What Mr Sanders Really Did

Written by Veronica Bellers

Transplanting English Law to Far Off Lands

I Promise to do right to all manner of men, without fear or favour, affection or ill-will." Part of a colonial Governor's oath.

Before the arrival of a British colonial administration the enforcement of law and order varied from tribe to tribe but on the whole punishment was prompt without such niceties as proving guilt or innocence. In Kenya "If a Masai warrior strikes another and kills him, he runs away and hides himself. Should there be no judges the brothers of the murdered man will kill the murderer." [15]

In Uganda the Banyoro were, we are told by Sir Harry Johnston, "an honest race - the exactions and raids of their chiefs and kings excepted....Theft is peculiarly rare...and they are honest to a degree which is exceptional in the Uganda Protectorate, where, as a rule, the people are a very honest lot... Under the old native Government, if a case of theft took place in the daytime, it was punished by a fine, but if at night, the culprit was left to the mercy of the people he had robbed, and this usually meant his being beaten to death with clubs and his body thrown on to the main road." [16]

On the western side of the continent justice was, if anything, harsher still before the advent of British law. In Ondo State the native punishment for murder, burglary, robbery and slave-dealing was death "usually by crucifixion in the bush", and sedition was punished by cutting off the offender's lips and ears "after which he was chained to the town gate to act as toll-collector. And in some towns in Awka Division punishment for murder was the fine of one woman." [17]

In the 1940's my father found himself discussing with the local leaders how to mete out justice to some maize thieves in Kwali on the Kenya coast. His suggestions, which were of course in accordance with British law, met with disdain: "When we caught someone stealing maize," he was told severely "we would cut off one hand and if he was caught again we would cut off the other."

Trying to transpose English law to Africa was not, therefore, an easy matter as Lord Justice Denning observed in 1955:

"Just as with the English oak, so with the English common law: one could not transplant it to the African continent and expect it to retain the tough character which it had in England. It had many principles of manifest justice and good sense which could be applied with advantage to peoples of every race and colour all the world over, but it had also many refinements, subtleties and technicalities which were not suited to other folk. These off-shoots must be cut away. In those far-off lands the people must have a law which they understood and which they would respect.

The task of making these qualifications was entrusted to the judges of those lands, It was a great task." [Corfield Report] [6]

Magistrates were usually District Commissioners or District Officers who were designated as Class I, II or III Magistrates and there were limitations in sentencing imposed according to the Class. There were also some magistrates who travelled from district to district. In Kenya one District Officer was struck down with multiple sclerosis fairly early in his career. (It was a double blow because he had been an athletic man who had represented Britain as a hurdler at the Olympics.) When his illness had been diagnosed he became a roving magistrate.

Often the first step people made in seeking justice was using the device of the petition. It was a popular method of making people in authority aware of a problem and sometimes it could be resolved at that point. Mervyn Maciel, a clerk in the Kenya Administration was of the opinion that the petition was a helpful way to get a grievance off a petitioner's chest and even if the DC's solution was not to his advantage the petitioner could at least go home relieved that the problem had been resolved one way or the other. The reasons for petition could be minor, and quaintly phrased, such as this one from the Sudan:

"To his Excellency the Governor. The Bash-Shiwash [Sergeant Major] of the Police has ... my wife, my God how annoying!" and it ended sadly, "Ah! and ah!". [Reginald Davis]

Many people employed the services of the professional letter writer and strict rules applied:

"The amount which they were allowed to charge was laid down by law according to the number of words and the number of copies required and it was a criminal offence to charge more than the fee prescribed. [Atkinson]

Serious petitions were dealt with sympathetically and a strict, if cumbersome procedure was followed when such a petition was received.

Petitions came to the DO in the first instance but the addressee might be the DO himself or, in ascending order, the Resident, the Chief Commissioner, the Governor, the Secretary of State for the Colonies, or His/Her Majesty. Each petition addressed to an authority higher than the DO had to pass through the officer(s) below on both the upwards and downwards journey. The number of copies required was the number of stages through which the petition had to pass plus one; a petition to the DO had to be sent in duplicate whereas one sent to the Monarch or to the Secretary of State (who were regarded as the same for practical purposes) needed six copies. Petitions to the Governor would receive a reply usually within nine to twelve months while one addressed to the Secretary of State or the King would take up to 18 months; as often as not the reply would simply be that His Majesty, His Excellency, or His Honour had nothing to add to the advice given by the DO to the petitioner...Petitioners were always addressed as Sir or Madam and accorded the following ending:

I have the honour to be,
Your obedient Servant

Probably the most prolific letter-writer and certainly one of the least inhibited dwelt in Abeokuta. During the course of a single year he filled seven files averaging 200 pages each with petitions on his own behalf and on behalf of his clients. He was also perhaps the most mendacious. In one of his own petitions he accused the DO of assaulting his wife, raping his daughter, falsely imprisoning his brother and using such bad words on the petitioner himself that he could even understand them. The letter ended, 'From all the above, I can only conclude that the DO does not love me at all.'

