Sub-Contracting Empire: F D Lugard

17 April 2019

Empire and Globalism | History

Sub-contracting might seem like quite a modern phenomenon, indeed many of the world’s biggest companies have built their entire business model around outsourcing and subcontracting, indeed there seems to be no end to what can be outsourced. With the publication of Empire Studies this week I decided to delve in to the collection and look at one of the most ambitious outsourcing attempts in history.

One thing you might not expect to be outsourced would be the day to day running of the largest empire in human history. F.D. Lugard was a man who for better or worse certainly left his stamp on Africa. In fact, Nigeria is so called after his wife suggested the name. However, Lugard’s most influential achievement was probably to come up with the idea of ‘Indirect Rule’ in an article entitled: The dual mandate in British tropical Africa. Faced with an extremely limited number of colonial administrators ‘indirect rule’ allowed British administrators to focus on their priorities, usually taxation, annexing more territory or subduing the local population, whilst leaving smaller, more local issues to perceived traditional rulers or ‘Chiefs’. Using this system, a handful of colonial administrators could rule vast swathes of territory.

Lugard, Leslie Ward. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Of course, as in the present day outsourcing was not without its problems, indeed effective though it was in some places in many it simply couldn’t work. In several cases when traditional leaders were summoned by the British to be officially appointed to their new administrative positions they assumed foul play to be afoot, many understandably felt it likely that the British might even attempt to murder them. The solution? Many tribal leaders sent junior or less respected tribe members to these meetings. Thus many of the British-appointed ‘Warrant Chiefs’ - so called because their power came from a government warrant as supposed to traditional sources of authority - were unlikely to be accepted into leadership roles when they returned home. The system was also implemented in societies where single ‘Chiefs’ did not exist. One of the biggest tribes in Southern Nigeria, the Igbo practised a system of collective consensus for major decisions. The British solution to this was simply to find someone who was willing to be created a chief, regardless of the fact that such individuals usually had no standing as such in their communities. These ‘warrant chiefs’ often caused considerable tension in their communities, often exploiting their newfound power to their own gain, although some were simply publicly shamed and then ignored.  

Despite its serious flaws the system of ‘Indirect rule’ would continue to be the system of administration in many British colonies right up until the late 1940s. Despite being a questionable method of governance ‘Indirect Rule’ provides fascinating insight into British administration, as well as British conceptions of African cultures and tribal structures.


The dual mandate in British tropical Africa is one of the many documents relating to the history of the British Empire that feature in Research Source: Empire Studies which is available now.

About the Author

Jacob Downey

Jacob Downey

Since joing Adam Matthew in September 2018 I have worked on a variety of projects, including Service Newspapers and East India Company. My academic background is in the history of the British Empire, with a particular focus on the interactions between British and indigenous peoples.

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