Chauncey Stigand

Soldier, Governor and Writer

By Henry Keown-Boyd

Chauncey Stigand If Edgar Wallace chose a model for the hero of his book “Sanders of the River” he may well have had Chauncey Stigand in mind. He seems to have had combined in him all the qualities required of the ideal British colonial administrator: patience, resource, courage, strength both physical and mental, integrity and, above all, self-reliance.

It is a cruel irony that at a time when many parts of Africa need him as never before, his breed is as extinct as the Empire he served. If we take as an example the area in which he worked for the last ten years of his life, the southern provinces of the Sudan, we find that the brief period of relative peace and prosperity enjoyed by the peoples of that region came to an abrupt end with the withdrawal of the last of Stigand’s successors in the 1950s. The state of affairs which obtained there before the Anglo-Egyptian conquest of the Sudan in 1898 re-established itself almost immediately. Civil war, famine and disease have become endemic over the past half-century although now it is to be hoped that the recent peace agreement between North and South will result in at least some degree of stability for the future.

To return to the man himself, Stigand was an outstanding example of his type in that in addition to the valuable but conventional characteristics mentioned above, throughout his life he displayed an insatiable curiosity in his surroundings and the peoples amongst whom he live, worked and against whom he sometimes fought. Not only that but, as is proven by his numerous publications, he had the ability to translate his observations and conclusions to paper. Also he succeeded in mastering several languages including Somali, Swahili, Arabic and probably some Dinka. However, the unusual diversity of his character did not end there. From an early age he was obsessed with physical fitness and body-building; trained by the most famous strong-man of the day, Sandow, by the time he was commissioned he had developed the physique of a professional weight-lifter, many of whose feats he would perform to the wonderment of children and the amusement, probably tinged with envy, of his brother officers and soldiers.

More conventionally for his time he was a keen big-game hunter, but was equally interested in the habits and habitat of his quarry and to-day would doubtless be as tireless in the preservation of wild species as he was in their pursuit at a time when the concept that any creature might become “endangered” had crossed few peoples’ minds. However, even by his day, the scale of ivory poaching had already aroused disquiet.

Chauncey Hugh Stigand was born at Boulogne-sur-Mer, where his father was Her Majesty’s Consul, on 25th October 1877. Shortly after the birth of his younger brother, Ivan, his parents separated, his mother returning to England with the baby and an elder brother, Almar, while his father was transferred to Ragusa (Dubrovnik) taking Chauncey with him. A few years later this curious arrangement was partially reversed when the parents swapped Chauncey for Almar ! As a result of this remarkable transaction Chauncey was not to see his father again for over twenty years. Despite their apparent eccentricities, Chauncey seems to have born his parents no grudge and was moderately happy with both.

His school days, however, were less enjoyable. Senselessly thrashed at a Dame School, he eventually entered Radley, which he heartily disliked. He seems to have been a poor scholar and, by his own account , idle. He had always expressed a wish to make the Army his career and, after only two years at Radley, he was transferred to a succession of crammers, none of whom succeeded in getting him through the entrance examination to Sandhurst. Therefore he was obliged to achieve his ambition by what was known as the “back-door” namely through the Militia (in his case the Warwickshire Yeomanry) whence, on 4th January 1899, he was commissioned into the Royal West Kent Regiment. However, he was to see little service with it as almost the whole of his military career was spent with African troops.

He took no part in the Boer War but joined the 1st Battalion of his regiment in Burma whence, after some of its men had been convicted of a gang-rape, it was soon transferred to Aden, then regarded as a punishment station. Here he wasted no time in setting off on that search for knowledge of wild and remote places which was to preoccupy him for the rest of his life. While his brother officers were making the most of the few sporting and social amenities which the bleak and inhospitable colony of Aden offered, Stigand would be exploring the hinterland of the South Arabian Peninsula on his camel, Tari, penetrating areas little known to the Aden authorities at that time.

As a child the young Chauncey had met the great African explorers Richard Burton and Henry Stanley. At the same time he had been much influenced by an uncle who had spent many years as a missionary in Africa…and there, just across the Red Sea, the Dark Continent beckoned.

His opportunity came with the emergence in what is now northern Somalia, then a British Protectorate, of that somewhat shadowy figure known to history as the Mad Mullah. In fact there was nothing mad about Mohamed Abdullah bin Hassan who, modeling himself on the Sudanese Mahdi, was to run the British ragged for the next twenty years, always evading capture and eventually dying of natural causes.

