.”34 Africans would gradually be trained to fill government posts. White administrators would more and more play an advisory, rather than an executive, role. But it was a substantial and enduring one. Quoting Gibbon, Burns compared the British to the Roman official, whose probity was guaranteed by his exclusion from provinces where “his interest was concerned, or his affections were engaged.” The Gold Coast could not lightly dispense with such magisterial virtue. In 1947, back in London, Burns rejected suggestions that “our Empire is coming to an end, that our Colonies are now ready and anxious to stand by themselves.”35 But he was given the lie by mounting turbulence in the Gold Coast. It had many causes, notably inflation, high food prices, the compulsory felling of cocoa trees to control swollen-shoot disease, and unemployment among the seventy thousand demobilised servicemen. Furthermore, the intelligentsia feared that the new constitution would be a bar instead of a bridge to independence.

Led by a liberal lawyer called Joseph Danquah, they formed the United Gold Coast Convention (UGCC), a movement demanding “self-Government in the shortest possible time.”36 This was hardly a call to the barricades. But a new secretary galvanised the UGCC, a man whose recreation was work and whose ambition was (said Elspeth Huxley) to found “a great African empire, with himself as Caesar.”37 His name was Kwame Nkrumah. The son of a goldsmith from the Ivory Coast, he had attended Achimota College and told friends that, if he failed to free his country, “bury me alive.”38 Nkrumah had gone on to Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, paying his way by working as a dish-washer, bell-hop, soap-maker and fish-peddler. For want of a bed, he sometimes slept on subway trains shuttling between Harlem and Brooklyn. Among other subjects, he studied theology. He also preached in Negro churches, improving his diction by having his gappy front teeth replaced with false ones—when his mother saw him again she did not recognise him. In 1945, aged thirty-six, Nkrumah left the United States for the United Kingdom to crusade against imperialism in the heart of the Empire. He was a grey-suited, mild-mannered revolutionary. The novelist Richard Wright described him as “slightly built, a smooth jet black in colour; he had a largish face, a pair of brooding, almost frightened eyes, a set of full soft lips. His head held a thick growth of crinkly hair and his hands moved with a slow restlessness, betraying a contained tension.” But when he returned to the Gold Coast in 1947 nothing could hide the fact that he was a man with a mission—“to throw the Europeans out of Africa.”39

His zeal alarmed the middle-class lawyers and prosperous businessmen of the UGCC, particularly when he addressed them as “Comrade.” They wanted an agent who would promote their claim to be the natural rulers of the Gold Coast, whereas Nkrumah seemed intent on becoming another Lenin. The British thought he rather resembled Stalin, organising a dictatorship of the secretariat, though they also accused him of “aping Hitler.”40 Undoubtedly he was a Marxist. Nkrumah believed that imperialism was the last stage of capitalism, a vicious form of economic exploitation against which colonies must rebel. And he hoped to use the UGCC intelligentsia as the “vanguard in the struggle against alien rule.”41 But he was a Christian Marxist—at meetings his supporters sang “Onward Christian Soldiers” and “Lead Kindly Light.” Nkrumah had also been influenced by Gandhi and he eschewed violent revolution. Instead he pursued a policy of political education, organisation and, in due course, peaceful non-cooperation. Using the UGCC as his base, he appealed to a broad constituency of clerks, cocoa farmers, elementary school teachers, market traders, artisans, ex-soldiers, young men and women. But even as he sought to mobilise these disaffected classes, touring the country in a wheezing jalopy, they gave vent to their grievances in a boycott of overpriced European goods that culminated in spontaneous riots. On 28 February 1948 a two-thousand-strong march, including former servicemen who wished to present a petition to the Governor at Christiansborg Castle, clashed with police. When Superintendent Imray’s order to fire into the stone-throwing crowd was ignored, he himself grabbed a rifle, killing two and wounding several more—the Commissioner later congratulated him on a “Bloody good show.” However, the shots stampeded the demonstrators. Some of them actually ran across the Oval cricket ground during a European match, the Superintendent recorded, to the “horror and disgust of players, umpires and supporters.”42

Meanwhile, unruliness in the centre of Accra spiralled into “the wildest excesses of mob violence, bloodshed, looting and arson.” Tens of thousands of people rampaged through the streets. Getting drunk on liquor pillaged from the Kingsway Stores, they attacked Europeans, overturned cars and set them alight, smashed down the gates of Ussher Fort Prison and released some of the inmates. As the violence spread to other towns and the death toll rose to twenty-nine, the Governor panicked, fearing a Communist coup. He imposed a state of emergency, called for reinforcements and arrested the UGCC leaders, among them Danquah and Nkrumah. They were soon released to give evidence to a commission of inquiry led by a barrister named Aiken Watson. This reported that Nkrumah’s aim was to establish a Union of West African Soviet Socialist Republics. The charge was false but it confirmed Nkrumah’s position as the most radical nationalist leader in the Gold Coast. Furthermore the Watson Commission said that the Burns constitution, conceived as the acme of enlightenment two years earlier, was “outmoded at birth.”43 It should be revised to give capable Africans a proper role in running the country, which had not been well served by a colonial government relying on feudal chiefs. The Colonial Office was stung by the criticisms and shocked by the proposals for such headlong change. But the riots had conjured up febrile anxieties that the Gold Coast might become another Burma or Palestine. In 1949 the Colonial Secretary, Creech Jones, appointed a new Governor, Sir Charles Arden-Clarke. He was evidently well qualified for the post, having begun his service in West Africa and just returned from the wilds of Sarawak where he had needed “a strong head, an asbestos stomach and a cast-iron sit-upon.” Creech Jones warned him that the Gold Coast “is on the edge of revolution. We are in danger of losing it.”44

Nkrumah seemed set to play Robespierre to Danquah’s Mirabeau. The idealistic secretary of the UGCC had become ever more aggressive. He had published incendiary newspapers and conducted rallies where his magnetic personality and theatrical delivery impressed even those who could not understand what he was saying. He had embroidered on Danquah’s myth of an idyllic state of Ghana, stretching from Timbuktu to the Atlantic in medieval times and now enslaved by European imperialists. He had urged the youth to demand “Self-government Now,” or “SG,”45 initials they shouted at police officers in Accra and District Officers in the bush. In June 1949 the UGCC dismissed Nkrumah from his post and he retaliated by setting up a rival organisation, the Convention People’s Party (CPP). This condemned the “spinelessness” of the UGCC’s policies and denounced its members as “stooges.” Chunky, arrogant and articulate, Danquah reviled Nkrumah as an upstart, a renegade and a petty tyrant. The British were equally hostile, regarding Nkrumah as a “cold, humourless, intense individualist, offensively cynical and repeatedly guilty of double-crossing his benefactors and associates.”46 But the CPP became a magnet for militants, whether elementary-schooled sans-culottes in revolt against the tribal ancien régime or English-speaking plebeians rebelling against the new patrician class represented by Danquah.

Such respectable leaders were precisely those whom Arden-Clarke tried to back on his arrival. He also attempted to quell the rabble-rousing of the CPP. But Nkrumah reacted sharply when an African commission including Danquah proposed a new constitution that would have put more blacks in office while keeping whites in power. Dismissing the scheme as “bogus and fraudulent,”47 he urged civil disobedience. “Mark my words, my good man,” a British official warned him, “within three days the people here will let you down.”48 Africans would never support Nkrumah, the official said, as Indians had supported Gandhi. But in January 1950 a general strike, sustained by intimidation as well as exhortation, stopped trains, shut stores, paralysed business and brought government service to a halt. With the help of a curfew and other emergency regulations, Arden-Clarke soon suppressed the subsequent disturbances. Moreover, the police obeyed his order that there should be “batons but no bullets” and “bloody coxcombs but no bodies.”49 They also arrested most of the CPP leaders, including Nkrumah himself. Quickly convicted, they were imprisoned in Accra’s James Fort. Here they were treated as common criminals and fed on maize porridge, corn meal and boiled cassava—yet Nkrumah kept up his habit of fasting for two days a week. He and ten companions shared a cell containing only cockroaches, sleeping mats and a stinking bucket. The black Jacobin kept control of his organisation by smuggling out messages pencilled on lavatory paper.

