Saturday, November 11, 2006

Sudan Incident, 1909

From a memoir by Captain Greenwood of the Highland Light Infantry, quoted in Hilary Hook's "Home From The Hill"
I always did like the Dinkas. Happy, idle, contented people, with few wants and no cares, singing to their cattle in the sun. Stark naked and free by the river banks and singing to their cattle in the sun. All they wanted was to he left alone, just like everybody else.

Nobody had ever been to see what happened to the north of the Post, between the Post and the River, which ran in a wrongly dotted line on a 'provisional' map. We vaguely knew that great plains stretched for miles in all directions and that there the Dinkas roamed about over the new-burnt pastures when the rains were over, driving their great flocks and herds northwards across the Lol up to the Bahr el Arab River. They gave no trouble to speak of and paid a 'token' cattle tax yearly to the Government which had never found time to go up and count their cattle.

All very easy and everybody was quite happy. Then the Arabs started coming down from beyond the River to the north, and panic spread and grew with every raid over the plains, and the Dinkas fled before the Arab horsemen thundering over the hard burnt soil and took refuge on the fringe of the forest to the south. Poor, gentle, timid Dinkas, they just ran and ran till where the plains met the forest. The Arabs used to ride down like lightning from their country beyond the River, spearing anyone they met on their road who offered resistance, and recrossing the river with a mob of raided cattle driven before them and lithe naked Dinka girls strapped on to their great saddles behind them.

So it went on. Something had to be done.

So I was sent up to the Bahr el Arab, across the River Lol north of the Post. I and Shawish Kapsur, Almaz, Selim and Yambios - to meet Musa Madibo, the Sheikh of the Arabs. He lived in unadministered country and beyond reach of the law. Slatin arranged the meeting on the river.

So I went up to the River and the shadow that was over the plains lifted and the Dinkas came forth again out of the protecting forest and drove their great bellowing herds back to pasture over the plains; singing to them by the rivers and lying in the sun.

We stood and looked at the River. There was no sign of anybody on the banks.

I said, 'He ought to he here by now. We've had much further to go than he has.'

Kapsur said: 'You never can depend on Arabs.' I said: 'But the Pasha himself wrote to him and fixed the date.'

'You can't depend on Arabs.'

I said, 'Well, we can't waste all day looking at the river waiting.'

'It's always waste of time to make a date with Arabs.' That was Shawish Kapsur. He was a black heathen from somewhere or other - I forgot where. Some of our police came from the other side of Africa - kidnapped as children by Fellata pilgrims up Sokotu way and set free by us (with luck) in the Bahr el Ghazal.

Shawish Kapsur was very brave. He once charged a charging elephant, shouting and waving his straw hat, and turned it. I watched him as I lay (exhausted) in the mud. All very long ago. But for Kapsur and his fantastic charge, I suppose I should still be under the mud, down Meshra way.

I gave my mule to Selim to hold and wandered up the bank. Aimaz and Yambios were fishing. Shawish Kapsur came along with me.

I was wondering how long I ought to stay, waiting for a man who might never come, who lived beyond reach of the law, whom nobody had ever seen, except perhaps Slatin in the old Mahdi days. And then there was a thunder of galloping hoofs and I was in the middle of a crowd of Arab horsemen who'd suddenly appeared from nowhere.

I said: 'Peace be upon you.' I thought this was Sheikh Musa arriving with the usual Arab bluster and fantasia.

But there was no reply. 'And upon you the peace' and nobody dismounted to greet the Governor's representative on the river. All the Arabs carried the long dervish spear and a few of them had old Remington rifles. Then I noticed the leaf-shaped spear heads and some of them were red.

Again I said, 'El Salaam aleikum' and still there was no response.

I said, 'I have come as arranged by the Pasha to make peace on the border. Where is Sheikh Musa?'

Pax Britannica and all that. How fantastic!

What should Arabs want with the peace when the finest sport in the world was to be had at the expense of the unbelieving dogs of Dinkas? Infidel and uncircumcised Dinkas, flaunting their shame before the pious Moslems. The ride through the night - the fording of the boundary river - the mad gallop over the plains - the chase of the slim, shrieking Dinka and the long spear piercing his shining naked back....

The slender naked black girls lifted from the cattle posts and strapped, struggling, to the great saddles.

The mob of cattle driven bellowing to the north.... The boasting of great deeds done that day, in the safety of the camp fires fifty miles away ...

There it was. They looked on it all from a slightly different angle.
Greenwood and his men were disarmed and taken captive, but escaped and after a long march on foot were succoured in a village where Greenwood, ill and wounded, was nursed back to health by the Chief's beautiful daughter, Yatong, with the same results that attended Elaine's nursing of Lancelot. More than forty years later Hook visited the village and met her. When Greenwood recovered and left, her father forbade her to follow him and she had tried to drown herself. She still carried his silver and enamel snuff box.

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