The story I now tell occurred whilst I was stationed at Chikwawa on the Lower River
area of Nyasaland, the Lower River being the Shire which ran from Lake Nyasa
down to the Zambezi.
One late afternoon one of my detective sergeants came to me with a story which
turned out to be probably the most important, or notorious, case of my police career and
one which was subsequently written up in the world press.
I need briefly to describe the lower court system extant in Nyasaland in those days.
We had the Resident Magistrate's Court with a professional magistrate rather like the old
Stipendiary Magistrates in the UK. In addition, at the same level although used less
frequently, was the District Commissioner's Court. Below that was the court held by the
senior local chiefs, rather like the Small Claims Courts. It was called the Local Court. The official government districts were divided up into the chiefs' areas and these were
tribally determined. The senior chief was a pretty important character and one the
government held in considerable regard. He had the power to hear minor assault cases,
divorce or marry people, and perhaps most of his work was determining minor claims
for damages or loss. In this instance the d/sgt had been to the court of Chief Chapananga,
a pretty big chief responsible for the Chapananga area. One in which I hunted very
regularly. The sgt wanted to tell me about a case the chief had heard that day in which a
man named Ellard, who claimed to have the powers to turn himself into a crocodile (a
magic crocodile!), had been paid by another man named Odrick to kill a little girl aged
eight years. The agreed price had been two pounds ten shillings. This had taken place
three years earlier and shortly after the killing took place Ellard was caught for burglary
and served an eighteen month sentence in jail. Obviously a versatile kind of chap.
The tale they both told and agreed upon was that Odrick identified the child to be
killed and in due course Ellard entered the river where she and her friends bathed in the
evening, changed himself into a crocodile, swam up to her and grabbed her and made off
down river with her. At this time the village headman who had been returning from a
hunting trip saw the "crocodile" taking the girl and let go both barrels of his shotgun
(shotti-gun as they were known). Twisting to avoid the shot, Ellard, who had hold of the
little girl's forearm, broke it. He made his getaway after drowning the child and met
Odrick nearby, reporting the deed was done. Odrick then gave him ten shillings, which
they called "blood money", as an advance on the whole fee to be paid very shortly.
Ellard went into the "Kingi Georgie Hotel" as prison was known, and when he had
served his time, came looking for his balance of the fee. Odrick twisted and turned and
eventually in desperation, Ellard went to the Local Court and sued him for it! This whole
story was recorded in the Court record and they both signed it. Chapananga said, "Fair
enough, the money is due, pay it." It was paid into the Court Funds, a receipt was issued
and it was disbursed to Ellard! An official government receipt for a murder fee!
The statements to the chief's court were freely offered and voluntary and as such
sufficient evidence to commence enquiries. I immediately despatched the sgt back to
Chapananga's court with the instructions to seize the court record and bring in the two
suspects. I read the court record with amazement because here I had a full confession to
a murder without any suggestion of remorse or guilt. Once we had the two men in our
custody we recorded full cautioned statements from both of them in which they repeated
just about word for word what they had said in the chief's court. We then went out to the
village concerned and recorded statements from the parents of the dead girl, other
villagers who had witnessed the incident and the village headman who had fired his
shotgun at the "crocodile". None of these people knew anything about the two men
being involved and indeed the crocodile man was not even known to any of them.
Odrick was known to them but was no relation, and we never ever discovered a motive
for the contract killing! One vital point which did not come out from them, was the fact
that Ellard whilst in the water had broken the little girl's arm. Nobody had noticed it
when her body was recovered or when she was buried.
We obtained an exhumation order and went out to the village burial ground together
with my colleague Stan Pilbeam, the pathologist from Blantyre. I had probably
conducted about a dozen exhumations during my time in Nyasaland and some of them were pretty grim. Villagers had to be pressed into service to open up the grave and of
course we had to have somebody present to identify the grave and the body in it.
The villagers were very reluctant to assist us and in some cases, were actively belligerent
to the extent that we had to have armed policemen standing by.
