23rd August 2010
After leaving Germany in August 1946, Harold Ingrams was appointed Chief Commissioner of the Northern Territories of the Gold Coast, now part of Ghana. Rather than take the more usual route by sea or air, he decided to travel by land.
I’ve been reading his account of the journey in his book Seven across the Sahara. The ‘seven’ were Ingrams himself, together with his wife Doreen, their two young daughters, one adopted and one their own, a Scottish governess for the children, his former personal assistant and secretary in Germany, and an Arabian servant who had been with the family for five years. They travelled in a Ford WOA2 military staff car, which with a V8 engine had enough power to see them through the soft sand, though they did become stuck (or ensablé as he called it) on numerous occasions and had to dig themselves out.
At the time they travelled, the land they passed through, nearly 4,000 miles from Calais to Marseilles and from Algiers across the Sahara to the border with the Gold Coast, was under French administration, as Algeria and the other French West African territories had not yet become independent. Ingrams was full of admiration for the work done by the French colonial administrators and wrote of the need for close collaboration between the French and British empires in Africa.
Although it was undoubtedly an adventure, it seems the journey was not as unusual as I thought. Before leaving, he consulted the AA (Automobile Association) and Royal Geographical Society, who showed him some maps and ‘books of motorists’ experiences across the Sahara’. The Shell oil company ensured petrol was available at strategic points on the journey, as did the French organisation S.A.T.T. (Société Africaine des Transports Tropicaux), which also arranged to service the car at stations along the route and provided spare parts, including tyres, which were in short supply in post-war Europe.
On the way they met a number of English emigrants trekking overland to South Africa, who had chosen this route because there was a waiting list of one or two years for passages by sea or air. The French colonial authorities estimated that in a year several thousand English people attempted to cross the Sahara. Many were ill prepared; some broke down on the way and never made it to South Africa.
Ingrams described one family, comprising a ‘father, mother, daughter and two small boys’. Their daughter had been the ‘inspiration in making the journey. At school she had formed pen friends with children in South Africa. With these as their only contacts and tired of the promises and prospects of post-war England, they had, like all the other trekkers on the route, set out on the great journey over desert, through forests and mountains to South Africa to start a new life…. most trekkers left England because they could not settle down after the war. Many had seen South Africa and thought there was no place like it.’
My own purpose in reading the book, was to look for evidence which would help me understand the colonial mentality of some of the British soldiers and administrators in post-war Germany.
Although his views may seem strange and old-fashioned nowadays, Ingrams saw himself as a modern, progressive imperialist, writing, for example that:
‘The days of colonization by force, exploitation and the imposition of an alien civilization by those who “knew what was best for the native” were over. Even the much more noble conception of trusteeship was coming to an end, and the much fuller relationship of partnership was beginning.’
In his view, benevolent rule by the imperial power would be rewarded by creating ‘bonds of friendship’ which would outlast the formal empire, as colonies were granted self-government within a British Commonwealth of Nations. He wrote of his ‘ten happy years of experience in South Arabia… There we helped men of goodwill to make peace where for a millennium there had been war, and there we helped them to set up their own ordered government.’
‘There we learnt that any self-respecting race wants to manage its own affairs, and that it is unnatural, nay wrong, for one race to be dominated by another. We learnt too that the race which in some ways may have learnt more than another will, if it casts its bread upon the waters, receive in back in such measure that the bonds of friendship so forged will be stronger than any between a conquering nation and subject peoples.’
(This optimistic view was not borne out by subsequent events in Southern Arabia, where the British were defeated militarily and withdrew in 1967, after an anti-colonial uprising known as the Aden Emergency).
Reading Seven across the Sahara, I came to realise that Ingrams’ view of empire was permeated by the spirit of what I have called ‘missionary idealism’ (see my earlier post on How three British army officers reacted to the transition from war to peace in Germany, 1945). In summary, it seemed to me, he saw his role, and that of his fellow colonial administrators, in Germany, Arabia or Africa, as to bring to the ignorant or misguided people in these countries the benefits of British experience and traditions, and convert them, to the greatest extent possible, to the British way of life. This included their religion, their spiritual and moral values, their democracy and their material prosperity.
As Ingrams wrote, when the Roman emperor Julius Caesar and Christian missionary St Augustine first landed in Britain: ‘They came to England as we now go to Africa and Asia and brought the civilization of Rome and Christian faith to these lands. We were then in much the same state as those to whom for the last hundred years or so we have taken the civilization we have built on our own institutions and what they and others brought us.’
However, it was not quite that simple. Harold Ingrams was the son of a clergyman and religion was fundamental to his outlook on life. As he wrote in the preface to the book:
‘Living amongst men and women of many different faiths has persuaded me how fundamentally religion is necessary as a background to life, and made me wonder whether, owing to the difficulties, we have not rather funked tackling the matter in our approach.’
On the other hand, his experience of the deserts of Arabia had taught him that there was no monopoly of religious truth. ‘Doreen and I had so identified ourselves with the Hadhramaut and its people’ he wrote, ‘that we felt that their country was our country, and their people our people’.
‘I have found among Muslims more sense of the abiding presence of God than anywhere else, and that I believe is largely because the wideness of the desert and its utter lack of complication portrays the spiritual, all enveloping, all seeing and all mighty nature of God more faithfully than anything else. There is – almost – nothing there but God and nothing to detract the mind from Him. That is why all the great monotheistic religions have come out of the desert.’
