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VINE VOICEon 13 July 2011
Few subjects could be less fashionable than the British Empire, and Stephanie Williams deserves our thanks for this original and illuminating book. She has consulted reams of original material, and assembled the stories of some of the more memorable governors whose influence--for better or worse--shaped our former colonies at the height of Britain's global power. Sensibly, she eliminated India from her enquiries: the governance of the sub-continent occupied thousands of administrators, many of whom were specifically trained for the job at Haileybury College.

By contrast, the rest of the empire was administered by governors who lacked any noticeable qualifications for the job other than the right contacts and enough money to compensate for the meagre salaries on offer. In most cases, they had to accept that malaria went with the job, and that mortality rates were alarmingly high. This applied to your family, should they decide to accompany you (most of them did).

Many of the governors Williams writes about were capable administrators--until the telegraph linked most parts of the empire, they had to be. They had no choice but to make it up as they went along. Although some were dolts, and a few were bigots, most of them had a surprising amount of sympathy for the natives that Britain was dragging into the modern world. Some of them virtually went native, and many of them worked tirelessly to protect native populations from exploitation by white settlers and European commercial interests.

Williams doesn't do too much theorising, but she makes it clear that the Colonial secretaries that these governors answered to were very keen to protect the rights and even the cultures of subject peoples. Behind this was the belief in our civilising mission. As much as we decry the 'hypocrisy' of our Victorian ancestors, their writings brim with improving zeal. And whatever damage was done to native cultures by missionaries and commercial exploitation, it's easy to forget that slavery, warfare, disease and famine were rife before we intruded.

Colonial secretaries were also keen to save money. Neither Gladstone nor Disraeli were anxious to expand the empire--the commericial benefits to Britain seldom extended to balancing their budgets. Were it not for the popular belief that the empire was a virtuous enterprise, it is doubtful that the press could have whipped up so much popular enthusiasm for painting the globe red.

Governors almost always tried to respect native customs and law--except as applied to slavery. Colonialism may have involved the occasional gunboat and even an even-more-occasional regiment of Redcoats, but for the most part their authority rested upon their ability to work with native rulers, who had to be convinced that the protection of the Queen was worth having.

Williams does not gloss over the ugly side of empire, especially the working conditions of native populations who worked on European-owned plantations and mines--often in conditions which virtually amounted to slavery. But every colony was different, and each of the governors she writes about had different responses to the situations they found themselves in.

Altogether, a great book. Inevitably, it's a bit scrappy, because so many different governors and colonies are covered. But it reads well, and it reminds us that the British Empire was a many-faceted enterprise that deserves our serious attention, if for no other reason than its effects are still evident and obvious around the world.
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on 11 November 2011
Stephanie Williams has succeeded in skilfully bringing out the flavour of the extraordinary day to day business of running the Empire. The examples she selects show the sheer breadth of what these men did and endured - living in a tin hut in tropical heat or a mansion depending where you were, working ceaselessly to bring some physical and psychological structure to a formless society,understanding the whims of hugely different cultures while establishing the British Way as the objective, battling daily with possibly fatal disease.
The wives and children played an essential part not just in bolstering the morale of the star of the show but in making their own contributions, like Tennyson's wife establishing the lying-in hospital in Adelaide. Different characters dealt with things differently which is what makes the book absorbing: in the end you cannot sum up the British Empire in a couple of sentences,but we are still living with its legacy. Did the flag follow trade or trade follow the flag? Were racist attitudes a permanent underlying fact or was it that Britons felt themselves unquestionably superior and born to lead without naming it racist or even thinking of race? Greed,corruption,ambition, ruthlessness are there just as kindness,justice,thirst for knowledge, improvement of conditions and plain enjoyment of other people are too.
Let's hope Stephanie Williams turns her meticulous attention next to a similar treatment of the governors of India. I can't wait.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 11 November 2012
It's easy to look back at Britain's colonial history with the benefit of hindsight and be either amazed, appalled or more often a mixture of the two. This book is such a mixture. Juxtaposing the banalities of an East African governor's family life with his supervision of the extermination of tribespeople jars somewhatbut goes some way to show that some colonialists had little or no thought for the "natives" only their own position. Ironically however what comes across more potently is the fact that many in the colonial service were genuinely interested in "improving" the lot of the native, many through a misguided belief that Christianity was the way to do it, which as we now know met with limited success. I have to say though that there are many other books about the greater rights and wrongs of Britain's colonial history and by peeking into the lives of the administrators and their families we get a brief and often amusing look at what made them take on disease, low pay and horrible conditions in many cases to further the British Empire at its height. Of course it didn't last and we also get some hints as to how the colonial power began to lose control and the subsequent human cost of the whole operation. Quite extraordinary really.
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on 25 July 2014
I am rising 70 and grew up and spent much of my life outside the UK. This delightful book covers an era generally omitted from the history books and an era I can remember my grandparents talking about. Many of the places I have been to, some I have lived in thus making it all the more pertinent. The tales of these hard working and dedicated men, and some women, are graphically related combatting the climate, the European traders (who did not want interference), and the locals. Some became arrogant autocrats but most were hard working with little support from the embryonic Colonial Office which appeared to care little.