The claim to fame of one of the Warri letter-writers rested mainly on the headings to his letters. Two examples are:

'Mr ..., an incompetent drunkard'
'Lt Col ... is a goat'

The DO described as an incompetent drunkard, is said to have shown the letter to the Resident with the remark that it was the first time that his competence as a drunkard had been called into question.

While the DO was the commonest recipient of petitions, no government official, trader or commercial could expect to escape altogether. One received by the Manager of Elder Dempster Lines was a claim for compensation for damages from a dock labourer. He had fallen into the hold of a ship and according to him, had suffered a long list of injuries to head, nick, ribs, waist, legs and feet. The last injury listed was: 'One private member (slightly bent)." [Atkinson]

Petitions could also be made in person and this could stretch the resources of the Administration considerably. In some places such as the Sudan, in the very early days local elders were brought in to help but Reginald Davies wrote:

"It was flattering, but irksome, that petitions always seemed to want the attention of the British Inspector. As one of them, making his way reluctantly to the panel of elders, cried out picturesquely, 'The turban will not ease me! The tarbush will not ease me! I want the helmet!"

Debt is a universal problem and in Sierra Leone all cases of debt were brought before the DC followed by interminable distress warrants issued when the judgement had not been fulfilled. Finally court messengers had to distrain on the property of the debtor. In the early days of the British Administration in West Africa and indeed prior to its arrival, recovering a debt often involved pledging a debtor or a member of a debtor's family. And in Sierra Leone, for example, domestic slavery was legal until 1927 thus the system condoned it. After that date it became illegal, but pledging and slavery went on in many cases. When the slave had the courage, he or she would complain to the DC who would order them to be set free. Their masters were of course always Africans too and many of these were chiefs. There was one case in Nigeria where a son was pledged to a chief to repay the debt of his dead father. This was a great misfortune for the son who was an intelligent man but he almost totally missed out on his education, working for his father's creditor.

It was sometimes awkward to disagree with a chief's ruling because good relations were valuable but where misdemeanours such as adultery were punished by pledging there was no choice:

"Very often a man would pledge himself to the husband of the girl with whom he had committed adultery because he had no other way of paying damage. This form of pledging one's person was illegal, but the chiefs for the most upheld it and indulged in it themselves because a peasant really had nothing to give but himself when he got into debt. This was one case when we often had to overrule a chief and set the man free." [O'Dwyer]

Native courts, presided over by the chiefs heard civil and criminal cases using procedures based on their own native laws. The chief's powers varied in each colony but generally he was empowered to imprison, in the District gaol, for up to a period of six months, confirmed by the DC and with appeal permitted to the DC, the PC or the High Court. These native courts worked well. O'Dwyer says that in Sierra Leone "the DC was always wary of upsetting the chief's sentence, for if he undermined the authority of the Paramount Chief in his own Chiefdom, he could bring disorder which he, the DC would have to repair. [9]

Julian Huxley, who was asked in 1929 by the Colonial Office advisory committee to go out to East Africa to advise upon certain aspects of native education discussed in his book "Africa View" the pros and cons of indirect rule. With this in mind he considered how the law would be affected:

"Under direct rule" he wrote "an overburdened white man attempts to deal with the legal affairs of tens of thousands of natives. In spite of finding his energies overtaxed, he knows, if he reflects a little, that only a fraction of the accumulated litigiousness of the people actually finds its way to him. Either violent or illegal means of settling disputes must be increasing, or the old traditional methods of native justice, although unrecognized by white authority, are dealing with the bulk of cases out of his sight, below the surface. ...

But under the full system of indirect rule, not only are Native Courts recognized, but they are recognized as the mouthpieces of local law and custom, only to be interfered with or modified if these conflict with certain fundamentals of white justice. Thus the law which regulates the dealings of a native people with each other is no more imposed upon them from without than is the chief who rules them; it is their own law, an indigenous product.

