The European Pioneers of Northern Rhodesia - Hector Croad (The Silent One)
By W.V Brelsford
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HECTOR CROAD: THE SILENT ONE
THE NAME OF HECTOR CROAD has already been mentioned as one of the first officials recruited for North-Eastern Rhodesia by Harry Johnston in 1894. He died in retirement in Abercorn in 1949. In Legislative Council that year Sir Stewart Gore-Browne referred to him as a very distinguished Northern Rhodesian of a generation that had almost passed away and said that he was a man “of most remarkable reticence “.
If ever a man deserved the title “a strong silent Englishman” it was Croad, who could sit silent in a room full of people for hours on end merely smiling gently in answer to some remark. Although he could talk most interestingly when in the mood, his normal conversation consisted of deep grunts, short, gruff remarks or sentences with long, very long, intervals in between them.
He was born in London in 1865. After leaving Charterhouse School he went to Canada and worked on the Canadian Pacific Railways and then in the Canadian police. In the first years of 1890 he came out to British Central Africa and joined a trading firm believed to have been that of one of the Pettit Brothers of the Blantyre district. Whilst trading on the Mozambique border he must have crossed it because he was arrested and put into gaol. The British Central Africa Administration heard of his plight and sent an official to negotiate his release which was effected, the official having to give a receipt for the return of the Englishman.
Shortly after this Croad joined the British Central Africa Administration and the British Central Africa Gazette reports him as being appointed Assistant Collector, Luapula District, as from 7th April, 1894. Bainbridge, who was Assistant Collector, Mweru, was promoted to Collector, Luapula District, on the same date. It is not known for certain which station Croad went to first, but it is presumed that when he reached North-Eastern Rhodesia he was sent on to take over Fort Rosebery on the Luapula River because Bainbridge had died at Kalungwishi station on the 8th February, before his promotion had been gazetted. If he did go there it is not known for how long, but in April of the following year, 1895, he was Assistant to Dr. Blair Watson at Kalungwishi, for in that month Blair Watson set out to occupy Kilwa Island on Lake Mweru and in his report he says he decided to take Croad with him. Later in the same year or early the next year he relieved Chiana Harrington at Choma, a station at the north end of Mweru Marsh. So as one of the first batch of officials posted to North-Eastern Rhodesia before the British South Africa Company took over he moved around quite a lot in his first two years.
The occupation of Kilwa Island is worth mentioning as it was the first of several, albeit the most peaceful, of the expeditions in which Croad took part, aimed at bringing recalcitrant chiefs under control.
The island is very close to the Congo side of the lake just north of where the Luapula enters the lake and, in spite of the closeness of the Congo shore, the main, deep channel of the Luapula flows between it and the island so there is now no argument about its geographical position—it lies in Rhodesian waters. Kilwa, about eight miles long and five wide is a romantic place with cliffs, beaches, open savannah country, patches of relics of equatorial rain forest and oil palms. From the top of one of its hills a deep vertical shaft descends into caves with stalagmites and stalactites. Another hidden approach to the caves is from the water’s edge in the cliffs, an entry that is sometimes disputed by crocodiles lying just above water level. The caves are full of human and animal bones, charred wood and ash indicating at least temporary human occupation. It has a stormy and legendary history of aboriginal pygmies and bushmen being superseded by Bantu and then of tribal war. At the end of the nineteenth century it had been taken over by a band of Swahili slave traders from the east coast of Africa who, like so many such bands in Central Africa, had set up permanent occupation and intermarried with local tribes. Its chief at the time of Blair Watson and Croad was Nsimba, a Swahili slaver from Zanzibar who had turned Kilwa into “a garden and a fort” from where he raided for ivory and slaves in the Congo. He had been attacked five times by the Belgians who had been driven off each time and when Blair Watson and Croad took the island the chief’s stockade was decorated with the heads of thirty Belgian askari.
