Paddy Docherty is a historian of empire, with a particular interest in the British Empire, anticolonial resistance, and the cultural impact of imperialism. He was educated at Oxford University and is the author of The Khyber Pass: a History of Empire and Invasion (Faber & Faber, 2007).

Paddy is represented by Charles Walker at United Agents.

Despatches from the Archives: Sir Claude MacDonald in West Africa

Despatches from the Archives: Sir Claude MacDonald in West Africa

Despatches from the Archives is an occasional series in which I bring you interesting snippets of what I find during my research in the archives. The main focus of my work is the British Empire and its methods of rule, anticolonial resistance, and the cultural impacts of empire.


“With reference to my approaching departure for the Oil Rivers Protectorate I have the honour to request that the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty be good enough to cause one or if possible two Gunboats to meet me at Bonny on or about the 17th of June.”

Major Sir Claude MacDonald to Foreign Office, May 12th, 1893


Sir Claude MacDonald as British Minister in China

Sir Claude MacDonald as British Minister in China

As a historian, it’s always a pleasure to be back in the archives, especially when researching for a new book. (My own forthcoming volume is yet to be announced but I can reveal that it’s about an aspect of the British Empire in West Africa during the 1890s…). That’s not to say that archive work is a barrel of laughs… Far from it: trawling through voluminous public records can be drudgery of the most exhausting kind. It is, however, all worth it when one has the joy of chancing upon a crucially illuminating fact or a documentary gem, a diamond of insight or wit among the raw rock and soil of daily bureaucratic spadework that the files typically contain. A frequent source of such gems is Sir Claude MacDonald (pictured), and I’m always glad when I find one of his letters or despatches in the great binders of unsorted Foreign Office correspondence through which I must labour.

Born to serve the Empire

Sir Claude was most famous for his service in the Far East, where he was British Minister in China and Korea, then became the first British Ambassador to Japan. He was the chap who, in 1898, agreed with China on the 99-year lease for the New Territories in Hong Kong (thus occasioning the 1997 handover of the entire colony), and also commanded the defence of the foreign legations in Peking during the Boxer Rebellion of 1900. Before all that, however, he began his career as a soldier in Africa, which is what brings him into my own purview.

Born in India into a military family, MacDonald was educated in England and, after Sandhurst, was commissioned into the 74th (Highland) Regiment of Foot in 1872. He took part in the British invasion of Egypt in 1882, and later spent several years there as military attaché to Sir Evelyn Baring (who wags named “Over-Baring” for his notorious arrogance). After service in Sudan and Zanzibar, he was posted in 1889 to the nascent Oil Rivers Protectorate in West Africa – the territory that would eventually become the Nigeria that we know today. When the Protectorate was formalised in 1891, MacDonald was appointed to its most senior post of Commissioner and Consul General; during 1893, the territory was renamed as the Niger Coast Protectorate. 

Politeness & the imperial system of violence

As was often the case with diplomatic correspondence of the era, Sir Claude’s letters are generally beautifully written, and convey a charming impression of a frightfully polite official world; the passage with which I have headed this piece (written while Sir Claude was in London on a period of leave) amuses me as surely the most courteous request ever made for the assistance of the machinery of death… Such relatively minor asides and passing mentions can reveal much about the practices of empire; MacDonald spoke with personal experience of the value of the threat of violence in compelling local populations to do British bidding. In an earlier despatch, he had touched on the usefulness of a gunboat or two:

“Abiakari for some years after the visit of HMS Alecto kept quiet, the practise made by this vessel’s guns at a target having had a very beneficial effect on him.”

Sir Claude MacDonald to Foreign Office, January 12th, 1893

 In this way, these sources can be most instructive about the methods of rule under a colonial regime. Notably, this shows us very clearly that violence is not an act but a system. The ability that Sir Claude had for summoning up the means of wholesale destruction was the crucial factor in exercising rule, even if such destruction was never in fact unleashed.

