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In 2001 the OSPA Research Project was started at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London, on the history of the British Colonial Service since the Second World War.  The organizing committee had the following terms of reference: ‘To oversee a series of witness seminars, to be organized by the ICwS, on subjects related to the role and work of the former Colonial Service/HMOCS, which will involve members of OSPA as well as academics and others interested in colonial history or with direct experience of working in colonies, and whose proceedings will be published for the benefit of the wider community both now and in the future’.

The first series of seminars

These were held between 2001 and 2005 and were not fully recorded, though some of the topics covered were published in the three Occasional Papers of the OSPA Research Project in 2005:

Number One (2005) (Sold Out): Empire and After, edited by Michael Twaddle
(ISBN 978 1 8550713 3 9)

Number Two (2005): How Green was our Empire?:  Environment, Development and the Colonial Service, edited by Terry Barringer (ISBN 978 1 8550713 5 5)

Number Three (2005): The United Kingdom Overseas Territories: Past, Present & Future,
edited by David Killingray and David Taylor (ISBN 978 1 8550713 6 3)

The second series of seminars and conferences

These started in 2011 and ran until October 2015.  

Number Four (2012) - Political: The ‘Westminster Model’ and Representative Government in the Era of Decolonisation (Seminar held on 25 May 2011) (ISBN 978 0 9571941 1 3)

This topic relates to concepts about colonial rule which were commonly accepted in the Colonial Office and the British Government generally, and which were absorbed by the territorial governments and thus passed on perhaps subconsciously to the administrative officials in the Central Secretariats and in the field.  However, there were instances, as evidenced in this Seminar, when constitutional policy was devised and implemented in the territory, and only subsequently acknowledged by the Government of Britain.

For most of the officers recounting their experiences here the process of constitutional advance to Independence was a given fact that shaped the work they were required to do.  Now, 40 or 50 years later, it is of interest to look back to review how it was and to consider whether it might or should have been done differently.  Overall, their view was that colonial governments attempted to ensure that the process was as honest and democratic as possible, while recognizing that in most colonies the task was begun too late so it had to be compressed into short a time.

Number Five (2013) - Economic: Economic Development in the British Commonwealth before and after Independence (Seminar held on 29 September 2011) (ISBN 978 0 9575210 2 5)

The topic relates to the policies and practices of the colonial governments and their immediate successors intended to improve the standard of living and general prosperity of the population.  While the theory and broad principles of economic development were matters for the British or the territorial government, the task of actually implementing the policies and programmes at the local level had to be undertaken by the Colonial Service officers and their immediate staff, using whatever resources were available to them.  In some cases local resources were limited, whether in terms of manpower, technical know-how or expertise, materials, equipment or simply money, so achievement might be slow or uncertain.  But there were also marked successes that changed the lives of people or communities in fundamental ways for the better. 

Number Six (2013) - Administrative: Indirect Rule – Right or Wrong? (Seminar held on 29 March 2012) (ISBN 978 0 9575210 6 3)

The term Indirect Rule is commonly used to describe the broad nature of British colonial government in the majority of the dependent territories of the former empire.  Lord Milner, Colonial Secretary after WWI, laid down that British policy was "to rule subject races through their own chiefs".  But Lord Lugard, with 30 years of experience of administering large and diverse areas of Africa, commented that "the manner in which [that] principle should be translated into practice admits of wide differences of opinion and method.  Obviously the extent to which native races are capable of controlling their own affairs must vary in proportion to their degree of development and progress in social organisation".  

The perception of what indirect rule meant formed the subject of much of the discussions in this seminar.  Although most of the speakers and contributors were concerned with Africa, there were other important accounts dealing with the quite different circumstances in Aden/South Arabia and Malaya.

An aspect of the topic which was outside the experience of both Milner and Lugard, but which is a prominent theme in the seminar, is the impact of the approach and attainment of national independence on the objectives and the practices of indirect rule.  This gives the seminar particular value as a part of the historical assessment of the imperial phase in the 20th century.

