Rapid and continuing decolonization in regions once administered by Britain and by such colonial offshoots as Australia has turned attention from "Government House history". Scholarly interest has moved on from issues such as how the empire grew and even from how it fell apart. Not what the rulers did but what the ruled were suffering under, reacting to and selecting from the colonial experience are now the major research concerns.
Like any reorientation clearly influenced by contemporary events, this trend has left some gaps while it filled others. Among the gain has been a valuable new perspective on military rebellions against colonial rule—now labelled "primary resistance movements" and giving us a new insight into the motives and techniques of the insurgents. Another, as yet incomplete, has given us a developing appreciation of the pre-colonial history and cultures of African and other colonized peoples and allowed us to understand more fully why those cultures did not surrender to the power and material attractions of the intruders.
In shifting so uncompromisingly from total concentration on the Europeans to almost equally exclusive focus on the indigenes, the revisionists have left some questions not only unanswered but unasked. Why were the intruders prepared to sink men and treasure into the suppression of rebellions? Why was the "civilizing mission", the cultural arm of conquest, in practice so tentative, so undermanned and so obsessed with considerations of security?
Just as the Government House (or bush boma) perspective dropped from historiographical sight, a half-formed resolution of the paradoxes was emerging. For want of further probing, it has tended to harden into an orthodoxy which ran—and still runs—like this: the British (and other European imperial powers) conquered their empires because they were richer, more technologically advanced and more culturally arrogant than the conquered; but the imperialists failed to hold their empires because they were not rich enough, failed to meet the technological and administrative demands of development and lost their faith in their superiority.
The effect of close research on the indigenous peoples under colonial rule has called all these assumptions into question but supplanted none of them. It now appears that if the British ruled their empire, they did not run it. Local collaborators who manipulated the British "masters", self-sufficient cultures which rode out the colonial storm, defiant nationalists who took on the intruders at their own game and beat them—all these are now familiar stereotypes from the literature of the new colonial history.
In learning to appreciate the cultures of the ruled, we have begun to depreciate the realities of the colonial situation, especially in the crucial but increasingly ignored period at and soon after the turn of the twentieth century when the "civilizing mission" faced its vital test. Reading back into that era the "trusteeship" dogma of the period between the world wars, we have forgotten the limitations, of vision as well as resources, under which the colonial administrations laboured. With vast new territories to govern in Africa, older ones to consolidate around the globe and assertive white dominions eager to test their new strength against the "mother country", administrative echelons were grossly overextended. In Britain itself, the pressure on the bureaucracy intensified as laissez-faire precedents succumbed to the emerging regulatory state. Slowly but from absolute necessity, informal empire and amateur administration were superseded by professional bureaucrats and the inward-looking politics of the embryonic welfare state.
At this moment, when the right of the men born to rule was under challenge both in politics and in administration, the rulers faced unprecedented demands on their capacity to survive and to innovate. Their response was to stress survival above visionary novelty; men were needed who could improvise means to hold the empire unwaveringly on course.
Matthew Nathan caught the spirit of this era so successfully that for a time he rose rapidly within the ranks of the administrative services both overseas and in Britain. Still a soldier and an engineer-designer when his more celebrated contemporaries such as Lord Lugard and Lord Milner had been relishing the proconsul's independent role, Nathan brought to his later administrations attributes which initially endeared him to his superiors. Part natural, part cultivated, his reputation for reliability and circumspection grew from a military disposition to seek directives from above but it was matched by an ambition to rise from below which he had acquired as a member of Britain's aspiring Jewish minority.
As long as he remained attuned to his London masters' highest priorities—to keep order and balanced books—Nathan's advancement kept pace with his ambition. Inheriting rebellions against his predecessors' administrations in west Africa, he gained credit for the peace that followed and progressed at an early age to knighthood and the high-ranking governorship of Hong Kong. Pushed aside from there by the even faster rising Lugard, Nathan faced the test of imminent rebellion in Natal and in the process fell from grace with the Colonial Office. Exploiting his real talent as a second-in-command, executing but not making policy, and exploiting, too, newfound and influential friends who included Prime Minister Asquith, he regained the personal security and prestige he coveted during a term in the home civil service. But at Easter 1916 he ran head on into the rebellion he dreaded; the Irish rising put paid to his reputation as a cool head and he ended his long career in the ostensibly calm waters of Queensland. But even in that ceremonial governorship his anachronistic role as a symbol of nineteenth-century empire pursued him, as the Queensland government pushed constitutional precedents to their limit and as Nathan, the amateur administrator, was passed over for the prestigious post of governor of Ceylon in favour of the eminently professional Sir Hugh Clifford.
At its zenith in scale but its nadir in vision in the early twentieth-century, the British empire gave Nathan a creed which he accepted more totally than his inherited Judaism. Having and holding, not the loving and cherishing of the later "trusteeship" code followed by his professional successors, served Nathan and the empire of his day as a rationale of rule. The motto "never ask, never refuse" which Nathan adopted for his coat of arms concealed a careerist's mentality.
Unusual in his religion, the speed of his rise in high office and even in his bachelor status, Nathan was a typical member of his administrative generation in his zeal for conserving the imperial status quo. Until changes in the career structure and objectives of the empire made him into that caricature of anachronism, the retired colonel and "old colonial hand", he was among the last and most esteemed of Britain's "amateur" administrators.