...In the Musoma district I was given an example of how under indirect rule the natives get the law they like, and not an alien code. The people here are very frightened of witchcraft, and take great precautions to conceal their excrement, nail-parings, and so forth, for if an enemy got hold of such products of their bodies, there would be no limit to the harm he might do. Recently a man was caught stealing another man's urine. The presumption was that he wanted it for magic purposes, and the Native Court inflicted the heavy fine of 10s. And the District Officer, when he went through the records upheld the judgement. According to certain standards, he was wrong to confirm what he knew was based in error; but granted that the territory has embarked on the policy of indirect rule, he was perfectly correct. "

Did the people "in those far off lands" have a law which they understood, respected and above all which worked? Pat O'Dwyer, who wrote a comprehensive description of the justice system in Sierra Leone thought so:

"In capital cases of murder, arson etc the DC took depositions from all the witnesses and committed the prisoner for trial in the circuit court. For this a Puisne Judge would come up from Freetown and go round the districts about every six months. If the trial was one in which a native was involved the D.C. got hold of two Paramount Chiefs to sit with the Puisne Judge to advise him on the native law. He was not bound to take the advice of the chiefs and there was no jury. For the most part I think justice was done all right." [9]

Elliot Balfour considered that the colonial penal system "placed a great deal of power in the hands of a single individual, but seldom, if ever, was this power consciously misused."

Brian Carlisle hopes this was so in the Sudan: "Whilst in the Districts" in the Sudan in the forties "one was properly pitchforked into the D.C.s work and, looking back, I am amazed to see how soon I was put on trying judicial cases - I trust no great injustices were done. In Kassala Province no Province High Court Judge was appointed until late 1947 and even then a lot of judicial work still fell on the Administration, particularly the Magisterial Enquiries that still had to be held for commitment for trial by Major Court. For the first few months an interpreter was at hand but after that one coped on one's own. My records show that in this period the cases I tried included the...beating up of a policeman, selling a short measure of cloth, insulting the Police by a prostitute, having a dirty coffee shop and smuggling."


"It is hardly good sport to sit in a court
While weather is dripping and sultry
And trying to channel the facts for law panel
Re customs and local adult'ry

We - um and we - er about him and her
And the state of a fully bought wife,
Or such pregnancy fees to be paid as we please,
Divorces and marital strife.
(Recording Customary Law)

In 1931 Majery Perham spent a morning in an "A" grade native court in Oyo, Nigeria:

"It is, for tropical Africa, the usual open-sided building which attracts the crowd. Spectators were divided as to sex, about thirty women on one side, about a hundred men on the other. The clerk at the table was writing in what I observed over his shoulder to be very dubious English. Seven Judges reclined on the ground upon a slight dais. They wore flowing robes with large blue and white patterns and baggy trousers. The president had conceived a striking attitude in which one foot was raised above his head, a pose I have only seen upon a Chinese print. The clothes heightened the Chinese impression, the round heads, some slanting eyes and a couple of top-knots in pure Chinese fashion.

The form here of greeting one's superior is to fall flat on the ground and put your face almost in the dirt. Wherever a new judge joined the bench all the others collapsed, a rather tiring and insanitary form of greeting. One of the young British cadets introduced me with a nervous speech which was not received by the court with much enthusiasm.

A clerk sat next to me and breathed an interpretation into my ear. The women litigants were shrill to the point of hysteria. When the judges were shouting down their colleagues and the goats at issue in the case were bleating and the hens clucking it was not easy to follow the legal niceties of the proceedings. When they wished to confer together the chiefs rolled into a heap in the middle, wallowing like a school of walruses. One old gentleman, following excellent Western precedent, was fast asleep. As so frequently happens in African courts, no case ended; each was adjourned for further evidence. A sign of thoroughness or lethargy?"

Hearing cases was, of course often a tedious job, particularly as in most places it involved interpreters:

"...all non-summary trials" in the Sudan "were recorded in English and read over to the witness in the presence of the accused in whatever language they used." [Set in Authority]

A.F.B. Bridges in Ondo 1934 alleviate the boredom by bird watching:

"an enterprising couple of swallows had been able to build a nest on a beam over my desk. Apart from a leisurely sweeping of the floor daily, the office boy's principal duty seemed to be to put a clean sheet of paper on my desk each day to catch the droppings. It was a pleasant interlude watching the family being fed when complaints were particularly long-winded." Rex Niven demonstrated what The Times in 1959 described as, "the extreme difficulty of applying the cold logic of British Judicial methods to the essentially imprecise undertones of much that goes on in Africa": [6]

