Gurney, Sir Henry Lovell Goldsworthy (18981951), colonial administrator, was born at Poughill, Bude, in Cornwall, on 27 June 1898, the only son of Gregory Goldsworthy Henry Gurney, solicitor, and his wife, Florence Mary Lovell, daughter of Edwin Francis Chamier. Educated at Winchester College, he was commissioned into the King's Royal Rifle Corps in 1917 and was wounded shortly before the armistice.
After the war Gurney went as a scholar to University College, Oxford, winning a blue for golf. In 1921 he entered the colonial service, being appointed assistant district commissioner in Kenya. He later transferred to the secretariat, where he flourished. He married Isabel Lowther, daughter of T. Hamilton Weir of Bude, in 1924; they had two sons. In 1935 Gurney was promoted as assistant colonial secretary of Jamaica, but was soon transferred first to the Colonial Office and then back to Kenya in 1936. In 1938 he was appointed secretary to the east African governors' conference, whose role in co-ordinating the territories' defence and supplies grew in importance when Italy entered the Second World War in 1940. He effectively grappled with the complexities of liaising with various territorial, civil, and military authorities; his post was upgraded to chief secretary in 1941 and he was appointed CMG in 1942.
In 1944 Gurney was promoted to colonial secretary of the Gold Coast under Sir Alan Burns. Two years later he was transferred to the chief secretaryship of Palestine. He thereby missed the chance of promotion to a senior governorship in 1947, although he was rewarded with a knighthood. The Balfour declaration of 1917 had committed Britain to support the formation of a Jewish national home in Palestine without prejudicing the rights of non-Jewish (particularly Arab) communities. By 1946 these principles were irreconcilable and the British were the targets of the armed Jewish Irgun and Haganah forces and ran into opposition from international supporters of Zionism, especially in America. Rather than implement the UN resolution of November 1947 in favour of partition, the British decided to return the mandate to the UN and to withdraw by mid-May 1948. In doing so, they forfeited the respect of Arabs, provoked the hostility of Jews, and incurred considerable international opprobrium. Throughout these months Gurney's imperturbable even-handedness became legendary, winning him the loyalty of subordinates and the respect of the military, but the hatred of some Jews.
Gurney was nearly fifty when he left Palestine and contemplated retiring, possibly to superintend the training of colonial service probationers at Oxford. Instead he was selected for Malaya, a valuable dependency which had been plunged into crisis in June 1948 with the outbreak of communist insurrection and the recall and subsequent death in an air crash of its high commissioner, Sir Edward Gent. Gurney was not keen on going to Malaya; having no knowledge of the country, he would have preferred another posting in Africa or the governorship of British Honduras, or Mauritius, or Cyprus. Moreover, European and local leaders in Malaya felt that the emergency called for someone with Malayan experience, or a senior colonial governor, or a major public figure. None the less, his calm temperament and clear thinking, his experience of liaising with the military, his administrative skills and proven ability to plan for the long term, together with the full endorsement of Sir Andrew Cunningham and Sir Alan Burns (Gurney's chiefs in Palestine and the Gold Coast respectively), made him the first choice of Arthur Creech Jones, secretary of state for the colonies. Acting once again for the public good, Gurney accepted.
Having to attend to family obligations in Britain, Gurney was not installed as high commissioner until early October 1948, three months after Gent's death. During the interregnum the federation of Malaya had been administered by Sir Alec Newboult in close collaboration with Malcolm MacDonald, commissioner-general in south-east Asia in 194855. Gurney swiftly set about investigating the causes of unrest and methods of countering it. He soon concluded that the heart of the problem lay in the alienated Chinese squatters on jungle fringes who, unlike the Malays, had little sense of belonging to Malaya and were easy prey for insurgents. Long before the notion of winning hearts and minds was propagated during the Templer era, Gurney recognized that successful counter-insurgency would depend on gaining the confidence of Malaya's Chinese community. Although the British relied on Malay support, Gurney did all he could to promote good relations between Malays and Chinese lest insurgency and counter-insurgency transform the country into another Palestine.
As high commissioner of Malaya in 194851, Gurney was frequently upstaged by Malcolm MacDonald and subsequently overshadowed by his successor, General Sir Gerald Templer (high commissioner, 19524). MacDonald exuded charm, and enjoyed company and conversation; he mingled easily with the new generation of Asians and also operated at a more elevated level of government than did the high commissioner. Wielding powers never enjoyed by Gurney, Templer has been credited with winning the emergency and setting Malaya on course for independence. By contrast, Gurney's civil service manner misled the less perceptive to underrate him: he was criticized by some for concentrating on a largely repressive campaign, yet by others for failing to invigorate that campaign. In fact his experiences in Palestine dissuaded him from martial law and encouraged him to focus on policing as the key to victory in what he believed was a civilian war. His assessment that insurgents depended upon food and information extracted from the rural Chinese resulted in the Briggs plan to isolate guerrilla fighters from vital supplies by compulsorily resettling half a million squatters in protected villages. In addition, looking beyond the emergency to an ultimately self-governing Malaya, Gurney introduced the quasi-ministerial member system, prepared more generous citizenship provisions for non-Malays, planned Malaya's first local elections, assisted at the birth of the Malayan Chinese Association (which would become a member of the post-colonial Alliance government), promoted the Rural and Industrial Development Authority in support of the economically disadvantaged Malay community, and set up the Employee Provident Fund, which helped sustain in old age Malayan workers of all races. Nevertheless, it was success in the emergency by which he was judged at the time, and in this he was hamstrung by the complexities of the federal constitution, disputes between the administrative, police, and military arms of government, and Chinese reluctance to side openly with the authorities. In 1951 counter-insurgency became bogged down and Gurney reached the end of his tether, proffering his resignation in April. The offer was declined, but ministers had begun to think that a new type of high commissioner was needed, a supremo who combined both civil and military power.
On 6 October 1951 Gurney's car was ambushed on its way from Kuala Lumpur to the hill station at Fraser's Hill. Courageous and composed to the last, Gurney got out of the car to draw the fire away from his wife and secretary. For the British, Gurney's death was the lowest point in the emergency, yet in many ways he had laid the foundations for their eventual success and Malayan independence, a contribution which was generously acknowledged by General Templer, the supremo whom Churchill appointed to succeed him in February 1952.
A. J. Stockwell
DNB · A. J. Stockwell, ed., Malaya, 3 vols. (1995) · A. Short, The communist insurrection in Malaya, 19481960 (1975) · R. Stubbs, Hearts and minds in guerrilla warfare: the Malayan emergency, 19481960 (1989) · A. J. Stockwell, British imperial policy and decolonization in Malaya, 194252, Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, 13 (19845), 6887 · W. R. Louis, Imperialism at bay, 19451951: the United States and the decolonization of the British empire (1977) · R. Heussler, Completing a stewardship (1983) · N. Shepherd, Ploughing sand: British rule in Palestine, 19171948 (1999) · CGPLA Eng. & Wales (1952) · The Times (8 Oct 1951)
Bodl. RH, agricultural reports relating to Kenya
St Ant. Oxf., MSS | Bodl. RH, colonial records project; Heussler MSS
TNA: PRO, Colonial Office county series
Granada TV, End of Empire: Malaya (1985)
H. Speed, oils, legislative council chamber, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Wealth at death
£30,095 13s. 4d.: probate, 31 July 1952, CGPLA Eng. & Wales