207 SQUADRON ROYAL AIR FORCE HISTORY
Professor John Fage
who was a colleague of David's
at the University College of the Gold Coast
I never knew David Balme at Cambridge. I first met him in 1949 when he interviewed me for the second teaching post in the Department of History at the University College of the Gold Coast (now the University of Ghana), where he had gone as foundation Principal in the previous year.
I don't remember very much about the interview except that (not surprisingly!) I was asked to talk about the Ph.D research I had been doing on the history of the settler colony of Southern Rhodesia from the establishment of its legislative Council in 1898 to the grant to it of self-government in 1923.
This led Balme to remark that the Gold Coast - which in the same year that the College had been founded had experienced the riots which were quickly to lead to it becoming the first black African colony to achieve independence - was very different from Rhodesia. He thought it was possible that an expatriate teacher of history there could get into political trouble. But he promised that if I were to be deported, he would accompany me down to Takoradi harbour and wave goodbye from the jetty! In view of the subsequent histories of The Gold Coast/Ghana and of Rhodesia/Zimbabwe, this conversation seems in retrospect somewhat ironic, the more so since his fellow interviewer was Walter Adams, then Secretary of the InterUniversity Council for Higher Education Overseas, but later the first Principal of the University College which came to be set up in Rhodesia.
I also remember Balme saying - though this was not at my interview, but later that when interviewing candidates for posts in his College he was always suspicious of anyone who claimed a missionary motive as an explanation of why he was applying for a job in Africa. What counted for him was a firm commitment to academic teaching and research. Yet I seem to remember that his parents had been medical missionaries in China, and he was firm in his belief that University work in Africa should take place in a Christian environment. He created a university post of Dean of Chapel, to which a Cambridge colleague, the late Reverend J N Duckworth, was appointed, and he insisted that all the new student halls of residence that were planned and built should be equipped with chapels just as. if they were Oxford or Cambridge colleges. They were to have High Tables and Senior and Junior Common Rooms, and were to be built first, and to a high standard, while teaching departments still remained in temporary hutments. The argument here was that when funds began to become scarce, money would always be found to complete teaching buildings, but that good accommodation for students would risk being skimped or neglected.
Balme was initially appointed Principal for the five years 1948-53 and then accepted a second five-year appointment which he did not complete, resigning his post in 1957. My own view of this is that his first period was one of continuing success, but that be found the second increasingly difficult. Part of the explanation of this may have been financial in origin. Balme's plans for Ghana's first university institution had been made in the expectation, and with the assurance, that the. country would be able to afford the best. For him this was a fully collegiate university, but by the time of his resignation it may well have become apparent to him that finance would become tighter, and that compromises would be called for which he would not welcome.
I think too that he may well have decided that he had enough of university administration. In his first years in Ghana, up to about 1950 or 1951, he had made a point of doing an hour or two of teaching each week, but then the demands on his time made this impossible. He must also have known that he could not continue indefinitely as a university administrator in Africa. So he could not really afford to neglect the opportunity when it was offered of taking up a reasonably senior teaching post in the UK, and this turned up in 1957 as a Readership in Classics at Queen Mary College in the University of London.
I do not think that his departure from Ghana had anything very much to do with political developments there. He certainly did not court the local politicians, and many of his views were not popular with them, but I think that they recognised and respected his integrity. Balme's own attitude to local political matters was always, I think, realistic and down to earth. In about 1955, for instance, it became clear that within a year or two the colony of the Gold Coast was going to become the independent state of Ghana. Balme then argued firmly that before this happened, the College should negotiate the ending of the tutelage of the University of London under which it had been launched. He feared that otherwise academics would have less say in determining the future structure of the nation's university than its politicians. But his colleagues, especially his African colleagues, were less far-sighted, and he was out voted; they hadn't his confidence in the institution which he had brought into being and thought that it would be premature to cut its umbilical cord.
I think that Balme was a very good university principal, convinced of the necessity of establishing and maintaining the very highest standards. For him, of course, the best model to follow was the Oxbridge one, and this did not always meet with the understanding of the Ghanian politicians and public, nor with that of his non-Oxbridge staff. I did not have much contact with his thinking and planning before 1952, when I became head of the Department of History (and then very much the junior departmental head), and perhaps did not fully appreciate his strengths until I served as Deputy Principal under his immediate successor. But in the very early days the College was so small that everyone knew everyone else and had at least some idea of what was going on: when I arived in 1949 there were hardly more than 90 students and no more than about 30 academic staff.
The Balmes were very hospitable; everyone would be invited to their house, students probably once a year, and staff and their spouses more like once a term. My wife and I saw more of them than most because we became members of a group which used to meet regularly at their house to sing madrigals. Balme, incidentally, was an excellent pianist, though very reluctant to perform in public. But although Balme was an excellent host and could be very good company, he was also I think a very private man, and not an easy one to know well.
Balme never talked about himself, at least not in my experience. However he could on occasion express himself very pungently about other people. I remember one occasion in his office when I was discussing with him the future development of the History Department. This was when we were still trying without success to attract from outside someone to come to us as Professor of History. I tentatively suggested that an approach might be made to a man who had fired my imagination as a lecturer at Cambridge and who was also known to Balme (the two of them must have been more or less contemporaries). Balme said at once: "Oh No; I want someone better than that!" ... The best remark of Balme's that I can recall was when the College thought to save some money by chartering an aircraft to take expatriate staff and their families on the annual leave to which they were entitled, and for which it was obliged to provide first class passages by sea or air; Balme went down to the airport to watch this experiment, and as the aircraft took off was heard to say: "There go all my baskets in one egg!".
University of Ghana