Why West Africa was called The White Man’s Grave

0 2

I got into the Colonial Service in 1932 and was sent up to Cambridge by the Government on the Colonial Service course for a fourth year to study those subjects which it was considered would help us to run the Empire. I went out to Freetown by Elder Dempster ship in 1933 and was met in Freetown by my brother who had been seconded from his Regiment, the Inniskilling Fusiliers, to whom I had been attached in the Supplementary Reserve for the four years I had been up at Cambridge.



He had been seconded to the West African Frontier Force and it was good to meet one of my own family on first setting foot on foreign soil. I was sent up country as an Asst. District Commissioner, on probation, to Makeni under the District Commissioner, Humpherson. He soon went out on trek and left me in charge of the Station H.Q. with an African Staff of three literate clerks to keep records and interpret if necessary and about 35 Court Messengers. These were all ex-soldiers of the R.W.A.F.F. of exemplary character with military ranks from Private to Sergeant Major, a very much respected force throughout the country who wore distinctive uniform and were the maid-of-all-work for the D.C. A much decomposed body was brought into the District Office by a messenger from a Paramount Chief and I was required to ascertain the cause of death.




I sent the body down to the Medical Officer who reported that he thought that the body had died as a result of being mauled by a leopard. I held an enquiry such as I was able and brought in a verdict that the body had died as a result of being mauled by a leopard. I was quite ignorant of African ways of thought but I sensed from murmurings amongst the Court Messengers that my verdict was incorrect, though of course they were too polite to make an open objection. You see, from the African standpoint there were three ways in which that body could have met its end. One was being mauled by a leopard; the second was by murder, for there was a Leopard Society in which malefactors combined and took binding oaths of secrecy, covered their bodies with leopard skins and tied on to the hands and feet iron claws made by local blacksmith, then lay in wait for their chosen victim, pounced on him and clawed him to death.

Then the Africans thought there was a third way, by which a man could put his spirit into that of a leopard which would then be conducted to attack his chosen victim, and thus though the leopard had actually killed the person, the guilty party was he who had put his spirit into the leopard. In African eyes this was murder.




In this case I gathered that the Court Messengers thought that number three of the alternatives was the correct one which we know is impossible and thus I gained the first insight into the African mind, about which, as time went on I began to learn a little more.

Then during my first tour I was asked to play tennis for Sierra Leone against Nigeria. I am afraid that in those days no Africans played, so six of us Europeans sailed down to Lagos and we, a tiny country, beat mighty Nigeria which was very gratifying. The White Man’s Grave Western Green Mamba Later still in my first tour I was transferred to Port Loko as Asst. D.C. to the D.C. who was “Baby” Taylor.



There was no proper house for the Asst. D.C. in the H.Q. station, so my permanent house was just a Rest House as it would be on trek. The government decided that there should be a permanent house for the Asst. D.C. and allotted 60 pounds for its construction. Even in those days of cheap labour and material, 60 pounds was very little. I chose the site and in the evenings I cut down the bush on this site to clear the area. As I was cutting down a tree with a great axe I felt a piercing stab in my head, and as I looked up a green snake fell from the tree on to my shoulder and on to the ground. I realised that this snake had bitten me, but I had no idea of the variety.


I went to Baby Taylor and told him, but he was writing a report and I remember him saying, “Are you sure it wasn’t a mosquito?” So I went back to my Rest House and told my boys. “Oh, Massa, that is a very bad snake, you must have some native medicine.” I had been warned against native medicine but I recalled my tuition on the Colonial Service course up at Cambridge in Tropical Hygiene. We were taught that when bitten by a snake you should rub pot permanganate into the area after having cut open the part bitten. I did not feel very much like doing that on my head. But the other instruction was to apply a tourniquet at a point nearer to the heart.



This would mean putting a strangle hold round my neck, and I didn’t think that was much good. The final remedy was to drink some spirits, so I asked my boy, or rather intimated to him, to bring me some whisky. I put this in my mouth, but I was quite unable to swallow. The liquid just came down my nose. I could not talk for I was unable to articulate. My eyes remained closed for there were no muscles able to lift my eye lids. I could not even get rid of my saliva. I was completely paralysed from the neck up. My head swelled right up and as I pressed my finger into it left a great hole, showing it to be oedemetous. Baby Taylor did come along finally and saw me in this poor shape and he sent off to the nearest doctor which was at Makeni, 80 miles away. He came the following evening, when the effects of the venom of the green mamba, as the snake turned out to be, had begun to wear off.


He gave me an anti-venom injection, for what it was worth at that late hour, but he said that I really was lucky at being bitten on the ear, for the venom had to go through my thick hair, which must have absorbed some and then the blood vessels in the scalp are very small and so comparatively little of the venom got into my system at a time and the body defence mechanism was able to deal with it.

