Sir Philip Mitchell and the Indian Ocean, 1944-49

James R Brennan. Journal of Imperial & Commonwealth History. Volume 45, Issue 6. December 2017.

This article examines the strategic initiatives that Sir Philip Mitchell, governor of Kenya, brought to Great Britain’s Indian Ocean imperial and diplomatic policy in the years following the Second World War. Seeking to give strategic shape to his own coastal Islamic sympathies, Mitchell encroached on high-level policy debates with a proposal to reorganise Britain’s Western Indian Ocean around a political directorate to administer the coastal zones from Aden to Tanganyika. Such a cadre, Mitchell argued, would provide a valuable defensive bulwark against nationalist agitation and a ‘civilised’ foundation for local government initiatives. This paper brings together biography, strategic policy and area studies to demonstrate how Africa’s decolonisation shaped and limited the strategic options for Britain’s post-war Indian Ocean policy. Mitchell’s proposal broached a fascinating debate concerning the Indian Ocean as a realm of historical experience and future political construction.

Sir Philip Mitchell is unconventional, a man of vision, who customarily thinks in terms that go beyond any colony. He is a good friend of the Mohammedan and Arab, a candid admirer of many things in their way of life. I believe that if he could get full understanding from London, enough money to carry out his plans, and the proper men to implement their details, he would do much to restore Britain’s former prestige around the Indian Ocean.

As a term of British colonial policy, ‘civilisation’ met its end in the late 1940s. Its expansive writ to remould and uplift native subjects yielded to a narrower secular language of ‘development’ that more modestly promised to improve living standards and widen political participation for a newly emergent citizenry. This shift signalled not only a long-belated ideological retreat from Victorian hubris, but also a geopolitical reorientation away from the stark hierarchies of imperial sovereignty and towards the modular flatness of territorial sovereignty and national self-determination. The establishment of the United Nations, post-war political reckonings with racial genocide and rising Cold War domination by two ostensibly anti-imperial powers account for much of this abandonment. Yet within the British government itself, historians have often presented the relinquishment of ‘civilisation’ as a product of the new post-war sensibilities of Colonial Office bureaucrats. The most notable figure was Andrew Cohen, Creech Jones’ under secretary for African affairs, who valued the language of administrative efficiency over the scriptural terminology of imperial evangelists. Subsequent resistance to this shift in language and temperament is often portrayed as the fool’s errand by Blimp-like reactionaries such as Churchill and the imperial sentimentalists of Attlee’s cabinet, who clung to fading imperial glory while Whitehall administrators moved quickly to sacrifice ‘civilisation’ to better secure legitimacy and political goodwill in the post-war world. Within the Overseas Colonial Service, those who resisted this shift would find themselves politically and ideologically cut adrift. No figure better represents this latter category than Sir Philip Mitchell, whose tenure in his final post as governor of Kenya (1944-52) exemplifies not merely the futility but the danger of resisting metropolitan reforms that encouraged modicums of African political participation as a starting point for constitutional reform. Mitchell’s unpleasant mixture of reactionary politics and managerial complacency, historians have widely agreed, denied Kenyan Africans any meaningful role in post-war government, which set the stage for the most tragic debacle of Britain’s decolonisation in Africa, the Mau Mau rebellion and the horrific abuses of its subsequent colonial suppression.

Yet the powers of hindsight have overwhelmed historical accounts that frame the significance of Philip Mitchell’s governorship according to events that followed his retirement. Mitchell was plainly ‘reactionary’ insofar as he measured Africa’s future independence in centuries rather than years, and steadfastly resisted extending political appointments to leading Kenyan Africans such as Jomo Kenyatta. But his significance for our purposes lies in his outspoken rejection of the emergent nation-state guided by a local citizenry that post-war planners promised in favour of a civilisation-based oceanic framework that more closely resembled in logic and structure the Ottoman vilayets. The political and strategic future of British eastern Africa, to Mitchell’s mind, lay not in the enfranchisement of its African majority, but rather in drawing from the civilisational wells of the wider Western Indian Ocean world to meet new geopolitical threats that extended far beyond Kenya. Like not a few academics, Mitchell was an area specialist who aspired to transcend his own field by theorising about wider cultures in order to formulate policies well above his own office. The Indian Ocean represented a strategic opportunity to re-engage post-war British foreign and imperial policies around a littoral set of loyal allies anchored in Islamic traditions, who could thwart the anti-colonial ambitions of new ‘civilisational’ adversaries such as India and Israel, as well as their fifth columnists within East Africa. Although Mitchell’s initiatives had little impact on British geopolitical strategy, they do reveal both the imperial and regional stakes that accompanied the abandonment of policy ideals long cast in the pre-war hieratic of ‘civilisation’ for demotic secular models based on territory-defined enfranchisement. Mitchell’s proposed ‘Western Indian Ocean’ was, like post-war projects of federation, another dead end of decolonisation. But the reasoning, politics and yearning for civilisational vindication behind Mitchell’s scheme represented a powerful counter-current to nation-state hegemony that would structure popular geopolitical thought, particularly among Muslim Kenyans, long after the era of decolonisation.

Sir Philip Mitchell and the Limits of Ambition

‘Sir Philip Mitchell is a tired man.’ This was the journalist Negley Farson’s description of the governor he otherwise held in deep awe during his trip to Kenya in 1947. Mitchell had impressed Farson with his sporting prowess, his ‘acrid personality’ and above all his ‘moderation’ in the light of white settler racialism. He was widely recognised as the most accomplished colonial official in British East Africa, where he had spent most of his career. Having arrived in East Africa in 1913 as a 23-year-old field cadet in Nyasaland, Mitchell quickly put together a stellar career in Tanganyika, where he rose from district officer to chief secretary in the span of 11 years. John Iliffe describes him as ‘the ablest British administrator who ever served in East Africa’. In 1935 Mitchell moved to Kampala for his first of three governorships, and on the outbreak of the Second World War he became civilian plenipotentiary of occupied Ethiopia. Re-assigned to Fiji in 1942 as both governor and commissioner of the Pacific, he crucially convinced the US to accept the continued British imperial presence in the Pacific despite the bankruptcy of Britain’s regional power, made plain with the fall of Singapore in February 1942. In November 1944 he was offered the position of governor of Kenya, accepting the position and serving out three terms. He retired in June 1952, just months before the start of Mau Mau (1952-56), which hastily destroyed the towering reputation he had built over four decades.

And it is through the lens of Mau Mau that Mitchell is most remembered among historians today. In their accounts of Mau Mau, David Anderson and Caroline Elkins both characterise Philip Mitchell as a tired, out-of-touch and ultimately incompetent governor whose indifference to rising tensions between white settlers and dispossessed Kikuyu, ever-crowding Kikuyu reserves and sharp proletarianisation in Nairobi allowed the Mau Mau rebellion to form in a way that, presumably, a more energetic administrator may have prevented or defused through savvier responses to the political grievances of moderate African figures. Mitchell’s significance thus lies in what he failed to do. Many of his contemporaries agreed. Colonial Secretary Oliver Lyttelton remembers him with both respect and disdain.

He recalled some of his earlier service, and ended by saying that he had the satisfaction of handing over to his successor a colony at the height of prosperity and lapped in peace. This claim was shown, within a few weeks, to be without foundation.

Anthony Kirk-Greene, the leading historian of Britain’s Overseas Colonial Service, reckoned that the extension of Mitchell’s Kenya governorship to three terms became the most widely cited imperial example used to oppose term extensions, particularly as Mitchell served his final term ‘at a time when fresh—and healthy—blood might have produced sounder policies’.