"Quite unwittingly I committed an injustice in a case I was hearing. A man was charged with burglary in a long room, a sort of lodging house, where he had been seen in the middle of the night walking with a lighted lantern in his hand. In my simplicity I thought that this was a sign of innocence, for a guilty person would surely not be so blatant. But according to all the local experts, I had been wrong in acquitting him, as the fact of the lantern showed his guilt. The first thing a good burglar would do was to blow a magic powder under the door and give it time to do its work. Then he would enter with his lantern and rob at leisure. The powder would be sleep-inducing and everyone would be in a deep sleep. The police used to find these powders when they arrested people, also a wad of cotton-wool, which was for invisibility, and a little pot of grease to get out of the handcuffs. When these had been placed out of reach, they would say 'he is now helpless', and he certainly was." [8]

Justice, in Niven's case could also include guile:

"Kabba was badly split into factions regarding the succession to the chieftancy. One day members of 'section A' came streaming up to my office in great agitation. They said that the leader of 'section B' had been seen placing a stone in the thatch of the biggest roof belonging to the leader of 'A'. The stone was produced, a smooth piece of granite shaped like a spearhead so that it would stick in the thatch. This stone, they all swore, would attract lightening - for which the area was notorious - and so set fire to his whole compound and with luck burn him up with it. Unfortunately British law, thorough and painstaking as it is, had never categorised attracting lightning with intent as a crime. I could have fallen back on the old charges of intent to commit a breach of the peace and the like, but the 'crime' was too nebulous for that. So the only thing was subterfuge.

"I took out the impressive leather-bound Record Book, huge and heavy, and a pile of legal volumes. The leader of 'section B' was then charged with attempted murder - it seemed better to do the thing properly - and the rest of the day was spent taking down depositions, reading them over and getting them signed or attested.

"The Court (myself) then explained to the assembled public that the accused had so far not actually done anything. The stone they gave me was solemnly wrapped up and sealed in the presence of all, marked 'Exhibit 1', and locked away in the safe. The accused was bound over and warned that all that had been written would be taken into account should another squeak come out of him. They went away very thoughtful and no further trouble arose. The loose sheets on which I had written the depositions were put into an envelope - I had written nothing at all in the great Record Book. I wondered sometimes what my successors thought of that stone. Maybe it is now in some museum." [8]

How much crime there was in Africa during the period of British Administration from a statistical point of view is an impossible question to answer without going into more detail than would be interesting. Crime existed, of course, but the flavour of writing and interviews from people who were there at the time seems to demonstrate that the general trends of crime were not a matter of great concern.

Stealing on the farms in Kenya was fairly common (and difficult to resolve) but life for all the races was not ruled by fear of crime and my own memory is that there was a much more laid back attitude than exists today which probably demonstrates that crime was not very prevalent. Cars and houses were seldom locked prior to the Mau Mau. At one time in Nairobi the criminal fraternity discovered a rather ingenious method of petty stealing with the use of poles. These pole fishers used to push their poles through the windows and silently hook out items of value from the house. They were rumoured to be extraordinarily dexterous. There was one story, which may be apocryphal, of the man who awoke to find his wife's handbag sailing passed his face on the end of a pole. He plucked it off, shouted "Go away!" and turned over and went back to sleep.

A.F.B. Bridges commented on crime in Nigeria in 1921/22:

"There was on the whole, surprisingly little thievery in the country outside the big towns, considering that bush houses never had locks or doors and internal walls were only about 6 ft high, without ceilings."

In the Sudan during the period 1908 to Independence in 1956 it is recorded that only four members of the Sudan Political Service were murdered by Sudanese. [7] In BEJA district in the Sudan Carlisle says that "Crimes were largely those of a pastoral society particularly animal theft, affrays and the occasional murder. Criminals were pursued relentlessly and where after some months of trying we could not arrest a really wanted man then with the Nazir's and D.C.'s approval the Police could resort to temporary apprehension of his mother or other women folk which nine times our of ten did the trick and led to the wanted man surrendering himself to the authorities within 24 hours."