He said that if I had been bitten in the arm or leg I would surely have been a goner! Owing to the white corpuscles which are the body’s mechanism for fighting infection having been excessively over-produced by the lymphatic gland I got quite sick and was sent home after a year instead of 18 months which was the normal tour.

I also got a lot of malaria. However I got perfectly well on leave and came back for my second tour when I acted for a spell as A.D.C. to the Governor. I was then sent up country and in spite of being only an Asst. D.C. I acted asaD.C. thereafter and became a substantive D.C. after six years. There were a number of things that happened to one, but I shall tell of two of them which occurred before the War.

I was acting as D.C. to Nkolili District and was out on trek. I had fetched up at a Rest House and the Doctor from my H.Q., Bill Quin, happened to arrive at this same Rest House, he also being out on trek, a coincidence which never occurred again. After having supper together we went to bed and in the middle of the night I was awakened by a messesnger from a Paramount Chief to come to his town immediately as a European had killed one of his subjects.


If a dead body was concerned I thought that this was right up the doctor’s street, so I asked my boys to waken the doctor so that he could accompany me to the scene of the shooting. There was a man called Opey, an engineer from a Mining Company whom the Chief said had shot the African, so I asked him about it. He said that all he had been doing the previous evening was to shoot at tins which he had chucked in the river which was the Sewa, a very big river, and as the swift-flowing stream carried the tins down he shot at them to practise his accuracy. He had a .22 rifle.


The dead body of a young African was laid out on the verandah of a house, so I asked Bill Quin if he could find the bullet which had killed the boy and he set to work to carve the body up. I was fascinated with the meticulous manner in which he did this, and he could see where the bullet had gone through the heart. He then put his hand to the back of the African and just under the skin he could feel the bullet. The bullet matched the rifle which Opey had been using. Bill Quin was at that time working for his F.R.C.S. and I wondered whether he purposely did his dissection in the front to get some practice.


The bullet matched Opey’s .22 rifle, so it was clear how the African had met his end. He had, the evening before, been lying up on the steep bank, in thick bush which came right down to the river with a string tied on to his big toe, on the other end of which was a baited hook. The African would lie up there, invisible to anyone on the opposite bank and probably go to sleep until he felt a tug at his toe when he would wake up and play the fish. The chances were millions to one against, but somehow one of Opey’s shots must have ricocheted off either a tin or the water itself and bored its way through the bush into the African’s heart.


I had to hold an enquiry and it was clear that there was no guilt on Opey’s part, but a young African had been killed whose dependants must be compensated. I decided that Opey, or his Company, should pay to the African’s family the sum of 20 pounds with which all agreed. That was in 1937. The White Man’s Grave Marampa Iron Ore Works Early in 1939 I was out on trek collecting tax and hearing complaints when I got an urgent message from an iron ore mining company.


Sierra Leone Development Co., to come to their H.Q. at Lunsar near Marampa because 4,000 of their labourers had gone on strike and things were looking very bad. I left all the tax, several thousand pounds, for the clerk to get back to my H.Q., Port Loko, and with 4 Court Messengers set off to walk to the nearest motor road, 10 miles away, to get a lorry and then drive on the 40 miles to Lunsar.



As I approached the mine I saw a large band of Africans, all armed with sticks and looking bellicose. I then noticed that they had felled the palm trees on the side of the road, thus preventing any vehicles getting up to the mine. The D.C. always wore a blue band round his topi, and the Africans knew that he was impartial and when I got out of the lorry and they saw this they became more friendly.


I asked them to pull the palm trees off the road so that we could get up to the mine, and this they did. There were 40 Europeans up at the mine and the Manager said that the Company would not parley under duress and if they would go back to work they might consider the increase in pay the labourers were demanding.


The Company wanted to give them more rice to improve their diet and thus get more work out of them, but the labourers wanted more money. Then I got a message from the Government in Freetown to the effect that I must get the labourers back to work, for the iron ore which the company produced was needed in England for armaments which were then being built up in preparation for the War.


I asked the Government to let me have 30 more Court Messengers from other Districts, which they provided and each morning I used to hold a meeting on the football field and asked the labourers to go back to work and then the company would consider increasing their pay, with or without more rice. Each time they refused to go back to work. I had to do something so I asked the Army to let me have a platoon of troops to be kept in reserve. Col. Woolner, the O.C. of the Battalion of R.W.A.F.F. came up and said to me, “You know, Pat, if you call us in a soldier shoots to kill”. Oh Gosh, I thought, this is reminiscent of my namesake.



Sir Michael O’Dwyer, Governor of the Punjab and General Dyer before the First World War. I asked the Court messengers to get as many labourers as they could on to the football field the next morning and I would ask them finally to go back to work after which the company would talk. I made the plan that if they continued to refuse, then each of the 34 Court Messengers should grab the labourer standing next to him and frog-march him up the hill to the alluvial iron ore mine and set him to work. If this plan failed, and there was chaos, then the R.W.A.F.F. troops, hidden out of sight in the adjoining bush would be called in to keep order.



