Monday, August 21, 2017

Policing British East Africa

Annamaria on Monday

First a confession:  My modus operandi when starting a new book is to research broadly, keeping story possibilities in the back of mind.  At some point, my characters start moving around in their time and place—doing and saying things.  I follow them and write down their words and their actions.  Eventually, the adventure takes shape, and I am off and running on a workable first draft. 

I was, in this way, about the begin the fourth chapter of Strange Gods when I realized that I knew nothing about how the police force operated in British East Africa.  I had a good idea who Tolliver was.  He had had an encounter with some South African drunks who were shooting up a hotel bar.  He was about to go out to the Scottish Mission to investigate the murder of Dr. Josiah Pennyman.   It suddenly occurred to me that I had no idea of the historical context for such an investigation.   I sent myself back to the research salt mines.  Google quickly got me to a monograph called “Policing the Empire” by a Cambridge scholar.  Its first two footnotes referred to a memoire—A Cuckoo in Kenya—by an Anglo-Irish police officer, W. Robert Foran who served in BEA from 1905-09.  Pay dirt!  Just my research cup of tea—the recollections of someone who had feet on the ground there and then.   And of course, my precious New York Public Library had a copy.  I dug right in.  I got to know Foran and his lifestyle.

But I did not to give my Justin Tolliver Foran’s rather devil-may-care, jolly attitude toward law enforcement by a colonial power.   Based on what I gleaned from Foran’s story, I imagined what life for a man with Tolliver's attitudes would be like once he joined the police.  I gave my particular policeman a deep-seated regard for justice.  This, I imagined, would not coincide with the motivations of his superiors in the government.  It was all intuitive for me, a way of creating an atmosphere that served my story.

That scenario served well in that first of the series and in the following two books.  Then, just over a month ago, preparing to crawl my way into Vera and Tolliver 4, I found a new research source—a 1994 paper by a sociologist that wasn’t on the Internet when I started work on the series back in 2013: “Law Enforcement in British Colonial Africa.”  The paper explained to me how right I was about the difference between Tolliver’s idea of policing and what his King’s empire builders would require of him.

Here is what this new information confirmed for me:  When it came to law enforcement, in the end of the Nineteenth and beginning of the Twentieth Centuries, the British had two models: One for their island home and another for the “possessions.”

The Home police, the Metropolitan Police Force established in 1829 in London, became the pattern for almost all towns and cities in the British Isles.  These policemen were civilians whose job it was to enforce the law, prevent crime, and keep the peace.  They lived in the communities where they worked, were accountable for their own actions, and never under the direct command of the governmentally powerful.  They were unarmed.

In the territories of the Empire, the model was based on the Royal Irish Constabulary.   This police force was established in 1836 to put down disturbances that had arisen in British-occupied Ireland.  Unlike their Metropolitan distant cousins, these men were a semi-military, armed force.  They were commanded by their superiors, whom they were required to obey.  They lived in barracks, rather than the communities they policed.  Their main function was to support the ends of their government as it took control of new territory—to aid in Britain’s conquest, to support the economic and political goals of the British government. They upheld what passed for British Law only when it suited them.

In fact, outside of areas where the British had political or economic interests, there was no British “law enforcement” in BEA.

This approach to policing was not limited to BEA.  It was well established in India before the British entered East Africa.  Once the Protectorate of BEA was formed, they then found it convenient to import officers from service in India, to use the Indian Code of Law, and to bring in lesser police officials from the Raj.  This happened to such an extent that in BEA, the police records were kept in Urdu!

Now I know what “really” happened.  When Tolliver joined the force, he was imagining joining a Metropolitan Police-style organization.  But he found himself in an African incarnation of the Royal Irish Constabulary.  And he was just where I needed him to be: a man at odds with his surroundings.


  1. Kismet and karma, hand in hand, with a dollop of synchronicity thrown in for good measure. Ain't life grand?

    Now, I'm off to grab my seat for the Great Eclipse of 2017 Show. An hour until the show begins, two hours and 15 minutes until Total Darkness and the arrival of Satan. (See story on HuffPost this morning: "Christian Radio Host Bryan Fischer: Eclipse Is A Sign Of The Work Of Satan". Sheesh, is there really hope still for the human race??? (My answer, of course, is yes, but it's going to be a long uphill battle...)

    1. A cloud arrived just in time to block my view of the partial that might have been visible from my front windows. How was it?
      Regarding the work of Satan: that's such an interesting cosmology for a Fundmentalist Christian. If the Almighty God created the universe, did He really leave the door open for the devil to move the planets at will? Are there other critters who might be able to do that too?

    2. It was GREAT. The light leading up to the eclipse is something you've never seen anywhere else. It's sort of like twilight and yet very different, almost dreamlike, faded and a different shade than we're used to. Even as the sun is mostly covered, it remains quite light, and then in the last seconds before total eclipse, the light fades rapidly and suddenly blinks out in the snap of your fingers, leaving you not as dark as night, but quite dim, a few stars showing, and the temperature drops dramatically. We felt VERY cool by the end of the eclipse, which comes back equally suddenly. The two minutes of total eclipse went by incredibly quickly.

      I'm very happy to have experienced a total eclipse. I probably never will again, but it's an experience that I'll long cherish. It's seems like a simple thing, but the experience was wonderful, especially shared with family (and chickens :-).

    3. How great that you were able to experience it!! We had a partial here in NYC and many of my friends saw it. Where I live, a big cloud rolled over the sun just at the wrong second. I did get to see the whole show, completely serendipitously, in Grasse in Provence on August 11, 1999. I remember every second of it.

  2. EvKa went for a sophisticated analysis, Sis, while I've opted for the superficial: W. Robert Foran's legs look a long like mine.

  3. I love your research style (although I admit to some bias, because it's similar to my own). What a fascinating memoir! I also love hearing more about the way policing worked in BEA at the time of your novels. I find the history of law enforcement fascinating, and I love getting to glean the gold from your research this way!