Although it would seem that criminal activity during the colonial period was not, a major worry, within the secrecy of tribal rites dark deeds were done which were sometimes impossible to trace or get to grips with. Julian Huxley mentions in his book "Africa View" published in 1931, that "the traditional native institutions tenaciously continued to live a subterranean life". And this included killing people. Elspeth Huxley describes graphically how when she was duck shooting one evening as a child, it semed that one of two young men who had appeared to be larking about in the water, had drowned. When she went back to the area a few days later the man she was with, Njombo, refused to admit that a blanketed body floating in the water was a corpse and nobody, not even the local chief would admit to anyone missing or even discuss the matter "The man in the vlei seemed to have dropped out of existence without so much as a ripple on the surface of the life around him. Considering that every Kikuyu was embedded in a solid matrix of family, that no one ever stood alone, this was peculiar."

A curious case of what is known today as serial killing took place in Ndola in Northern Rhodesia in 1944.

"A Std VI African constable murdered five or six fish sellers. He would stop a man on the pretence of examining his loads for customs. Then he would take him into the bush and kill him by wedging his head in the fork of a tree and strangling him with his belt. The constable would sell the fish and use the money to buy a correspondence course in the detection of crime. The series of murders was discovered when one man he left for dead recovered and came to the police station to complain. At the interrogation the interpreter was none other than the constable. There was a dramatic moment when the African was asked if he would be able to recognise his assailant and he pointed to the constable interpreter. After police investigation the constable not only confessed to the murders but to the theft of cash from the police station the previous year." [10]

When it came to sentencing, Bridges describes the difference between an Assistant District Officer's powers and a District Officer's powers of punishment in Onitsha 1922-23:

"An ADO's powers in the Provincial Court were: civil cases when the dispute was for a value of '25 or less, and criminal cases where a maximum punishment of '25 or three months imprisonment was considered adequate; the DO's powers were: '50 fine or two years imprisonment in criminal cases; and a Resident's powers: '100 civil and '100 or 5 years imprisonment in criminal cases. All members of the Court had to send a monthly return of cases tried to the Chief Justice, and these returns acted as an appear. The Chief Justice could reduce or quash a sentence, and as one never got any reasons from him for this action we never learned what mistakes we might have made."

In Sierra Leone, but as far as I can ascertain nowhere else, if a convicted prisoner was sentenced to fourteen days or less, he would be placed in the Chief's stocks. These were known as alligators and consisted of two planks of wood hinged at one end and padlocked at the other. The prisoners would sit on the ground and their feet would be imprisoned by the alligators.

As Lord Denning observed, some aspects of English law did not suit folk in far off lands and one of these aspects was in the case of some people, imprisonment. In the Sudan Davies was concerned about putting the nomadic Arab into gaol and wondered at first if it was not tantamount to sentencing him to death. However, one Arab whom he sentenced to prison in Khartoum for ten years, after serving seven and a half was released early and thought he would pass the time before his train left, by calling on Davies, then in Khartoum.

"How did you get on in prison?" Davies asked him.

"By God, that prison is wonderful. They teach everything there. They taught me carpentry." He glanced round the room and his eye fell on a cushioned wooden settee. "I made that" he said, "with this my hand. And that," he added, pointing to the visitor's arm-chair.... "He spoke as though he were happy to have been able to make some slight return to a benefactor. So much so that I was misguided enough to follow that lead and say, 'As you are now a skilled carpenter, would you like me to help you get a set of tools so that you can set up a shop in El Odaigo, or even Nahud?'

He was staggered by the suggestion, but not with gratitude. 'I a carpenter?' he said, 'I?' He laughed heartily. 'They have given me a ticket, fourth class, to El Obeid, by train. It goes tomorrow. From there I'm going straight back to Dar Homr, to my cattle."

'With safety!' I said, when he asked leave to go.

'God keep you safe!' he replied. [4]

Nonetheless confining people who lived unfettered and wandering lives was a very real problem. Philip Mitchell records a tragic case involving the little wild men of the Uganda forests.

"One of the forms that sorcery or witchcraft takes is the digging up of dead bodies to obtain certain parts which are believed to have a special potency in necromancy*; the genital organs mostly, but also the fat at the base of the thumb and other bits. It is ...especially common in Toro, and the usual thing was to engage a Mwamba, who are little wild people from the Congo border west of Toro, pigmies in fact, forest dwellers ...as watchmen for the graves of the newly deceased relatives until risk of desecration was past. One such little man, hired by the local chief, standing guard at night, saw two men and a woman, stark naked as they always are on these expeditions, come to the grave and start digging. He crept upon them and shot an arrow, which killed the woman, the two men ran off into the darkness.