With the Mullah’s appearance on the scene towards the end of 1900, the British launched the first of several expeditions against him and Stigand, to his delight, was ordered to join a force under Colonel Swayne, the local police commandant, consisting of a score of British officers and NCOs, a handful of Indian regulars and 1, 500 Somali levies. Accompanied by Tari he sailed for Berbera, capital of the Somali Coast Protectorate, and continued 100 miles south-west to Hargeisa where he was to take command of A Company of the 1st Corps of the Somali Field Force.

With this formation, he saw his first action at a place called Fardiddin on 17th July 1901 at which the so-called Dervishes (followers of the Mad Mullah) were heavily defeated, although their leader escaped. Stigand earned a Mention in Dispatches, Colonel Swayne’s report reading….”Lt Stigand’s company, which was on the extreme right, presently out-flanked the enemy and compelled him to retire. The Dervishes lost so heavily that the retirement became a rout…the leading company under Lt Stigand assisted in the pursuit, wheeling round from the right flank”. Later it was claimed that Stigand, accompanied by a single Somali scout, had forged ahead of his men and shot two of the Mullah’s bodyguards.

The Mullah having been prevented from reaching his objective, Berbera, the expedition ended inconclusively, as did all subsequent operations against him, in September 1901. Stigand returned to Aden with the Africa General Service Medal with bar “Somaliland 1901” and a bad attack of fever. After some time in hospital in Aden he returned to England on sick-leave, his request to join Swayne’s second expedition against the Mullah having been refused on medical grounds.

Following his leave and a course at the School of Musketry at Hythe, he was seconded to the 1st (Central Africa) Battalion King’s African Rifles in Nyassaland (Malawi). Here, although active in his regimental duties, he had both the leisure and the opportunity to pursue his passion for big-game hunting and the study of flora and fauna. In 1904, in collaboration with D.D. Lyell, he wrote his first book “Central African Game and its Spoor” which was published two years later with a foreword by F.C. Selous, perhaps the most famous of all professional hunters.

In 1905 Stigand came close to death when gored by a rhinoceros. Legend has it that when flung into the air by the infuriated beast, he landed on his feet and shot the animal dead. As the incident is variously reported to have occurred as widely separated in time and place as Fort Manning (Nyassaland) in 1905 and Bor in the southern Sudan many years later, we may make up our own minds as to the veracity of the details. One version has him trekking forty miles before reaching medical assistance and another that he helped carry the medical orderly who had fainted at the sight of his wounds !

This was not the only occasion when the hunter was hunted. After his battalion was moved from Nyassaland to British East Africa (Kenya) at the end of 1905 he was mauled by a lion so seriously that he had to return to England for treatment. Here once again “white hunter” mythology comes into play and we have Stigand battering his feline assailant to death with his huge fists. Perhaps it should be emphasized that Stigand himself was not the originator of these tales.

At about this time his handbook “Scouting and Reconnaissance in Savage Countries” was published, soon to be followed by his second standard work, “The Game of British East Africa”. By now he had been appointed a Fellow of both the Geographical Society and the Zoological Society.

In the course of duty with the “Protectorate Survey” between 1905 and 1908 he traveled and hunted extensively throughout East Africa. When his secondment to the King’s African Rifles ended in 1908 he obtained leave to undertake a journey of exploration from Nairobi via Lake Rudolph through Abyssinia to Addis Ababa and thence by rail to Djibouti. The story of this adventure may be followed in his book “To Abyssinia through an Unknown Land” (1910). Arriving in England three months overdue from leave he was subjected to a Court of Inquiry which not only acquitted him of Absence without Leave but awarded him £50 towards his expenses !

In the spring of 1909 he re-joined his regiment for the last time but less than a year later he was back in Africa. Under an agreement between Great Britain and Belgium an area of Mongalla Province in the Sudan, known as the Lado Enclave (see “Equatoria – The Lado Enclave” by Stigand), reverted to Anglo-Egyptian rule on the death of King Leopold of the Belgians. Somewhere in the course of his career Stigand had come to the notice of Sir Reginald Wingate, Sirdar of the Egyptian Army and Governor-General of the Sudan, who arranged his appointment to administer this remote and, to many people, uninviting district. This meant secondment to the Egyptian Army under contract to the Khedive (see “Soldiers of the Nile” by Henry Keown-Boyd). As District Officer Lado and subsequently of Kajo Kaji, also in Mongalla Province, Stigand acquired most of the experience which enabled him to produce his most authoritative work “Administration in Tropical Africa”.

