The British Empire Library

The Red Pelican

by Jon Arensen

Courtesy of OSPA

Review by Brian Jervis (Sudan Condominium Child 1935 - 1950)
American author Jon Arensen compiled the information for this biography from Dick Lyth's personal diary notes, letters and other records made available to him before and after Dick's death in 2005. The book is in modern US English rather than the Oxford English which Dick would have spoken, presumably because it forms one of a "Sudan trilogy" of books by Jon Arensen who spent some years in post-independence Sudan.

The book recounts the exploits in southern Sudan during the last years of empire of Englishman Richard (Dick) Lyth, recently graduated from Oxford just prior to the start of WW2. The Sudan at that time was governed under the Anglo- Egyptian Condominium by what was formally known as the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan Government, with headquarters in Khartoum. The political structure comprised Governors and District Commissioners. The vast tracts of the southern Sudan, containing some of the most remote and disparate tribes in Africa, made communication and good administration difficult if not impossible.

Dick's original calling was to be a missionary in southern Sudan with the Church Missionary Society. The book recounts his initial travel up the White Nile from Khartoum by paddle steamer, the traditional form of transport, to Juba, the small town capital of Equatoria Province in southern Sudan and the furthest south accessible by this mode of transport. From here he travelled west to Yambio to meet the head of the CMS there, where he spent some time training for missionary work and getting to know the local tribes amongst whom he worked as an Anglican missionary.

Dick's life was soon to change, however, as news of the early stages of the war were reaching even these remote parts by wireless and Dick decided to join the Sudan Defence Force. This involved a flight back to Khartoum for training and subsequent appointment as a Major to single-handedly assemble an army from southern Sudanese tribes east of Juba, near the Ethiopian border, where there was a very real danger of Italian forces crossing into southern Sudan from Ethiopia (which they had occupied) and capturing and closing the White Nile. Faced with such immense responsibilities over an extensive part of the south eastern Sudan, a large part of the book describes how Dick assembled a large fighting force from the indigenous tribes, and trained and commanded them sufficiently to deter the Italian army from any serious attempt to invade the Sudan in that remote and inhospitable region.

The final and longest section of the book is devoted to Dick's post-war peacetime experiences. First a political appointment as a Frontier Agent in Boma near the Ethiopian border and in the same Upper Nile Province as his war-time experiences had been. Then a temporary political post as District Commissioner (for a few months while the incumbent was on leave) at Yei, south of Juba. Then a permanent posting in the Upper Nile Province, under Governor Kingdon, as a District Commissioner in his own right, back to near the Ethiopian border, but this time at Akobo where his new wife Nora and their new baby (first of four children) soon joined him. Together they set up their family home but later moved to a preferred location at the more southerly Pibor Post. Dick learned the very pressing and considerable duties of a DC in this remote region where the Murle, a semi-nomadic herdsmen tribe, were predominant and named him ''Kemerbon^' (Red Pelican).

He learned their language, studied Sudanese law and set up very respected and effective courts throughout the area for which he was responsible as top judge for the more complex or serious cases referred to him by tribal chiefs. He travelled constantly round his region, walking or on horseback with entourage, showing the flag and addressing problems. Serious disputes between tribes, resulting in inter-tribal fighting, was nearly always rooted in issues of land boundaries and grazing rights and Dick's intervention had to be the iron fist in the gloved hand to resolve them. Getting round his region in the traditional way on horseback highlighted the more difficult areas to reach by vehicle and he set up road-building programmes using local labour.

Dick never forgot his missionary leanings and constantly involved himself in evangelist work with the predominantly animist tribes. The extent of his evangelising sometimes caused him problems. Governor King at Kapoeta tolerated the situation but when new governor Corefield took over there were problems over what could be seen as a conflict of interest between Dick's DC duties and his missionary activities.

In 1954 with Sudan Independence looming Dick's job as DC came to an end and he and his family returned to UK. Dick tried his hand at farming for a while before returning to Africa with CMS in southern Uganda where he became a Bishop. The final episode of his career was for him to return to UK as a country parson until his death in 2005.

This book provides a good read about an Englishman carrying out his service for his god and country in the dying days of Empire before religious and patriotic values changed.

British Empire Book
Jon Arensen
Old Africa Books


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