The language policies of British colonial service

Global governance has evolved into a permanent presence in many countries. As such global governance has analogies to colonial governance, but involves distinct politics of knowledge. The different politics of knowledge and organisational approaches towards language knowledge give insights into the outlook of western donor countries and the contemporary character of global aid relations. The British colonial service was strongly influenced by anthropological models of knowledge, which promoted a concern with language and country knowledge. Language knowledge, or its lack, was a preoccupation of British colonial service, whereas these concerns are not prominent in today’s aid industry. Here I draw on the informative studies of Anthony Kirk-Greene’s Symbol of Authority: The British District Officer in Africa (2006) and Steve Tsang’s Governing Hong Kong: Administrative Officers from the Nineteenth Century to the Handover to China (2007) to highlight the language concerns of the British colonial service.

The British colonial system of indirect rule or native administration, which attempted to contain the influence of European political ideas and rule through traditional authorities, made language training central to the education of colonial officers. There were long-standing complaints about language communication problems and the poor language skills of the British colonial officials, or the limited English of their locally hired staff, or other local languages, alongside concerns. Indeed it was concerns in over the importance of having a pool of local language speakers that pioneered the eventual development of colonial service recruitment through competitive exams.

In particular, concerns over the need for better more developed language skills were expressed in the urban colonial settings, such as Hong Kong. As was summarised, ‘We rule in ignorance, they obey in blindness’ (quoted in Tsang, 2007, p. 11). Specifically, the Caldwell scandal of the mid-nineteenth century vividly showed how administrative over-reliance on a tiny number of staff, who knew the Chinese language, had permitted serious corruption, and that the colonial authorities did not have adequate language skills to communicate with their Chinese subjects (Tsang, 2007, p. 11-16). In the wake of Caldwell’s final dismissal, there was no one adequately qualified in the language, ‘nine or ten interpreters at present in the employment of the local government…have neither education nor sufficient knowledge of the English language to qualify them’ (quoted in Tsang, 2007, p. 16).

The British authorities decided to set up a cadetship scheme devoted to improving language skills of civil service recruits, ‘a certain number of Cadetships be established, the holder of which shall devote themselves for a certain time after their arrival in the Colony solely to learning the language’ (quoted in Tsang, 2007, p. 17). The initial cadets under the scheme did not become interpreters and appear to have had poor language skills, nevertheless a larger pool of at least some senior officials with better language knowledge was gradually developed (Tsang, 2007, pp. 20-21). However, Chinese language skills among the broader colonial administrative staff was limited as colonial administration expanded in the late nineteenth century and twentieth century, and tended to rely on Chinese staff knowing English (Tsang, 2007, p. 32). This problem became more pronounced in the postwar period with the postwar staff shortages, leading to shortened language training, or the redeployment from different colonies of staff, who lacked specific language and country knowledge (Tsang, 2007, p. 69, p. 117).

The colonial literature abounds with discussion of colonial language problems and its implications for colonial administration and order. And alongside the complaints about language communication in colonial administration, there were concerns over the impact of English on local languages and cultures, especially in Africa. For British colonial language policies sought to maintain vernaculars and local traditions as a bulwark against modern nationalism, but its power relations necessitated English language knowledge. Consequently anthropological knowledge was an important aspect of colonial service training, again especially the training of colonial officials to Africa. However, while the language training was generally seen as useful, more negative views were expressed by colonial officers about their anthropology classes. There were complaints they had been given training for simple rural societies, not for modern complex societies they later found themselves confronting (Kirk-Greene, 2006, p. 54).

Amidst the inadequacies, there were repeated initiatives to promote language and country knowledge, illustrating the continuing belief in anthropological forms of knowledge in colonial service training. The language exams were important to moving from probation and being formally appointed to the colonial service (Kirk-Greene, 2006, p. 50, p. 89). The post-1945 Devonshire courses for district officers, primarily aimed at those destined for British colonial African service, illustrates the emphasis on language training. Language was a core part of the course, along with subjects like colonial history, economics, law, anthropology, agriculture and geography (Kirk-Greene, 2006, pp. 50-53). Conversely, the subject of public administration was introduced relatively late to colonial service training.

A study of retired officers reported some frustration among former students over the language training, where the language training was not the same as the language of their district. However, the same study found language training of regional languages like Swahili or Hausa was one of the most appreciated subjects taught on the course (Kirk-Greene, 2006, pp. 50-53). Former colonial officers suggest how language knowledge was vital both formally and informally in their postings, particularly in isolated districts where there were few other Europeans (Kirk-Greene, 2006, p. 165) – an immersion rather different from today’s connected global community with global communications media.

Once in post, the probationary district officer was expected to immerse himself in the district and learn the language, even if a local interpreter or an assistant, who could act as interpreter, was employed, notably for court work. ‘Good district administration was defined as close administration’ (Kirk-Greene, 2006, p. 127). Touring the district was seen as vital to showing the flag, but was also promoted as a key way that new district officers could learn the local language and understand their district. As one informant observed of 1930s’ colonial Eastern Nigeria, ‘if trouble started…. the first question the Resident would ask of the DO of that area would be, “How much touring have you done there?” ’ (H.P. Ellio in Kirk-Greene, 2006, p. 127).

The centrality of language knowledge to the British colonial service training and its preoccupation with the weak language knowledge of its staff contrasts with the virtual absence of concern with the subject today among international organisations involved in the governance of societies. Different models of knowledge and knowing societies prevail in contemporary global governance which do not see language knowledge as essential and do not prioritise it in their recruitment or training of staff.

Vanessa Pupavac is author of Language Rights: From Free Speech to Global Governance, Palgrave, 2012


Kirk-Greene, Anthony (2006) Symbol of Authority: The British District Officer in Africa. London, GBR: I.B. Tauris.

Tsang, Steve (2007) Governing Hong Kong: Administrative Officers from the Nineteenth Century to the Handover to China, 1862-1997. London, GBR: I.B. Tauris.

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