Colonialism, bureaucracy and the post

Colonialism, bureaucracy and the post

A recent WWW Trace entitled “‘Afford my Country an infinite Advantage’ 9 June 1795” is concerned with a letter written by Robert Brooke, the Governor of the island of St Helena, and sent to Lord Macartney, then in process of becoming the first British Governor of the Cape. St Helena is often described as one of the most remote of places, but it was on well-established shipping routes to the Cape and this resulted in many ships calling there and in doing so delivering and picking up letters. This has led to the thought that in practice many islands, in one sense far from seats of power and communication because separate from both Imperial metropoles and their colonial ‘peripheries’, were actually very well-connected in letter-writing and distribution terms, indeed better so than many places within the metropoles. A well-documented example is Malta, because it has an excellent postal museum which has engaged in detail with the long history of its succession of postal services.

It started with the Spanish, though it did not end there. All imperial outposts want good communications with their centre, and the early Spanish overlords were no exception. The postal service at that time was rapid, but reserved for the occupying elite. This seems to have been very similar when Malta came under the control of the Knights of St John from the 16th century and for a good while after. It later changed with the arrival of the British, as part of the same changes in the relationship between imperial powers that also produced Brooke’s letter and Macartney’s Governorship: keep the French out, occupy or control strategically-important locations, develop communications as part of this.

While there were often violent and terrible aspects to British colonialism, it also occurred as a process of bureaucratisation. What did the first British Governor of Malta, Alexander Ball, do when he arrived in the early 1800s? Establish a number of civil service departments, build roads, set up a postal packet service (1806), appoint a postmaster-general, and when postage stamps were introduced in Britain, Malta followed soon after. Among stamp collectors, the 1844 yellow Malta penny stamp is highly prized, and its stamp-design continues to be of an incredibly high standard.

So what import does this have for thinking about letters? It was letters and their speedy arrival with the people they were addressed to and an equally speedy response being received that was the life-blood of Empire in its relationship to its colonial outposts. This enabled orders to be given and received and systems of checking up on officials instituted. And in these outposts, to a major extent British colonial governance was precisely that, the establishment of an apparatus of governing that was in large part bureaucratic and enacted through not only mapping and censuses and the administration of colonial law, but via more humdrum things such as overseeing civil service departments, instituting official copies and filing, ensuring that communications with the metropole and other colonial outposts were efficient, overseeing systems of communication within the colonial location. Making sure that letters were sent and received and delivered, from afar but also including within the colony itself, was an essential part of this.


Last updated: 21 December 2017