The most influential academic portrait of Philip Mitchell is that of David Throup, upon which both Anderson and Elkins draw. His devastating portrayal has Mitchell as tired and out of touch, an old ‘indirect ruler’ who had missed the wartime transformations of colonial thought towards development and self-government. His imagination remained stuck in a blind faith towards chiefly African collaborators; his political independence fatally compromised by his surrender to white settler interests. Mitchell was intensely ambitious, a ‘solitary, unapproachable man, who found it difficult to make friends and extremely easy to provoke lasting personal enmity’. Throup does stipulate that Mitchell was a masterful bureaucratic infighter, using his gatekeeper position over all Kenyan communications with the Colonial Office to justify his decision to rely on chiefs and other traditional authorities instead of implementing Colonial Office desires to co-opt more educated Africans into local government. But it is in Mitchell’s lack of imagination and profound character flaws that Throup locates Kenya’s administrative drift toward Mau Mau. London had chosen the wrong man:

Mitchell was chosen to become governor because of his vast experience of East Africa. He seemed to be the ideal choice to reassert metropolitan authority. A blunt, unattractive, fat, little man, without any social graces, Mitchell was on paper the best man for the job and had a wide knowledge of the problems he would find in Kenya … Mentally, physically and spiritually he was exhausted throughout his last term, from which he emerged as an administrative dinosaur, a remnant from the era of indirect rule, increasingly out of touch with the Colonial Office’s plans for local government reform and controlled African political advance.

The one abiding passion that survived Mitchell’s decline was his intense sense of competition. ‘Indeed it was reported that he had only married his wife, a South African open golf ladies’ champion, because she was the first woman to have defeated him.’ Mitchell’s governorship was doomed because early on it was politically ‘captured’ by white settlers who had entrenched themselves in key government institutions during the Second World War. Mitchell found them pushy, ignorant and irascible, but had neither the vision nor the will to remove their influence from government. Yet Mitchell’s character was more complex and his imagination far greater than Throup and others have allowed. He was both an unabashed careerist and an idealist. Lord Hailey offers helpful insight in his an admiring but honest preface to Mitchell’s memoir African Afterthoughts, written at the height of Mau Mau: ‘his idealism was very marked, but it seemed to be continually coming face to face—I had almost said coming into conflict—with an equally marked sense of realism’.

This article examines Mitchell’s strategic imagination as it looked upon the Indian Ocean as the most favourable arena for Britain to reverse its rapid post-war imperial decline. Having sat at the tables of power during the Second World War, Mitchell was desperate to weigh in on Britain’s post-war imperial strategy in Africa and Asia, but found himself constricted by an administrative job that, despite the governorship’s surface prestige, largely removed Mitchell from Whitehall decision-making. Yet Mitchell’s meteoric career had been partly based on his ability to by-pass formal channels and correspond directly with the great and influential—Lords Lugard and Hailey, J. H. Oldham and Dame Margery Perham rank among his better-known patrons, whom he secured through dogged and occasionally brilliant correspondence on the major colonial questions of the day. Mitchell’s interventions into post-war imperial planning culminated in a proposal in February 1948 to restructure British imperial strategy in the Western Indian Ocean around Arab allies and trained Arabist political agents. Although much of the proposal was not enacted, its creation, discussion and context provide a most useful lens through which to examine political and intellectual debates over the looming questions of decolonisation and global strategy concerning the late British Empire, Africa and the Indian Ocean.

The Philosophy and Moral Sentiments of Philip Mitchell

Reading through Mitchell’s several memoranda from his time as Tanganyika’s secretary of the native affairs in the late 1920s to the end of his career in Kenya, one striking element is the difficulty of pigeon-holing his racial attitudes. Frequently alternating between ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ by contemporary standards, Mitchell consistently evinced a deep scepticism toward the ability of law and constitutions to engineer populations. People either had histories or did not; those with histories by extension had a culture upon which economies and polities could be built; those without histories, namely Africans, had only to pursue the slow work of imitation of those who did. When posed the task of defining the ‘native’, a most difficult administrative question, Mitchell, as Tanganyika’s secretary of native affairs, stressed the malleability of given group’s social conditions rather than presuming firm racial barriers. Progress was possible, but only on a communal rather than an individual basis:

In so far as native law is concerned, this provision of the Ordinance is in fact our law of exemption, that is to say that by its means any native group can modify its customary law to suit its present circumstances. This I believe to be of the greatest importance; the progress of the natives does not lie in providing a door through which the progressive and the reformer can escape the condition of the rest of their people but in putting in their hands an instrument by means of which reform can be effected. Looked at in this way there is no question of inferiority in the status of a native but only a certain condition which is a matter of fact at any given point of time.

Among his earlier career milestones was the translation and dissemination of a legal work by a Shafi’i ‘ulama named Shaykh Ali bin Hemed al-Buhriy when Mitchell was stationed in Tanga during 1922-24. Hemed al-Buhriy, considered by European scholars who met him to be the most impressive Islamic jurist in East Africa, had written the Swahili-language Mirathi, which became the standard law for settling inheritance disputes across Muslim East Africa. Mitchell’s careful English translation of this foundational but tedious work secured his reputation across East Africa. It also confirmed his view that ‘traditional’ African approaches to land such as shifting agriculture were inherently destructive, but that Islamic land tenure laws offered at least a start for real economic development. Mitchell was also a keen student of history—he immersed himself in Sir Reginald Coupland’s ‘invaluable work’ on East Africa, which stressed the defining accomplishments of the Omani Arab elite in the region’s history. In his memoir African Afterthoughts, Mitchell contrasted the self-regulating nature of Tanga, the appointment plainly dearest to his heart, with that of the grasping Hindu-led Indian National Congress branches in East Africa. Mitchell approvingly acknowledged the popular justice meted out behind his back in the streets of Tanga, while characterising Tanga’s Indian politicians as ‘local Huey Longs’ who were as ‘hysterical and vitriolic as [their] prototype in India’.

Education became Mitchell’s policy obsession. Following his rapid rise up the Tanganyikan government ladder to chief secretary, Mitchell was appointed governor of Uganda in 1935, and there he would create his greatest institutional legacy, through his mastery of imperial process, in transforming a local technical school into Makerere College (later Makerere University), East Africa’s first higher education institution. He proved a tireless networker, establishing long and substantial correspondences with influential figures in colonial affairs at home. As a relatively junior officer in 1926, he impressed J. H. Oldham with his defence of British colonial rule without settlers in Tanganyika. Imperial policy should be guided first not by strategic concerns but rather to establish

social economic and political contacts which will help to knit together the wonderful medley of human beings who for the Empire, in order that the immense civilizing forces of the Anglo-Saxon race may be free to operate without international restrictions or racial jealousies.

He was at his most comfortable and far-ranging with Dame Margery Perham, whom he first met in 1929 in Tanganyika. They debated all matters of colonial policy, in particular indirect rule, as he pursued his twin convictions of the universal prospect for improvement and the current barbarism that reigned across Africa. ‘[Y]ou must have a people before you can have a popular government and that by no stretch of imagination can hordes of submissive savages be called a “people”.’ Mitchell kept Perham up to date on the latest colonial policy developments, including sending her classified documents; Perham reciprocated by sending Mitchell recent books on Africa and the latest Whitehall gossip, as well as championing his ideas and expertise throughout Britain. Mitchell served as a sort of Africa tutor for Perham, encouraging her to learn Swahili and recommending what and what not to read. He was preternaturally sensitive to the stakes of cultural expertise and colonial knowledge in discussions of colonial policy, and strove to influence its trends in Britain from East Africa. He explained to Perham, who received a fellowship to study Africa at Chatham House:

Good will not come of providing a few scholars with definite knowledge of the reasons why we are making a muck of Africa, but of giving to those who would otherwise make the muck the accurate knowledge—continuingly and all the time—whereby alone they can avoid doing so. But no one will listen to me so I may as well go on making a muck in my own way. You are not to go and study under Malinowski; he has a destructive Polish mind—very brilliant and wide; but he will leave you incapable of believing in anything.