Indirect Rule - Right or Wrong?

Number Seven (2014) - Preparation for Independence: Localisation of the Civil Service in Colonial territories before and immediately after Independence (seminar held on 25 October 2012) (ISBN 978 0 9575210 8 7)

The seminar records the experiences and subsequent reflections of Colonial Service (HMOCS) officers who were involved in the process of training and handing over their duties to local people before and after Independence.  Five of them served in Africa, spread across west, east, and southern African territories.  Two of these were in professional careers as distinct from colonial administration.  Two other speakers covered the Pacific and Hong Kong, where circumstances were quite unlike those in Africa.  And one was a professional tutor from England having no colonial background, which gave him a very different relationship with the students aspiring to be given well-paid jobs at Independence.  Each session gave time for questions and discussion from those attending, which drew out fresh points of interest.

Localisation in Colonial territories

Number Eight (2014) - The Inheritors: The Legacy of Empire (Seminar held on 20 May 2013)
(ISBN 978 0 9575210 7 0)

The preceding four seminars drew on the personal experiences of HMOCS officers as primary "witnesses" describing and assessing the policies and practical functions of the colonial governments they served.  This fifth seminar, sometimes styled as a Conference, was planned to conclude the series by recording the evidence of a different category of "witnesses".  These would be people belonging to the respective colonies who had grown up under British rule and perhaps had positions themselves in some part of the colonial government, and then carried on, usually with greater responsibilities, after independence when the British personnel left or were phased out.  They would therefore be the inheritors of 'the legacy' of the Empire.  Their recollections of how they and others reacted or adapted to the changes from colonial to independent rule would complement and contrast with the views of their British forerunners.  Such evidence would therefore contribute to the overall historical record and assessment of the closing years of the British colonial era.

Number Nine (2014) - Legal/Judicial: Legal and Judicial Legacies of Empire (Conference held on 17 June 2014) (ISBN 978 0 9575210 9 4)

Unlike most of the earlier seminars, the speakers at this Conference were generally not OSPA members, but legal experts and practitioners from around the Commonwealth.  Yet the witness element of the seminars remained, as the vast majority of speakers were able to draw on their own memories of interpreting and administering the law, or of employing it to campaign on particular issues.  The Conference was able to draw on the broad expertise and personal contact of the Institute's partners such as the Institute of Advanced Legal Studies (IALS), the Commonwealth Magistrates' and Judges' Association (CMJA), the Commonwealth Legal Education Association (CLEA) and the Commonwealth Secretariat Legal and Constitutional Affairs Division (LCAD).

A major concern of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies is the way in which the imperial past continues to shape the present.  This transcript vividly illustrates the wide range of ways in which those legacies of Empire continue to make themselves felt in the practice of the law.

Number Ten (2015) - Women: The Role and Experiences of Expatriate Women in the last Phase of Empire and after (Seminar held on 7 October 2015)

The purpose of this final seminar was to record the first-hand experiences and contributions of women in the various former colonial territories.  The idea of a seminar concerned only with the women who were involved, was widely welcomed, and given OSPA's status as a membership association, many of the contributors and speakers were wives and daughters of former Colonial Service officers.  Other contributors gave presentations on colonial nursing and medicine, missionary and university education and the police.  Such 'witness' statements are a vital and irreplaceable part of the history of that period, providing the raw material for subsequent study and research assessments by historians and other academics. 

The Role and Experiences of Expatriate Women in the last phase of Empire and after


Written transcripts of the proceedings of these Seminars and Conferences have been produced by OSPA and published by the Institute of Commonwealth Studies. Price: £5.00; plus postage £2.50 UK, £5.00 overseas.

Transcripts are available from:
Olga Jimenez, School of Advanced Study, University of London, 
Senate House (Room 265), Malet Street, London  WC1E 7HU.
tel: (0)20 7862 8871   email: [email protected]