The CPP’s many branches were active throughout the country, dashing Arden-Clarke’s hope that a moderate party might “keep these buggers out.”50 Nkrumah’s candidates won handsomely in the 1950 municipal elections and some Britons discerned a “Red Shadow over the Gold Coast.” This was the title of a celebrated article in the London Daily Telegraph, which portrayed Nkrumah’s party as the spawn of a sinister alliance between the Politbureau and “the Ju-Ju of darkest Africa.”51 But the CPP, as it campaigned in the general election held under the new constitution, was actually more like a congregation of evangelists. It held “harvest festivals”52 to raise cash, prayed that the party would sanctify members through its truth and repeated Nkrumah’s maxim, “Seek ye first the political kingdom and all things shall be added unto you.”53 Supporters chanted “Ci Pi Pi” and “FreeDom.” They saluted with raised arms and open palms. They displayed the party’s red, white and green colours on flags and on the silk kentecloth of their robes. They participated in elaborate rituals, some wearing “PG” caps to proclaim that they were Prison Graduates. Spokesmen promised heaven on earth: free schools, cheap kerosene, more hospitals, smooth roads, mechanised agriculture, abundant yams and plantains, a welfare state, self-government now. If the people voted wisely, they said, God would save Ghana from the imperialists. In February 1951 the CPP gained thirty-five of thirty-eight seats in the popular ballot, and Nkrumah won overwhelmingly in Accra Central. Arden-Clarke quickly released him, fearing that otherwise “the Gold Coast would be plunged into disorders, violence and bloodshed.”54

The new Prison Graduate described being carried like a ship on a sea of upturned faces to perform the customary expiation ceremony. He stepped seven times into the blood of a sacrificed sheep in order to cleanse himself from “the contamination of prison.”55 In Christiansborg Castle he met Arden-Clarke for the first time and, bearing no malice for his incarceration, accepted the post of Leader of Government Business—a title changed in 1952 to Prime Minister. The two men established an immediate rapport, the pragmatic official warming to the idealism of the mercurial politician. In fact, though, Nkrumah’s dramatic election victory had worked a revolution in the mind of the Governor. He recognised that the CPP’s leader was, as he put it, the only dog in his kennel. Nkrumah had visibly transformed his compatriots: “They carried themselves differently, stood up straighter, held their heads higher and looked like proud independent people.”56 So Arden-Clarke had to adapt to Nkrumah’s pace, even though his masters in London thought he was “going too far and too fast.”57 Yet they themselves had few other options. Arden-Clarke was regarded as “one of the aces in the Colonial Office pack.” And he claimed that, far from being hasty, the operation to make Ghana independent should be called “Cunctator”58 after the Roman General Fabius Maximus, who earned the nickname because of his delaying tactics against Hannibal. It turned out that the determined man on the spot could play as crucial a role in ending as he had in extending the Empire. Between 1951 and 1957 Arden-Clarke became the foremost proconsular champion of “creative abdication.”59 The Ghana Evening News hailed him as “the man who came, who saw and who compromised.”60

The creative assumption of power, as Nkrumah found, proved equally difficult and delicate. The CPP had fought for immediate independence and its leader now had to achieve it through negotiations requiring tact as much as tactics. He feared imperialist wiles and tried to ban fraternisation lest supporters who had resisted British “strong-arm methods” should be seduced by “cocktail parties.”61 He was obliged to rely on white civil servants, some disaffected, others seeking early retirement, all owing their first loyalty to the Crown. Accustomed to the culture of dashee—bribery and extortion—his own party succumbed to rampant graft. As MI5 discovered, Nkrumah himself raised money through “diamond smuggling.”62 The economy was still largely in European hands, none more grasping than those of General Sir Edward Spears, Chairman of Ashanti Goldfields. He professed to like and admire Nkrumah, describing him as imaginative, energetic, “receptive and intelligent.”63 But whenever he called on the Prime Minister, the general brought him presents of clockwork toys, “a monkey that clashed cymbals, a clown that blew bubbles from detergent, a lion that flashed its eyes and roared.”64 Apparently Nkrumah laughed at these novelties to humour Spears, who revealed his true colours in this tribute to West Africans who had suddenly been propelled into the modern world.

After the first sense of wonder and amazement has passed, the manifestations of civilisation will become commonplace. Indeed, wonder is already being replaced by the desire to work wonders, even if for the moment and for some time to come that desire is like that of a child demanding to be given a startling piece of machinery, unconscious of the dangers and uncomprehending of its mechanism.65

A fractious reactionary and an old friend of Winston Churchill, Spears was especially keen that no African should get near the levers of power in the Ashanti gold mines. And so determined was he that as little as possible of their vast profits should go to the Gold Coast that he tried to divide and rule in the traditional fashion. Nothing daunted, Nkrumah struggled to forge a modern state. He worked as if possessed by the Furies.

In a land where tropical disease was endemic he built nine new hospitals before 1957, though he enraged people in Kumasi by attempting to name theirs after himself. In a land where 80 per cent of the population was illiterate, he doubled the number of primary school pupils. In a land where agriculture was crippled by debt, he lent farmers over £1 million at low rates of interest. In a land plagued by what a British District Commissioner called “witchcraft as foul as the slime of the mangrove swamps,”66 Nkrumah even tried to root out superstition. It was an equivocal effort. For he himself, once an aspirant Jesuit, studied the occult, consulted oracles and heeded the spirits of his ancestors. Still, the old Colonial Film Unit did expose the activities of a fetish priest, obtaining remarkable footage with the paid assistance of the priest’s son, who no longer believed in mumbo-jumbo because he had become a Roman Catholic and needed the money to take his sick wife to Lourdes. Meanwhile, Nkrumah permitted his own personality cult to assume the character of a national faith. He was hailed as “Sun of Ghana,” “Star of Africa,” “Man of Destiny” and “Wonder Boy,” though his usual title was Osagyefo, which meant “Victor” or “Redeemer.”67 Alighting from Cadillac or Jaguar, he was paraded in a white palanquin under a state umbrella of red, white and green velvet. He presented himself, said Danquah, as “the nation’s holy angel and saint of self-government.”68 He seemed to act the part of martyr-saviour, as Elspeth Huxley observed, noting his “sultry, sensual expression and a trace of petulance, of prima donna touchiness.”69

Perhaps Nkrumah began to believe his own propaganda. In private he compared himself to Christ and talked of the “inevitability of deification.”70 And on his gramophone he played nothing but the “Hallelujah Chorus” from Handel’s Messiah. But Nkrumah also invested himself with spiritual power in order to challenge the chiefs. He thus won votes and made it harder for Britain to resist the drive towards independence. This impetus was best expressed in his “Motion of Destiny,” proposed to the Legislative Assembly on 10 July 1953:

The old concepts of Empire, of conquest, domination and exploitation are fast dying in an awakening world. Among the colonial peoples, there is a vast untapped reservoir of peace and goodwill towards Britain, would she but divest herself of the outmoded, moth-eaten trappings of two centuries ago, and present herself to her colonial peoples in a new and shining vestment…and give us a guiding hand in working our own destinies.71

That hand was already extended. The Colonial Office had no intention of risking a major clash with Nkrumah. It was reconciled to an all-African cabinet if the CPP won the 1954 general election—as it did. In a curious metaphor which officials seemed to relish, the Colonial Office had approved of throwing almost everything “to the wolves before they overtake the political sledge carrying full self-Government.”72

It was not so much British reluctance as Ashanti truculence that postponed this dénouement. After the CPP’s red cockerel proved the most potent symbol at the polls, a reaction took place in the tropical heartland of the Gold Coast. Chiefs protesting against the villainous dictatorship of Accra joined farmers, still denied a fair price for their cocoa, to form the National Liberation Movement (NLM). Aiming to assert the power of Ashanti, it was inaugurated on 19 September 1954. Some forty thousand people assembled at Prince of Wales Park in the lush garden city of Kumasi, pleasantly shaded by okum trees. They banged drums, fired muskets and chanted battle cries. The Ashanti flag (green for its forests, gold for its minerals and black for its thrones) was decorated with a cocoa pod and a porcupine (kotoko), emblem of the nation’s war machine. The porcupine’s quills were young men keen to shed CPP blood. Flamboyant as well as aggressive, chewing kola nuts instead of betel or gum, they liked to dress in “the movie version of American cowboy costumes, black satin with a white fringe, and they wore high-heeled black Texas boots brilliantly studded with the letters NLM and the words ‘King Force.’”73