He was above all a critic of social engineering, particularly from the metropole. On the question of education, he feared that structured syllabuses and curricula would produce another Liberia in East Africa—i.e. an entitled intelligentsia whose salaries and skills could not be supported by the wider economy. ‘It might be otherwise if we were to permit the commonage to be enclosed and an aristocracy to be created’, he elaborated,

followed by dynastic wars and all the other European means of knocking out the unfit: but we have no intention of permitting a repetition of the 12th to 19th centuries … [a]nd if we are going to cut all that out of the history of these people, we can hardly at the same time expect that they will enjoy (or suffer from, it is a question of point of view) its consequences.

The great problems for Mitchell were Oakeshottian ones of valuing abstractions over experience—that ‘too many people are studying the African and too few knowing him, so that contacts of the head are replacing those of the heart’. Colonial officials knew best because they knew their Africans, rather than relying upon the mediated studies of experts; the best that London could do was ‘to set and insist on standards, and then help their gradual local development’. Perham became perhaps his most important patron. ‘As Miss Perham’s influence in the Colonial Office grew’, Throup notes, ‘Mitchell’s career flourished.’ Her authority was at its zenith in 1944, when she overrode opposition from within the Colonial Office to secure Mitchell’s appointment to the Kenya governorship.

In a career marked by impressive accomplishments, the headiest occurred during the Second World War. Mitchell was assigned as chief political officer in the Middle East to General Wavell’s staff in Cairo, which was charged with removing Italy from the Horn of Africa. Mitchell played a crucial role as regional plenipotentiary in negotiating the return of Emperor Haile Selassie to the imperial throne. It was during this time that Mitchell first outlined his ideas, in a paper to Wavell on the disposal of Italian colonies, for Britain to expand and strengthen its sphere of influence among the Muslim populations who lived along the shores of ‘the Persian Gulf, the Gulf of Oman, the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea’. This would be done by deploying British experts, fluent in Arabic and centred in Aden, to construct cultural and educational institutions across the region to shift attention away from the more subversive learning centres of Egypt and the Levant and better engage these people who ‘have a great deal in common and form a coherent economic, social and religious group in the broadest sense, although they are not politically united’. In mid-1942 Mitchell was re-assigned to Fiji, as the territory’s governor and also the high commissioner for the Western Pacific, in part to smooth over political differences between British officials on Pacific islands, who testily defended their sovereignty, and American military leaders who had little patience for colonial protocol. He quickly reached an understanding with Admiral Nimitz, captured in the phrase ‘No politics west of Hawaii’, which in effect meant that Britain would serve across the region in an auxiliary role to American military forces, while in return the United States agreed to Britain’s continued colonial role in the eastern theatre. The Foreign Office later described Mitchell’s efforts at improving relations between Britain and the US in the Pacific as ‘remarkably successful’, while his initiative to mobilise Pacific Islander labour for the war effort earned him the strongest recommendation from Admiral Halsey. In Fiji, Mitchell found ‘race relations’ between Polynesians and Europeans to be ideal, and was particularly impressed with the Fijian political leader Lala Sukuna. He later told Negley Farson that only in the Pacific did he first realise that the ‘distressing color conflict which disfigures so much of our life in Africa is totally unnecessary’, asserting that ‘[t]here is no color bar and no color feeling in the Pacific’.

But war had revealed mixed imperial loyalties. He contrasted the eager volunteerism of the mainly Christian ‘native’ Fijians to help fight the Japanese, with the apathy and opposition of Fiji’s immigrant Indian community, which was tightly connected to the Indian National Congress and supportive of the ‘Quit India’ movement that broke out in 1942. Fijian Indians had not ‘shouldered the burdens of war’, Mitchell explained, ‘in a manner comparable to the other two communities’ of Europeans and ‘native’ Fijians. During the war, ‘native’ Fijian soldiers grew deeply resentful towards Indians, not only for their poor response to war demands, but also because of ‘shameless and unconcealed exploitation’ as shopkeepers. Muslim Indians, to Mitchell’s mind, were plainly more loyal to the empire than their Hindu counterparts, as the latter were led by disruptive religious figures such as Swami Rudrananda of Fiji’s Ramakrishna Mission, who instigated costly sugar-cane strikes and promoted ‘hatred and distrust of the European community’. Mitchell was glowingly sympathetic to Muslim Indian Fijian petitions to apply Muslim law to Fiji, stating that ‘the whole of my service has been in countries were Mohammedan law applies to Moslems in matters of personal status, inheritance, and so on, with results entirely satisfactory to all concerned’, but demurred in the face of resistance from the chief justice and members of his Executive Council. He optimistically explained, ‘all race differentiation ought to disappear in a place like Fiji in a generation or two’.

Mitchell had planned to retire to his wife’s orange plantation in Grahamstown, South Africa, after his Fijian governorship ended, but in mid-1943, unable to resist the lure of further career advancement, he began to lobby for the Kenya governorship. East Africa suffered from a severe lack of cultural knowledge; its government structures were hopelessly inefficient. The return of a quarter million African soldiers, he argued, would pose profound problems that only people with energy and expertise—namely himself—could confront. At last appointed to East Africa’s top job, Mitchell arrived in Kenya in September 1944 and initiated an overhaul of the government machinery, transforming its Executive Council into a membership system. He recalls drafting what would become Colonial 191, a paper calling for a central administration uniting East Africa with multi-racial parity in its legislative body, amid flying bombs and rockets in London in November 1944. Much influenced by his Fijian experience, Mitchell explained that racial parity was the best path for development for in which political capacity was ‘more or less in inverse ratio to numbers’. Through Colonial 191, Mitchell secured the intellectual foundations for the post-war policy of ‘multi-racialism’, which offered a functionalist gloss on colonial racial hierarchy—where each ‘human group’ [i.e. race] had ‘a share and a vital interest according to their several needs and capacities’. Multi-racialism provided Nairobi administrators with what Bruce Berman terms ‘a moral stick’ used to ‘beat down the demands of settlers, Asians, and Africans alike and assert the stance of the state as a disinterested arbiter’. Mitchell’s ‘multi-racialism’ was greeted with sharp hostility by Kenya’s white settlers, but the idea would evolve over the 1950s from being comparatively progressive into a defence of minority privilege. It was his elaboration of what ‘civilisation’ meant that distinguished Mitchell from his post-war colleagues. The new Kenya would be a multiracial nation that, through sustained and rapid economic growth, would produce the requisite number of ‘civilised’ Africans to participate responsibly in national government; without such growth, ‘civilisation’ had no basis for extension.

