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Reviewed by:
  • The Parting Years: A British Family and the End of Empire., and: Of Cargoes, Colonies and Kings: Diplomatic and Administrative Service from Africa to the Pacific.
  • Elizabeth Buettner
The Parting Years: A British Family and the End of Empire. By Sheila Bevan. London and New York: The Radcliffe Press, 2001.
Of Cargoes, Colonies and Kings: Diplomatic and Administrative Service from Africa to the Pacific. By Andrew Stuart. London and New York: The Radcliffe Press, 2001.

‘Not enough has been written about the colonial service and the fine body of men and women who served in far-flung outposts of the old empire’, Sheila Bevan asserts at the start of her book (xii). The Parting Years constitutes her attempt to provide the fuller story she feels is lacking by describing her own 1930s and 1940s childhood and adolescent years on a South African farm as the daughter of a British settler family, followed by her marriage to a member of the British South African Police and subsequent life in Nyasaland (Malawi) and other overseas postings until the 1970s. While Bevan feels that more should be said in praise of Britons who lived and worked in the empire, her contribution is in fact part of a substantial (and, indeed, still expanding) body of similar writing by former participants in the wake of decolonization. Bevan is also far from unique in terms of her message: that ‘despite occasional adverse comments in the press, the British colonial service had no reason to feel ashamed’; that ‘the British were not hated; we were admired and respected’; and that rather than exploiting overseas populations, the British provided law and order, ‘roads, hospitals, houses, schools, and universities’ (xiii). Scholars with previous exposure to memoirs by those once involved in the empire will undoubtedly find many of Bevan’s arguments and justifications familiar. Andrew Stuart’s Of Cargoes, Colonies and Kings also takes its place among many other retrospective accounts by men who served in the colonies, but his book’s tone and contents differ from Bevan’s in informative ways. Although they are of the same generation, Bevan and Stuart tell very distinct stories that reveal how white imperial experiences were highly gendered as well as informed by specific class, professional, and other individual circumstances.

Regardless of their differences, however, it is worth noting several attributes Bevan and Stuart share. Both are from families with preexisting histories of imperial involvement that do much to explain their own presence overseas as adults. Stuart spent part of his childhood in Uganda where his parents worked as missionaries, and after education in Britain decided to enter the Colonial Administrative Service largely because of established connections with Africa. Bevan’s imperial lineage is even more extensive, dating back to her father’s family history of work in India in fields that included education, engineering, and missions. Her book in particular charts the near-global involvement of an extended family that for over a century lived throughout Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, moving on as opportunities either arose or ended with decolonization. Its members nonetheless rarely lost contact with the metropole, even when they ‘settled’ in South or Central Africa. Indeed, both Bevan and Stuart write from the standpoint of aging Britons who, after lifetimes spent largely overseas, have ultimately returned ‘Home’ to reflect on their experiences from a postcolonial perspective. Formal decolonization on its own, however, did not mark the end of their time overseas; rather, both memoirs show how British men employed in one colony found related forms of work elsewhere abroad upon independence. For Stuart, this involved joining the British Diplomatic Service and working in areas ranging from Hong Kong, the Seychelles, and the New Hebrides after his initial posting in Uganda became obsolete in 1962; Bevan’s husband, meanwhile, became engaged in policing work in Singapore and then the United Arab Emirates after Nyasaland achieved independence. Again, Bevan assesses his ongoing overseas career opportunities as ‘proof’ of Britain’s continuing international reputation both within and outside its (former) empire: ‘whatever anyone else says’, she argues, ‘Arabs have a great respect and admiration for the British, so they asked the FCO [Foreign and Commonwealth Office] to...

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