British Empire Article

Courtesy of OSPA

by Christopher Bean
The Human Crocodile Man
International Reporting of Case
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.

The Human Crocodile Man
The Times
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.

Colonial Map
Central African Federation Map, 1960
Colony Profile
Originally Published
OSPA Journal 93: October 2007


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