In the early thirties, a magnanimous Government of Sierra Leone decided that the Assistant District Commissioner at Port Loko could have a house. Until then, he had lived in a mud hut with a grass roof.
£60 was allocated, but this munificence was barely sufficient, despite the fact that a labourer's daily wage was only one shilling. The ADC at Port Loko at the time was Pat O'Dwyer and he decided to cut costs by clearing the area himself.
Because it was evening when he started to work, his khaki official tope had been discarded. He set about chopping at a large bush when he suddenly felt a terrific pain in his head as though a nail had been driven into it. Then, a two-footm stumpy, green mamba fell onto his shoulder and slithered to the ground.
Unsure about the type of snake which had bitten him, Pat went to the house of his superior, the District Commissioner, 'Baby' Taylor. Now, Baby was busy. He was writing a report and clearly his mind was not o =n his junior's predicament as he asked "Are you sure it was not a mosquito?"
The young ADC returned to his hut to consider his options. His servant, Brimah, immediately know it was "a very bad snake" and wanted to call the services of the local witch doctor. But official British advice was to cut the wound open, apply permanganate of potash and tie a tourniquet around a point nearer the heart.
Strangulation seemed to the defeat the object, however and, other options appeared to be limited. Pat asked Brimah for a brandy. His head swelled to an enormous size. When he pushed his finger into it, it left a great indentation. He was not in pain but he was distressed. Feeling thirsty, he tried to swallow some water which simply sloshed down his nose. His head and throat had become paralysed. "I could not even get rid of my own salive."
The court messenger visited him and reassured Pat that the would not die. When 'Baby' Taylor strolled along in the evening to visit his junior officer to see how the 'mosquito bite' was faring, and saw the ghastly sight of the huge water melon sized head, he fair got the wind up and sent for a doctor.
"The doctor arrived the following evening and gave me an anti-venom injection for what it was worth at that stage. The system had been dealing with the poison and I was getting better. The doctor observed that if I had been bitten on any fleshy part where the vessels are bigger, I would have been a gonner."
As it was, his thick thatch of hair provided some protection and the small blood vessels had filtered the poison through slowly enough to allow the body to rally its defences.
In three days, he was back at work but thereafter he was constantly prone to malaria and his tour was cut short. He was admitted to the Tropical Diseases Hospital in London under the care of its head, Sir Philip Manson Bahr, who found that Pat's spleen was very much enlarged. This was due to the organ having to produce white corpuscles in huge quantities in defense against the snake's venom.
Thanks to a strong constitution, therefore, and plenty of hair, Pat O'Dwyer's service in Sierra Leone did not end in disaster.
At least not then.
He served for another twelve years but he often fell prey to malaria. On Trafalgar Day 1945, he met with catastrophe, or, as he put it, his Waterloo. (See "A story of courage"). And it can be speculated that although clearing the ground for the ADC's house may not have been entirely where the first seeds of calamity were sown, there is no doubt that the dramatic turn that took place in Pat O'Dwyer's life some ten years later was probably aided by disturbing that green mamba quietly minding its own business in a bush in Port Loko and which 'Baby' Taylor, thought might be a mosquito.
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