David Sunderland. Managing British Colonial and Post-Colonial Development: The Crown Agents, 1914-1974. Suffolk: Boydell & Brewer, 2007. 312 pp. $85.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-84383-301-7.
Reviewed by Jesse E. Brown (Jr., Department of History, Mississippi State University)
Published on H-Albion (July, 2008)
The Crown Agents at the Close of the British Empire
David Sunderland's (currently employed by the University of Greenwich Department of International Business and Economics) most recent work, Managing British Colonial and Post-Colonial Development: The Crown Agents, 1914-1974, should be seen as a "sequel" to his earlier monograph, Managing the British Empire: The Crown Agents for the Colonies, 1833-1914, published in 2004. Sunderland's 2004 work examined the founding of the Office of the Crown Agents, the de facto administrators of the colonies, and their role in the territories and dependencies at the height of British power. His latest work picks up in the twentieth century--a time when the vast British Empire was beginning to collapse on itself, when the self-interest of the Crown Agency or the Crown Agents themselves overshadowed the interests of the government and of the Agency's clients, and when economic turmoil and risky investment in the post-colonial 1960s and 1970s threatened to tear the Agency apart.
Since the founding of their office in 1833, the Crown Agents worked for the administrations of Crown colonies and protectorates, public authorities (such as municipalities and utilities), and after independence worked for the governments of the newly independent nations within and outside the Commonwealth, public corporations, and international aid organizations (the World Bank and the United Nations). Over time, the Crown Agents became a development agency that, at least in a de facto sense, manage the overseas colonies of the empire through their financial (loans), technical (supplies, buildings, etc.), and engineering services (p. 1). By the early to mid- twentieth century, however, the Agency had grown inefficient; the position of Crown Agent began to be seen as "a reward for long years of service and as a dumping ground for individuals who were incompetent or could no longer adequately perform duties because of ill health, lack of drive, or 'uncongenial personalities'" (p. 2). By mid-century, the colonial government criticized the Agents' work, mostly because of their "procurement role, and, more specifically, to the supply of defective goods, which could prove costly to the colony" (p. 246). The Agents had, in the interests of profit maximization, "promoted the interests of the Agency over those of their clients through the maximization of revenues and the minimization of costs, and, when purchasing goods, by giving undue priority to quality." Profits were easily maximized by "cutting costs to the bone and thus providing clients with a sub-standard service" (p. 246). On top of it all, many of the employees hired during this period were hired on a temporary basis, usually on the recommendation of a current clerical aid or Crown Agent, and thus did not possess the same skills as those hired from the Civil Service Commission.
With the decline and slow demise of the British Empire in the 1960s (with Harold Wilson's announcement of Britain's withdrawal from areas "East of Suez" in 1967 standing out), the Agency entered a period of marked decline as well. As Sunderland points out, "it was often not politically expedient to be seen doing business with the old Imperial power, and in some cases, not in the former customer's economic interest" (p. 250). The Agents' attempts to cut costs over the years had hurt their reputation in the global community and it was becoming hard for them to raise funds in the London market. In the late 1960s, the Agency entered the secondary banking sector, partly out of self-interest, but also out of the interest of its clients. The property boom of the early 1970s encouraged overexpansion and investment in this industry, and the Secondary Banking Crisis of 1973-75 resulted in a debt of over two million British pounds and the Agency filing for bankruptcy in 1974.
Although 1974 could very well have marked the end of the Crown Agency, it is Sunderland's contention that its dissolution was not in the interest of the government of the United Kingdom. Those in power, he notes, realized that it "provided valuable advice to the [Ministry of Overseas Development], reduced the cost of providing essential services to the country's remaining dependencies, helped to link Britain with these territories and with the wider Commonwealth, ensured bilateral aid was spent on British goods, and, through [Millbank Technical Services], enabled the government to influence the supply of arms and thus avoid political embarrassment" (p. 251). The Agency was incorporated as a statutory company monitored by the Minister of Overseas Development in 1979 and, in 1996, was transferred to private management.
The reader will find that the Agency succumbed to bankruptcy in 1974 mainly because it failed to call in loans and continued to lend money to corporations that ended up going bankrupt and defaulting on their payments. Many Agents, in fact, believed that the market would bounce back. Yet, Sunderland finds that the Bank of England was equally guilty in the 1973-75 crisis: "wishing to prevent financial meltdown, Bank officials pressured Agents to use their own and their clients' funds to support failing institutions, even after they were aware that the Agency itself was insolvent" (p. 7).
Literature on the British Empire and Great Britain in general certainly is not scant. As Sunderland points out in his introduction, much has been written in recent years from regional to global perspectives, examining colonial, post-colonial, and even fiscal matters. There are even large series written on these subjects, such as the Oxford History of the British Empire series (five volumes, 1998-1999), the Oxford History of the British Empire Companion Series (six volumes, 2001-2006), and the New Oxford History of England (nine volumes, 2001-2008). However, Sunderland's observation that "there has been little investigation … of the 'nuts and bolts' of development" is accurate. He finds that "hardly any research has been undertaken on how colonial administrators and their independent successors raised non-aid finance in the UK, how they purchased construction materials and other goods not available locally, how their investments in the London money market were managed," and much more (p. 1).
As an attempt to fill some of this gap in research, and in continuing his work on the Office of the Crown Agents, Sunderland's book goes above and beyond. Not only does he continue to develop the arguments and narrative provided in his 2004 work, but he provides an excellent account of the fiscal inter-workings of the British Empire. He has written this work so as to make it accessible to specialists and non-specialists alike, and has included thirteen graphs and tables to further illustrate his points (along with an in-depth appendix).
In the end, specialists of British economic history will certainly find Sunderland's work both refreshing and informative, while students of British imperial history or British history in general will certainly have something to learn from this work. All said and done, Managing British Colonial and Post-Colonial Development: The Crown Agents, 1914-1974 stands out as an example of how economic history should be written--detailed and yet accessible to those interested and yet non-specialists in the field. Hopefully, these two works will lay a foundation upon which further work in this area can be built.
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Jesse E. Brown. Review of Sunderland, David, Managing British Colonial and Post-Colonial Development: The Crown Agents, 1914-1974.
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