"In the morning, conscious of duty done, the little man called the chief and showed his handiwork. He was at once arrested and later committed for trial by the High Court for murder, tried by the Chief Justice and sentenced to death. How such a thing could be, I cannot tell. It was certainly the law, for the Attorney General must have indicted him and the Chief Justice tried him - and then made a strong recommendation for mercy. The little man, who of course had no language in common with the police, counsel or court, took it all very well; I suppose he thought rather a fuss was being made of a very ordinary bit of archery. He was understood to have said that if, incredibly, it was now thought that he had done wrong, he would be happy to return the goat and few chickens which had been his fee.

"He was, of course, reprieved and a sentence of imprisonment (for five years) substituted. A few months later the Chief Justice wrote to me in great distress and said he had been back to Fort Portal and found that the Mwamba was dying....At that time there was nothing the matter with him which could be made the subject of release on medical grounds, he was just pining away. He had tried once or twice to escape, and had been retaken; now he would just die. So I had a private talk with the appropriate officers, hoping that he might be helped to escape, but without result. He was at last released on completion of sentence went home to Bwamba and died of tuberculosis." [11]

It is true though that morale in the prisons was generally high. In Kenya prison was said to be referred to as the 'Kingi Gerogi Hoteli'. Prisoners were kept busy and I have childhood recollections of playing in the garden while prisoners cut the grass with their long sharp scythes within feet of us, while they gossiped and laughed.

[*art of predicting by means of communication with the dead]

One lady recounted:

"It always amused me so much when the prisoners came to do one's compound. They were with their machetes, which they sharpen like razor blades. There were the prisoners cutting the grass with these machetes and the man in charge of them just had a truncheon....There was one occasion when things went wrong in Lagos. The prisoners were clearing some ditches and two prisoners whose families were against each other, were working together, and got into a furious conversation, and one just swiped the other's head off! Whereupon all the prisoners and the warders legged it back to the prison as fast as they could go." [14]

Hazel Carlisle remembers her regular prisoner/gardener in Rumbek in Southern Sudan. [painting] He was a Dinka man and he arrived at the garden each day in his prison uniform. He would then decorously go behind a bush to take it off (that was the titillating part in his mind), fold the clothes carefully and then stride out stark naked and get on with the gardening. [12]

The prisoners were employed keeping government houses in good repair and the gardens clean and tidy. They emptied the latrines where sewage pipes had not been sunk and carried water to houses where there was no running water. One wife in Nigeria effected a rather clever swap with a missionary who lived in the vicinity. In return for something he wanted she received a water tank which she had erected on stilts. From then on the prisoners shinned up the ladder with buckets of water each day thus providing her with the untold luxury of running water in her hand basin. [13]

Of course disaffection did exist in the prisons but it did not loom very large in the scheme of things. When my father was a supernumery DO at his first post of Kiambu, the prisoners were employed building themselves a new prison. It was a long, single story building with the main door in the centre. One morning a prisoner shut himself behind the central doors with a pile of rocks and proceeded to lob out rocks if anyone came near him. The only thing he would yell at them was that he wanted to speak to Bwana Kidogo (Mr Small). Now, in Swahili the word 'mkubwa' means 'big' or 'large' but it also translates as 'important'. The word 'kidogo' - or 'small' - is also used in the context of 'unimportant' or 'least important' although this meaning is not quite so commonly used. In Kiambu the DC - or Bwana Mkubwa - happened to be a small man while the most junior DO - or Bwana Kidogo - was my father - a very large man.

Confusion reigned while the prisoner continued to throw missiles out through the door. The little DC - Bwana Mkubwa - was sent for but still rocks rained down on them; then the senior DO arrived to no avail and so on. Finally the very large, very junior supernumerary DO was sent for...and the prisoner came out like a lamb.

Rex Niven tells a story of a disaffected prisoner being held in Kaduna in Northern Nigeria. Niven was at the time Resident in Jos when the Superintendent of Jos Prison telephoned him to say that he had received a parcel of prison clothes through the mail. There was no message or covering letter: what should he do?

"I suggested that he ring Kaduna Prison. He did so and was told that a prisoner whose name was written on the clothes had escaped from a working party and they were looking for him. I said we had heard nothing from the Native Authority, and it was possible that he might be following his clothes. Sure enough in a day or two he turned up at the Jos prison and knocked at the great entrance door. He said he did not care for the food and amenities in the Kaduna Prison and understood that things were better in Jos, and so here he was. He had, he added, come 140 miles in mufti and on foot to avoid recapture. For the sake of discipline he had to be sent back to Kaduna, but before long some hard heart melted and he was formally transferred to Jos." [8]


Then there is the ultimate sancion of hanging. During the first half of the Twentieth Century capital punishment was not considered unusual and throughout the British Empire hanging was the sentence for murder. However, in the case of some nomadic tribes the confiscation of camels, cattle or flocks was also imposed.