Blair Watson and Croad approached Nsimba’s stockade in two large canoes, having slept hidden overnight on the eastern coast, with thirteen Nyamwezi (Tanganyika born) police and eight Mambwe (Rhodesian born) police. As they approached, the war drums were beaten and the “Zanzibar” flag (in common use by the slavers) run up. Blair Watson, in spite of his tragic addiction, was no coward and, leaving Croad standing off-shore with the main body of police, he went ashore with only three men, one a Zanzibari who had been attached to the famous Stairs’ expedition which had obtained Katanga for the Belgians in 1891. In spite of the fact that Nsimba’s men were well armed with captured Belgian rifles with plenty of ammunition as well as muzzle loaders, Blair Watson was not attacked. The reason, discovered shortly after arrival, was that Chief Nsimba had accidentally shot himself and was dead and no agreement had been reached about a successor, there being intrigues between the Zanzibari, local elements and the Nyamwezi or Ruga-Ruga mercenary warriors who were customarily the armed escorts of the slave caravans. So there was no one to organise resistance.
The two men stayed on the island for ten days by which time the authority of the British South Africa Company had been fully established. The heads were down from the stockade, the Union Jack flew from a flagstaff and dire threats installed into the Swahili as to what would happen to them if they tried to send any more slave caravans to the east coast. The year before, a caravan from Kilwa, on the first leg of its journey, had been intercepted before it reached Abdullah in the Mporokoso district. A fight took place with British South Africa Company police and the two leaders of the caravan killed. There is no record of which official was in charge; it was just one of those common skirmishes that were routine for the first officials.
And so the occupation of Kilwa Island was peaceful but had it not been for the death of Nsimba there could easily have been a few more heads on the stockade.
In 1899 Croad took part in the attack on Chief Mporokoso’s stockaded village but since “Chiana” Harrington, the Assistant Collector of the district concerned, was in charge of the attack the story more properly belongs to him. Croad, together with Andrew Law and W. R. Johnstone, all from Abercorn were there to help. ~See NOTES.)
There seems little doubt that Croad was one of the colleagues whom Blair Watson introduced to the drug habit. In later life Croad made no bones about the fact that he was one among others who used the morphia syringe. As mentioned earlier, life was not easy for these first officials, alone among a not very friendly population. Except in pitched battles the Africans were afraid to try and commit outright murder of a white man but, as C1-iirupula Stephenson has said, “they did what they dared —by poisoned arrow, by trip by trap, by witchcraft or magic—to frighten these youthful Englishmen away” and some relief, some relaxation of a constant strain was necessary and was more convenient than whisky. In 1937, long after Croad’s retirement, the Governor of Northern Rhodesia at the time, Sir Hubert Young, when visiting Abercorn, asked Croad about the habit, how it was that in Croad’s case an apparent miracle had occurred in that he had not become an incurable addict as had happened in the case of Blair Watson and others and, indeed, as was the popular impression of the effect of drug-taking. The conversation was over lunch and Croad just gave one of his characteristic grunts,” I didn’t order any more
Whether Croad was, to use a modern phrase, anti-social before he came to Northern Rhodesia we do not know. But it was quite obvious that he enjoyed the lonely outstation life. He was, or became, taciturn and morose and the Africans, with their ironic sense of humour, gave him the native name of “Chendanseka “, “He who walks with a smile “. He was grim visaged, as one might expect, a fact which possibly explains why there is no known photograph of him.
It must have been quite early in his career, possibly shortly after the occupation of Kilwa Island and whilst he was still stationed in the Luapula Valley, that Croad began the habit of disappearing for long periods. On the first occasion he was “lost” for four months in the Luapula Valley. He came back quite unmoved by the fact that colleagues had worried about him, merely stating that he had been touring his district. He developed a talent for surveying and mapping and the June, 1898, issue of the Journal of the Royal Geographical Society contains an article by him on the Choma division of the Luapula district accompanied by a very neatly drawn, and obviously accurate, map. This was his only published article—unfortunately—although his maps were to become renowned.