This was not a problem in this case however and we duly opened the grave. She had
been buried on a very sandy hillside three years previously and the body had completely
disintegrated. Only dry bones remained and these had drifted some way from each other
due to movement of the ground. We had to use a fine sieve to discover what bones we
could and did in fact manage to get virtually the whole skeleton with, most importantly,
the broken bones from the girl's forearm. The importance of this will now be seen as the
only corroboration for the two confessions. Under English law, and Nyasaland also, a
man cannot be convicted of murder purely on the strength of his own confession.
In this case the broken bones provided the corroboration as only the crocodile man,
Ellard, had knowledge of this.
Both men were then charged with murder and in their reply to the charge, once
more repeated their whole stories. So that was three identical confessions from each
man. They were committed for trial and eventually the case came up before the Chief
Justice, Spencer-Wilkinson, in the High Court in Blantyre. Word of the case had got
outside Nyasaland and a number of international reporters attended the trial. Only one
word can describe the trial and that is bizarre! There was no jury trial in Nyasaland but
the judge sat with three assessors who were elders of the tribe to which the accused
persons belonged. They had no legal standing but were there to advise the judge on
matters of tribal law and custom. The accused exhibited no concern at their plight and
there were some very funny moments in the trial. One in particular occurred when the
Crown Counsel prosecuting asked Ellard how he became a "magic crocodile." He
replied that he had been shown the art by an uncle who was also a crocodile man. He
said that to make himself into a crocodile, he dressed himself in the bark of a certain
tree and uttered an incantation. The Counsel asked him to demonstrate this to the
Court and you could almost hear an audible gasp from the black audience as they
expected to see an immediate transformation. He said of course he couldn't do it in
court so Counsel asked him if he saw other crocodiles when he was in the water and
what their reaction to him was. He said that when he was in the water he was brothers
with the other crocodiles and conversed with them in crocodile language! Counsel
asked him for a demonstration of crocodile language and he said he could only do it
when he was in the water also. The white spectators of course broke up laughing but I
am quite certain that the majority of the black people present believed the man to be
able to change into a crocodile.
When all the evidence was heard the judge asked the assessors what was their opinion
of the matter. The first replied, "This girl was killed by magic!" The second said, "This thing was a magic thing!" and the third said, "This was a magic crocodile!" I doubt
very much if this influenced the judge in any way and he duly sentenced them to death
and they were hanged in Zomba Prison. Apart from the bizarre nature of the case, it was
unusual in that there was so little hard evidence against them. They were never identified
by anybody as being suspected of a crime, indeed the villagers had always believed the
girl died from a crocodile attack, a very common cause of death in the area. Had they pleaded "Not Guilty" instead of being so willing to tell their story, I wonder if the case
would have stood up. Had they not gone to court to settle their civil case, nobody would
ever have known about it. And as I have said, we never uncovered a motive for the
killing nor even a connection between Odrick and the family.
I have mentioned that most of the black people in court believed quite sincerely that
Ellard was indeed capable of turning himself into a crocodile, so I thought that at my
next Monday morning parade in Chikwawa, which was followed by a talk on some
aspect of law, I would talk about witchcraft in a naive attempt to convince my policemen
that it didn't exist. I opened the meeting by reminding them of the crocodile case and to
get them going said, "I expect that if one of you is walking down the police lines (the
residential area in their camp) on a moonlight night and you feel a touch on your
shoulder, you think it is a tokoloshe (a little devil!)". They pooh-poohed this idea and
said that it would be one of their friends playing a trick on them. I thought I was getting
somewhere and went on to ask if on a full moon any of them had seen their
grandmothers riding on the back of a hyena? A popular belief. Again they pooh-poohed
me so I thought I had got my policemen well along the path to civilisation until one of
them said, "Not a hyena, bwana, a lion!" The others all nodded their heads in agreement
and I could only shake mine in frustration. I have no doubt that most Africans today still
believe to varying degrees in some form of witchcraft.