Shooting opponents, burning their cars and blowing up their houses, these new Ashanti warriors fomented serious civil conflict. They even stoned the Governor, rightly seen as Nkrumah’s ally, when he came to Kumasi. But they apparently first held up a placard saying “We have no quarrel with the Queen, God Bless Her.”74 Perhaps Arden-Clarke embellished this story for his sovereign’s benefit, for he revered the British throne much as the Ashantis did the Golden Stool. Certainly Nkrumah made light of the disturbances even though they were more akin to a national uprising than to tribal ferment or party strife. His newspapers dismissed the violence as Chicago gangsterism and derided the NLM leaders as feudal reactionaries and infantile cocoa politicians. The Osagyefo himself called on the young men “to make the Gold Coast a paradise” so that when St. Peter opened the pearly gates “we shall sit in heaven and see our children driving their aeroplanes, commanding their own armies.”75

By contrast, the Colonial Secretary, Alan Lennox-Boyd, was perturbed by the NLM’s campaign and alert to its plea for a federal constitution that would stunt the growth of Nkrumah’s autocracy. A lifelong right-wing Tory, described by the left-wing Michael Foot as “a Junior Imp who never grew up, a Primrose League Peter Pan,”76 Lennox-Boyd was instinctively inclined to delay imperial withdrawal. Despite an equal and opposite inclination to back the Governor, he subscribed to the conventional Whitehall wisdom that the Gold Coast was no more “ready” for independence than “one’s teen-age daughter is ‘ready’ for the proverbial latch-key.”77 So he took the Ashanti troubles as an opportunity to insist on a further election, in 1956. Nkrumah, who had sought a compromise with the intransigent NLM, angrily submitted. He feared the outcome. But the NLM could not extend its influence much beyond the Ashanti region and even here the CPP did surprisingly well, winning altogether 71 of 104 seats in the Legislative Assembly. Lennox-Boyd had to accept Arden-Clarke’s recommendation that he should fix a date for ending British rule—or face carnage.

The Colonial Secretary did manage to achieve a feeble measure of regional autonomy and this had to satisfy the Ashanti people, who had looked to him to save them from Nkrumah. It was with mixed feelings of pride and shame that, on a visit to Kumasi where 100,000 mourning people greeted him, Lennox-Boyd read their banners proclaiming “British don’t go” and “We don’t want independence.”78 At midnight on 5 March 1957 they got independence. Accra led the celebrations. Arden-Clarke said that, thanks to the splendour of the decorations and the appearance of Princess Alexandra in their midst, the city had assumed “the magic qualities of a fairy tale.”79 Among the international dignitaries present were two Americans of very different persuasions, Martin Luther King Jr. and Vice-President Richard M. Nixon. King, Nkrumah’s personal guest, made an eloquent speech condemning the racial violence in the USA’s Deep South. Echoing the euphoria of his Ghanaian hosts, Nixon slapped one man on the shoulder and asked him how it felt to be free. “I wouldn’t know, Sir,” came the memorable reply. “I’m from Alabama.”80

The Gold Coast gained its freedom because a forceful leader commanded a party which evidently expressed the national will. Once in power, though, Nkrumah fully exercised that freedom which (as he often said) resulted from independence, the freedom to make mistakes. He swiftly abandoned democratic practices and eroded civil liberties. He passed repressive measures, crushed opposition, controlled the press and radio, subverted the rule of law, and eventually turned Ghana into a corrupt despotism. In the process the country reached “the verge of bankruptcy,” wrote General Spears, “largely due to the inexcusable extravagances and personal prestige schemes embarked upon by Dr. Nkrumah.”81 This was fair comment. The Osagyefo’s megalomania waxed, Ghanaians observed, as his charisma waned. He founded his own ideology, Nkrumaism. His statue graced the front of parliament and his name went up in neon lights. His profile adorned stamps and banknotes. Coins bore his head haloed with the Latin inscription, “Kwame Nkrumah, civitatis Ghaniensis conditor”—founder of the state of Ghana.

In due course other self-proclaimed founders of new African states matched or out-matched Nkrumah in dictatorship, thus providing Spears and others with retrospective vindications of imperial rule. Yet from the slave trade to apartheid that rule was always authoritarian and often brutal. Under King Leopold of the Belgians, to cite the worst example, the Congo lost perhaps ten million people, “half of its population”—eclipsing anything essayed by Joseph Mobutu, the so-called “Zairian Caligula.”82 Furthermore, empire-builders had carved artificial boundaries on the face of a continent already ravaged by drought, famine, isolation, ignorance, poverty and disease. They had imposed white geometrical patterns on amorphous black landscapes, drawing frontiers that cut through tribal communities, ethnic units and linguistic entities. By introducing alien authority, religion, education and commerce, they had also undermined old cultural and social structures. Of course, Africans did not become helpless prisoners of their colonial past. They were masters of their own fate. But by the mid-twentieth century their states were primed for internal strife. Once European control was relinquished, they veered between anarchy and tyranny, seldom finding a democratic equilibrium. Even in Ghana, the Ashanti region and the Northern Territories agitated for secession; the Ewe people wanted their own homeland; and further groupings, such as Muslim immigrants (Zongos), resisted integration. Other nations created by the imperial powers were much less compact and far more divided. They also lacked many of Ghana’s additional advantages. Yet the Gold Coast had set such a rapid pace towards independence that Britain was hard pressed to moderate it elsewhere on the continent.

West Africa, free of white settlers, moved most rapidly and within three years Nigeria followed in Ghana’s footsteps, despite being little more than a geographical expression. The largest country in tropical Africa possessed no intrinsic unity. Like Gaul—and Ghana—it was divided into three parts. And its thirty million inhabitants, who by the early 1950s comprised a third of the Empire’s remaining subjects, were unevenly split into a familiar trinity of major groupings. On the vast undulating plain of the Muslim north dwelt the pastoral Fulani, bronze-skinned, hawk-featured invaders from the Sahara now intermingled with the vanquished Hausa. In the swamps and forests of the south-east, where the tsetse fly killed cattle and horses, lived the Ibo, atomised into innumerable village communities. Finally, the south-west was the domain of the Yoruba, where towns such as Ibadan, Oyo and Benin bore witness to the former might of kingdoms shattered by collision with slave-hungry Europe. Yet a simple, tripartite description gives no idea of the country’s baffling diversity. The northern territories were as alien to the southern as China was to Europe. According to Julian Huxley, the cultures ranged from “the neolithic level to something roughly equivalent to our medieval.”83

In fact, Nigeria was the most heterogeneous country in Africa. It was an ethnic mosaic, a cultural patchwork and a “linguistic crossroads.”84 Wars and migrations had thoroughly mixed up the populations of the north, where Kanuri, Nupe, Tiv and a plethora of other tribes coexisted. Many of them were pagan—when a District Officer, trying to administer an oath, asked a witness what he believed in, he answered, “It all depends where I am.”85 The south was more Christian but scarcely more uniform, churches competing with ju-ju stalls packed with the fetishes that shocked white visitors—sheep gizzards, snake fangs, bat wings, dog paws, parrot intestines, dried monkey penises. Elspeth Huxley found a characteristic image to express her horror at the prolific exuberance of Lagos: its “sheer naked human life, mere human existence, bubbles and pullulates with the frightening fecundity of bacteria.”86 But the best measure of Nigeria’s fissiparous condition was the Babel of 250 tongues, some spoken by fewer than a thousand people. When the Governor gave a speech in one town he was surprised to find that his three interpreters were between them translating it into six languages.

