The Deluge: A Personal View of the End of Empire in the Middle East, by Sir Kennedy Trevaskis, IB Tauris, 352 pp, £27.50, ISBN: 978-1784538279
The writing of this review coincided with the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the weeks of protest proclaiming that Black Lives Matter. Around the world, city centres were brought alive by voices condemning the legacy of colonial history and the embedded inequalities in how modern society works. Statues were toppled, defaced, smeared with paint and smashed. To someone like myself who was raised and educated within a system of white male privilege, such moments inevitably force a reflective reassessment. My alma mater, Oriel College, benefited massively from the Rhodes endowment. As an Oxford undergraduate studying Modern History back in the 1980s, I remember hearing stories of how Rhodes paid his fees with handfuls of diamonds. After leaving Oxford, I returned a decade or so later to work over two summers at Rhodes House on the papers of the Antislavery and Aborigines’ Protection Society. It was impossible to ignore the irony that the archive of a society that triggered the interrogation of the legitimacy of empire and documented some its worst atrocities should end up in a building endowed and named after Britain’s arch-imperialist. We should not doubt that Rhodes’s statue was placed high up on the front of Oriel College facing St Mary’s Church to keep it out of harm’s way.
In the days after the Floyd death, I followed the news of the attacks on Leopold II’s statues in Ghent, Antwerp and Brussels because I was conscious of how Leopold II’s reputation had been so carefully managed and sanitised. The attacks on Leopold’s memorialising took me back to a visit in the winter of 2004 to Tervuren, the great palace he built on the outskirts of Brussels, which is now the Africa Museum. One of my companions during that journey – a senior counsel at the Irish Bar – commented after we’d left the museum that the entire building should be “bulldozed”: not the kind of language you expect from a barrister. Perhaps the most striking thing about the museum was the vast gilded statue of Leopold towering over those who entered the great marble foyer. More shocking was the fact that in the extravagant gardens surrounding the palace a recent statue had been unveiled to Leopold II in 1998 to commemorate the foundations of Tervuren a century earlier.
This memoir by Sir Kennedy Trevaskis is like a literary monument to empire. Trevaskis belonged to a last generation of British imperial warriors. A man of his time who helped to carry the weight of the empire on his shoulders, his name has now faded into relative obscurity. To men like Trevaskis, the British empire was heaven-born – a religion – it was at the centre of everything they did and believed. He was part of a caste of soldiers and administrators (inevitably men) – some with keen intellects and some with eccentric habits – who devoted their lives to defending the empire. The postwar decline of that empire was considered by men of this ilk as a great betrayal and something they did their uppermost to prevent.
The book opens in India with the news of the Amritsar massacre, which occurred when Trevaskis was five years old. He was raised on the stories of Rudyard Kipling (incidentally a very close friend of Cecil Rhodes). His father was called “The Government” and served as a colonial civil servant in India, where he developed a deep dislike of Gandhi. Trevaskis was instilled with all the entitlement and privilege of the imperial class. After public schooling and university, he drifted off to find employment in distant outposts. On the outbreak of war in 1939, he found himself in Northern Rhodesia, what would later become Zambia. He learned Italian while a prisoner of war and then after the defeat of Italy’s colonial army in Eritrea, he became part of the British Military Administration. Half of the book is devoted to describing his time as a district officer in remote and inhospitable regions of the Horn of Africa. Years in Eritrea led to his lifelong support for the Eritrean independence struggle against Ethiopian irredentist claims to the country. This led to a protracted and vicious war from 1961 to 1991 and, although Trevaskis left Eritrea in the early fifties, his involvement in the Eritrean cause remained an issue close to his heart.
It is not until well over half-way through this book that the title – ‘The Deluge’ – becomes clear. It appears in the following context:
We were fighting Communists in Malaya and the Mau Mau rebels in Kenya; in Egypt and the Sudan we were under notice to quit; in Cyprus, a revolutionary liberation movement was already taking ominous shape; the French, too, were being thrown out of Indo-China and harassed by national revolts in North Africa. Almost overnight ‘Colonialism’ had become the dirtiest of dirty words and colonial environments everywhere time bombs ticking their way to disaster. The writing on the wall spelt havoc; the warning of a coming Deluge could not have been clearer.
