Blacks and Blues

To understand the culture of imperialism from the point of view of the people who actually ran the British Empire, the Sudan Political Service is as good a place as any to start. The SPS was instituted in 1 90 1 , and a regular system of recruiting young university graduates was in place by 1905. These recruits, unusually for the time, were chosen on the basis not of examinations but of a series of interviews. It was the duty of the Sudan government agent in London to sift through hundreds of application forms and letters of recommendation, and then invite a short list of candidates to the selection board in London.  The service was certain of the qualities needed if one was to be admitted to the SPS. Public schoolboys were strongly favoured, as were athletes, and it was this particular feature which gave rise to the saying that the Sudan was a country of 'Blacks ruled by Blues'.
SPS Officers

'Blacks' referred to the original Arabic name for Sudan, al bilad as-sudan, the Land of the Blacks, while 'Blues' referred to the distinction of getting a Blue by representing either Oxford or Cambridge in a match against the other university. Athleticism was greatly valued because of the supposedly sapping nature of the climate. The Sudan Political Service was regarded as the elite of the African Service, and enjoyed a prestige comparable with the Indian Civil Service. It conferred even greater distinction, because it was known that getting in was not simply a matter of passing examinations, as was the case for nearly every other branch of the civil service. Service in Sudan was very much about character and not merely brains. 

Of the 46 recruits taken on between 1902 and 1914 , 27 had a Blue from Oxford or Cambridge. Because only between seven and ten people were recruited each year, the service quickly gained a reputation for exclusivity and tightly bound camaraderie.

The interview process in London was not particularly rigorous, but involved a series of questions designed to show mental toughness; cranks and people with foreign accents were firmly rejected.

In addition to the Blue, preferably in a manly sport like rugby or boxing, as opposed to hockey or soccer, a degree in Classics or History from either Oxford or Cambridge was highly valued. In the early days, before 1914, the average man in the service could be said to have a '2nd in History from Oxford' and a rugby Blue. In an analysis of the 500 or so men who made up the service between 1902 and 1956, it was found that over 70 per cent were from Oxford and Cambridge.
70% were recruited from Oxbridge

Analysis of members of the Sudan Political Service modifies and deepens notions of class in  imperial Britain. A third of the men who joined the SPS were the sons of clergymen. This shows that the imperial elite was certainly not, as has been true of some other imperial cultures, an elite of money or social status; rather it fanned a clerisy, noted for its education and cultural values. The clergyman's son would have been educated at an independent, or public, school, but did not expect to inherit much money or even land. This needs to be remembered as a corrective to the simplistic popular idea that the British Empire was run by the upper classes. Empire was largely a preserve of a tiny elite, but that elite was middle class and professional; it was not particularly aristocratic, in the sense of a landed, hereditary caste who enjoyed wealth and power in Britain.


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