Well, they would not go back to work, I gave the signal, the Court Messengers frog-marched the adjacent African up the hill, put a shovel in his hand which put the iron ore on to a conveyor belt, thence on to a railway which went down through the country to the shore at Pepel and on to a ship bound to England. All the other labourers seemed so stunned at seeing their colleagues going up the hill and starting to work that they followed and the strike was over. Later on in that same year, of course, the Second World War broke out. I was on the Reserve of Officers and whilst out on trek again, collecting tax at the end of August, I got an urgent command from the R.W.A.F.F. to rejoin the Battalion in Freetown. Again I left the tax to the clerk and had to walk another 10 miles to get to the road and a lorry to take me down to Freetown. I was in the R.W.A.F.F. for 14 months when the Government commanded me to come out of the Army and take charge of a District.


And so I was locked there for the rest of the War, but my time in the Colonial Service was abruptly terminated by an occurrance on October 21st 1945, the date of the Battle of Trafalgar, on which I reckon I met my Waterloo. I had been transferred to a District called Moyamba and a woman came into the District Officer there complaing that her daughter had been murdered by a Secret Society, the object of which was to kill a young girl, cut the heart out, and smear their bodies with the fat around the heart after which they would be impregnable to man.



That was the legend. The White Man’s Grave Shenge Rest House I sent Court Messengers out to try and get some evidence, but none was forthcoming. On my next trek I would include this place where the woman lived, Shenge, and amongst other things look into this complaint. Now Shenge was a very pleasant spot, on the Coast with the Rest House high up on the cliff looking out into the Atlantic.

The White Man's Grave


I was very keen on fishing and the attraction of Shenge was the tarpon fishing which was to be had there. I remember arriving there by launch one Saturday evening, and usually on trek one went into the native court to hear cases much as on any other day of the week. But I thought I would spend this Sunday fishing so I sent for Captain Huff, the head fisherman who had a large dug out canoe, and asked him if he and two other fishermen would accompany me out to sea and I would fish for tarpon. In the past I had hooked many tarpon but never landed one.

The White Man's Grave

They take the bait very lightly and then jump high in the air and usually manage to spit the hook out but on this occasion when I hooked one and the fish jumped three times high in the air still the hook remained in its mouth. The top and bottom of their mouths are very hard and a hook will not penetrate but it is soft at the side and if the hook gets lodged there it will stick. The energy needed to hurl that great weight out of the water is terrific, so it will only jump three times, such a sight with its tough silvery scales shining in the bright sun! But then it will rush through the water with the reel screeching out. From one moment to the next I felt quite suddenly very ill.


I had this great fish on the end of the line but I could not hold the rod up with my left hand all I could do was to put the butt under my right armpit and feebly work the reel with my right hand. After half an hour the poor old fish was near to the canoe feeling dead as I was, and Captain Huff, after trying fruitlessly to gaff the fish through its impenetrable scale, finally got the gaff down its large mouth and pulled it into the canoe.



Both the fish and I lay at the bottom of this canoe quite flat out. We finally got ashore when the Paramount Chief and the people came down to see that the D.C. had caught a tarpon, the natives in those days not having the tackle to do so. I felt really desperately ill but custom required that I stand around whilst the fish was carved up and distributed to the chief. Court Messengers etc. The fish weighed 96 lbs. I finally got into the Rest House, the mud walls of which had been decorated by the people with country cloths, and I lay down on my camp bed, feeling dead to the world.


It was a boiling hot sunny day but I felt desperately cold and I asked my boy to pull all those country cloths off the walls and on top of me and one of my Court Messengers went off to call the Doctor, two days march away in Molyamba. He, Harold Tweedy and his wife Dorothy finally got to Shenge, but not before the Sergeant of my patrol, Bindi Bekadu with four other Court Messengers behind him stood at the door of the Rest House and announced to me, lying prostrate on my camp bed, “Please Sir, We know what is the matter with you. The head of that Secret Society into which you are going to enquire about that child’s death does not want you to ‘talk’ that case.


He has therefore put a ‘swear’ on you to prevent you doing so and there are only two ways open to you. One is to give us enough money with which to bribe this man to ‘pull’ the ‘swear’ and you will then get better, or give us permission to cut his head off, for if he dies so will the ‘swear’ become ineffective.” The doctor, Harold Tweedy then found that I had blackwater fever, sleeping sickness, from the bite of the tsetse fly, and malaria, all together. He felt he must get some help from Freetown so he sent a message to the D.M.S. there to send another Doctor, John Busby and a European sister who arrived by launch. They thought that I was going to die so for good measure John Busby gave me an injection of triparcimide. This was specific against the sleeping sickness which normally requires a prolonged course of treatment, but in a miraculous manner the blackwater fever seemed to evaporate and the fevers subsided.