A turning point came in December 1945, when Philip Mitchell appears to have had a nervous breakdown. Under Colonial Office orders he retreated to South Africa to recuperate for three months. He minimised his health problems as being ‘a simple case of collapse’. It is in his diary entries from this period that one gains a picture of Mitchell’s geopolitical imagination and sympathies. He grew increasingly fond of Muslims and increasingly hostile towards Hindus and Jews, whom he viewed, respectively, as Britain’s natural allies and enemies. An insatiable reader, Mitchell read Freya Stark’s East is West during his recuperation. A ‘little rather egotistical account of Mrs Freya and her rich—and generally titled friends’, East is West was a war memoir from an Arabist, something Mitchell increasingly fancied himself as being. Stark had made her biggest mark by forming a parallel organisation to the Muslim Brotherhood known as the ‘Brotherhood of Freedom’, which shared the former’s structure of ideological cells but had also pledged to support secular democracy. Mitchell, who like Stark had worked in General Wavell’s Cairo office, scoffed at the English Patient-like patrician entitlement that Stark represented—’the elegant playing at democracy in Cairo by the rich and powerful carries little conviction to my skeptical mind’—though he shared Stark’s forthright contempt for Zionism. Indeed he would later blame the popularity of the nationalist Somali Youth Club (later Somali Youth League) as being ‘a sort of extension of Freya Stark’s disastrous “Brotherhood of Friends”‘ that privileged organisation over education. Upon his return to Kenya, Mitchell hosted the Aga Khan, endorsing his progressive views on Islam. As the question of Indian nationality took greater urgency in mid-1946, Mitchell agreed with the Aga Khan that his Ismaili followers could be counted upon to take out British nationality, but that Hindus would surely and problematically take out Indian citizenship. The imminent fall of British control in both India and Palestine became plain over 1946, and prodded Mitchell to weigh in on Britain’s regional strategic alternatives. He spoke directly with the naval commander in charge in Mombasa about naval strategy and the Indian Ocean, his confidence stemming from his wartime service with Wavell and Nimitz. ‘I expounded to him my theory of the importance of maintaining friendly relations with the Arabs of the Indian Ocean, Red Sea.’ Mitchell was drawing connections between British global strategy, Arab uplift and the defensce of East Africa from the enemies of civilisation, while carving out territory to prevent African political enfranchisement.

The ‘Arab’ problem of East Africa was not only a potential political one of widening disenchantment with British rule, as was plainly the case in the Middle East, but also an economic one. ‘Briefly’, Mitchell explained to the colonial secretary, ‘upon the abolition of slavery the economic foundations of Arab society were destroyed and they have never succeeded in laying any new ones.’ The subsequent deterioration of Arab land-holdings, commercial strength and education levels were all pressing problems that required stimulation from above. Mitchell’s favoured instrument was education, and he began his long push to create a large Arab secondary school for East Africa that would rely upon the expertise of teachers and administrators centred in Aden, which should also become the ‘a British Arab centre’ for the wider region. This was a post-war echo of inter-war plans to form a group of skilled ‘Arabists’, both British and Arab, who might unite Iraq, Palestine, Aden, Somaliland and coastal East Africa within a single, semi-indigenous public service. Mitchell’s initiative led to a series of reports and exercises among relevant Colonial Office and Foreign Office leaders, but also opened the door for Arabs in East Africa to press political and economic claims. During a tour of Kenya’s coastal towns in October 1946, Mitchell had already witnessed Arabs making speeches that

showed a pronounced inclination to stress the sovereignty over the Protectorate of the Sultan and their loyalty to him, and I feel sure that there is a growing resentment which may, if we are not careful, flare up in a form of Arab nationalism which we may find inconvenient.

The effective leader of this movement was Mbarak Ali Hinawy, liwali (governor) of the Kenya coastal strip. The liwali was a somewhat ill-defined position—the office formally served the sultan of Zanzibar, for historical reasons to do with the 1895 treaty whereby the sultan of Zanzibar ‘leased’ the Kenya coastal strip to Britain in return for an annual rent payment. In practice the liwali oversaw kadhi courts and adjudicated political disputes among high-ranking Muslims, but the vagueness of the position as both administrator and representative enabled Hinawy to press for Arab political demands, including increased Arab representation on the Legislative Council. Mitchell helped the liwali to secure a coveted place in a Cambridge summer school in 1947, where Hinawy wrote what would become the foundational paper regarding the sultan of Zanzibar’s latent sovereignty on the Kenyan coast. Hinawy ‘is a level-headed, loyal and out of the ordinary intelligent man’, Mitchell assured Cohen, ‘who can be trusted not to do anything embarrassing.’ Mitchell also shared the liwali‘s expansive vision: ‘one cannot of course simply refuse to talk to people merely because they stray a bit over the touchline of one’s own ground’, he explained, ‘for the Arab question, which is a very lively one on the coast of this Colony, is essentially an Indian Ocean question.’ Zanzibar, uniquely in East Africa, boasted a large corps of Arab district officials, and both Mitchell and the liwali were proposing, though not yet directly, to test the viability of expanding this model across the British Indian Ocean littoral. Mitchell went as far as to suggest that Zanzibar be considered for independence. ‘[I]t is just plain nonsense to say that to-day a genuine Arab Government could not be made to function in Zanzibar if we really meant it’, he explained, ‘[i]t might not be as efficient in the purely bureaucratic sense as the Colonial system which we have imposed on the place, but it would certainly satisfy the people of the Island.’ They worked as a team, to the point where the liwali complained that he could not visit the Colonial Office when Mitchell was not also there in London, protesting that ‘no one would pay any attention to Arab troubles’ otherwise. Hinawy would later parlay this trust into pressing Mitchell to unlock cabinets in Zanzibar and London and bring out a number of old treaties between the sultan of Zanzibar and Great Britain. The Colonial Office acquiesced to a surprising extent, though it did withhold sections of treaties that contained humiliating details about the sultan’s finances and oaths of allegiance to the British crown. Crucially, this unseemly cooperation between Mitchell and Hinawy drew the deep suspicion of the Zanzibar resident, Vincent Glenday, who well understood that airing the sultan’s exact position could only generate fresh political agitation ‘connected with the Throne here’.[53] Mitchell’s indulgent response to this request by the liwali, who was himself a discreet but firm advocate of autonomy for the Kenyan coastal strip, set into motion the chain of legal questions upon which the mwambao movement for coastal secession would be based.

When Arthur Creech Jones was appointed colonial secretary in October 1946, Mitchell pounced with a mixture of flattery and pre-emptive policy proposals that would rescue Kenya’s ‘race relations’ from sliding further into its already ‘rather stultifying and unpleasant state’, and furthermore would help ‘the African to avoid the mock nationalism to which he is not unnaturally prone at this stage, when he has had a little schooling’. Mitchell forwarded the text of a proposed dinner speech to the Caledonian Society for Creech Jones’ approval—it was an angry dismissal of calls for national freedom and emancipation of colonial peoples that he grounded firmly in the language of civilisation and barbarism that could have been written 50 years earlier:

In fact there was for centuries nothing except man and his cattle and the game, and man was waging what was at best a barely successful struggle for survival … As I see it, our task here is to civilize, and it appears to me—it is not a very profound thought—that we shall either succeed or fail. If we succeed, again it appears to me that the problem [of social inequalities] largely disappears; if we fail, the problem will equally disappear, in chaos and destruction and a reversion to barbarism.

Mitchell juxtaposed his unapologetic defence of the civilising mission with an unqualified hope that racial divisions would disappear with the spread of civilisation. Creech Jones, a trade unionist and former head of the Fabian Society’s Colonial Bureau, responded to Mitchell that he would ‘not endorse completely all your provocative views’, but agreed ‘that a corrective to their irresponsible nationalism should be applied from time to time’. Creech Jones was being diplomatic and over-indulgent, but also shifting decisively away from his wartime Fabian positions to become subservient to his official advisors within the Colonial Office. Mitchell took this indulgence as an opening to impress his wider wisdom on Colonial Office policy, agreeing to remove, ‘as far as possible’, those things ‘to which reasonable Africans might take exception’, but committed to leaving in ‘the part which makes it clear how much they owe to us, for it really is important to keep on telling them that.’