In the early years of the century whilst posted at Serenje he continued his disappearances for long periods which were now mainly devoted to mapping. Serenje was connected with the capital, Fort Jameson, by runner and the mail bags used to pile up in Croad’s deserted office until the postmaster at Fort Jameson could send no more mail to Serenje because he had no bags left. On one occasion His Honour the Administrator sent a letter announcing his forthcoming visit of inspection to Serenje. On arrival at Serenje after what was in those days a ten-day trek he found the station deserted except for a few African police and messengers and the letter announcing his visit still lying in one of the unopened bags on the office floor. His Honour walked back to Fort Jameson: and since he was a surveyor by profession L. A. (afterwards Sir Lawrence) Wallace, the Administrator, the only surveyor ever to become a Governor, made no complaint at all to Croad.
Croad’s maps became famous. Over the years he mapped the whole vast area, stretching along hundreds of miles of what is now the Great North Road, between Serenje and Abercorn. He climbed all the prominent hills, denuding the top of all trees except for one which acted as a beacon and even to-day isolated trees standing on the tops of hills are always referred to as “ Croad’s Beacons “. He would toil up the hills, taking his carriers with him, camp for the night on the top whilst files of African women from the nearest village, which may have been many miles away, would trail up even the steepest hills carrying pots of water on their heads so that the “Bwana” could have his bath.
Another classic story was told about a young probationer newly appointed to the service and posted to an outstation under Croad. After a couple of weeks’ lengthy and weary trek from Fort Jameson the young man walked into the station to find Croad at some job in his workshop preparatory to an immediate departure on tour. As the probationer introduced himself Croad barely looked up and merely grunted,” I don’t know you; I didn’t ask for you; I don’t want you “. He then disappeared on safari for three months leaving the probationer, who had been warned about the peculiarities of his superior officer, to learn his new job from the African police and messengers.
When the 1914 war broke out with fighting on the Northern Rhodesian border and in the later stages with German troops invading the Territory, Croad’s were the only maps available. The War Office took them over and Croad was given a bonus of £100. They were remarkable for their accuracy and even at the time of Croad’s death printed copies were, and may still be, part of the War Office records.
By the time the 1914 war broke out Croad was the District Commissioner, equivalent to the present title of Provincial Commissioner, for the whole Northern Province. Kasama was provincial headquarters and, in 1918, the German General, Von Lettow, evaded the allied forces in East Africa and invaded Northern Rhodesia making, first of all, for Kasama. Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland were the only British territories, apart from a corner of Kenya occupied briefly, invaded by the Germans in that war. Croad, as the senior civil official, evacuated all the European women and children from Abercorn and Kasama southwards to a camp at Mpika. On the border Abercorn had been the scene of much fighting in the first years of the war but by 1918 only a few civilians were left, the war having moved northwards. But when Von Lettow moved southwards again he was expected to attack Abercorn first. But he slipped over the border near Fife avoiding Abercorn and making for Kasama. It is related that he tapped the telegraph line, tacked insecurely on to trees between the two settlements to hear an Abercorn resident assuring Kasama that they had raised sixty rifles and would make a firm stand.
There was no regular force in Kasama; the troops were on the border and in German East Africa where Von Lettow, with his usual skill, had slipped round them. Kasama was hurriedly evacuated as the German forces approached and the well-known Irish prospector turned Sergeant, Jack Merry, was left behind to burn all military stores. But Jack, full of whisky, misinterpreted the order and burnt down not only all the commercial stores and shops but the government offices as well. When brought before a board of inquiry his only naive defence was that he had been told to burn all stores—and that is what he did. Incidentally whisky features again in two good stories of the time. It took a well-known Northern Rhodesia veterinary officer a long time to live down the true story that when he was captured by the Germans and they had no use for a vet they exchanged him for only one bottle of whisky. Father Etienne, the well-known White Father missionary, was in charge of a field medical centre and it is said that he once had an African medical orderly for desecrating a church—not a Catholic one. The story goes on that Father Etienne was court-martialed, found guilty and awarded one bottle of whisky. Father Etienne died in 1963.
After the burning of Kasama, Croad retreated to the far bank of the broad Chambeshi River, fifty-four miles to the south. Here was a pontoon crossing of the river, the shell of an old rubber factory that had ceased operating just before the war, and one European house, that of Charlie Simpson who ran the pontoon and was government agent.
