OBITUARY : Sir Gawain Bell

Wednesday 09 August 1995 23:02
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An Imperial Twilight - the title of the second volume of Gawain Bell's autobiography - typifies the times during which his varied and interesting career as a proconsul was pursued. He was the last British Civil Secretary in Sudan, and then the last Governor of Northern Nigeria.

From Winchester and Hertford College, Oxford, Bell had joined the Sudan Political Service in 1931. He did not spend all his early career in the Sudan, being seconded to the Palestine administration in 1938 for three years, during the troubles. Several attempts were made to kill him while he was in charge of first Tiberias and, later, Hebron and Gaza. He became a first-class Arabist and acquired a deep knowledge of, and liking for, Arab culture. While in Hebron he formed and trained the Camel Gendarmerie. It was appropriate that in 1942 he joined the Arab Legion and served under Glubb Pasha until 1945.

He was then recalled to the Sudan and occupied an ascending series of positions in the service until he became the last British Civil Secretary before independence in 1955, when the post was renamed Permanent Under- Secretary of the Ministry of Interior, answering to a Sudanese minister during the period of self-government.

Bell's next post was as political agent in Kuwait in the Persian Gulf, but after only two years he was chosen in 1957 to be Governor of Northern Nigeria. During the next five years he passed through the phases of being Governor with full powers via self-government with partial powers to two years under independence (which was granted in 1960) with no power. Once again he was the last British occupant of the post.

It is not surprising that, with his linguistic ability and experience of the Middle East, Bell was employed by the British government both before and after his next post for various temporary assignments on Persian Gulf problems. This next post was that of Secretary-General of the South Pacific Commission, based in New Caledonia, where he had to deal with six participating governments. He retired after three years, being succeeded by a Samoan, thus becoming the last British Secretary-General.

Whether in Africa, the Middle East or the Pacific, Gawain Bell's working career was largely spent on the difficult business of the transfer of power. For this task he was eminently suited. He was intelligent and cultured and he both wrote and spoke clearly and succinctly. The impression given was of ease of production, with no hint of the careful preparation which had gone beforehand. He was a modest man, with great charm of manner and a lively sense of humour, always cool and calm and courteous. He was adept at defusing a difficult situation. Appearance was important to him. A good horseman, neatly dressed, he would look the part, whether in Arab robes or governor's plumes.

After retiring to live with his wife Silvia at Hidcote, in Gloucestershire, Bell continued to follow a busy life. As a Knight of St John he visited several Arab countries, raising money for the order's ophthalmic hospital in Jerusalem. For five years he was chairman of civil service selection boards and he was a member of the governing body of the School of Oriental and African Studies. He wrote two volumes of memoirs, Shadows on the Sand (1983) and An Imperial Twilight (1989).

When he reached the age of 80 he once said he had had a wonderfully full, interesting and happy life. He counted as his blessings wise parents, a most loved and loving wife, three beautiful daughters and eight grandchildren.

John Kenrick

Gawain Westray Bell, colonial administrator: born Cape Town 21 January 1909; MBE (Mil) 1942, CBE 1955; District Commissioner, Sudan Political Service 1945-49; Deputy Sudan Agent, Cairo 1949-51; Deputy Civil Secretary, Sudan Government 1953-54; Permanent Under-Secretary, Ministry of Interior 1954-55; HM Political Agent, Kuwait 1955-57; KCMG 1957; Governor, Northern Nigeria 1957-62; Secretary General, Council for Middle East Trade 1963- 64; Secretary-General, South Pacific Commission 1966-70; married 1945 Silvia Cornwell-Clyne (three daughters); died 26 July 1995.

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