The colonial dilemma

In the second half of 2020, the Black Lives Matter campaign and the accompanying backlash against the colonial era brought Britain’s role in the past into focus.  Was Britain’s colonial past a negative or positive feature of history?  As usual, every coin has two sides and John Yaxley, who has lived in Fifield with wife Pat for the past 25 years, shed some light on this matter following his career in the Overseas Civil Service, previously known as the Colonial Service.

John cut his teeth overseas in the Pacific islands formerly called the New Hebrides, now renamed as Vanuatu.  These islands were jointly run by the French and British and the role of the Overseas Civil Service was to prepare the islands for independence.  This was a complex operation due largely to the dual sovereignty of the islands but John’s work was focussed on bringing a rapid programme of social improvements to the islands.  New schools and hospitals were built and training schemes initiated to enable local people to learn the skills needed for an independent future.  Most of these projects were funded at the British taxpayers’ expense.

As a junior officer, John’s time was mainly spent in the rural areas; as he reports his job was “hearing disputes, which mainly involved land, pigs and women, encouraging the building of roads and the use of cash crops, checking that dispensaries were well stocked, and generally anything else to improve the living standards.  It was a happy and rewarding time though it took me away from my wife and young son for long periods.”

Where the people lived in relative isolation there was considerable suspicion of western influences, not least because of their bad experiences with the traders and labour recruiters in the 19th century. This posed a dilemma for the two colonial powers – should these people be left on their own as they wished, or should they be drawn into the rest of the developing nation state through, for example, the provision of medical and educational facilities and the encouragement of a monetary economy; what was in the people’s best interests? 

Looking back, John could see the huge improvements that had been made in bringing these remote islands into the twentieth century, enabling the provision of many of the amenities and facilities that we take for granted; that coin really did have two sides.

After the New Hebrides, John went on to serve in the Solomon Islands and Hong Kong before retiring to Fifield in 1994, but within that rural retreat lies a lifetime of experiences which brought new hope to many people.

April-May 2021