Local Government and the Foundations of Decolonization in British Africa

Mitchell was happiest when pursuing his own ambitious initiatives, and unhappiest when forced to pursue the ambitious initiatives of others. No post-war British colonial initiative was greater than that authored by Andrew Cohen and Sidney Caine in the famous circular on local government formally issued by Creech Jones in February 1947. The circular instructed all African colonial governments to hasten African participation in constitutional machinery by creating representative bodies at local levels filled with ‘those Africans who are best qualified to be real leaders of the people’. The new catchphrase was ‘efficient, democratic and local government’. The policy, which Cohen himself traced to Lord Hailey’s African Survey research, was designed to combine older ‘small and inefficient units’ into larger and more representative bodies, so that ‘educated people and the rising middle class, as well as the peasants, were to be given a more effective say in local government by the use of elections’. The circular’s significance lay also in its deliberate substitution of the term ‘local government’ for ‘native administration’; by formally abandoning the term ‘native’, the Colonial Office had at last formally conceded ‘to the feelings and susceptibilities of the Africans to whom the very word “Native” had become anathema’. It was a repudiation of indirect rule and the role of chiefs; Africa’s political future now belonged to the educated African who could attract votes. For the Colonial Office, ‘development’ became the economic and educational improvements that post-war empire could bring to Africa in order to prepare this new educated class for their eventual work as self-governing politicians. ‘Civilisation’ disappeared unremarked; its sweeping pretensions and plain hierarchies no longer endorsed as an administrative language upon which to build future policies.

Mitchell, who had considered Cohen an intelligent but ultimately impressionable man whom he could influence, met this disappoint with perhaps his best-known writing. He had recently finished Hugh Trevor-Roper’s The Last Days of Hitler (‘really v. interesting and convincing’), from which he took Trevor-Roper’s straightforward lesson that the war was not a failure of Western civilisation, but rather a failure to defend Western civilisation. Historians of decolonisation often quote Mitchell’s famous response to the local government circular as a barometer of colonial resistance to metropolitan reform. Yet it is also a philosophical plea to place civilisation rather than democracy at the centre of post-war colonial planning. Mitchell wrote:

[T]he only way in which the multitude of East African tribes can enjoy the benefits of civilized government, both central and local, now and for generations to come, before they have become themselves civilized, is under the forms of Colonial Government administered by a strong and enlightened Colonial power and directed, as British Colonial policy has been for centuries, to the achievement not of any particular political system but of a state of society in which the men and women of which it is composed—or at least a large part of them—have reached a state of spiritual, moral, social, cultural and economic development capable of supporting and operating such democratic forms of government as may then appear desirable to them.

In a richly revealing annex, Mitchell elaborated that:

To many foreigners and some people in the Colonies it appears that the British Empire to-day has reached the stage of Colonial history reached by the Spanish about a century or a little more ago, and that its liquidation, by a series of ‘liberations’, is about to begin, while local nationalisms are already being manufactured against the day when local demagogues may reasonably hope to achieve the liberty to exploit and oppress the mass of people which they have so successfully established in Central and most of South America. The ‘Nigerian Nation’ has already appeared in print, and ‘the African community’ is a commonplace with Kenya African politicians; neither has, of course, any existence in fact or in history … It is necessary to assume, also, that whatever may be justifiable elsewhere, there is no place in Africa for the synthetic nationalisms which are being manufactured to-day, largely under the influence of current Hindu politics. There is no ‘African nation’, no purely African history or culture and no African technical or economic development which is capable of standing alone, and never has been, but there is an essential strategic unity which it is necessary to preserve and consolidate and an interdependence within the broad territorial groupings upon which the progress and prosperity of all depend. We are not here to create a succession of Bulgarias—or for that matter Liberias—but to develop and civilize this continent as a part of what I may call Western European civilization and economics, and to see that the African tribes as they gradually become civilized have a satisfying part and share in that development to the full extent that their natural ability makes possible for them. What that extent is, no man living to-day can say; all that can be said is that although there are many reasons for optimistic estimates of their future capacity, the facts of their past achievement cannot be ignored.

History in Africa, Mitchell concluded, had begun only in 1890, and it was a matter of generations, not years, until majority rule could be realised. To Mitchell’s Oakeshottian mind, political accountability had to flow through proven institutions rather than be invented through abstract international norms.

But deep policy ambition and reasoned global strategy also lay behind Mitchell’s Victorian flourishes. Over the course of 1947, Mitchell’s thought had cohered around his rejection of the local government circular on grounds of civilisation, which inspired a bold counter-initiative to revive a key but failing civilisation, and to do so in ways that combined the moral sentiments of empire with a strategic initiative for Britain in the Indian Ocean. Mitchell returned to London for a colonial governors’ conference, whose major concerns centred on gaining the consensus of governors for Cohen’s ‘local government’ initiative. His impatience is captured in a diary entry:

We conference all day, largely on dry theoretical ideas of Colonial self government totally divorced from the realities of the present day. The C.O. has got itself into a sort of mystic enchantment sees visions of grateful, independent Utopias beaming at them from all round the world, as if there was—yet—any reason to support that any African can be cashier of a village council for 3 weeks without stealing the cash. It is uphill work but we bludgeoned them pretty severely … There is really no understanding of natives or contemporary realities in the C.O.—Creech blathered a good deal [sic].

The division between Colonial Office and Overseas Colonial Service had rarely been so stark. Other governors shared Mitchell’s scepticism towards the ‘dry theoretical ideas’ proposed by Caine and Cohen, which had the wider effect of slowing local government initiatives across British Africa.

Mitchell’s thoughts, however, were squarely centred upon reviving Islam and the region’s Arab communities. His immediate priority concerned the construction of a government Muslim secondary school in Mombasa (soon realised as the Mombasa Institute of Muslim Education or MIOME, today’s Mombasa Technical Institute) and a college in Zanzibar—education, as ever, was the fount of progress. He was also susceptible to flattery. Mitchell’s visits to the coast stood out as rare occasions when his Swahili-language speeches were met with genuine enthusiasm. Coastal culture redeemed the unrewarding, zero-sum game that was Nairobi politics. Mitchell found allies further afield—in particular the Colonial Office’s Arabist elites—who helped to work out the plan whereby Zanzibar would host the educational college and Mombasa the technical institute, both secured through the generous patronage of the Aga Khan. His determined commitment to see through these new ‘Arab’ schools began within the week of receiving the local government circular. The Aga Khan became a favoured guest, and Mitchell showed unguarded favouritism in private to Muslim Indian politicians in Kenya as well as dislike to their Hindu counterparts. Whether or not Mitchell had been politically ‘captured’ by white settlers, he did not share their goals, and grew tired of struggling over small-minded issues such as segregation. Such was his weariness with day-to-day administration that by 1948 he had become ‘too bored to read’ communications from provincial staff, believing they had nothing to tell him that he did not already know.