On the 10th November, 1918, Croad, together with Sergeant Frank Rumsey, who after the war began ranching on the Chambeshi, returned towards Kasama in one of the lorries that by the end of the war had come into use. Just south of Kasama they stopped, blocked the road with felled trees then climbed the big hill to examine Kasama through their glasses. Croad only spoke once. He said, “ I can now tell the government that the Germans have entered Kasaina “. The two men then returned to the Chambeshi as German patrols began to probe the road southwards.
At the Chambeshi the handful of Europeans, Croad, Simpson, Rumsey, Richard Thornton (who went into a ranching partnership with Rumsey after the war), Leslie and four other Europeans plus a few askari prepared to make a stand. They set up two Maxim guns but no one seemed to know whether they would work. Charlie Simpson buried £10,000 in specie, Government money and cash taken over from the Kasama stores and shops, in his goat pen, arguing that the trampling of the goats would hide traces of digging and in any case the Germans would be so glad to get the goats they would not worry about anything else.
Kasama was connected by telegraph wire to Broken Hill, 550 miles to the south, the line being tacked rather insecurely to trees along what was to become the Great North Road. Storms shaking the trees, elephants pushing the trees or even walking into a low hanging wire, to say nothing of Africans helping themselves to lengths of this very useful string, all helped to make communication by wire unreliable, to put it mildly. But in the early hours of the morning of the 12th November, Croad did receive a wire telling him that the Armistice had been signed on the 11th, but that he was to carry on until he got further instruction from General Van Deventer who was still trying to catch up with Von Lettow from the north. The popular story is that everyone got so drunk in Broken Hill on the 11th that they forgot to send a telegram to the people in the firing line until the 13th. And it was certainly not until noon on the 13th that Croad got the wire from Van Deventer telling him to get in touch with Von Lettow to inform him of the Armistice. One story is that the wire arrived by car from Mpika as the line was down. In the meantime, on the morning of the 13th, the German advance guard had reached the Chambeshi and opened fire with machine guns on the rubber factory, very nearly “bagging” Charlie Simpson in the process.
At noon Croad got in touch with Von Spangenberg who was in charge of the German advance guard and on the morning of the 14th Von Lettow came down to the Chambeshi and met Croad. At first Von Lettow did not believe that the war was over and wrote out a telegram, now in the Rhodes-Livingstone Museum, asking Croad to send it to the Kaiser. It was then Croad gave his most famous grunt, “There is no Kaiser
And so the last shots of the 1914-8 war were fired in British territory two days after the end of the war. As a civilian Croad could not accept the surrender of Von Lettow who had to march his troops back to Abercorn which Van Deventer had by then reached in his chase.
After the war Croad stayed on in the Northern Province, he was never posted anywhere else, but he was now senior enough to be always at stations such as Kasama and Abercorn where he had other officials under him as well as a local population of farmers or traders. By all accounts he got on well with most people but he retained his taciturn and morose character. There is no doubt that it was Croad who started what became a common custom — that junior officials should never speak to the District Commissioner before eleven o’clock in the morning. Even at that hour it was safer to peer through the window first to gauge whether it was a suitable time to go in at the door and say good morning.
At some date Croad did marry and there are two surviving children, a boy and a girl, now grown up, but, as can be imagined, he did not get on well generally with either women or children. An entry in the Kasama District Notebook for 1911-2 records Croad’s wife and one child for the first time and the wife was still with him in early 1914. But she had long left him when he retired ten years later and she died in Southern Rhodesia where she had come from. The daughter looked after Croad for a time during 1930 when he was retired in Abercorn but she also eventually left him. He would often say that children were more trouble than they were worth and they were not worth anything anyhow. That is a typical Croad remark. He also used to say that the Africans had broken his heart very early in his career, but in practice Croad was always scrupulously fair in his dealing with them and strangely thoughtful for their interests.
After retiring in 1924 Croad took on the management of Sir Stewart Gore-Browne’s estate at Shiwa Ngandu; then started a farm at Chibwa for R. W. Yule; finally settling on a farm of his own at Abercorn where he died in 1949 at the ripe old age of eighty-four.
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