British Empire Article

Courtesy of OSPA

by Ruth Holmes
Michael McAlister Holmes had qualified as a doctor at Queen's University Belfast and had then spent a few months studying for what was then a DRCOG (Obstetrics and Gynaecology) before working as an assistant in a busy city practice.

I had met Michael at university and since I had graduated, I had been teaching in a tough Secondary Modern School in Belfast. We married at the end of 1950. He often worked late into the night and I always made a very early start in the morning, before crossing the city to my school. We had rejected, first, the offer of his father's practice in Wales, second the idea of a practice in a rich farming area in County Armagh, and lastly, after an interview, a practice in Leicester, where I too could have had a Job. "Too far away from the sea" I remember saying. I think we were both in the mood for travel, for adventure and for fresh challenges and so Michael attended an interview with a view to working overseas.

As much was made of his ability to ride a horse, he was convinced that his first posting was to be the bush of Northern Nigeria and we spent our small allowance on canvas furniture of all kinds. Instead, before setting off, he was informed that he was to look after the hospital and the nursing home in Kaduna, the Northern Region capital, as well as taking on responsibility for the health of the area. Just after Queen Elizabeth's Coronation on 2 June 1953 he set sail for Lagos.

I arrived in Kaduna shortly after him and on the night of a huge storm. There was an important boxing bout on that night and my husband's responsibility was to examine the contestants and then stay on duty. I arrived too late to attend the boxing and too tired to accept an escort and so lay under a large mosquito net for the first time and experienced that unearthly silence that comes before a storm. There then followed the deafening noise of torrents of rain on the roof, with blue lights Jumping out of the telephone. Next came a cacophony of insect sounds and then, the most frightening of all, the slow deliberate tread of footsteps circling the house. When my husband got in half an hour later and assured me there was nothing out of the ordinary to worry about and the footsteps were only those of the policeman on his beat, I wondered after all whether I was cut out for that life?

Curtains in Kaduna
Local Dress
A lovely old Lugard-style house went with the Job. It had many windows, and as I had neither the money nor the aspiration for the Sanderson type fabrics that many expatriate wives had brought with them, I decided to see what was to be found locally. I viewed the indigo pits and watched the dyeing process and saw that attractive designs were made with the use of a resist paste made of cassava and lime Juice. I was happy to support a local industry and bought yards of a blue and white striped material and soon my curtains were made.

One morning a few days later when I was in the bedroom I heard a rhythmical swishing sound followed by a metallic clang and looking down on to the compound I saw nine or ten men with langalangas (grass slashers) in their hands, all cutting the grass in unison, with the help of a timekeeper. My eyes however were riveted on what they were wearing, for it seemed to be my curtains. They were the local prisoners and my curtain material was their uniform!

The curtains remained at the windows and became paler with sunlight and with washing, for they were not entirely colour fast. I think in the end they were passed on with the house when we went on leave.

This experience however was the beginning of a lifetime's interest in resist dyeing. Later in East Africa I began working in batik (wax resist) and exhibited and then taught first in Africa and then in the UK, in Ireland and the USA.

Africa Map
1955 Map of Kaduna Region
Colony Profile
Originally Published
OSPA Journal 102: October 2011


Armed Forces | Art and Culture | Articles | Biographies | Colonies | Discussion | Glossary | Home | Library | Links | Map Room | Sources and Media | Science and Technology | Search | Student Zone | Timelines | TV & Film | Wargames

by Stephen Luscombe