Whether one is for or against hanging, it is a tragedy. To recount the story of a man's death feels almost like an intrusion, but I would like to think that all the participants might agree that their story should not be lost in the mists of time.

"Some splendid rivers crossed the Southern Division [Plateau Province, Nigeria], and over the millennia had carved through the edge of the high plateau, leaving in one place a great flat-topped hill, standing alone and impressive in the plain.

This solitary massif was inhabited by people singularly ungracious compared with those in the plains. This is what I thought then, but may be this attitude expressed a deep resentment at interference with their ancient liberties, which included being captured as slaves by the Fulani raiders. Their neighbours did not like them and called them Mada. I never found the real meaning of that word or even in which of the several possible languages it originated, but they didn't like it, so it must have been uncomplimentary. They themselves pressed for the name of Egon: 'The Men'....

One fine clear morning fifty years ago two young Egon men were sitting on a rock high up the hillside, watching the trade-route far below them. They saw a figure appear on a distant bend in the road. They watched carefully and could see no one with him. 'There's a Hausa', said one, 'and he's alone,' said the other. 'Come,' said the first, 'let's kill him.'

They were wearing little and did not show up as they slipped down the rocky hillside. They moved fast and reached the path before the lone traveller. They hid behind a huge rock and some greenery and waited for him. He passed them oblivious of their menace. They crept out and moved up on him from behind in absolute silence. One blow on his head from a heavy stick: a great shriek and then silence.

Some days afterwards a European surveyor called Buckingham came into my office in Wamba. He was a very good-looking man, and always wore pale blue shorts - to match his eyes the ladies said. He was doing some mines surveying in a camp to the north, where there was a certain amount of tin and where mining had been going on for years. He said that one of his labourers, Musa, was missing....Musa was a good worker and doing well, and there was no reason for his continued disappearance. He had been given a short leave to the south to see some relatives who lived across the Divisional Boundary, and had not returned...

Meanwhile, in a village on the edge of the Mada Hills near the scene I have described, the two young men were beginning to get worried. It was a firm belief in those parts that the ghost of anything killed would haunt the killer unless steps were taken to prevent it. There was a simple juju remedy to be had on application to the right person on payment of the right fee, which would afford complete protection - it was usually hunters who wanted it. If all this was necessary for the death of a large animal, what, they wondered, must you do to protect yourself against the haunting of a dead man? The two got more and more anxious. Inspite of their bravado they had never before actually killed a hman being. And so they took cautious action.

The Village Head went to the District Head, a wise and experienced man. The Village Head said that two young men had come to him asking for a 'medicine' called lahubu. This was a very special medicine, nowadays never asked for, but which had been much in demand in the past. They had been discreet but also frightened. And well they might be, for the medicine was only given to protect a killer from the avenging soul of his human victim. Neither of them knew of the search for the Survey labourer Musa. The District Head sent the information on to me.

I went with him on a long walk to the village of these people, sited in stupendous scenery in the glory of the hills. We searched the houses of the two young men and found nothing. My head messenger, who also was not without experience, said, 'Let us not leave before we have had a look at the grain bins.' In most of the villages of that area, and indeed of many other areas, these were built like great vases in the finest mud....

The messenger took a small calabash and started to scoop out the grain into head-pans. After about a foot had been moved he struck lucky. There was a white Muslim skull cap, with four pence in coppers in its folds. And on the edge of the cap was printed the name Musa in the neat movable type that the Survey use in their original map drawings.

At this point the younger of the two boys broke down and said that he would show us where the body was hidden. The other remained grim and scowling. I had with me a small police escort armed with rifles and bayonets. Now realising the seriousness of the situation, they formed themselves of their own accord around the two boys and myself. We went down the hillside, not by the route the young men had followed as they ran down to the kill, but by an easier and smoother track...

When we reached the trade-route in the valley, we moved south for some distance and then the youth stopped. It was here, he said, that they hit the man and he fell. But there had been no blood stains or marks of struggle when the original trackers went that way some days before. The youth smiled and said they had thought of that. He knelt down and started to turn over flat granite stones - like paving stones, flat on both sides - that made the footway. The undersides bore the marks of dried blood....

