restricted access 1. Plebiscite
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15 1.plebiscite t all began around the end of the first week in June 1960, shortly after I graduated from Cambridge. I had changed course for my third year and finished up by reading Part One of the Archaeology and Anthropology tripos. A friend, who had done the same course and knew that I yearned to go to Africa, drew my attention to one of those small ads, which at that time still covered the whole of the front page of the Times. The advertisement was placed by the Colonial Office and called for applicants for the job of Plebiscite Supervisory Officer in the Cameroons. I had to look at a dictionary to discover the exact meaning of the word ‘plebiscite’ and a map of Africa to find the location of the Cameroons. The section under British administration looked terribly small, squeezed into the armpit of Africa, between Nigeria and the much larger territory administered by the French. I still have the typewritten foolscap sheet that I received in reply to my first enquiry. “Men”, it says—no feminist nonsense in those days—”are required to conduct the administrative work and publicity in connection with the plebiscites”. There followed a brief description of the job, which was meaningless without further explanation, and some vague warnings about having to spend a large amount of time “on tour, often under very difficult conditions.” The salary was given—£167 a month, unbelievable riches—but there was nothing about the historical background, no mention of the United Nations, or of what Trust Territory status implied, only the address of the Director of Recruitment at the Colonial Office. I turned up for interview in best suit and tie at the appointed time. I was very nervous, especially as I knew very little about the prospective job. I had gleaned a little about the original German colony, the mandate under the League of Nations following the First World War, and the later trusteeship arrangements under the umbrella of the United Nations, and I was vaguely aware that the plebiscites were intended to decide whether the Britishadministered northern and southern parts of the country were to be joined with Nigeria to the west, or with the about to be independent République du Cameroun to the east. I had read some papers by the anthropologist Edwin Ardener about the Bakweri people on Mount Cameroon. I had also read The Bafut Beagles, by Gerald Durrell, and although there was something about the style that warned me that Durrell had a flexible approach to the facts, it was the only book entirely devoted to the country that I had managed to find. I did not feel well equipped for a searching interrogation. The interview was certainly daunting, but not quite in the way I had expected. It was held in one of those vast panelled rooms in the Colonial Office. Four or five distinguished old buffers were seated on one side of a mahogany I 16 table the size of a small airstrip and there was one chair on the side opposite. It seemed a very long way from the door to the table and a very long time before anyone invited me to sit down. No doubt the old gentlemen wanted to see if I appeared to be made of the right stuff. It quickly became apparent that they were not in the least interested in how much I knew about the Cameroons. They were not even particularly concerned about my university degree. They had heard of my school (a hateful place). They wanted to know if I was good at games. I was not. What about National Service? Better here. I had served as a subaltern in a respectable if undistinguished regiment. What about my family? Anyone in the Colonial Service? Fortunately yes, a cousin in Nigeria. One of the old buffers thought he had met him. I think that was probably the clincher. There followed a cursory medical examination, dire warnings about ‘Health in Tropical Climates’ and the importance of always wearing a hat. There was also a clothes list. The total allowance for everything from hat to stout walking shoes was £30, which was stingy even then, but the list included the helpful suggestion that inexpensive articles of dress, including appropriate shorts and a Palm Beach suit, were obtainable from Alkit, in Cambridge Circus. One other essential item of equipment was a steel chest, to guard my possessions against termites. It was to be...