In theory, British rule harmonised Nigerian discord. It established law and order, inaugurated free trade, created a network of roads and railways, introduced a common currency instead of gin or iron bars or cowrie shells or Maria Theresa dollars. According to Margery Perham, empire-builders imposed a superstructure like a “great steel grid over the amorphous cellular tissue of tribal Africa and the hundreds of independent and often hostile communities were held within its interstices in peace.”87 In fact they had acquired Nigeria by force, making up its frontiers as they went along and sustaining it as a whole by dividing the sum of its parts. Britain seized Lagos after heavy fighting in 1851 and instituted a protectorate in the delta in 1885 before, fifteen years later, taking over the Royal Niger Company’s claims to the vast hinterland. Despite the efforts of Lugard, colonial government took many forms and the British never imposed constitutional coherence. Indeed, they undermined existing structures of authority. Traders assisted in this process, demoralising the population with raw spirits that provided half the state’s tax revenue. Missionaries also assisted in the process, attacking polygyny (which united families), ancestor worship (which cemented communities), initiation ceremonies (which educated youths) and other creative conventions. Dancing was especially condemned, “a mixture of Breughel and Bedlam.”88 Chinua Achebe’s best-known novel was a lament on the disintegration of his hero’s clan: white men “put a knife on things that held us together and we have fallen apart.”89 Reflecting the mutual antagonism of their regions, colonial officials were even at odds with each other. It was said that if all the Nigerians were expelled from the country, British administrators in the north would go to war with those in the south.

So nationalism was slow to germinate and people’s loyalties were essentially local, directed towards family, clan and region. Millions lived and died without knowing that they were Nigerians, let alone subjects of the British Empire. They seldom, if ever, saw a white face, even when Europeans took to travelling by bicycle and Ford instead of hammock and canoe. Where District Officers did appear they found it hard to establish a rapport with such linguistically diverse people: one man only did so by playing on his portable gramophone a record called “The Laughing Policeman.”90 Nigerians spent their lives scratching subsistence from the earth and wrestling with a land that seemed to spawn biblical plagues—there were 750,000 lepers. As late as 1952 less than 10 per cent of the population was literate and the figure fell to 2 per cent in the north.

Here the colonial authorities kept their feudal raj in a “fossilised” condition, “hermetically sealed”91 from the rest of the country. Southerners, mostly Ibo migrants doing skilled work as clerks, storekeepers, railwaymen and so on, were segregated in strangers’ quarters outside the red walls of cities such as Kano and Sokoto. Christian missionaries were excluded. Islamic customs were respected, among them purdah so strict that there were no female teachers or nurses, and only prostitutes could aspire to adult education. Until the 1930s British officials even veiled their own wives on public occasions. The emirs, jewelled and scented potentates in embroidered white robes and capacious indigo turbans beaten clean so that they shone with a metallic glint, repaid social deference with political allegiance. Like Indian princes, they obeyed advice. In return the British prevented the assassinations that had formerly tempered their despotism. However badly these rulers treated their own people, they could usually count on the backing of local officials. “What!” exclaimed one Chief Commissioner to a subordinate who wanted to remove a petty tyrant in Niger Province. “Depose a Second Class Chief? Heav’n forfend!”92 Having united Nigeria, the British divided it to cement their rule and they found the ossified north most compliant and congenial. They felt a natural affinity for polo-playing Fulani aristocrats, with their “predominant characteristics of Moslem dignity, courtesy and courage.”93

Yet hardly less amenable, between the wars, were the ambitious Ibos and the proud Yorubas of the south. It is true that occasional disturbances did mar the tranquillity, notably millenarian convulsions and women’s riots over taxation which cost more than thirty lives in 1929. But Nigerians had no grievances like those that blighted African colonies containing European settlers. There was no overt conflict between white capital and black labour, as would surely have occurred if the soap magnate Lord Leverhulme, who favoured treating Africans like children, had been allowed to acquire palm oil plantations. There was no organised resistance to British rule, which did little to impair the dignity of Nigerians. Visitors from Nairobi or Cape Town were surprised to find that a “proud, assertive people, with their blacker skins and more Negroid faces, walked the streets in their bright flowing robes as if Lagos and its suburbs, its markets and its official buildings was entirely their city and subject to no suzerain power.”94 This was not a complete misapprehension: whites had to stop playing polo on the race course, which they had built and maintained on public land, because “it interfered with the black boys’ football.”95 It was even possible for an intelligent British official, who himself called Europeanised Africans “Wogs,” to boast that in Nigeria there was “virtually no racial prejudice.”96

He would have been right to say that little institutionalised discrimination existed—the government outlawed it completely in 1948. However, there was also little informal fraternisation. As one District Officer recorded, “You could sleep with black women provided you did it very discreetly, but you couldn’t drink with black men.”97 Furthermore, nothing could hide the familiar contrast between European palaces and African shantytowns. Beside the paved, well-lit Marina rose the imposing monuments to British political and commercial dominance. Notable among them was Government House, a white, three-storey Victorian palace with arcaded verandahs, green jalousies and a huge porte cochère under a canopy of thumbergia, “whose white orchid-like flowers swayed gently on their stems.”98 Equally elegant was the segregated suburb on Ikoyi island, which contained luxurious villas with garages and parquet floors and verdant lawns set amid bamboo, banana and palm groves descending to the lagoon. Behind this bright façade Africans were packed into “festering catacombs of filth”99 close to Carter Bridge. John Gunther thought this the worst slum in Africa outside Johannesburg. By day, he said, it was even shunned by flies. At night it was “as dark as Erebus.”100

Such glaring disparities fostered bitterness. As one official ironically remarked, the citizens of Lagos did not display that “dog-like devotion to the Government and its officers which is expected of all nice black people.”101 Yet, as it happened, the longest-serving Governor, Sir Bernard Bourdillon (1935–43), was also the most popular. Sympathetic and understanding, he recognised that the future of the country lay in the hands of educated young nationalists, whom he refused to regard as “mere mischief-makers.”102 They in turn hailed him as “a sportsman and a gentleman.”103 They even went so far as to adopt the pork pie hat he habitually wore, an item of fashion marketed in Lagos as the “Bourdillon.” The Governor also tried to erode the isolationism of the north, saying that it “must step down from behind the plate-glass windows through which it surveys disdainfully the antics of its plebeian neighbour, tuck up its long sleeves and join in the mêlée.” Bourdillon was not, though, an especially dynamic or progressive proconsul. Tall, handsome and vain, he had a penchant for practical jokes, a roving eye for the pretty wives of his subordinates and (to quote his sympathetic biographer) “formidable powers of relaxation.” Finding the climate of Lagos decidedly better than that of Colombo, he enjoyed riding, hunting, “good tennis, indifferent golf, indifferent (but cheap and amusing) polo” as well as “exceptionally good tarpon-fishing.” For further recreation he established a hill station on the Jos Plateau.

Bourdillon travelled widely, viewing the country from a seat fixed in front of the engine pulling his train and from his comfortable stern-wheeler, the Valiant, which had a skittles alley on the upper deck. He also drove his Railton sports car around Lagos so fast that he once killed a young Nigerian. Yet on official occasions the Governor was the soul of dignity. He imposed such rigid protocol at Government House, where the oven heat was somewhat reduced by a six-leaf punkah pulled by two “boys,” that he was nicknamed “the Mikado.” When Bourdillon returned home the Colonial Secretary thought he was suffering from “maladie de grandeur.” Nigerians criticised his “swanky”104 stewardship, which emphasised the great gulf fixed between white rulers and black subjects. No one resented this more than Herbert Macaulay, the self-styled “Gandhi of Nigeria.” An angry old man in a white suit and a white moustache that stuck out like cat’s whiskers, he was the grandson of the first African to become an Anglican bishop. And he ran the inflammatory Lagos Daily News, which was “ultra-radical, intensely nationalistic, virulently and implacably anti-white.”105 It agitated against economic ills, such as the control by the “Cocoa Pool” of 90 per cent of the trade. Its political line was still more potent: “The African has now reached the age of puberty and demands the right to assume…the toga virilis [garb of manhood].”106

