Saturday, May 27, 2023

Karl du Fresne: A fresh appraisal of an unfashionable subject

I’ve just finished reading a recently published book by my friend and long-ago boss, the Sydney-based New Zealand author and journalist Robin Bromby.

Tepid Whisky by Paraffin Lamp is subtitled Life and Work in Outposts of the British Empire in the Twentieth Century. It’s a very detailed and substantial piece of work on an aspect of history that most scholars either shy away from or approach in antagonistic terms because it’s considered ideologically beyond the pale.

Robin himself acknowledges that the history of the British Empire is “a subject one addresses now with caution”. From a 21st century perspective, the idea that European imperial powers could claim ownership over foreign territories at will, even when they had no particular purpose for them (as was sometimes the case), is unthinkable. But there was a time in living memory when it was considered entirely natural – in fact a matter of pride – that the sun never set on the British Empire. And as Robin notes, the administrators who ran those distant outposts were often motivated by high ideals.

They needed to be, because the rewards were often scant. Contrary to popular belief, the typical colonial official did not lead a life of luxury and privilege. Conditions were often brutally harsh. Heat (and sometimes cold), disease, primitive housing, inadequate remuneration and unimaginable loneliness were some of the prices colonial officials paid for the privilege of serving the Empire.

Communication with the outside world was chancy and erratic at best, as were visits from supply ships. More often than not, fresh food was unprocurable. In particularly remote locations, the colonial officer could go weeks or even months without seeing another European. Conventional family life was out of the question; officers often had to leave their children behind in England or were forbidden from having a family at all. It certainly wasn’t all polo, pink gins and punkahwallahs waving pandanus fans to keep the sahib cool, as readers of Somerset Maugham might imagine.

Perhaps surprisingly, given Britain's imperial wealth, the Colonial Office in London was a parsimonious employer. Not only did it pay its officers poorly, but they were strictly limited in the creature comforts they could take with them and were only rarely allowed trips home. Long-suffering wives were expected to entertain visiting dignitaries despite not being given the means to do so. Even alcohol allowances were miserly.

Robin reveals that colonial administrators were typically the best and brightest of their era – graduates of Oxford or Cambridge, accomplished at sport and well-connected socially. The demands on them were immense. A district officer in his early 20s was likely to find himself in sole charge of an area the size of Wales or Scotland and responsible for everything from the maintenance of law and order (both as police chiefs and magistrates) to the building of schools and roads, the conduct of inquests, the settling of tribal disputes, the conduct of inquests, the collection of taxes and even the dispatching of marauding wild animals. Some colonial administrators eventually returned home and went into politics but many spent their lives being cycled through postings that could take them to places as scattered as Sierra Leone, Hong Kong, Sudan, Aden, Trinidad, the Solomon Islands, Somaliland, Tristan da Cunha and the Falkland Islands.

Robin doesn’t gloss over the rampant economic exploitation that took place under colonialism or the shameful way Britain took advantage of native manpower from the colonies in wartime, but he points out that British administrators built schools, roads, hospitals, railways and sanitation systems. Much of that infrastructure is still in use today. Tepid Whisky by Paraffin Lamp is not only rigorously researched – a prodigious feat in itself – but presents a nuanced and non-judgmental appraisal of a period in history that generally gets a bad press. The book is available here.

Karl du Fresne, a freelance journalist, is the former editor of The Dominion newspaper. He blogs at


Gaynor said...

That certainly is a difficult topic to take on. It does seem dreadful now to consider taking over control of other lands. What really was the motivation ?
These men were, I read somewhere were all steeped in classical education. Was it therefore imitating ancient Roman colonisation ? Exploitation of the riches of the country to build up the home country or rather civilizing and Christianizing the people as directed by scripture?
When I was a child I was led to believe Maori, pre -European lived in a lot of fear from being attacked and cannibalized because of the prevailing tribal warfare and obligatory utu. Hence most Maori welcomed release from this and wished to live in peace as people seemed to in England. I also believed Maori had lots of initiative, humour and readily absorbed new skills and ideas like vege growing which greatly improved their diet and learning to read opening up an exciting new world.
But it was not sentimentality because I also learned about the shocking shooting of aborigines in Tasmania even in the 1930s which was actually some of Darwinism gone wrong. These people were considered subhuman. Also the appalling killing off and land grabs of native Americans which so shocked the colonial office in London , they resolved to do very much better in NZ, but some greedy settlers overrode
them, anyway.
Missionaries were originally sent out here to sort out Kororeko, which was the
'hell hole of the Pacific' caused by the European riff Raff composed of whalers and sealers.
Accurate history is so much more interesting.The judgemental,unforgiving and vengeful nature of cancel culture is not.

Peter Bacos said...

" Better fifty years of Europe than a cycle of Cathay." (Lord Tennyson, Locksley Hall)