This meant he could not ‘go all the way with the missionary, particularly those who claim that they have the whole monopoly of truth and the only fold in which there is salvation. The Christian missionary has a mandate which he cannot refuse. In my view the administrator too must be a missionary, but I think it is his wider task to help in achieving that peace, and happiness too, which is promised to men of goodwill of whatever faith they be.’
In his view, the religion of a country depended on the environment and the African bush or forest was very different from the Arabian or Saharan desert (let alone from British villages, fields, woods and meadows)
‘Day after day of travelling through the bush makes monotonous telling, but it brought its immensity home as nothing else would do, and forced comparisons with the immensity of the desert. I was more convinced than ever of the conclusions which had grown upon me in East Africa many years ago. I could feel again the effect of his surroundings on the mind of man, and recognize the unmistakable way in which environment moulds the religious instinct present in every human being.
In the wide open spaces of the sands and barren rocks, where the endless procession of heaven is the only thing that changes, man is brought inevitably and inexorably to know the existence of the one God, to Whose infinite greatness and mercy he can only submit himself and his tiny affairs. In the bush it is far otherwise. Here his vision is cramped, indeed in the forest he scarcely sees the skies. Nature, in a multi-thousand forms, brings every sort of influence to bear on him and his, many of them harmful to human wellbeing. In the dark the million voices and unseen presences of the night whisper unimagined terrors to the puny heart of man. What wonder that he seeks to appease the infinite number of spirits which lurk in trees and rocks and springs, whence come the diseases which bring him his misery.’
In the African bush, Christianity could only progress ‘because of the renewed stream of missionaries from the West.’ If the environment was not conducive to Christianity, or to one of the other monotheistic religions, then the environment had to be changed. If this was not done, and quickly, there was a danger that the people in the colonies would follow an alternative, and dangerous route, of communism, or independence antagonistic to the ideals of western civilisation.
There was, in his view, a need for more human contact ‘between us and the people we are helping … I believe we need to be, more of us, individually believers in and practisers of democracy as a way of life.’
‘Many people believe that much of the trouble among so-called dependent peoples is due to our preaching self-government too quickly. Quite apart from the fact that most of the more vocal of the people concerned think we are too slow in our approach, there is a fundamental error in this … It is a question of human evolution, the direction taken by a world current of thought and politicians, be they of the right or left, can do very little about it. They and those they direct may hope to guide it a little, but they can do nothing to dam it nor even seriously to divert it. It is far too big.
I myself believe that to-day the only really safe way of life which is still practicable adds up to something very like what is called social democracy, and it is that which we need to teach the African and that which is the least he is likely to accept.’
‘If we agree, as I think we must, that Africa of the forest and bush needs more of the things of the spirit than her own beliefs can give her, then we must change the cramping effect of the bush and forest for something more open as fast as we can. Cultivation of the land means not only a higher material standard of living, but higher spiritual and moral standards. Christianity perhaps flourishes best in an agricultural countryside, and the more the bush and its influence disappear the better chance it is likely to have.
More cultivation and more Christianity are indeed desperately urgent. We are now attending to the former; should we not also see to the latter and, for instance, do far more to encourage the missionaries as essential partners in our development programmes? If we do not I foresee there is a grave danger that the African, finding his ancestral beliefs too slight to bear all that will be required of them, may make a religion of his politics and this could only be disastrous. Although we are not perhaps a very religious people, in the practising sense, most of what we do derives from a deep religious instinct which, I think, prevents us taking our politics violently and makes it possible for political adversaries to respect each other and be friends. Something of this spirit we have to give to others who have not the same traditions.’
In his view, Christianity, democracy, and material prosperity all went together, with his idea of the empire as a partnership.
‘Christianity and democracy always go well together in agricultural country, just as Islam and democracy do in more barren lands. Indeed our western democracy surely has Christianity as its foundation – a way of life based on love of and duty towards one’s neighbour. Only the highest type of democracy can survive in conditions of hardship and poverty. Decent average democracy must grow out of a decent standard of living. If there is to be a decent standard of living in Africa, then development must speedily be taken further than the primitive methods of agriculture one sees here in the Northern Territories. These people have not even a plough of their own … I cannot believe that civilization can be quickly built up on a plough and a couple of oxen. The salvation of democracy lies in our showing that it can produce quickly a better standard of life than communism promises. This requires a lot of education of the young and of adults, and perhaps even a reasonable measure of direction of a docile, teachable people.’
‘What we are after is surely that the peoples of Africa should accept us in the future willingly, as partners in the development of their countries, and that they should be willing and equal citizens with us not only in those countries but in Europe. It is often very difficult for people to accept this thesis, even if they accept the equality of all races of humanity and the principle of genuinely equal citizenship. The reason perhaps is that we in Europe have been so long rulers outside Europe that it is difficult for us at first to realize that if Europe is to survive we must make the new conception of partnership more real. We should want this not because we want Europe to dominate mankind, but because we wish to maintain the freedom of mankind.’
In practice, of course, things worked out very differently, in Africa, in Arabia, and in Europe, from how Ingrams envisaged them on his journey across the Sahara in 1947. But it seems to me that unless we have some understanding of the hopes and fears, the ideals and values, that he and others in similar positions had at the time, it is very difficult to explain why people did what they did, and to show, as I try to do in this blog, ‘how it really was’.
Harold Ingrams, Seven across the Sahara, (London: John Murray, 1949)