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A police state? The Nyasaland emergency and colonial intelligence.

Murphy, P. (2010) A police state? The Nyasaland emergency and colonial intelligence. Journal of South African Studies, 36 (4). pp. 765-780. ISSN 1465-3893

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To link to this item DOI: 10.1080/03057070.2010.527634


The Nyasaland Emergency in 1959 proved a decisive turning point in the history of the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland, which from 1953 to 1963 brought together the territories of Northern Rhodesia (Zambia), Southern Rhodesia (Zambia) and Nyasaland (Malawi) under a settler-dominated federal government. The British and Nyasaland governments defended the emergency by claiming to have gathered intelligence which showed that the Nyasaland African Congress was preparing a campaign of sabotage and murder. The Devlin Commission, appointed to investigate the emergency, dismissed the evidence of a ‘murder plot’, criticised the Nyasaland government's handling of the Emergency and, notoriously, described Nyasaland as a ‘police state’. This article has two principal aims. First, using the recently declassified papers of the Intelligence and Security Department (ISD) of the Colonial Office, it seeks to provide the first detailed account of what the British government knew of the intelligence relating to the ‘murder plot’ and how they assessed it, prior to the outbreak of the emergency. It demonstrates that officials in the ISD and members of the Security Service adopted a far more cautious attitude towards the intelligence than did Conservative ministers, and had greater qualms about allowing it into the public domain to justify government policy. Second, the article examines the implications of Devlin's use of the phrase ‘police state’ for Nyasaland and for the late colonial state in general. It contrasts Devlin's use of the term with that of security experts in the ISD, who routinely applied it to policing systems that diverged from their own preferred model. Hence, whereas Devlin compared policing in Nyasaland unfavourably with that in Southern Rhodesia, implying, ironically, that Nyasaland was ‘under-policed’ (because there were fewer police per head of population in Nyasaland than in Southern Rhodesia), the ISD regarded the intensive system of policing operated by the British South Africa Police in Southern Rhodesia as characteristic of a ‘police state’. The article suggests that the frequent use of the term ‘police state’ was indicative of broader anxieties about what Britain's legacy would be for the post-independence African state.

Item Type:Article
Divisions:Arts, Humanities and Social Science > School of Humanities > History
ID Code:31510
Publisher:Taylor and Francis

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