Britain’s debt of honour – the tragic case of Nim’an Brian Bowden
Students of the British Imperial adventure often find they have mixed emotions, on the one hand contempt for the imperial idea and the exploitation of others and yet on the other an admiration much of what was achieved and for some of the servants of Empire who had a real affinity for the peoples they were sent to rule or work amongst. Of all the European colonial powers the British endeavoured to cultivate a relatively benign image, one of being firm but fair, giving others a sporting chance – providing of course the subject races played by their rules. Honour, decency and the rule of law were part of the credo of Empire. The actuality was far more complex and Imperial policy was founded on divide and rule and political expediency. With the end of Empire, Britain sort to extricate itself with unseemly haste, and in so doing often betrayed people who had been loyal citizens (anyone familiar with what happened to the Karen hill people of Burma or the Chagos Islanders of the India Ocean will realise just how callous officialdom can be). Duplicity and indifference is sometimes the very stuff of diplomacy, but it is only when one examines the lives of individuals and their families that some sense can be gained of just how devastating policy and the actions of petty bureaucrats can be.
The English author L. P. Hartley in his book The Go-Between wrote “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there,” The year 1958 appears a very different world indeed, a year when Egypt and Syria announced plans to merge into the United Arab Republic, French settlers rioted against the French army in Algeria and the first radio broadcast was made from space. For Brian Bowden, a young Englishman, 1958 was to be a memorable year, for he travelled by ship to British Somaliland to work as a water engineer based in Hargeisa. Bowden was so taken by the country and its people that when Somaliland gained its independence in 1960 he decided to stay on and eventually married a local woman. His love of the Somalis was such that he stayed throughout the time of Mohamed Siad Bare going on to work as a clerk at the British Embassy, Mogadishu. With Somalia’s descent into civil war Bowden remained loyally at his post whilst others with money, connections and fewer scruples withdrew to cushier and safer postings elsewhere. His stoical sense of service is described by the journalist Aidan Hartley in The Zanzibar Chest, here was a man endeavouring to carry on as if it was business as usual. Whist his ambassador and other key staff had left, the High Commission in Nairobi was utterly indifferent to his and his family’s plight and he was forgotten by those he was endeavouring to serve in London. He continued reporting for duty to the end, even personally paying wages for the few remaining Somali staff at the Embassy out of his own pocket. This benign servant of Britain and friend of the Somalis was robbed and beaten to death in Mogadishu in front of his family in 1991.
The British Government had failed to protect and assist Brian Bowden and to this day has done nothing to help his immediate family who have been left destitute. Bowden’s Somali wife is now dead and his children are in a desperate situation made all the worse by the fact that they are of mixed race. Bowden’s youngest son, Nim’an Brian Bowden, who is 21 years old has been a orphan since he was six and has to live on the streets since stranger’s occupied his family home and he has no means of affording legal redress. Nim’an has suffered constant harassment because of his mixed heritage and has felt suicidal because of his desperate situation. Now ‘living’ in Hargeisa, his situation is a dire one, as he is deemed of no tribe, a non-person, an outcast. A child of love, a child of two nations united by history he has been abandoned and forgotten by his father’s homeland and is shunned and derided by the land of his mother.
Nim’an lives in the capital of a land Britain is yet to officially acknowledge. The excuses for inaction from British officials and those in Whitehall are and will be legion. In this case sophistry and semantics should not be allowed to triumph. Britain has a moral duty to act and to do the decent thing. Britain owes a debt to Brian Bowden, a debt of honour, one it must pay in full by standing by his children. Nim’an Brian Bowden deserves to be allowed to have a future.
By Mark T Jones