British Empire Article

Courtesy of OSPA

by Eric Bult
(Nyasaland Police, 1951 -64)
Riot Drill
Nysaland Police Bedford Truck
"Grab a tin hat, Bult, and climb into the Land Rover. You're the official recorder", said ASP Morrrison, the Officer i/c Blantyre Police District. "Where are we going, Mike ?" I asked my colleague A/lnsp. Costello, as we climbed together into the vehicle with several other junior officers. "It seems there's a disturbance at one of the estates at Cholo and the DC has asked for assistance. The 0/C reckons there's going to be a riot so we're off as back up."

So this was my introduction to police work in Nyasaland. I reflected, as the vehicle drew out from the station forecourt behind a Bedford truck laden with police carrying shields and long batons, into the traffic moving along Sclater Road toward the clock tower and the road to Limbe. We were obviously in a hurry and our driver was clearly determined to lead our little convoy which followed the 0/C's car as it overtook anything and everything on the journey to Cholo that morning. Only a couple of months had passed since I had arrived in Nyasaland from the UK where I had served for three years in the Metropolitan Police. The massive transition from the largest and oldest police force in Britain to the little colonial unit in Central Africa was proving to be quite a challenge. I was not too sanguine about the possibility that I could be involved in a 'dust up' with local natives probably armed with bows, arrows and spears, while my experience of rough stuff thus far had been nothing more than sorting out fights in pubs and outside dance halls in the East End of London. Never had I been involved in any breach of the peace requiring even the thought of drawing the short truncheon which, whenever on duty, I had carried in its long pocket against my right thigh. Before beginning every duty shift, I had duly held up for inspection by the Shift Sergeant the three essential items required by those who maintained the peace: notebook, whistle and baton.

Riot Drill
Bedford Riot Truck
These were the thoughts that occupied my mind as the Land Rover sped along the only long stretch of tarmac in the whole of the Protectorate in the year 1951. My wife and baby daughter had not then joined me from Britain. It was indeed amazing that I, married and a father too, had been appointed to serve in Nyasaland. Requirements for applicants, I recalled, included being unmarried. Clearly the Deputy Commissioner of Police, who had sat on my Selection Board in the course of his leave in Britain must have considered my experience in the Met. outweighed that requirement.

As we arrived at an estate office in Cholo, we were told that the District Commissioner was there still negotiating with leaders of a very disorderly mob surrounding the office. We were assured that he was not in danger, but that the gathering would not disperse unless three men who had been arrested for theft at the estate were released. The Officer in Charge, Police, formed our group in riot order in close proximity to the estate office. As we stood there some of the noisy throng, together with others who seemed to appear from nowhere, approached the riot squads and began taunting them. At this stage the wife of the DC arrived at the scene and enquired in Chinyanja from one bystander, who was shouting and waving a spear, whether her husband was all right and would he be home for lunch. The demonstrator handed his spear to a friend and pushed his way through the crowd toward the office. Shortly after, he re-appeared and assured the lady that indeed the bwana DC was ok, but that he was unsure about the lunch. Having fulfilled his commission, the man retrieved his spear and began once again waving it and shouting.

Riot Drill
Riot Landrover
The antics of the infiltrators of the police lines were causing apprehension concerning the degree of control our commander could maintain in the circumstances. Fortunately the DC appeared soon thereafter, spoke quickly to the Officer i/c Police, and climbed onto the platform of a truck which was parked nearby. He began addressing the throng in Chinyanja and immediately spoke the words of the riot proclamation, with which I had already familiarised myself. I was not at all surprised by the reluctance shown by those assembled there to 'go to their homes peacefully', or by the order shouted by the commander to charge the crowd. Those who unfortunately had remained within baton range tasted the painful expression of memories of very recent taunts.

My notes, scribbled hastily as I jinked here and there in the melee which developed in the vicinity of the estate office, included reference to the flying spear head which arrived over the heads of the mob and fell at the feet of a police Inspector. He picked it up and stuffed it quickly into his pack before continuing his battle regardless of his dented helmet and bleeding forehead. It was sometime later, when peace had once more been achieved, that a shamefaced fellow, bearing what appeared to be a long stick, approached the same Inspector and asked for the return of his spear head which had become loose and was seen to fall and be picked up by the officer.

Another strange incident that I recorded that day but not included in the evidence I gave to the Devlin Commission of Inquiry much later, concerns the serious mistake made by my colleague Mike Costello who, when ordered to fire riot shells into the mob, delved into his pack for a second shell and pulled out a huge bar of chocolate. The gas shells, he explained shamefully, were in the pack left in the Land Rover.

No arrests were made that day. Much more serious incidents occurred during the State of Emergency that followed in later years. Both sides felt the jolt of a sharp learning curve and no doubt both wrote it off to experience.

Colonial Map
Central African Federation Map, 1960
Colony Profile
The Devlin Report
Devlin Report in Spectator
Originally Published
OSPA Journal 112: October 2016


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