However, this was an expression of racial rather than territorial nationalism. Macaulay and his followers, who were almost entirely confined to Lagos, espoused the unity of West Africa not Nigeria. One Governor, Sir Hugh Clifford, dismissed their goal as manifestly absurd, comparable to the quest for a European nation. But between the wars they believed that local loyalties were impeding the development of a wider, pan-African solidarity. This was certainly the view of Macaulay’s political heir, Nnamdi Azikiwe, who in 1937 returned from the United States after an educational odyssey that served as an inspiration to Nkrumah. Always known as Zik, he had changed his first name from Benjamin in 1934 when a South African objection prevented him from competing for his country in the British Empire Games—he was “as powerful as an ox”107 and reckoned that he could run a mile in four and a half minutes. At about the same time he vowed to dedicate his life to “the emancipation of the continent of Africa from the shackles of imperialism.” Loftily idealistic and unscrupulously self-serving, he came home in order “to infuse into the indigenous African a spirit of constitutional resistance to foreign rule.”108 That was the burden of his book Renascent Africa (1937), described as “the Bible of West African youth.”109

It was also the message of the newspaper chain he set up, modelled on the yellow press of America—Time magazine dubbed him “the Bertie McCormick of the Niger Delta” as well as “the jungle George Washington.”110 Like McCormick’s Chicago Tribune, Zik’s West African Pilot was printed demagogy. Not content with directing scurrilous invective at the few thousand Europeans in Nigeria, it pilloried African rivals as “imperialist stooges” and “Uncle Toms.” Readers were “elec-zik-fied.”111 But the war, with all its dislocations, opportunities, hardships and hopes, changed Zik’s political direction. It translated continental patriotism into Nigerian nationalism. Aiming to draw its sting, the British increased its venom. In 1942 they appointed the first Nigerians to the Executive Council, holding out the prospect of further constitutional progress. But this merely provoked nationalists to rally their ranks. In 1944 Macaulay and Zik founded the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons*14 (NCNC) in order to “weld the heterogeneous masses of Nigeria into one solid block.”112

This proved impossible, partly because the NCNC was itself vitiated by tribalism. Aspiring to create a national movement that would sweep Nigeria to freedom, Zik could not resist favouring his own people, the Ibos. He would even assert that they had a divine mission to redeem Africa. So while Ibos hailed Zik as a New Messiah, Yorubas christened him the Arch Devil. Northern leaders, fearing post-colonial domination by a southern “gang of agitators,”113 threatened to continue the Fulani march to the sea. Nevertheless, the NCNC was the first party to attract widespread support in Nigeria. Zik skilfully exploited labour disputes (including a general strike) and other troubles caused by the high cost of living at the end of the war. The new socialist government in Westminster unwittingly assisted him. Espousing the welfare state abroad as well as at home, it dispatched fresh cohorts of officials to implement a variety of authoritarian measures in Africa, particularly in the fields of agriculture and public works. According to one historian, this “amounted to a second colonial invasion.”114

The claim is scarcely exaggerated. Between 1945 and 1947 the number entering the Colonial Service was equal to that of eleven years’ normal recruitment and in the following decade its intake increased by 50 per cent. And there is no denying African umbrage at an influx of Europeans bent on introducing, say, anti-erosion terracing, cattle inoculation and modern methods of cultivation. Writing about the training of such administrators, Sir Ralph Furse wondered whether the Colonial Service had not “too closely followed the Roman model.” It had perhaps concentrated too much on achieving material prosperity and should find room for “the Greek spirit,” he suggested, teaching recruits “more about the artistic and spiritual background of the people among whom they come to live.”115 This was cant. Moreover, it failed to reflect the stern imperatives of the post-war world. Socialism, like Caesarism, elevated the power of the state for thoroughly practical purposes.

When the state was foreign, its intervention was all the more likely to offend. An especially provocative instance occurred in 1945 when the colonial authorities vested Nigerian minerals and common lands in the British Crown by means of what Zik called the “obnoxious ordinances.”116They were intended to achieve a form of protective nationalisation. But the more these measures were said to be for their own good, the more Nigerians protested. They feared the British bearing gifts almost as much as they loathed them extorting profits. Reaping was, indeed, the corollary of imperial sowing. Faced with its own financial crises, Attlee’s government matched Churchill’s in exploiting overseas dependencies, which were kept inside their “economic cage.”117 It bought colonial goods cheaply and withheld the dollars they earned, lodging Nigerian balances in London at very low rates of interest. Having contributed to the war effort with a “forced loan,”118 Africans now helped Britain to finance the Beveridge Plan for peace-time social welfare. It was, Zik declared, something his compatriots needed more themselves.

To be sure Britain did grant its colonies some £40 million between 1946 and 1951, but this was investment rather than charity. The cash was designed to promote the supply of raw materials such as cotton, cocoa, coffee, palm oil and (notoriously) groundnuts for the home market and as dollar-earning commodities. It was also intended to stimulate orders for British manufactured goods, cement, steel, motor vehicles, railway equipment and the like. Moreover, while Labour was in power colonial sterling balances in London rose to well over a billion pounds and Britain extracted about £140 million from its overseas territories. Still, as a British official observed, Nigeria’s economic woes hardly counted beside its political grievances. What mattered was “not poverty but passion, passion about the colonial relationship.”119 Educated Nigerians revolted against their humiliating state of tutelage. They conjured with “Negritude.” They celebrated “the African personality.”120 They invoked a glorious past. Those who had “built the pyramids, fought with Caesar’s battalions…and dominated the Pyrenees” knew that they could “be great again and be slaves no more.”121 Unable to live a full life without freedom, said Zik, they were united in their blazing indignation against alien rule.

Of course they were far from being united, as the Colonial Office well knew, but it wanted to mollify the NCNC by making cautious progress towards independence. However, the regime had changed in Lagos. Zik had enjoyed quite good relations with Bourdillon, playing tennis at Government House and hailing him as a far-sighted statesman. When Bourdillon’s wife asked why his newspapers nevertheless attacked the Governor, Zik replied laconically: “Politics, Ma.”*15122 Bourdillon’s successor, Sir Arthur Richards, was less affable and more conservative. His aim was not to conciliate but to dominate the NCNC. Moreover, his Whitehall masters had to chivvy him into devising a new constitution to match that of Burns in the Gold Coast. Admittedly his task was more difficult, for Richards had to balance national unity against greater regional diversity as well as giving Nigerians more say in government. But he introduced his flawed scheme with scant consultation, which drew criticism even from the retired Bourdillon and inspired a vitriolic campaign in the Zik press. Richards banned two of his papers and ridiculed his claim that the British plotted to murder him. Zik had nothing to fear, said the Governor, except “the dark shadows of his own imagination.”123 The London Times dismissed the allegation as another hysterical publicity stunt and said that although Zik presented himself as the spokesman of exploited Africa, he was “anti-imperialistic and at times anti-British and anti-white.”124

Still, Zik brought politics to life during the first whistle-stop tour made by a Nigerian. He travelled by train, car, lorry and horse, speaking in compounds, schools, cinemas and churches to the accompaniment of flute, cow horn and brass bands. Clever, articulate and urbane, though ultimately unfathomable, Zik galvanised his countrymen. The NCNC grew with “electrical rapidity.”125 Zik’s more militant young acolytes began to call for revolution, doubtless heeding his reminder that the tree of liberty was “watered with the blood of tyrants.”126 Inter-regional tensions grew and there were even stirrings in the holy north. Meanwhile, the Richards constitution, endorsed after a debate at Westminster lasting just twenty-nine minutes, was dying at birth. Nothing could save it, not even large transfusions of British cash to build schools, hospitals, reservoirs and other amenities. Richards, like Burns in the Gold Coast, had failed to meet the aspirations of educated Africans. In 1948 he was replaced with a less old-fashioned Governor, Sir John Macpherson. The Nigerian Eastern Mail welcomed him as “the harbinger of a new political era.” His advent was a sign that the Colonial Office had “revolted against the old ways of leopards and wolves, of the strong devouring the weak.”127

Actually the danger was that strong Nigerians would devour their own weak. This might occur through the emergence of an educated oligarchy or a regional tyranny, one probably compounding the other. The Colonial Office still respected Lugard’s principle that power should not fall into the hands of a minority of “Europeanised natives.”128 Yet they were the most vociferous in demanding it and the best equipped to exercise it. Since the “mission boys” of today would be the statesmen of tomorrow, the British authorities thought they should be trained for the role—between 1947 and 1951 the number of Nigerians holding senior service posts rose from 182 to 628. However, nearly all the new officials were Yorubas and Ibos, who seemed poised to take the place of British administrators in the north. One of these administrators spoke for many in deploring the prospect that “our likeable, lazy northerners will be handed over to the tender mercies of the southern ‘trousered apes’ within a few years.”129 And the leader of the northern resistance, Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, warned that Nigerian independence “would mean handing over one region to the others.”130 Macpherson’s task was to devise a constitution that would prevent such indigenous empire-building. He had to ensure that the traditional rulers and their people checked the westernised elite and that the north balanced the south. Keen to avoid the mistake of his predecessor, Macpherson spent several years consulting all parties and regularly had Zik to drinks and dinner. But the discussion process encouraged all three main groupings to flex their muscles and sharpen their weapons.