Far more enticing were debates over post-war imperial strategy, which for East Africa was initially defined by Foreign Minister Ernest Bevin’s grand scheme to create a Lagos-Mombasa line, upon which subsequent ‘northern’ (British-controlled) and ‘southern’ (South African-controlled) continental strategies would develop. This framing deeply concerned the Colonial Office as it would allow South Africa to dictate future strategy for East Africa. An important figure who countered this view was Bernard Rawdon Reilly, the former resident in Aden (1937-40) who became the Colonial Office’s éminence grise on Arab affairs after retirement. Reilly had advised on Britain’s military administration of the Italian colonies of Eritrea and Somalia, and encouraged Creech Jones to develop Aden ‘as a political and cultural centre for the Arab communities living on the littoral of the Indian Ocean including East Africa and the Persian Gulf’. Creech Jones was careful to stress that such initiatives did not involve ‘any political link’ between Aden, Arabia and East Africa. Reilly and Mitchell were both careful not to acknowledge Creech Jones’ warnings on this point.

Indian Ocean aesthetics played a considerable role in Mitchell’s vision of a civilisation-based imperial strategy that sought to counter Colonial Office initiatives for African local government as well as Foreign Office commitments to prioritise west over east of Suez. The comparative visual austerity and iconoclasm of Islam proved highly agreeable to Mitchell’s aesthetic as well as political tastes. A devout Anglican raised in Protestant Gibraltar surrounded by a sea of Catholicism, Mitchell found himself increasingly troubled by the ceremony of communion, to the point of having the provost of Nairobi’s Anglican church give him a somewhat unsatisfying theological lesson on the practice. He explained to the provost that ‘[p]erhaps because of my upbringing in Spain I have always felt a kind of undefined revulsion from the—to me—apparent idolatry and heathen hagiography which seemed to be in it [the communion]’. Mombasa offered an attractively austere yet sophisticated alternative to the modern bustle of Nairobi. Hinawy was a regular and generous host to Mitchell, who frequently visited Mombasa over 1947. That April, he raved about being the liwali‘s guest, eating feasts while seated in traditional Swahili style sitting on the floor; it was on this visit that Mitchell began writing what would become his memoir, African Afterthoughts. He also grew infatuated with Alan Villiers Sons of Sinbad, a classic maritime account of an Australian sailor’s experience on a dhow travelling from Arabia to East Africa and back, rich with detail on Indian Ocean commerce conducted by brave but unaccountable Arab sailors. Villiers’ travelogue presents an enticing world of unregulated dhow commerce, to which the ‘complex and unworkable system of high-bound regulations by which we seek to control our [European] world, and their world too, was a bad joke’. Protesting too loudly, Mitchell criticised the Aden governor, Champion, as ‘a starry eyed Arabist—another putative Lawrence … [v]ery pleasant but with vision entirely circumscribed by his obsessions with Arabs’. Negley Farson, who had accompanied Mitchell to Mombasa, explained that he ‘is a good friend of the Mohammedan and Arab, a candid admirer of many things in their way of life’. Farson, like Mitchell, was fully taken with Mombasa. ‘Hundreds of dhows lie off the buff walls of Fort Jesus’, he wrote, ‘[t]here is Romance in the very smells of Mombasa.’

Mombasa’s calmingly austere aesthetics conflicted sharply with the geopolitical dangers brought about by the violent struggles for independence in India and Israel, which seemed to portend a civilisational clash. Mitchell had been grimly resigned to Britain’s exit from India, but was viscerally outraged at Britain’s impending ouster from Palestine. Following the bombing in July 1946 of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, which housed the British Secretariat for Palestine, Mitchell called the act ‘a shocking outrage’ and predicted that there ‘will inevitably be a strong outburst of anti-Semitism in the UK and rightly [sic]’. Six months later, he declined proposals to settle displaced Jews in Kenya, claiming that such actions would come only at the expense of Africans and further create ‘a situation here which might have grave consequences’. He was eventually forced to accept Jewish prisoners—’another 25 terrorists’ as Mitchell described them—though only over his strongest protests. When faced with yet another proposal to send up to 20,000 displaced Jews to Kenya in May 1947, Mitchell responded by demanding a European garrison, and confided that ‘I fear I may have to resign from this’. Later that summer, visiting his Suffolk home during the month of India’s independence, Mitchell received a bomb in a package he had collected at the Colonial Office. Damaged in transit, the bomb had failed to ignite when opened, and a subsequent investigation found that the bomb, ostensibly sent from Nairobi, in fact matched similar devices sent from Italy by the Zionist Stern Gang that had targeted British ministers two months earlier. Meanwhile, India continued to export subversion to East Africa. A new wave of post-war African political activists such as James Beauttah had visited New Delhi in the spring of 1947, and returned convinced that ‘only violence would be the effective political accelerator in Kenya’. Mitchell’s intelligence reports kept him painfully up-to-date on the monetary and ideological support such ‘Hindu’ nationalists were lending Kenya Africans, including Daily Chronicle publisher V. D. Patel and the (Sikh) trade unionist Makhan Singh. Although publicly silent on Kenya’s communal competition between Hindus and Muslims, Mitchell privately blamed the former for irresponsible agitation. Hindu-owned Kenyan newspapers, most notably the Daily Chronicle, criticised the government and Mitchell himself for racism, to the point of sedition.

In early 1948, just as Kenya African Union demands for representation reached a critical juncture, Mitchell fully devoted himself to working through ideas to revive a politically friendly Islam, upon which British strategy and economic development might thrive along the Western Indian Ocean. He travelled again to Mombasa where he hosted a party for dhow captains who had recently arrived from Arabia, and grew increasingly close to Bernard Reilly, leaning on the latter’s expertise in formulating details for memoranda on both the Moslem Institute and the Indian Ocean Political Branch, while also reading through Britain’s treaties with Zanzibar with particular care. Mitchell first drafted a detailed memorandum on the Moslem Institute, which he often mistakenly and revealingly termed the ‘Arab Institute’. After reaching a ‘broad general agreement’ with Reilly the evening before, on 12 February Mitchell noted in his diary that he had ‘finished the Arab/Indian Ocean political dispatch at last’, after having given the document close attention over the past month. Touring the Western Province he attended a local mission church service which Jomo Kenyatta also happened to be attending; Mitchell anxiously waved him away as he walked up to greet the governor, ‘for I could not have him posing as “the Governor’s friend”‘. Two days later, on 24 February 1948, he sent off both the educational and political dispatches with great satisfaction.

Creating a Western Indian Ocean Political Directorate

Mitchell’s ten-page proposal to realign Britain’s administration of the Western Indian Ocean directly challenged what he viewed as the philosophical and strategic maladies of Britain’s waning empire. Addressed to Creech Jones but asking that it receive Cabinet-level attention (which it did), Mitchell offered a view of the Western Indian Ocean and Red Sea in which Commonwealth interest is best secured through ‘the closest ties of friendship and mutual interest with the inhabitants’, which for Mitchell principally meant Arab Muslims. Mitchell presented a Western Indian Ocean as an antique land traditionally bound by Islam and commerce, but whose unity had been shattered over the twentieth century—not by imperial intrusion but by imperial neglect. ‘But from Aden to Mombasa’, he explained,

and indeed to the Rovuma River, all down the East African coast, there is what appears to me to be a serious gap in the continuity of our contacts, the development of friendly relations and the expansion of trade, including the important dhow trade.

