Decolonisation and the Guardian’s West African correspondents, c. 1953-1971

Guest post by postgraduate students, Fatima Shaban and Owen Mills, whose project centres on the Patrick J Monkhouse correspondence in the Manchester Guardian Archive.

Owen Mills

Owen in front of boxes of archive material

My name is Owen and I’m a student at the University of Manchester currently completing my MA in Art Gallery and Museum Studies. Part of the course involves a 20-day placement, and Fatima and I were lucky enough to be chosen for the placement at the UoM Special Collections. I feel really grateful to get the opportunity to work at the John Rylands Library, it is such a valuable cultural institution in the city. I really feel a part of the history and knowledge it houses as I walk underneath its vaulted ceilings.  

Our task for the placement is to examine the Guardian archives that focus on the decolonisation period in Africa. The first file I listed was correspondence between Patrick J Monkhouse and the information attachés of colonial administrations across Britain’s African territories in 1959, for the purpose of an article he was writing on the state of African Education. PJ Monkhouse, then deputy-editor, completed two spells at the Manchester Guardian throughout his life, between 1926-1936 and then 1946-1969. In this later stint he would make reporting on Africa one of the Guardian’s specialties. This effort to incorporate African correspondence was reflected by Alastair Heatherington, then editor, at Monkhouse’s retirement ceremony who complimented the outstanding work he did reporting on the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya. AP Wadsworth would patronisingly refer to the African populations that Monkhouse committedly reported on as ‘Paddy’s Blacks.’ This offers a window into understanding how the editor of a national newspaper viewed colonised peoples.   

Monkhouse’s tone in this file is quite typical of the left-wing liberal journalism of the post-war era. While he was a supporter of decolonisation and African independence, his views are very much framed within the paternalism of the British state. He believed the Britain had a moral duty educating native Africans up to the point where they could be trusted to rule themselves. He sees the empire as having a guardianship role over the people it still controlled. The file itself can also give an insight in the day-to-day operations of both the Guardian and colonial administrations.  

Across colonial offices, both in London and the colonies, there were Africans and Europeans working within the higher levels of administration, a reflection of the late colonial period as African countries began to make stronger cases for independence. Harold Macmillan delivered his ‘Winds of Change Speech’ less than six months after Monkhouse’s article on African education, which recognised African nationalism as a political reality and thus considered independence an inevitability.   

Fatima Shaban

Fatima operating the roller shelves in the archive.

Hello, I’m Fatima and I’m also a University of Manchester Student undertaking my MA in Art Gallery and Museum Studies. This placement was my first choice for several reasons. Of course, the John Rylands Research Institute and Library is an incredible institution, housing a wealth of special collections that have been made accessible to the public. Not to mention, the beautiful Neo-gothic architecture forming the library’s entrance and the Historic Reading Room. This placement seemed to be a great opportunity to learn about the layout and methods of containing and categorising such an incredible number of books, manuscripts, objects, and pieces of art. Also, as the role involves the digital cataloguing of various files, I knew that it would also be a great chance to gain some hands-on experience in appropriately handling valuable material and in learning to organise them clearly and concisely in a digital format.

We are working on the Guardian Archive during our placement, specifically the Guardian’s West African correspondence during the period of decolonisation (c. 1953-1971). It is very exciting to be able to examine these incredible files that document such a politically significant time across West Africa. I am currently in the middle of cataloguing files recording communications between the Manchester Guardian and its Nigerian and Ghanian correspondents. The correspondence on the Manchester Guardian’s side was primarily led by Patrick J Monkhouse, according to these files, and it has been fascinating to learn more about his character by examining and following his letters to various individuals in Nigeria and Ghana. The task of categorising these files in box lists is a great opportunity to use and further develop skills in prioritising information, assessing nuances of voice and tone, conducting focused research, and contextualising surface-level information in order to generate a more thorough reading.

Map of the Gold Coast in West Africa, focusing on train lines.
F&CO West Africa 10940.69. Map of the Gold Coast of Africa from Report on the inspection of the Gold Coast railways : Accra Akwapim Railway, Seccondee Coomassie Railway, including Tarquah-Prestea and Broomassie branches: 3ft. 6in. gauge (1912).

Another great part of my experience thus far is simply learning just how much material the library actually holds and how much has yet to be digitally archived; that is not to mention the aim to revisit files that have a digital record but which require re-evaluation through a decolonialisation lens. This is an overwhelming realisation but also an incredibly exciting one. As such, it is rewarding to know that in taking part in the Guardian Archive project, we are contributing (even if only very little) to this.

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