Zik’s more extreme adherents, whom he disowned as “viviparous lieutenants and cantankerous followers,” dabbled in sedition. These “Zikists” called on people not to pay their taxes. They told “the British to go to hell with their Empire Day when they celebrate our enslavement.”131 They fomented trouble in the Enugu collieries, to which panicky police reacted by shooting twenty-one miners. This provoked disturbances elsewhere and “a great political awakening.”132 Then, in 1950, a militant attempted to assassinate the Chief Secretary, Sir Hugh Foot, for which the Zikists were duly suppressed. Meanwhile, a radical lawyer, Obafemi Awolowo, was creating the Action Group as an expression of Yoruba political aspirations. Its prime purpose was to cast off the British yoke, which Awolowo deemed “immeasurably baneful.”133 But the Action Group also demanded unity through federation, perhaps with as many as thirty or forty provincial houses of assembly. Awolowo hoped thus to prevent Zik from becoming a dictator at the head of a master race. To protect his own region from fascist or, still worse, Christian incursions, Abubakar formed the Northern People’s Party (NPC). Southerners derided its representatives as the “mindless mouthpieces of senior white officials.”134

Macpherson’s constitution, a cumbersome compromise between British power and Nigerian devolution, could not meld together the divergent elements. In 1953 their communal and political rivalries came to a head at Kano. Thousands of Ibos and Yorubas lived in the strangers’ quarter (Sabon Gari) just outside the walled city, itself a squalid labyrinth of rufous mud hovels, stinking goatskin tanneries and ancient markets selling almost everything: morocco leather, dyed cloth, ivory, hippopotamus teeth, spears, knives, cartridges, red peppers, peanuts stacked in green pyramids and blue antimony to beautify the eyes. The southerners often used their bureaucratic positions to patronise and exploit illiterate Hausa–Fulani people; and when the Action Group and the NCNC threatened to crusade for freedom in the north, Kano erupted. During the riots dozens of people lost their lives, some being castrated and otherwise mutilated. Macpherson’s constitution was also damaged beyond repair. It seemed to one chief that Nigeria would reach independence “not in peace, but in pieces.”135

Decentralisation was the only way to avert disintegration. So in 1954 Nigeria received its third constitution in seven years, this one being named after the Colonial Secretary, Oliver Lyttelton. It gave the regions a large measure of autonomy, leaving the federal parliament in Lagos responsible only for such matters as customs, currency, immigration, policing, defence and foreign affairs. The separation of powers provided a basis for nationhood and Zik rejoiced that Lyttelton had offered Nigeria “self-government on a platter of gold.” There was a delay of six years before it was served to the nation. More splintering took place within regions and parties, which struggled to consolidate their position. Torn between local and national loyalty, the NCNC was especially prone to mutiny and Zik complained that it was his “misfortune to lead an undisciplined army.”136 But his own generalship came under attack when he was accused of funnelling public money into the party’s coffers through a bank which he had founded. Lyttelton’s successor, Alan Lennox-Boyd, condemned what he called corruption and what Nigerians called “paytriotism.” Yet he could do little more than give Zik a severe “talking to,” fearing that any form of sanction might turn Nigeria into another Malaya or Kenya. Contrary to the Colonial Office’s racist view that “Black man like strong word,” Zik resented Lennox-Boyd’s “insulting high-handedness.” He hit back, turning the episode into an indictment of “the devilish colonial system,” which sustained a European banking monopoly as well as subjecting Africans to proconsuls who behaved “worse than Nero.”137

Zik charged the Colonial Secretary with wanting to “appoint a Spanish Inquisition on my biography even when I was in the womb of my mother.”138 Moreover, he said, Lennox-Boyd himself had business interests in Nigeria: his family firm, Guinness, was shortly to build a brewery in Lagos, the stout being esteemed in West Africa as an aphrodisiac. This whole affair seemed to epitomise the Colonial Office’s problem. “The fact must be faced,” wrote one senior official, “the West African negro is not capable of honest democratic self-government in this generation; and probably won’t be in the next.” To grant independence would be to invite crookery and chaos, to justify South Africa’s apartheid system, and to discredit British colonial policy. “All we can do now is to play for as much time as we can get.”139 Lennox-Boyd agreed. The dispute with Zik confirmed his mistrust of radical southern politicians and his preference for feudal northern aristocrats, such as the Sardauna of Sokoto. That title meant “Captain of the Bodyguard” (effectively Prime Minister) and its holder reminded Harold Macmillan (he told the Queen) of Trollope’s Duke of Omnium. For the sake of such congenial figures Lennox-Boyd attempted to postpone the ending of imperial rule.

Whether exalting the Empire or easing its transition into Commonwealth, the attractive young Queen Elizabeth II was a trump card in the British pack; and nothing was better calculated to inspire Nigerian loyalty to the Crown than a royal tour. So in 1956 elaborate preparations were made to present the monarch to her Nigerian subjects and vice versa. Government Houses were expensively refurbished, new carpets alone costing the country £1,500. The northern durbar arena was turned from dust bowl into green field. Lagos was disguised by “a gigantic camouflage operation.”140 The dilapidated market was hidden behind metal fences and the municipal rubbish dump was covered with black slag to masquerade as a coal tip. The Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh, said to be “manly” in his crisp naval uniform, received an ecstatic welcome. On the dozen-mile journey from the airport to Lagos, a British journalist wrote, “The black face of Nigeria was all one white grin.”141 The crowds were so thick in the island city that policemen walked on their shoulders. And the spectators expressed their pent-up feelings for Her Majesty with “a long-drawn A-a-a-ah.”142 Such was the enthusiasm at Kaduna that the sovereign’s daïs, shaded under a portable canopy designed by Norman Hartnell, almost succumbed to a mock cavalry charge.

This was the climax of a sumptuous pageant at which, to quote another visiting reporter, “emirs and great chieftains…spearsmen and archers, clowns and tumblers and half-naked pagans gathered in all their barbarous magnificence to salute their ruler.”143 Some had doubted whether the Queen could cut “a sufficiently regal figure” to satisfy Nigerians, who were accustomed to see their own “petty kings and chiefs moving around in medieval sartorial splendour, like figures from the Field of the Cloth of Gold.”144However, throughout the searing round of ceremonies, inspections, assemblies, banquets and garden parties, the sovereign graciously met official requests to don her most glittering finery. Having inherited a Golconda of imperial gems, she was not to be eclipsed. At the House of Representatives in Lagos she appeared “in an ivory satin gown encrusted with gold and pearls and wearing the dazzling tiara that once belonged to Queen Mary.”145 At Lugard Hall in Kaduna, wrote the Sardauna of Sokoto, the Queen’s “diamonds and jewels flashed in the glare of lamps like lightning across a rippled lake; her beautiful dress spread about her like a brilliant waterfall.”146

Such was royalist euphoria that crime as well as party conflict virtually ceased; yet the mood, which the British authorities hoped to exploit, was neither all-pervading nor long-lasting. This was partly due to the Queen’s own demeanour. Throughout the tour, as one chief complained, she made not a single extemporary gesture in public. If only she had been able to respond to the throbbing dancers of Itsekiri, for example, not just “as a monarch but as a woman and a mother.” Instead she always behaved like a royal automaton, with “complete predictability…[when] we prefer warm spontaneity.”147 Doubtless the sovereign was inhibited as well as unsophisticated. In 1948 she had accompanied her father to South Africa where, at a “native” investiture, he passed medals to an official “so that the King’s pure white hands at no time came in contact with a black man.”148 And she later acknowledged that among her favourite television programmes was The Black and White Minstrel Show. Anyway, strict protocol prevailed in Nigeria.