[Then] we followed the youth, now tied to the Corporal with a piece of string. Not far away we climbed up a vast smooth boulder and at the top found that two other boulders joined it. Over the join was a pile of brushwood, looking as though it had falled there years ago. The messenger dragged it away and uncovered a hole like a manhole. He looked down and said, 'There's a body'....

The two prisoners were charged and committed for trial by...the Resident of the Province. He came specially from Jos,...and drove up into the Mada Hills...This was in the days of the old Provincial Court and though we were all members of that Court with varying powers, he alone had the ultimate power of life and death....

The two young men were sentenced to death and the sentence was to be carried out near the scene of the crime. This was for obvious reasons: it was essential in those days for the people concerned to see that the law had taken its course....The African population being in a more elementary stage of life, took these things in their stride, with a polite interest and a mild wonder that so much trouble was taken in ending the life of a man, who was obviously qualified for a sudden and painful death.

The finding of the Court went to the Governor for approval in Council, or rather for an expression of the exercise or non-exercise of His Majesty's clemency - a complex way of saying a simple thing. We were not a little surprised to hear that the sentence on the pleasant young man was confirmed and that the law should take its course but, owing to a legal technicality the surly accused was to be released. This kind of result merely confirmed once more in the Nigerian public their firm belief that the white men were basically mad. There was, of course, precisely the same amount of guilt between the two of them. So he was released and we awaited the Warrant with the great black seal to deal with the other.

By the time it came we were in the Rains and the Commissioner of Police, Graham Callow (later a judge of the Nigerian High Court), and myself, the condemned man and a considerable police escort made our way into the heart of the Mada Hills and stayed the night in a rest house. The difficulty was getting a doctor to attend. You cannot execute a man without one present. We had no Medical Officer in the area; the nearest lived to the south at Lafia and had to come on the night train to Gudi. Then he was to be driven to the nearest point on the road, from which he had to walk some miles to the scene. It was a tight schedule and it seemed that something was bound to go wrong. Callow and I and this motley crew started off from the rest house at daylight to walk the twelve miles to the village. After a while it started to rain.

The police were on tenterhooks as it was their duty to get the man there and carry out the execution, and at the same time stave off any attempt at rescue. This was a very real danger. We had no idea whose side the public were on; they were non-committal and tight-lipped, and there were plenty of them, all armed. To make matters worse, the narrow paths in those parts ran between steep dry-stone walls, in many places ten feet high. In other circumstances we would have admired the ingenuity of their construction, but as things were they were merely a menace. The 'path' was just wide enough for feet in single file, the walls curving away to take bodies and loads. Many fields were divided by similar walls at right angles to the path. There could not have been worse territory. The police threw out flank guards on each side but they were out of our sight and if they had been attacked it would have been extremely difficult to concentrate the fire of the main body of police, strung out as they were in single file. All this was passing through Callow's mind, I admit I was worried too. Further, the prisoner himself had to walk with his escort in front and behind him and not on either side.

The rain became heavier as we went along. The 'path' was soon a small stream in most places, with irregular stones and small obstacles invisible below the water. The policemen were strangers and could not speak any of the local languages, and scarcely anyone at all could speak the prisoner's native tongue. It was a nightmare journey. And there was no doctor in sight.

After what seemed an interminable trek we reached the village of the two youths. Fortunately the rain now slacked off and eventually stopped. We decided in everyone's interest, specially the condemned man's that the job should be done without delay. Callow and his Sergeant were used to these things and set about preparations briskly. I stood with wet feet feeling definitely queasy. I had seen a great many men killed in action, [in WW I] but this was quite different.

He was hanged off a huge branch of an immense local bean tree, about thirty feet above the ground. Behind the tree the ground fell away sharply into the valley of the murder, and beyond was the magnificient vision of the Plateau escarpment. In another direction were bold rolling hills, tree- clad in every shade of green. No one could have asked for a more dramatic place for his ending. I shall not go into the technical details; they were simple and very effective. The police made it as easy as they could for the young chap and handled him as tenderly as a baby. From the time he stood under the branch to the time his neck broke was just twenty-five seconds.

The youth conducted himself with the greatest courage throughout that miserable last morning of his life. He was much more cheerful than we were. There were some hundreds of villagers in a huge circle round us, perched on every vantage-point. They were quiet and motionless. There was a low groaning sound at the last instant and that was all." [8]


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by Stephen Luscombe