Those interested in personal histories in the late 19C should read this. Anyone studying the colonial era should read this well written book. I could hardly put it down.
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on 8 July 2011
What sort of men ran the colonies? That was the question which brought me to read this book by Stephanie Williams - and amusingly enough it was that sort of question which prompted her to write it. Happening on a survey return in some old Colonial Office files while working on something else she was caught by what different people, and different lives were evidenced there. Her book doesn't try to be a full survey of the men who governed the colonies - it is a small sample drawn from the "Colonial Office" days. But the examples chosen give one a vivid impression of the very disparity (save possibly in eccentricity) of the governors -and their experience. Williams jokes with us at the start by quoting Rawdon Crawley's appointment to Coventry Island - but the analogy is made good in the experience of the young men who took "seasoning" doses of malaria in their stride, but ended up with broken health (one of them, Strahan, died from a severe cold after years of recurrent malaria - aged only forty nine) after being posted from one difficult climate to another - and often with barely enough money to cover the jobs which were imperatively necessary to do.
If there is a theme other than ecentricity it is a literary one: John Pope Henessay turns out of have been the inspiration for (to me) Troloppe's least believable character; Lord Tennyson was the son of the poet, Frederick Lugard was married to a famous journalist, Hugh Clifford was a best selling novelist (rising at 3am to write his books before commencing the work of the day!!) - as well as the inspiration (his later madness was attributed to his going out in the sun without a hat) for "Mad Dogs and Englishmen" ...
Another theme is the sheer energy which all these men (and many of their wives) evidenced. A cartoon on the back cover shows the governor doing twelve things before lunch - but that is not half of it, when one starts to consider Lugard dashing about the African lakes in a canoe or Frank Swettenham dotting about the backwaters of Malaya trying to introduce British notions of government by tact and stealth in order to bring matters to a stage where some recognised sort of Governor could even be introduced. Its a fascinating business.
All in all the Governors are an attractive, glittering set of characters and this is an anjoyable, and revelatory read...
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on 5 May 2013
This heavyweight ( physically I mean) book is worth the time and space - it should also be savoured. It takes us into a world long gone, no phones, faxes or social media, instead men appointed as Governors to run island and colonies. Taken from their familiar landscapes and placed in West Africa or the West Indies they were charged with running their mini empires. They were heroes and villains amongst them, some tragic and some awful and then of course there were there wives which needs another book ( try Britannia's Daughters for an insight). Very readable, sometimes shocking but always revealing about how machinery worked and was improvised.

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on 4 December 2012
I enjoyed it as I lived in quite a few of the places mentioned in the book. I also found it very interesting to see how people coped in ghastly climates and disease ridden countries. They were tough in those days!
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 8 October 2015
This is fascinating account of the men, and it was always men, who ran the British Empire on the spot from 1857-1912. They were almost always determined to do the right thing - they believed in the righteousness of the civilising mission as they and their times saw it, and usually had enormous powers to bring about their desired results. Some were driven by their moral mission, some by personal ambition, some by London but all had an impact in the places they found themselves

This is the story of the people who governed the empire in Asia, Africa, Canada and the Caribbean - their careers, eccentricities, egotisms, dreams and fears. This is also the story of loneliness, especially for their wives, and of a bygone time of assumed superiority, appalling health risks, when the world was very far apart.

The story of Hesketh Bell and the forced evacuation of 100,000 people from large swathes of Uganda in order to stop the spread of sleeping sickness, is the one I will recall for longest - such power, such good intentions, so much misery caused as a result, and so much gained and lost - the empire in microsm, perhaps

The book is so readable, so fascinating, that often I had difficulty in putting it down.

Highly recommended
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on 1 September 2015
I first borrowed this book from the l ibrary and enjoyed it so much decided that I wanted my own copy. Stephanie Williams has a light touch which is easy to read and kept my interest all the time on a subject that could have been very dry. I am particularly interested in the history of Africa but enjoyed the information about the rest of the British Empire.

At my time of life I have lost the comforting belief that someone knows what they are doing "running the show". This book illustrates the fact that few people understood the conditions of life in other countries. Young men were sent abroad to manage things as best they could. Weak or strong, brilliant or foolish, most of them did their best often under impossible circumstances. They were honest men with the accepted moral standards of their time, hating slavery and with limited power to carry out their duties.

An entertaining and informative read.

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on 30 October 2014
A great insight into the days of the empire - wonderfully written by Stephanie Williams
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