British Empire Article

Courtesy of OSPA

by Arthur Staniforth
How to Kill Locusts
Bir Nagaa
I see that locusts - the eighth biblical plague - are back in the news. It has prompted me to turn up an old diary for 1945 when I was working in the Sudan. I see that I reported with my cook on September 14th at Shendi, a town north of Khartoum. There I was given a truck and driver, with tent, water, provisions and a supply of bait (Paris Green and bran) and we drove off to my base at Bir Nagaa. It was in the shadow of some splendid ruins of the ancient kingdom of Merowe. There I met the scout who was to guide me round the locust-infested parts of the country, and two British army signallers, and their interpreter. They had been sent down from Egypt so that we could keep in touch by wireless with the Shendi headquarters who would provide more bait, petrol and money as required.

The signallers were making the most of their secondment; they had discarded their uniforms and taken to arab garb and had somehow acquired a young orphaned gazelle which they kept as a pet.

My job was to control and pay the baiting gangs which were scattered over a huge area. The bait was spread by the gangs in front of the advancing hoppers which were killed in their thousands.

I had better explain here about the hoppers. Locusts are extraordinary, schizophrenic insects. For years they live as solitary, fairly inoffensive, grasshoppers, in places like the Republic of Niger or Arabia. Then, perhaps because food runs short, they are seized with a need for lebensraum. They enter a migratory phase and rise in swarms, often to a great height and instinct takes them to areas of sandy soil where seasonal rains are imminent. Here they lay their eggs in pods of around 100. The eggs hatch when the rain falls and hordes of tiny hoppers emerge which feed on the new vegetation, also brought on by the rain. They advance on a broad front and, as they grow, they shed their skins about five times until, after some 45 days, they sprout shiny, diaphanous wings and, after a few trial flights, rise in the huge swarms that move on to cultivated areas to devastate the crops.

How to Kill Locusts
Monuments of Merowe
Flying swarms are notoriously difficult to attack, but the hoppers are vulnerable. I would start my rounds early in the morning, because the hoppers were most active before the day got hot. I kept to the lorry as much as I could but sometimes had to go by camel.

After about six weeks our scouts said they could find no more hoppers. I paid off the gangs and returned unused bait to Shendi. We bought a lamb from a local Arab and the signallers, guide, interpreter, my cook, driver and I had a celebration feast. The signallers resumed their khaki and went back north with their wireless, no doubt to a humdrum existence, until their time came to be demobbed. I knew them only as Geoff and Dutch and that they came from midland counties. I wonder what tales they told their grandchildren of the time they camped with their radio under the monuments of Merowe.

This account prompted Andrew Seager to recall his own experiences of dealing with locusts in British Somaliland

map of Sudan
1945 Map of Dongola in Sudan
Colony Profile
Sudan Colony Profile
Originally Published
OSPA Journal 91: April 2006
Extract from
Imperial Echoes


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