Mitchell then offers a rather long history of the region, much in the vein of Reginald Coupland, who valorised the actions of more ‘civilized’ and cosmopolitan actors in the region, in particular those from the Arabian peninsula. Activating these civilisational commonalities, Mitchell asserted, would be the key for Britain’s future strategic policy:

To-day we have a Moslem population of Arab stock or closely related to it, stretching along the shores of the Persian Gulf, the Gulf of Oman, the Indian Ocean, the Red Sea, and the East African Coast; who, in spite of local jealousies and even periodical enmities, have a great deal in common and in a broad sense form a reasonably coherent economic, social and religious group, and who maintain a continuous contact throughout the region by means of the dhow traffic, the extent and variety of which is, I think, not generally understood. The great majority of these people, although no doubt at present to some extent influenced by events in Palestine, are friendlily disposed towards Great Britain, and ready to maintain cordial relations with us; they have important commercial and maritime interests throughout the region, and oil discoveries are continuously adding to its significance to us

But we have lost our political bases in India and Pakistan, and whether or not those two countries remain dominions of the Commonwealth or become independent republics, or, as is perhaps more likely, disintegrate into a considerable number of succession states, the active and continuous political influence of the Foreign Department of the Government of India throughout the Persian Gulf area can no longer be maintained, at any rate from that base. An important consequence of this may be the disappearance of staff expert in Arabic and Persian, and in the complex business with which political officers have to deal … In the meantime, the growing trade of East Africa is attracting large numbers of dhows every monsoon season, and it appears to me to be highly probable that this traffic will increase. Modern trends in currency and import control and the direction of trade are likely to accentuate the general interdependence of the whole region in commerce and navigation. Recent oil developments have brought great wealth to parts of the region, much of it in dollars which could be attracted to pay for East African exports, especially timber, coffee, grain and sugar.

Mitchell found an answer to this in a rejuvenation of the Arab population, which, he argues, ‘has been slowly decaying since the Portuguese conquest’, the abolition of slavery and, more recently, chronic indebtedness. Then came the hard sell. ‘It is not enough to establish bases of various kinds in appropriate places’, Mitchell explained,

if at the same time we do not take steps to ensure the enduring friendship and close association with ourselves of the populations concerned, and do not study their interests and endeavour to provide for their several necessities as may be expedient for them and within our power: and this needs a decision on policy with Cabinet authority and properly planned measures to give effect to it.

Mitchell proposed the creation of a political directorate ‘expert in the problems, including the languages, involved’ in the region. Recognising that Aden, Somaliland and Zanzibar were collectively too insignificant upon which to base a skilled political cadre, he instead suggested the creation of a directorate-based cadre of officers, fluent in Arabic language and culture, to administer Western Indian Ocean colonies and act as crucial liaisons with the sovereign territories of the Gulf and Red Sea. Mitchell saw Britain’s imperial future in the Western Indian Ocean’s past.

If it is decided, as I hope it may be, that throughout this region (except within the Kenya Protectorate and the coastal belt of Tanganyika) Colonial administration ought to give way, as early as possible, to political control and advice directed to the revival of old political units such as Zanzibar and the development of new ones, such as may be possible in Somaliland, together with support and advice for such existing states as Muscat, Bahrein and Koweit [sic], then it can be seen that what will be required will be small numbers of high grade staff for the political work.

Aden, Mitchell suggested, would be the natural headquarters for such a directorate and political cadre. The ‘essential corollary’ to all this was the provision of education, which would be grounded in the creation of a grand, British-funded educational institution with instruction in Arabic. Mitchell hoped to parlay his greatest institutional legacy in East Africa, Makerere College, into a Western Indian Ocean equivalent. He maintained that ‘[e]ven the dhow captains are beginning to turn their minds much more readily to modern things’, and this unique maritime institution would provide the cultural-commercial ballast for the region. ‘All indications seem to me therefore to point to a substantial revival of the scope and opportunities of the dhow traffic’. The peacetime problem of regional strategy, Mitchell concluded, was ‘largely maritime and commercial’, and any technical strategy will ‘turn very largely on the establishment of a real community of interests and friendship throughout the whole region’.

Tepid support from within the Colonial Office quickly weakened Mitchell’s proposal. Vincent Glenday, the British resident in Zanzibar and a personal foe of Mitchell since the 1930s, had already made it clear that he wished neither for Zanzibari Arabs to work in Arabia nor to import Arab officers from Arabia—the former would facilitate exposure to radical ideas; the latter would come under intense local criticism. Far more sympathetic was Reilly, who had visited Kenya to report on the prospects for Moslem education in early 1948, and who had undoubtedly influenced Mitchell in conversations between the two Arabophiles. In a report entitled ‘Arab Problems in Kenya and Zanzibar’, Reilly found a depressing lack of vigour among Kenya’s coastal Arabs: knowledge of Arabic had been lost, and there was unanimous feeling that its teaching needed to be revived, an issue that ‘appears to be fundamental to their racial and cultural survival in East Africa’. Arabs continued to lose land, by sale or mortgage default, to Indians. Reilly’s view differed little from that of officials writing shortly after the abolition of slavery on the Kenyan coast in 1907—indolent slave-owners proving unable to transform themselves into capitalist landowners. He was buoyed, however, by the vigour and success of recent Arab immigrants, who not only spoke fluent Arabic but had succeeded in trade where older coastal Arabs had failed. Yet even Reilly concluded by noting that Arabic is not widely enough spoken in Somaliland to justify such a plan, and furthermore that the Trucial states fall within the remit of the Foreign Office who are unlikely to employ Colonial Office staff. If Zanzibar did not feel a need for Arabic-speaking officers as visualised by Mitchell, then only Aden and perhaps coastal Kenya would participate, which would be ‘too narrow a basis on which to build a special cadre’.

The lone figure to offer unreserved and vocal support for the general idea—as he was not privy to the actual proposal—was the liwali Hinawy, to the chagrin of both Mitchell and the Colonial Office. Hinawy argued that the ‘natural strategic centre for the expansion of British activities is now shifted from the Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean’, and that, although Egypt and Mesopotamia were separating from Britain, the

Arabian Peninsula and the Protectorate in the Persian Gulf, East Africa and the island groups of the Indian Ocean are not likely to show signs of disaffection and thus all trends point to centrally situated Zanzibar as the future focus of Anglo-Arab friendly relations.

Hinawy stressed that this could be carried out by Arabs—unlike Mitchell he omitted British Arabists—who would bring the language of the Qur’an to the region and generally ‘form a useful counterweight to the more strident, if I may be forgiven, more materialist interest emanating from nationalist Asia and financially powerful America’. By allowing Arabs themselves to administer the Western Indian Ocean littoral, the Colonial Office would create ‘a sense of service, canalise political ambitions, establish a vital contact between the Imperial Government and the people and remove that dead weight of suspicion and false sense of injustice and oppression’. Such arguments resonated among Arabs in coastal Kenya, but were later narrowed to matters of territorial representation by the Colonial Office.

Mitchell’s gambit had been the most prominent attempt to shift post-war British strategy from west to east of Suez, but Cold War and other internationalist concerns proved more compelling and ultimately doomed the proposal’s strategic dimensions. Despite Mitchell’s warnings of potential Somali jihad, Britain accepted the return of Italian Somalia to Italy on a trusteeship basis in April 1948 as a way to bolster Italian anti-communist political parties and secure ‘the greatest measure of support internationally‘. The clearest rejection came in June 1948, over a year before formal discussions were held to discuss Mitchell’s plan, when the Cabinet’s Defence Committee formally endorsed a regional African strategy that shifted focus from Suez to nearby Cyrenaica, thus remaining centred in the Mediterranean rather than relocating resources and strategy southwards toward the Red Sea, Indian Ocean, Kenya and South Africa. Bitterly dejected, Mitchell fumed that ‘I suppose that the nation that built Singapore could hardly be expected to refrain from building another one in Cyrenaica’.