Furthermore, British officials tended to monopolise the Queen and her thirty-strong entourage. One Nigerian protested in verse:

They cannot see the real north

Nor meet the common people,

For now the edict has gone forth:

“The Government must keep all

Those gracious smiles, those greeting hands,

Receptions, feasts, parades and bands,

In pleasure’s proper habitat,

Which is the Secretariat.”149

The exclusiveness was justified by a concern for the Queen’s safety amidst people who were said to be “notoriously excitable.”150 Zik claimed that the police cowed citizens and at times security was so tight that the royal procession went down “avenues almost entirely empty of spectators.”151 However, white civil servants craved the prestige magically conferred by propinquity to the Queen. From the centre of the hive they also restricted the flow of royal jelly—a number of them received decorations whereas only one African was awarded a medal for his services. This offended a few prominent Nigerians, but many more objected to the crude stereotypes depicting them in the British press. Black journalists denounced Fleet Street for “spitting on Nigeria’s African race” during the tour and called for punitive measures to halt the “ghastly tirade of venom.”152 If such misrepresentation continued, they added, Nigeria might opt to become a republic. So indeed it did, in 1963, three years after independence. Three years later still, one of the few Africans to have seen the monarch at close quarters while she was in the country, her ADC Major Ironsi, became Nigeria’s first military dictator.

All told, then, the Queen’s visit had little positive impact and Lennox-Boyd could not sustain imperial rule for long despite the deep divisions within Nigeria which gave him ample excuse for procrastination. The Colonial Office still had some room for manoeuvre. It held conferences. It dispatched commissions. It devised compromises. It also supported the modest, eloquent and malleable Abubakar, who became the country’s first Prime Minister in 1957. He was preferred to Awolowo, deemed a dangerous “hothead,” and to Zik, a cowardly “twister” surrounded by “hyaena lieutenants.”153 But there is no evidence, as has been alleged, that the last Governor, Sir James Robertson, who retained ultimate control, employed dirty tricks or used his senior staff to organise “election rigging.”154 Nor does it seem likely that Zik’s communications were intercepted, though he certainly blamed the devilish colonial system for exploiting tribal antipathies. Zik, who became the country’s first President, later wrote: “Nigerian leaders were manoeuvred by imperial interests into dissipating their energies and turning against their own people.”155

However, the emergence of free Ghana in 1957 sent a “shock wave”156 of emotion through nationalist circles in Nigeria, beginning a domino effect which freed one West African dependency after another. Abubakar himself, representing the conservative north, added to the momentum and it became irresistible. Britain’s position was weakened by the exodus of colonial officials, who could see the writing on the wall. It was further eroded by the advent of General de Gaulle, who in 1958 gave France’s West African territories, which entirely surrounded Nigeria, the right to decide their own fate. So Robertson recommended that the Colonial Office should abandon arguments about waiting to see if the regions could govern themselves and set a firm date for national independence. It should be bestowed voluntarily, he argued, rather than being wrested from Britain after a campaign of anti-imperial agitation such as Zik and Awolowo would delight to spearhead. Lennox-Boyd reluctantly concurred, keen to secure British interests, military as much as commercial, with a friendly new member of the Commonwealth. The cabinet decided that Nigeria should raise its own flag on 1 October 1960. Perturbed by the hazards of schism and graft, Lennox-Boyd doubted whether “self-government will in Nigeria be good government.”157 Gibbon might have riposted that independence is the first of earthly blessings and that corruption is “the most infallible symptom of constitutional liberty.”158

Neighbouring dominoes tumbled with still greater rapidity. In 1959 Iain Macleod, who had transformed himself from playboy into politician, succeeded Lennox-Boyd as Colonial Secretary with an overriding determination to move fast in Africa. That was dangerous, he acknowledged, appraising the odds with a gambler’s eye. But it was far less dangerous than trying to hold back the current of nationalism. This was especially true in the settler colonies, where Macleod became “the white hope of the Blacks and the bête noire of the Whites.”159 He therefore instituted “a deliberate speeding-up of the movement towards independence.”160 In West Africa, accordingly, Sierra Leone got its freedom in 1961 and tiny Gambia, which was scarcely self-supporting, followed in 1965. So Britain’s entire position in the region collapsed within the space of eight years. Yet the process was less straightforward than the domino image suggests.

The fall was precipitated not only by nationalist pressures but by international impulses and domestic stresses. Zik and his ilk might be expected to say that imperialism was “a crime against humanity.”161 In the wake of the Suez crisis, though, that sentiment became a global mantra. It was heard in the United States. It was repeated in Canada, where the discovery of Britain’s imperial guilt was said to be like “finding a beloved uncle arrested for rape.”162 It reverberated throughout Asia. It echoed around Africa, as de Gaulle extricated France from the bloody civil war in Algeria, and Belgium, fearing a similar catastrophe in the Congo, also cut and ran. “Empire” became a dirty word in many languages and “colonialism,” as Margery Perham said, was a universal term of “abuse.”163 The combined animus was reflected in the United Nations, which in December 1960 passed its momentous Resolution (No. 1514) demanding “a speedy and unconditional end to colonialism.” Shortly afterwards the Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, declared that if the imperialist powers ignored this resolution their subjugated peoples would have to sweep away all obstacles to independence. With more than a hint of menace, he promised that “they will not be alone in that struggle.”164

This was the culmination of a change in the climate of world opinion which seriously eroded British self-confidence. One response to the change, during the late 1950s, was a campaign of linguistic cleansing. Of course, propaganda is integral to politics and the Emperor Augustus was not alone in recognising that “mankind is governed by names.”165 Over the years British imperialists had carried out many exercises in euphemism. Using the term “Commonwealth” for “Empire” in conversation with Senator Arthur Vandenburg during the war, Churchill had leeringly remarked that “we keep trade labels to suit all tastes.”166 In the Gold Coast Arden-Clarke had discovered “how effective the device of changing names could be.” When he transmogrified “Chief Commissioner” into “Regional Officer” and “District Commissioner” into “Government Agent,” they all seemed “to smell much sweeter in the public nose.”167 Now other appellations were purged and new aliases were invented. The British Colonial Service became Her Majesty’s Overseas Civil Service. In 1958 Empire Day, deemed by the Minister of Education “dead beat and a non-starter,”168was rechristened Commonwealth Day. United Empire appeared as the Journal of the Royal Commonwealth Society. There was talk of subsuming the Colonial Office, its name thought to be “a serious handicap,”169 into the Commonwealth Relations Office—the two departments did merge in 1966, only to be incorporated into the Foreign and Commonwealth Office two years later. Traditionalists resisted verbal appeasement and the Australian Prime Minister, Sir Robert Menzies, deprecated “the idea that we ought to apologise for the word ‘Empire.’”170 It denoted Victorian glories, Elizabethan valour and a mission that was “Roman in its nobility.”171 The British Empire, said one loyalist, was “a bridge over which civilisation had marched.” It was, according to another, “the finest organisation the world had ever seen or ever would see.”172 In comparison the term “Commonwealth” savoured of republicanism and retreat. It was also a reminder of Sir Thomas More’s famous remark, cited by J. A. Hobson: “Everywhere do I perceive a certain conspiracy of rich men seeking their own advantage under the name and pretext of commonwealth.”173

