BBC History Magazine


When James Stephen arrived at his desk on 1 January 1838, he was confronted by piles of dispatches from across the world. As the permanent under-secretary at the Colonial Office, which administered all 32 crown colonies that were controlled directly by the British government, Stephen spent every day “diligently… keeping back the flood of papers from deluging us”. He even warned his sister that “I shall soon become a mere bit of blotting paper myself!” Amid letters from imperial governors in Australia, southern Africa, Sierra Leone, Malta and Canada, Stephen faced – among other issues – the spectre of colonists’ rebellions, which deeply concerned him; anxieties about the aftermath of emancipation; and massacres of indigenous peoples carried out by British settlers.

Stephen was the personification of the Colonial Office, working 18-hour days, six days a week to interpret every dispatch and draft most of the responses on behalf of the British government. He and his staff of 25 worked from a dilapidated townhouse in Downing Street, its floors creaking under the weight of filing cabinets. The politician Charles Buller wrote of its “sighing rooms”, where supplicants waited endlessly for appointments in dark, dingy annexes, providing Charles Dickens with a model for Little Dorrit’s “circumlocution office”.

The rest of the British empire was governed from East India House, a grand neo-classical palace in the heart of the financial district. Here the East India Company directors oversaw the governance of India and associated territories with a staff three times as large as

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