I was very weak and yet I felt remarkably better and in a week I was put in a hammock and taken down to the sea-shore and carried through the water to a launch. The Paramount Chief and his Tribal Authority stood in the water to bid me farewell and I remember leaning out of the hammock to shake the chiefs hand and say to him that I would be back to talk that alleged murder case and other things. The White Man’s Grave Hill Station There was a journey of about 40 miles across the sea to Freetown. I was taken from the landing up the hill to the European Nursing Home on Hill Station.


It was evening and as the sun went down over the sea as one looked westward I noticed the phenomenon of the green flash, an optical illusion which one sometimes saw. In the morning I was feeling all right but an orderly brought me some tea. It was dark. He then came to shave me; it was still dark. I just thought they started early here. Then he brought me some breakfast; it was still dark. I asked him the time. It was 8 a.m. when the sun was well up and I could not see it. I had gone blind overnight.



I was not allowed to go back to Moyamba to pack up even where all my belongings accumulated over 13 years were, but my boys went back to do so. I got back to England in January 1946 and started a new life as a Blind man at the age of 36. I then trained as a Chartered Physiotherapist at the Physiotherapy School run by the National Institute for the Blind. Having qualified in 1950 my wife. Bay, and I came down to Eastbourne and started a private practice in physiotherapy. My eldest daughter then in 1981 took over the practice and though married with two children ran it under her maiden name, Mary O’Dwyer.


‘The White Man’s Grave’: A suicide in Elmina, 1749 (1)

The coastal areas of West Africa were long known as ‘The White Man’s Grave’ due to its harsh climatic conditions and the endemic occurrence of deadly diseases including malaria, dysentery, typhoid fever and the like. Obviously this affected the indigenous population as well, but as in so many cases, the view of Africa encompassed in the phrase ‘The White Man’s Grave’ strongly reflects a Eurocentric bias.

In any case, before the advent of modern medicine and principals of hygiene in the latter part of the nineteenth century, mortality and morbidity were high. For any arriving European it was a matter of surviving the first year and subsequently keeping a keen eye on a style of living that was as healthy as possible. And in some cases, personal physique and genetic make-up assisted survival as well.

But this is about physical health. What about psychological health? Living in West Africa was not easy on the mind either. However, this is a subject much less studied. For the Dutch presence on the Gold Coast we have one clearly documented case, that of the Asante Prince Kwamena Poku in 1850 (Doortmont & Smit, 2007: 268). He was brought to the Netherlands in 1837, with his cousin Kwasi Boakye, who went on to become a planter in the Netherlands East Indies. Kwamena Poku, a potential heir to the Asante throne, returned to the Gold Coast where he stayed at Elmina as guest of the governor. He was shunned by his uncle, the king of Asante and dissuaded from returning to Kumase, however, and subsequently found live unbearable. After lunch on 22 February 1850 he returned to his room, took a gun, and blew his brains out.

This is a case of an African gentleman returning to his own country and experiencing a severe inverse culture shock, together with utter social abandonment by his family. For Europeans, documented examples of suicide are scarce.

Elmina Journal Entry for 15 April 1749

The Elmina Journal for 1749 mentions a suicide by a European sergeant named as Pierre Richer:

‘Tuesday 15 [April 1749] This morning around 6 o’clock, the sergeant on the Hill of St. Jago, Pierre Richer, has shot himself in the head, and was subsequently buried on Gallow’s Hill.’

The director-general, who wrote the journal, made short shrift of the occurrence. Suicide was a crime, and hence the hurried burial on Gallow’s Hill, the burial place for convicted criminals. Nothing about the possible reasons for the suicide, the poor man’s state of mind in the days and weeks before he killed himself, or anything else. It happened, he was buried, and that was the end of it.

Now, some 267 years later, Pierre Richer, just another anonymous West India Company servant, becomes the first known example of a European suicide in Elmina.

Doortmont, Michel R. & Jinna Smit, Sources for the mutual history of Ghana and the Netherlands: An annotated guide to the Dutch archives relating to Ghana and West Africa in the Nationaal Archief, 1593-1960 (Leiden / Boston: Brill 2007), p. 268.

National Archives of the Netherlands, Archives of the Netherlands Possessions on the Coast of Guinea (access no. 1.05.14), inv. no. 110, Elmina journal and correspondence with the outer forts, 1749, journal entry 15 April 1749 (Scan 769).

Ditto, inv. no 367, Journal 1849-1855, journal entry 22 February 1850 (Scan 45)

The post Why West Africa was called The White Man’s Grave appeared first on Report Ghana.

Leave A Reply

Your email address will not be published.