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Supermac and the Sarduana

Macmillan’s Attitude to Class and Race in the Late Empire

Left: Harold Macmillan touring Africa in 1960; Right: Sir Ahmadu Bello, the Sarduana of Sokoto.

Staying over with some Kenyan friends in Wiltshire the other day, the old observation came up that, after the war, the officers settled in Kenya while the sergeants went to Rhodesia. While some of the leading lights of UDI had, in fact, been officers — Ian Smith an obvious case — it’s interesting to note that most of them came from humble backgrounds.

“Smithie” was born well-off in Rhodesia but his father had been a butcher’s son who went out to Africa and made good. Clifford Dupont, the first president of the Rhodesian republic, was born in London of poor East End Huguenot stock. His father had done well in the rag trade and got his son to Cambridge; Clifford became an artillery officer before emigrating to Africa.

Rhodesian Prime Minister Roy Welensky’s father was a Russian Jewish horse smuggler who married a ninth-generation Afrikaner. Roy was the couple’s thirteenth son, and left school at 14 to work on the railways and found success through the trade union movement.

Harold Macmillan, meanwhile, was a Guards officer and Old Etonian who had studied at Oxford. His famous ‘Wind of Change’ speech was just part of the British prime minister’s grand tour of Africa. “Supermac” started in Nigeria, where — unlike in some other parts of the continent — much of the native aristocracy had been preserved and coopted throughout colonial rule.

Proving Orwell’s observation that the English are the most class-ridden nation on earth, the PM felt comfortable amongst black African patricians in a way he couldn’t amongst members of the ruling white African elite from humble backgrounds.

In one of the ICBH’s oral history group discussions, Perry Worsthorne relates:

Somebody at some point has to mention, in any discussion of British politics, snobbery and class. I remember travelling and reporting on the ‘Wind of Change’ speech. We went to stay on the last bit, just before going on to Salisbury, was it the Sardauna of Sokoto who was he the premier of the Northern Nigerian region. Macmillan talked to us after he had seen him, he was flying on to Welensky the next day.

Macmillan used to have a sundowner with the correspondents covering his trip, and over whisky and sodas he told us how much more at home he felt with the Sardauna, who reminded him of the Duke of Argyll – ‘a kind of black highland chieftain’ – than he would feel in Salisbury as the guest of a former railwayman, Sir Roy Welensky. Snobbery, pure snobbery.

The British metropole was always ready to make racial distinctions and discriminate accordingly, yet it still tended to look upon outright racism with an air of disdain, as something slightly unsporting (or worse: foreign).

In the imperial periphery, racial attitudes amongst whites often differed greatly from Britain. This was most obviously so in South Africa, which for all intents and purposes embarked upon a radical revolutionary rejection of the British model of governance from 1948 with the implementation of apartheid. Rhodesia, needless to say, was another exception, if arguably more mild. “How different it would all have been,” Worsthorne somewhat patronisingly wondered, “if Ian Smith had been a gentleman.”

Meanwhile Nigeria’s Sir Ahmadu Bello — the Sarduana of Sokoto — was a statesman of cautious action, and his refusal to become Nigerian prime minister upon independence (he preferred sticking to his existing role as the powerful premier of the northern province) sadly deprived the federal state of the wisdom and experience which may have prevented its later descent into disarray. He was murdered by Major Nzeogwu during the 1966 coup d’état.

Differences of race or class aside, it’s telling that both the white low-born railwayman Welensky and the black patrician Bello ended up as knights of the realm.

Sir Roy Welensky with Harold Macmillan
This post was published on Tuesday, January 30th, 2018 2:30 pm. It has been categorised under History and been tagged under , , , , , .
John U.K.
30 Jan 2018 4:22 pm

(Slightly tongue-in-cheek!)

But was not Macmillan in trade? Publishing to be precise. And the great-grandson of a Scots crofter. . . .

Also to be remembered as the last living holder of a Great Western Railway gold pass, which British Railways subsequently honoured.

LG Clark
30 Jan 2018 9:37 pm

Dear me Cusack, where do you get your information from?
Dupont had nothing to do with the East End – his family were Suffolk farmers and merchants right back into the 17th century. And they were not poor either, leaving good sized estates at their deaths and staffing their houses with the usual two or three servants of the middle classes. Not the sergeant class at all.
His successor Everard grew up in a huge country house, was sent to Marlborough and Trinity College Cambridge and won the DSO in the second war. His father was a barrister of the Inner Temple. The sort of family which was living like gentry, if not yet fully accepted as such. He went out to Rhodesia in 1953 to head its railroads.
These were the people who built the Empire – why should they have supinely accepted its destruction?
I’ll bet that Nigerian prince wished the British, sergeants or not, were still around as the bullets headed his way in 1966.

Andrew Cusack
31 Jan 2018 4:18 pm

There were Duponts in the East End (from Essex originally) and Clifford’s father was in the rag trade, but I wasn’t aware of the context regarding his more extended relations. Many thanks!

31 Jan 2018 6:25 pm

There is much truth in what you write but I can’t resist pointing out that the Duke of Montrose signed the Rhodesian UDI and sat in Ian Smith’s Cabinet.
Officers tended to go there pre-WWII and NCOs after. However, once they got there, the white settlers seem to have been less socially stratified than the Kenyans. As with all generalisations, there are probably numerous exceptions to that particular rule.

Andrew Cusack
6 Feb 2018 10:28 am

A very good point.

I know the late Duke did return to the United Kingdom and I’ve always wondered if he was ever formally pardoned for his (if one might be so legalistic) ostensible treason or if the authorities just quietly looked the other way upon his return.

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