Despite realising that Britain’s colonial days were numbered, Trevaskis remained unfaltering in his belief that the British Empire was the one true faith and that anyone who opposed it was an enemy. But he is now aware that its collapse is imminent.
The second half of the book is devoted to Aden and South Arabia. It was there that Trevaskis emerged as a key imperial player and rose to the top of Britain’s colonial administrative ladder. Aden was the keystone to Britain’s influence in the Gulf and a critical supply station on the shipping routes running between Britain and India via the Suez Canal. It was vital to the control of oil interests in Kuwait. In brief, readable chapters, he describes his time in long dialogues with sultans and the complexity of a world of feudal fiefdoms held together with plenty of backhanders and broken promises. It is very hard to square this very orientalising view of that region with the desperate contemporary accounts of the humanitarian crisis and the theatre of violence and famine that Yemen has become. Trevaskis’s expertise and influence in the region took him to the very top. He ended up as high commissioner of South Arabia, a role he held from 1963-1965. But the deluge was fast approaching. Regional stability was threatened by the rise of Arab nationalism and anti-British republican forces. In 1963 there was an attempt on Trevaskis’s life. A grenade was thrown at him, but another official took the blast. The moment could be straight from the pages of Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth. In that moment of violent encounter, between the unnamed subaltern and the colonial official, all those who are missing from the Trevaskis narrative – the “unpeople” and the people without history – become momentarily visible.
In 1964, when Labour got into power, Trevaskis was dismissed from his post by the new colonial secretary, Anthony Greenwood. At the very end of the book, he describes in bitter tones Greenwood as “a Hampstead Socialist, anti-nuclear pacifist, opponent of blood sports, supporter of colonial freedom and a participant in a dozen or so other fashionable radical causes”. Before his fiftieth birthday, the official life of Sir Kennedy Trevaskis KCMG, OBE was effectively ended. But, of course, his story does not end there, even if his memoir does.
The Deluge is introduced by Wm Roger Louis, arguably the most accomplished narrator of Britain’s twentieth century imperial retreat. Editor-in-chief of the Oxford History of the British Empire, Louis has published prolifically on the period between the founding of the Congo Free State through to America’s war in Vietnam. Louis clearly recognises Trevaskis as a critical player in the twilight world of British imperial influence. His summary of this memoir is supplemented by a brief foreword by Julian Amery, which was written back in the 1990s. Amery’s brother, John, was the Nazi sympathiser and British Fascist who was executed in 1945 for treason. Julian Amery was the son-in-law of Harold Macmillan and became a key figure in late twentieth century Conservative circles. He was a prominent member of the Monday Club, a refuge for the hard right of the British Conservative and Unionist Parties who considered Macmillan’s “Winds of Change” speech to be too liberal. They were incorrigible believers in the supremacy of the empire and their imperial fervour might be measured by their visceral hatred of communism and republicanism.
I asked to review this book in the hope that it would reveal something about Trevaskis’s life after his official career ended. But there is nothing whatsoever to be discovered here in that regard. After retiring from official duties and not yet fifty, Trevaskis took up consultancy work advising the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front and liaising with different regimes in the Middle East; but this is history that belongs to the realm of “known unknowns”. Those countries that had played such a part in his official life – Eritrea, Rhodesia/Zimbabwe and South Arabia – would become and remain three of the most politically unstable regions of the world.
This memoir is monumental, not in the Nietzschean sense of the monumental narrative that can inspire action, but in the sense of a history that will stand as a monument to a vanished world. For the few people interested in the history of Eritrea or Yemen, the matter-of-fact and sometimes droll descriptions will serve as a source for comprehending the tragic, modern emergence of countries that rarely make it to the news unless disaster strikes. Trevaskis reflects the mentalité of an imperial soldier-administrator struggling to stem the downfall of a world that has made him great. Others who approach this book from a postcolonial perspective will find the underlying outlook as unsettling as the statues of Leopold II or the sighting of a bronze Spanish conquistador in the midst of an Extremeduran pueblo. Most troubling and shocking of all: it will leave readers with a better comprehension of a world where black lives don’t matter.
Angus Mitchell is the author of Roger Casement in the 16 Lives series. His latest book is an edition of Casement’s German Diary: One Bold Deed of Open Treason: The Berlin Diary of Roger Casement 1914-1916, published by Merrion Press.