Personal character: Sir Claude as principled free-trader

It is widely agreed among historians that Sir Claude could be aggressive in his style of administration – indeed, as a soldier, some professional diplomats regarded him with horror – but he can also surprise us on occasion with a high-minded defence of principle. At around this time, he reported to the Foreign Office that a British trading company – active in the palm oil trade of the Protectorate – had requested his assistance in overcoming the competition from the ‘middlemen’ local traders. MacDonald’s response shows him to be a model free-trader, and apparently sincere in his attitude towards his responsibility for all imperial subjects:

“I have repeatedly informed the trading interests in the Protectorate that though I was quite prepared to support and protect trade in such districts as are under the direct jurisdiction of the Administration… I could not interfere in private trade questions. I have also informed the middlemen Chiefs, ninety five per cent of whom are law abiding subjects (protected) of Her Majesty the Queen, that the Government of the Oil Rivers intended establishing in the interior with a view to putting down cannibalism, human sacrifice, slave raiding, and similar barbarous practices, and encouraging trade and commerce, but that the said Government had no intention of interfering with their trade as carriers.”

Sir Claude MacDonald to Foreign Office, February 8th, 1893

Sir Claude in Vanity Fair, 1901

Sir Claude in Vanity Fair, 1901

The Nature of Empire

However, we must not let such occasional demonstrations of principle blind us to the real nature of what is happening here: the overarching goal is the protection of trade for ultimate British benefit, whether through direct profit for British companies or via the taxation of local traders. We can see this very clearly in despatches from Sir Claude two months after his polite request for lethal assistance, when he is back in the Protectorate, armed with the requested gunboats. Reporting to the Foreign Office that the chief and people of a settlement called Fishtown (now in Bayelsa State in Nigeria) had been committing acts of violence, he gives an account of the steps that he had taken to put down the trouble:

“On this occasion I sent messengers to them through the King of Nimbe who is the head chief of this District, and in receipt of a subsidy from Protectorate funds. The answers I got through this chief were to the effect that they did not care for my authority, and if I did not attack them that day, they would come and burn the European trading establishments and Telegraph station that same evening… 

A party of seamen and marines were landed that evening and for the four following evenings during this time I opened direct negotiations with the Fishtown chiefs: they refused to come and see me, alleging as their excuse that they were afraid of the gunboats: but they would be pleased to see me at their town. I accordingly accompanied by the Vice-Consul of the District, Captain D C Macdonald proceeded in a steam launch to Fishtown.

At a meeting of the King and Chiefs which lasted an hour, they accused the King and Chiefs of Nimbe of bringing false reports to me, which I consider very probable, everything was eventually satisfactorily arranged; and I leave with the two Gunboats this afternoon... The Head-quarters and right wing of the Protectorate troops with three English Officers are now here in case of any outbreak of hostilities between the Fishtown people and the chiefs of Nimbe.

I have informed both factions that any breach of the peace will be severely punished.”

Sir Claude MacDonald to Foreign Office, July 15th, 1893

A key point to note in this text is that the King of Nimbe (actually a relatively minor chief, despite his title) is paid by the British. 

‘Divide & Rule’ in action

Although MacDonald evidently places little trust in the king as an ally, this incident beautifully illustrates the strategy of ‘divide & rule’ in action. The British have separated the local people – or enhanced existing divisions – by rewarding one group financially; whether they actually prove reliable agents is in this case only a minor matter. More importantly, by inserting itself as the arbiter between two local populations in dispute, Britain rules over both. Keeping the peace thus becomes precisely the same thing as maintaining British supremacy in the area.

Sir Claude MacDonald in many ways exemplifies the soldier-administrator of the British Empire in its Victorian apogee; his letters and despatches are full of charm and wit, and also reveal a great deal about the methods of colonial rule and the effectiveness of the imperial complex of violence.

Sources: all the documents quoted in this post are from the Foreign Office Records held in the National Archives in Kew, London: FO 2/51, Niger Coast Protectorate Correspondence, 1893

Empire Film: 'Ice Cold in Alex' and the end of British supremacy

Empire Film: 'Ice Cold in Alex' and the end of British supremacy