Writing a novel set in a time more than a decade before I was born is an intriguing challenge. Living in Zanzibar, I know the present-day town and islands well. Having access to the National Archives here (a national treasure!) has given me a good insight into the past. But what I wanted was the ‘pepper and salt’, the seasoning to help bring a vanished colonial past back to life. Happily, through ‘Tanzanian Affairs’ I came into contact with two excolonial officers: Brim Eccles (DO, Chake Chake, Pemba 1952-54) and Ethel Biron, nee Hardes (Nursing Sister, Zanzibar 1949-52). On ‘home leave’ last summer, I went to track them both down.
I found Brian Eccles sitting at a pavement cafe table in the ancient town of Venice in the south of France. Ethel Biron I found in her garden in the town of Worthing in the south of England, together with her husband Hugh, who had worked in Zanzibar for Cable & Wireless.
Brim Eccles comes from a long line of colonial servants, his great grandfather having been the first unofficial member of the Executive Council in Trinidad. When he joined the Colonial Service, “What was significant”, he recalls, “was that I was asked, ‘Was I prepared to make myself gracefully redundant?’ and that was in early 1952. It was reckoned that anyone who came into the Colonial Service should be prepared to leave, for the whole thing to wind up”.
Ethel Biron had no family history in the Colonies, “When I applied, they said there’s a vacancy in Zanzibar and another one in Hong Kong. I liked the sound of Zanzibar, so I chose to go there”. Hugh Biron had an overseas history, his father having been abroad with the Eastern Telegraph Company in 1886.
Brian travelled out with the Union Castle Line, and on arrival in Zanzibar Town remembers, “…it being infinitely more civilised and congenial than my father had suggested Sierra Leone and the Gambia were in his time. It was an agreeable surprise, I liked it, but when I got up to Pemba, it was very much more how I expected it to be”.
Ethel Biron flew out, from a small Heathrow in a York transport plane. It took her all day to fly to Tripoli, where they spent the night, the next day flying on to Cairo for lunch and then Khartoum. The Thud day she flew on to Nairobi, and then took the overnight train to Mombasa. From there she flew in a ‘Dominie’, touching down in Tanga and eventually on the grass airstrip in Zanzibar.
Not to be outdone, Hugh Biron told that he had first flow to Zanzibar in 1943 by flying boat down the Nile!
Brian’s work as District Officer involved touring, “I used to spend four nights a week out travelling somewhere, and the other three nights I’d be back in Chake Chake. I would go in a car to some central point, and then walk around for four days”.
“The District Supervisor, Sultan Issa, was in charge of getting the tent to where I was going to stay. It was a magnificent thing, and in fact had everything for an old style District Officer, even something purporting to be a Persian mat. It was totally unrealistic – I just felt embarrassed that so much was involved with one person staying in the shamba – so after the first or second expedition I had done with it. After that I used to sleep on the teacher’s desk in a school, put a Dunlopillo mattress on it and rig a mosquito net from the rafters”. “One of my jobs was to listen to all the different cases being put to me about the issue in hand, and then make a decision. We were discussing one day who owned the land. We knew who owned the clove trees and who had been cultivating between the trees, but who actually owned the land? Well, the Kadhi (Muslim judge) gave his opinion of what was Muslim law on the subject and the Mudir (junior administrator) gave his opinion as to what was local law, and I eventually made a judgement. And, when I did so, someone said ‘That’s the decision the last European DO came to’; it had all been decided before! And it was being re-hashed just to see if my opinion was the same – which by good luck (and judgement) – it was”.
Ethel Biron commented, “people think it was a soft option, but it was hard work. You only had one month local leave in a two and half year tour. And as Nursing Sister, you found yourself in charge of a whole hospital”.
Both Brian and Ethel learned Swahili in Zanzibar, “It would have been very easy to spend all your spare time playing tennis or swimming”, explained Ethel, “but it seemed essential to me to get on with learning Swahili, which I did, and got my exam in ten months. So I did speak the language fluently, and that’s one of the reasons they asked me to be Nursing Tutor when I was back there in 1957 with Hugh.
“The common diseases,” she said, “were malaria, leg ulcers, hookworm, chest infections, and falling out of coconut trees – not exactly a disease – but very common”.
There was also leprosy in Zanzibar then. Brian found himself charged with the task of handing out Eid-el-Fitr presents to the lepers in the colony at Wete, “I can remember I went up with the District Medical Officer, who said ‘It’s perfectly alright, they’ll all want to shake hands with you though they may not have hands, but whatever they offer; shake it”‘.
Another lost aspect of colonial life – which looms large in the fiction and mythology of the times – is ‘The Club’. “There was what was called the English Club”, explained Ethel Biron, “to which one belonged as a matter of course. Somebody else on the staff would sign about your good character although you’d only been there for a few days, and you joined. It was somewhere to meet people not connected with the medical department. The Sultan’s band used to play there once a week and that was great fun”.
Brim “never” came a member of the English Club. Why? “Well because it seemed to me to be totally remote from Zanzibar and Zanzibaris. When the Karimji Club started (a multiracial club) I became a member of that”. Both Brian and Ethel remember the Sultan – Seyyid Khalifa – Ethel being nurse to him on occasions during her first tour of duty, “He was very nice, a dear old chap and a great influence for good. Brim later became Seyyid Khalifa’s private secretary, and remembers him with great affection, “He was a dear old man. I never knew any of my grandparents, but I could not have wished for a better grandfather”.
As was envisaged at the time of Brim’s recruitment, the empire, of course did wind up. What perhaps was not envisaged was the posthumous widespread denunciation of colonialism as being unremittingly bad. But speaking to two old colonial officers, what impressed me was the sense of public duty with which they worked; probably the most essential missing ingredient in the civil services of Africa today.
I asked Brian how he felt when, after two years, he had to leave Pemba, “Oh, I didn’t want to leave at all, because I so much enjoyed my work, really enjoyed my work. I was just very happy there”.
** Many thanks to Brim Eccles and Ethel & Hugh Biron **