A formal Western Indian Ocean conference was finally held in Aden in October 1949 to address Mitchell’s memorandum. The conference chair was Reginald Champion, governor of Aden whom Mitchell had earlier labelled ‘a starry eyed Arabist’. The meeting also included Foreign Office representatives from Cairo, Jeddah and the Gulf, as well as Colonial Office representatives from Zanzibar, Somaliland, Kenya and Tanganyika. Mitchell himself, once more in poor health and still smarting from earlier defeat, opted not to attend, though he did awkwardly lobby participants (Reece and Turnbull) by stressing the need for a regional approach to the problems of administering Somaliland. The first item was the most important—Mitchell’s proposal to create a Central Directorate for the Western Indian Ocean specifically and, more generally, ‘whether it was in the British interest to foster Arabism, a weak abstraction of Islam, a diminishing force’ in order to compensate for flagging British influence in the Middle East. Glenday noted that Mitchell had first mooted a version of this plan in 1941 when he was a chief political officer in Wavell’s staff in Cairo. With considerable prescience, the Foreign Office objected that by ‘nursing Arabism, particularly in Kenya, we might increase separatist tendencies’, even opening the way for the Arab League into East Africa. Though everyone agreed that fostering friendly relations with Arab nations should be a priority, the chairman summarised the committee opinion that a central directorate for the Western Indian Ocean ‘was unjustified and unnecessary, and that continuity of policy should be ensured by inter-departmental means’. Mitchell’s other proposal to create a specialist cadre of Arabist officers was summarily dismissed by the Foreign Office, who were not prepared to consider it. The dhow trade, the committee countered, ‘is far smaller than is generally supposed’. Furthermore, there was simply too little homogeneity of interest or culture across the Western Indian Ocean. The resuscitation of Arab culture was deemed to be of parochial interest. The chairman concluded that ‘I am sensible that the conclusions of the Conference will prove disappointing to Sir Philip Mitchell’, but added that it was important to stress the unanimity with which these decisions had been reached.


Mitchell could not help but continue to intervene in matters of foreign policy, primarily to thwart the inexorable retreat of Britain’s sovereignty over its African colonies. After disingenuously disclaiming that he had ‘no competence in international affairs’, Mitchell directly challenged the willingness of Britain’s United Nations embassy to entertain discussion and criticism of federating its three East African territories (as he first proposed in 1944 in his Colonial 191) by hostile critics, whom he feared might seize upon the international scrutiny afforded by the United Nations’ mandate over Tanganyika and extend it to Kenya and Uganda. The Colonial Office responded by revealing their larger strategy, which was to allow to the UN greater transparency over East Africa in order to secure the support of more ‘liberal’ allies like the United States and New Zealand, who might otherwise leave Britain to defend its imperial policies alone. The length, energy and detail of this Whitehall defence over a matter in which, strictly speaking, a governor of Kenya had no standing, shows Mitchell’s continued prestige, but also the wider systematic influence that the post-war international system was beginning to impress upon late colonial rule. Mitchell grew to see Arab politics in Kenya as increasingly resembling those of white settlers—i.e. the politics of petty and short-sighted minority groups struggling to retain privileges vis-à-vis an increasingly vocal African majority. By 1951 he felt moved to clarify the political discussion, then dominated by coastal Arabs, of whether or not the Kenya coast retained separate sovereignty from the Colony of Kenya on the basis of a 1895 treaty between Britain and Zanzibar. Mitchell concluded that the lease was one without end, that the sultan of Zanzibar ‘has no “domains” on the Kenya Coast’, and that the sultan’s flag was flown on the coast only ‘as a matter of courtesy’. His own ambitions thwarted, Mitchell no longer succoured coastal sovereigntists, whose own campaign for autonomy was just beginning. Perhaps it was his consistent intrusion into affairs above his rank and remit that denied Mitchell the peerage for which the Colonial Office had so vigorously lobbied—both Attlee and Churchill had demurred, and then the matter was dropped, because of the unseemliness of Queen Elizabeth bestowing a peerage upon the governor of the colony where she had become queen. Mitchell’s retirement in Kenya was marked by his continued interest and participation in MIOME and outspoken bitterness toward African politicians, Jomo Kenyatta in particular. He eventually returned to Gibraltar, where he died in 1964, at another austere port city that symbolised the stubbornness of British sovereignty.

The Western Indian Ocean memorandum had gone as far as it did not because of its civilisationist retort to Britain’s developmentalist course of decolonisation. Rather, it offered a semi-compelling case of regional interests and strategy from the most respected officer of the Overseas Colonial Service for a region comparatively neglected by planners. Hopes to anchor maritime strategy along the East African coast—be it in Mombasa or Zanzibar—remained on the minds of naval strategists, particularly through the 1950s as a variety of civil and military capital investment flowed into Mombasa. The ballast of oceanic strategy, however, would instead be island-based, particularly as Britain had much to trade and share with the United States—Perim, Masirah and Diego Garcia would all host crucial listening, broadcasting and military stationing posts by the 1960s. Yet, excepting a few Arabs and Arabists, few policy-makers found Mitchell’s specifically cultural arguments compelling in the late 1940s. Indeed, after Nasser took power and certainly by the time of the Suez crisis, such strategic arguments would have appeared hopelessly naïve. In retrospect, African decolonisation along the lines of several nation-states would also seem inevitable, though, as Frederick Cooper reminds us, this was anything but the case in the late 1940s. Coeval with the rise of nation-state sovereignty out of ex-colonial territories was the growth of politicising cultural blocks alternately feared and celebrated by Mitchell, and indeed others who shared his intellectual genealogy such as Samuel Huntington.

The alluring idea that the Western Indian Ocean littoral offers a culturally coherent arena of ‘friendship and mutual interests’ upon which to base regional strategy remains a powerful one with a long pedigree. Many elements of Philip Mitchell’s imperial vision for the Western Indian Ocean have found new life and strange echoes in both academic and popular constructions of the Indian Ocean, in which Islam and maritime commerce feature as the region’s indispensable building blocks. The unique aesthetics of Swahili port cities continue to induce visions of geostrategic imagination. Similarly intoxicated by Villiers, the journalist Robert Kaplan has recently envisioned the Indian Ocean as an arena for ‘this emerging global civilisation of Africans and Asians’, where—during a visit to Zanzibar—his eyes ‘met the horizon with freighters, outriggers, dugouts, and plank-built dhows all plopped in the milk-turquoise water of the Indian Ocean, so unreal a shade that it conjured up a water color more than it did the sea itself’. Combining personal fondness for suggestive coastal aesthetics with loose notions about alternative paths of civilisational development, both Kaplan and Mitchell six decades earlier were elaborating geostrategic speculations that Kären Wigen has termed ‘basin thinking’, by which imperial powers had long projected a culturally integrated rim upon oceanic space. Mitchell drew deeply upon such thinking at a time when it was rapidly being discarded in favour of nation-state geostrategies following the Second World War. Yet he also went beyond this—through his numerous conversations with British Arabists and local political figures like the liwali Hinawy, Mitchell was engaging in what Jeremy Prestholdt has recently termed ‘basin consciousness’, a frame of perception through which both outsiders and insiders combine policy-oriented thought with popular ideas of regional coherence. For Mitchell, such basin consciousness would ostensibly create a loyalist Arab-Muslim bulwark through which British imperial institutions might thrive and transform in their defence of civilisation. For Hinway, such basin consciousness in sharp contrast would provide fuel for future Arab-Muslim separatist activity, justifying coastal Kenya’s autonomy on the basis of its civilisational differences from its African ‘mainland’. In both cases, the idea of organising post-war polities around broader regional cultural coherences left a lasting imaginative legacy upon which future generations, discontent with the outcomes of decolonisation, would draw.