Britons had other reasons for disparaging their own Commonwealth. It was increasingly ramshackle and riddled with anomalies. Its only unifying element, the Crown, was snubbed by republics and seen by some constituent states as “a symbol of colonial repression.”174 The Commonwealth was largely defined by negatives. It had no racial or cultural identity. It had, by 1962, no common citizenship. It possessed no religious or linguistic coherence. It was not a military coalition, or a diplomatic alliance, or a customs union. It looked to the United States for defence and even for leadership. In 1960, at a time of acute crisis in the balance of payments which Harold Macmillan hoped to resolve by joining the European Community, people “scoffed openly at the inadequacy of the Commonwealth as an association which could confer economic or political benefits on Britain.”175 Certainly trade with Commonwealth countries was shrinking rapidly: British exports to them fell from nearly half the total in 1950 to just under a quarter in 1970 and imports declined proportionately. And as the almighty dollar became the world’s reserve currency, the sterling area, which consisted mainly of Commonwealth countries bound to the pound, crumbled and (in 1972) collapsed. Furthermore, many people in Britain disliked the Commonwealth’s racial mixture, among them the Prime Minister himself. With characteristic condescension Macmillan said that Afro-Asian entry meant that becoming a member of the Commonwealth was no longer like gaining admission to Brooks’s or Boodles but like joining the RAC. Despite all this backbiting, though, British governments earnestly promoted what Macmillan called “our Commonwealth Club.”176 All former colonies should belong, thus becoming part of a multi-racial fraternity from which benefits must flow like milk and honey.

However, in Westminster and Whitehall self-interest counted for more than altruism as far as the Commonwealth was concerned. The fundamental motive behind official attempts to “sell”177 this nebulous body was to sustain British prestige by concealing the decay of British power. Like the Papacy—Hobbes’s ghost of the Roman Empire sitting crowned upon its grave—the Commonwealth was a phantom of former glory. It was also a shade of imperial immortality, a portent of the vital influence Britain could wield on earth despite the extinction of its global sway. Like Winston Churchill in his first political speech, Harold Macmillan publicly condemned “the croakers, the moaners, the faint-hearted and the cynical” for descrying “the decline and fall of the British Empire.” What they were really witnessing, he insisted, was “a rebirth, an empire transforming itself into a free Commonwealth family.”178 The Commonwealth might even become, as Leo Amery had hoped, the nucleus around which “the ultimate world order would coalesce.”179 Other Tories were more realistic. Enoch Powell opposed the Commonwealth “as a sticking plaster for the wound left by the amputation of empire.”180 Macmillan himself privately acknowledged that once “the Commonwealth begins to disintegrate I feel it is really finished” and he was anxious not “to play the role of Lord North.” He thought that Gaitskell was more suited to it, “both by temperament and appearance.”181 Macmillan’s theatrical skills were devoted to preserving the illusion of British greatness. At times he evidently saw himself as a latter-day Caesar, disguising artfulness under a cloak of “calm dignity”182 and keeping the barbarians at bay for just long enough to hold a final triumph. “This is the age of Diocletian,” he said, “the end of Empire.”183

Harold Macmillan had trodden a dogged but tortuous path to 10 Downing Street. A shy, introspective publisher, he had been crushed by a dominant American mother and humiliated by an adulterous English wife—Lady Dorothy, a daughter of the Duke of Devonshire, conducted a long and barely concealed liaison with one of her husband’s fellow Conservative MPs, the raffish, bisexual Robert Boothby. Macmillan was once seen banging his head against the window of a railway compartment from sheer despair. During the 1930s he was too left-wing to gain preferment and even his old nanny declared, “Mr Harold is a dangerous Pink.”184 With his fussy manner and his clammy handshake, he struck others as a bore and a prig. However, he made a bold stand against appeasement and in 1938 he burned Neville Chamberlain in effigy on his Guy Fawkes bonfire. Churchill promoted Macmillan during the war, when he shed his radical sympathies and began to conjure with “the glories of the future empire.”185 It was Macmillan’s aggressiveness in this cause at the beginning of the Suez crisis that won him support among his colleagues. He also managed to hide his subsequent panic, to say nothing of his brains, manifest cleverness being a notorious handicap in the Tory party. So in January 1957, aged sixty-two, Macmillan succeeded Eden. He was the last British Prime Minister to sport a moustache,*16 relic of his gallant service during the Great War and earnest of imperial orthodoxy. Actually, like much else about Macmillan, it was a form of camouflage. The Prime Minister concealed his wounded psyche behind a façade of Edwardian insouciance. The very private man wore flamboyant hats in the manner of Churchill. The intellectual bourgeois pretended to be an antique grandee, extolling the merits of overripe grouse when he really preferred cold chicken. The old entertainer, who consulted the comedian Bud Flanagan about his delivery and employed a speech writer called Christ, was often physically sick before addressing the Commons. Above all, the Conservative did not scruple to retreat from empire.

Macmillan was a pragmatist who recognised as early as 1955 that the tide of the world had set in the direction of national “autonomy and identity.”186 On becoming Prime Minister, he wondered whether he was destined to liquidate or to remodel the Empire. In public he naturally took the Churchillian line, denying any “intention of presiding over the liquidation of the British Empire.”187 Behind the scenes he initiated a series of reviews to weigh up its advantages, which concluded that the costs and benefits were about equal. Such audits were bound to be speculative because they contained so many imponderable factors. For example, it was not possible to calculate whether preserving colonies would weaken the pound by depleting British resources or strengthen it by augmenting British prestige. That question was intimately connected with the Anglo-American “special relationship,” which one U.S. ambassador in London dismissed as “little more than sentimental terminology.”188 Macmillan tried to reinvigorate that relationship after Suez in order to uphold sterling and otherwise to buttress Britain, particularly in the fields of intelligence and nuclear weapons. He affected an aristocratic disdain for Americans, asserting that they all looked the same, like Japanese or Chinese, or dentists. But he continued to think that they were the new Romans, “great big, vulgar, bustling people, more vigorous than we are and also more idle.”189And he still believed that the British should play the part of Greeks, guiding America with the sophisticated counsel of a more mature civilisation. Despite his friendship with Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy, Macmillan carried little real weight in Washington. On the contrary, Britain’s weakness meant that it was more susceptible to American influence, especially in the colonial sphere.

Responding to transatlantic, nationalistic and other pressures, Macmillan hesitantly acquiesced in the Empire’s “progressive dissolution.”190 He rejected “the vulgar and false jibe that the British people by a series of gestures unique in history abandoned their Empire in a fit of frivolity or impatience.”191 Rather, he put forward the familiar argument that they had long been preparing to bestow freedom on their colonies inside the Commonwealth. He even cited Macaulay’s celebrated demolition of the adage that no people ought to be free until they were fit to use their freedom—it was worthy of the fool in the old story who resolved not to go into the water until he had learned to swim. Macmillan had a fair case as regards West Africa. Actually he thought that Nigeria and neighbouring dependencies were quite unready for self-government; but he believed that it should be granted because Britain had nothing to lose and influence to gain, while the alternative might be rebellion and repression. However, by the end of the 1950s, when French and Belgian withdrawal left Britain’s settler colonies exposed, Macmillan faced an acute dilemma in East and central Africa. He was reluctant to sacrifice even decadent kith and kin in Kenya, Rhodesia and elsewhere to native “barbarians.”192Indeed, he privately denounced the treachery of European intellectuals who “attacked the whites of Africa and championed the blacks.”193

Yet in the famous speech Macmillan made to the South African Parliament in Cape Town on 3 February 1960, he asserted that a “wind of change” was blowing through the continent. “Ever since the break-up of the Roman Empire,” he said, “one of the constant facts of political life in Europe has been the emergence of independent nations.”194 They had come into existence in Asia fifteen years earlier and now national consciousness was awakening in Africa. Macmillan shocked an audience steeped in the principles of apartheid and Prime Minister Verwoerd’s face “clouded with anger.”195 The rhetoric suggested that Macmillan was ready to ride the storm. In reality he hoped to trim and tack in a zephyr. Unlike Macleod, he preferred conservative equivocations to radical solutions. Macmillan’s stated aim was to find means by which each racially mixed community “can become more of a community, and fellowship can be fostered between its various parts.”196 Yet even as he uttered this anodyne formula, the Prime Minister must surely have been aware that it would not solve the problem of Britain’s own white outposts in Africa.

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