Towards the Definition of a Native Policy for British Africa

  • Ronald Hyam


‘It is a curious coincidence’, Elgin wrote to Churchill on 25 September 1907, ‘that this question of the treatment of Natives is coming to the front everywhere in Africa.’ He had before him at that moment the crisis in Zululand, the despatches from the Transvaal on native administration, a letter from Girouard about education and nationalism in Northern Nigeria. A little earlier, he had been confronted with a racial incident in Nairobi, and the problem of forest concession in West Africa. He therefore directed that there should be ‘a comprehensive and exhaustive consideration of the whole subject’, and commended it to Churchill as a subject ‘well worthy of study on the spot’ during his tour of East Africa. The subject was only at an elementary stage of investigation, he added, and he rightly predicted that it was ‘destined to cover reams of paper’.I Perhaps this was the most significant directive Elgin ever gave on his own initiative as colonial secretary. It deserves to be quoted in full:

I do not know any question which raises more important issues for South Africa — or indeed for Africa generally: and I think that it is highly important that we, in the Colonial Office should discuss it: not on a single despatch, but reviewing the position as a whole.


British Government Land Policy Liberal Government Legislative Council Native Policy 


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  1. 1.
    Lugard, The Dual Mandate, p. 164; see also C. W. Orr, Making of Northern Nigeria (1911), p. 224: festina lente must be the motto in ‘every case where circumstances do not actually clamour for a speedy solution o the native problem’. For understanding government policy in this period, one of the most interesting statements is that of the commissioner for native affairs in the Transvaal 1901–7, G. Lagden, who wrote in 1909: ‘It is unwise to wander off into the bye-paths of experiment with coloured races who are capable of being moved to indiscretion or madness by violent changes, even when contemplated for their betterment.... ‘The native races can be brought into the general polity and contribute their share to the commonweal in proportion as their administration is in harmony with their evolution. But they are maturing under conditions totally different to those which governed the western world in its rise from medievalism.... It is folly therefore to impose upon them laws and traditions that have grown slowly into Europe in the course of several hundred years .... It would be a fatal error to encourage or set a pace suitable to the standard of a few who have shown capacity for higher education. The pace of the mass must and ought to be slow.... ‘The bulk of the people are content to be governed and guided, to be allowed to live in their own quiet way so long as they are not hunted by ardent reformers. The best reforms will come from within as the outcome of intellectual growth.... What the Basuto want above all is a sense of security in their possessions and permanence of control by a government they confide in. If not perplexed and frightened by changes they will accommodate themselves to the exercise of any judicious restraint.... Their tribal system has been buttressed up because, together with chieftainship, it provided a useful discipline required by untutored people. It is a great power for good — the cornerstone on which government rest. Should it be recklessly disturbed before in the fitness of time another system is ready to replace it effectively, the foundations of our rule will be undermined’ (The Basutos : the mountaineers and their country (1909), ii, 647–9). These views have innumerable parallels in official thinking about Africans in general at this time.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Bryce, The Relations of the advanced and the backward races of mankind (Romanes Lecture, 1902), p. 31.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    EP, E to Crewe. The idea of native councils was a popular one at this time; for example Sir William MacGregor as governor of Southern Nigeria in 1901 sought to provide funds for developing them as instruments of administration, though his ordinance was largely a dead letter (C. W. Newbury, Western slave coast and its rulers (1961), p. 196.Google Scholar
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    See Hancock, Smuts, i, 312, and G. and M. Wilson, The analysis of social change (1954), p. 104.Google Scholar
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    CO. 267/487/33891, minute 21 Sep 06. The proportion of Africans holding senior posts in the civil service was decreasing (D. Kimble, A political history of Ghana, i, 1850–1928 (1963),94–123;Google Scholar
  9. C. Fyfe, History of Sierra Leone (1962), p. 615.Google Scholar
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    On Lever’s schemes for West Africa, see W. K. Hancock, Survey of British Commonwealth Affairs, ii, part 2 (1942), 190, andGoogle Scholar
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    E.g. W. S. Churchill, My African Journey (1908), p. 213.Google Scholar
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    CO. 533/33/44998, S/S to Sadler 19 Mar 08. G. Bennett describes this as a ‘yet more specious reason for breaking with an imperial policy ... and clearly demonstrated the continued settler pressures ...’ (Kenya, a political history (1963), p. 24, and History of East Africa, ii, ed. Harlow and Chilver, 278).Google Scholar
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Copyright information

© Ronald Hyam 1968

Authors and Affiliations

  • Ronald Hyam
    • 1
  1. 1.University of CambridgeUK

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