With the outbreak of the First World War Stigand, in common with most of the British officers of the Egyptian Army, sought permission to return to his regiment but the Governor-General was adamant in his refusal of such requests. He argued with obvious justification that were the Egyptian Army and the Sudan administration to be stripped of most of their British officers the consequences would be dire. Thus Stigand’s active participation in the war was confined to various internal security operations within the Sudan for which he was twice Mentioned in Dispatches. In 1916 he was appointed Senior Inspector Upper Nile Province which gave him the chance to explore remote areas between the Nile and the Abyssinian Highlands. At the end of the war he was awarded the OBE.

In 1913 despite strict but unofficial rules forbidding marriage to officers working in inaccessible parts of the Sudan, Stigand had acquired an American wife, Nancy Yulee Neff of Washington DC. In a Memoir written after Stigand’s death, Sir Reginald Wingate explained his relaxation of the rule in this case. “It so happened that…Stigand had had a contest at very close quarters with an elephant, which had trampled and nearly killed him : he was brought to Khartoum seriously ill and spent his convalescence under the Sirdar’s roof. One day…he confided that his affections were deeply engaged, that he had decided to marry and that, in consequence he must offer his resignation. In these pathetic circumstances the adamant Chief relaxed and on his return from sick leave Chauncey was accompanied by Mrs Nancy Stigand….” A daughter, Florida, was born to them in 1917 and they produced two books together, one with the notably politically incorrect title of “Black Tales for White Children” and the other “Cooking for Settler and Trekker”, published in 1914 and 15 respectively.

The climax of his career came in February 1919 with his appointment as Governor of Mongalla Province, a promotion which was to lead to his death and the largest and most ferocious retaliatory expedition ever mounted by the Condominium Government. There is a sad irony here for, as he makes clear in “Administration in Tropical Africa”, he disliked such operations and doubted their efficacy in that all too frequently they punished the innocent and allowed the guilty to go free.

At the end of October 1919 a war-party of the Aliab Dinka attacked a police-post south of Bor on the White Nile, killing eight policemen. The trouble, the roots of which are obscure, spread and Stigand sought to stamp it out with a few companies of the Equatorial Battalion, a locally recruited unit of the Egyptian Army. Owing to a shortage of officers he accompanied one of the patrols himself. The column had already been attacked at night and a few casualties inflicted when on 8th December in the early morning it was ambushed in long grass by several hundred Aliab Dinka. Stigand, the OC Troops Kaimakam (Lt Col) White, Yuzbashi (Captain) Saad Osman and twenty four Other Ranks and carriers were killed.

The four surviving British officers, all veterans of the Great War and accustomed to reacting swiftly in desperate circumstances, rallied their companies and drove off the enemy, thus averting even greater disaster. The senior survivor, Bimbashi (Major) Roberts VC, in a letter to Nancy Stigand wrote, “Personally I was at the head of the left flank guard and did not see Stigand Bey fall, but Bimbashi Kent-Lemon, who was at the head of the right flank guard, saw him with his rifle to his shoulder firing as hard as he could…No one I can find in the battalion actually saw him killed but it must have been within the first few minutes…from the spear wound in his chest he must have died instantly and suffered no pain….” How many widows have been given a similar assurance over the years !

Stigand would have been impressed by this outstanding success on the part of “savages armed only with spears” as he might have put it. Certainly Roberts was, and said as much in his official report. The fact that such experienced professional soldiers (Roberts himself was one of the most highly decorated officers of his generation), particularly those like Stigand and White to whom bush-craft and irregular warfare were second nature, should have been caught napping reflects the all too frequent tendency for British officers of the Imperial era to underestimate the tactical skills of tribal warriors.

The two Englishmen were buried on the bank of the White Nile at Tombe. A cairn of stones, brought at Nancy’s request from their home at Kajo Kaji which she and Chauncey had built themselves, marked the spot and may be there to this day. The Dinka had no personal quarrel with their Governor nor he with them so we may hope that he and White have been allowed to rest in peace.

So ended, at the age of only forty two, the remarkable life of a remarkable man; a sound, practical, no-nonsense man. “At different times”, he wrote, “I have had to act as carpenter, blacksmith, armourer, mason, doctor, mid-wife, gardener, policeman, shop-keeper, planter and surveyor…” and we may be sure he made a pretty good job of it in each case. His horizons may have been somewhat limited and we do not detect much evidence of great imagination or humour but we would undoubtedly like to have Chauncey Stigand on our side in a tight corner.

His books are worth reading even to-day, particularly where he covers such subjects as game, agriculture and forestry. The present generation of Aid Workers and others employed in remote and still primitive parts of Africa may find many of the author’s views out-dated and some of his language offensive but they would do well to take note of what he has to say.