Patrol No. 32:

Colonial Violence and the Nature of Authority in the Nuba hills

Justin Willis

University of Durham

In 1917, a large punitive mission was despatched against the Nyima hills, in the north of the Nuba mountains. Such missions were by no means unusual in the Nuba hills; my own recent cursory scan of the archives reveals 16 such patrols between 1904 and 1922, each involving more than a company of troops. This mission was a little larger than usual - it involved more than 3,000 men with an artillery battery and two maxim batteries. But what really makes it different is that we have a considerable photographic, as well as written, record of the event. This paper uses that record to examine this event; to understand what drove this kind of violent assault, and to understand too what effects it had on Nuba society. British officers treated these events as boyish adventures, and one more recent account of these patrols sees them as part of a slow process through which 'the gap between Nuba social conventions and the law was gradually bridged'; but this paper suggests that up to the mid 1920s the patrols locked societies in the Nuba hills into a pattern of violence which skewed the nature of authority and which constantly created further violence.

The making of colonial violence

Ungrateful subjects

There were British administrators, in the early years of the Condominium, who clearly saw the exercise of large-scale violence as the necessary prelude to effective colonial rule: 'We must smash somebody here sooner or later before we have the country settled', as one early administrator further to the south so elegantly put it. But there were further reasons, in British eyes, for the prolonged period of violence in dalings with the Nuba. British administrators were always unhappy at what they saw as the propensity of the inhabitants of Nyima - and other Nuba hills - to raid one another and neighbouring cattle pastoralists. This was a direct challenge to the government’s claim to a monopoly of legitimate violence 'those who flout Government must be punished', as Wingate put it in authorising the 1910 patrol against Tagoi. They believed that the fault generally lay with the rulers of communities living in the Nuba hills, who either instigated raids themselves or chose not to restrain others from doing so. In the first two decades of British rule, there was particular suspicion of the role of ritual specialists, who were viewed as a dangerous priestly caste, antipathetic to external authority and liable to undermine those chiefs, or meks, who were inclined to prevent raids. The British called such figures kujurs everywhere in the hills, although by no means all the disparate communities of the Nuba hills would have used this term.

In 1917, British displeasure was focussed on the populace of the Nyima hills, and their ruler, Agabna or Agemna. Agabna had failed to prevent, or pay compensation for, a series of raids; he had also shown himself increasingly reluctant to pay the tribute which was required of every recognized ruler as evidence of their submission to the authority of the Condominium. This build-up of tension followed a well-established pattern. It is apparent that the British found Nuba raiding so offensive partly because of the way that they construed nineteenth-century Nuba history, as a period in which the peoples of the Nuba hills had been constantly at bay, harried by Arab slavers. The disorder, cruelty and incessant slave-rading of that period were key elements in British legitimations of Condominium authority: In British eyes ‘the Nuba’ were victims, who had been saved from further torment by the advent of the Condominum - yet who (as was all too often the case) failed to respond appropriately to this turn of events, and had instead become ‘arrogant’. The people of the Nuba hills were that most irritating of colonial phenomena, ungrateful subjects.

' . . a chance at being shot at . . '

The desire of British officers in the army, and administrators, to see military action was a further motivating factor in this period of violence. This sanguinary urge was already apparent before 1914: a punitive mission planned in 1909 was swamped with volunteers, a number of whom offered to bring their own retainers - like feudal lords. In 1917 this factor was if anything more acute. Army officers and administrators in Sudan were deeply uncomfortable at their position. Wingate had done his best to send European soldiers (and some administrators) to the Dardanelles to 'have a chance at being shot at, which they so ardently long for', but not all could go: those who remained were fired by frustrated desire for action and, evidently, a sense of guilt that they were so distant from the appalling slaughter of the Western Front. The opportunity for active service was eagerly taken. So too was the opportunity to try out the rapidly evolving weapons and techniques of modern warfare. The official report of the patrol dwelt on the relative virtues of different kinds of artillery round and discussed the uses made of desirable new battlefield requisites such as barbed wire, trip-wires and Verey lights; the officer in charge was careful to capture on film the neat little machine-gun emplacements and barbed wire entanglements which his men constructed to deny the people of Nyima access to water holes. Everyone joined in this make-believe of modern war; the Governor-General made visits to the 'front line' in Nyima, as though he were the King visiting the Western Front; pages of the final report were given over to lists of all the officers involved in the patrol, and recommendations for military awards. For the British, this raid offered the chance to play at soldiers and the opportunity (with limited personal risk) to expiate some of their guilt at missing the fate that was overtaking so many of their generation and class.

The 'friendlies'

Other factors too drove the raid; most notably, the complex relationship between the British (and Egyptian) administrators of the Condominium and the chiefs and influential men through whom they sought to exercise authority - those whom officials sought to turn from allies into agents (as Lonsdale has said of Kenya). For the 3,000 soldiers were not alone. They were supported by a levy of Baggara Arab horsemen, long in an ambivalent relationship with the people of Nyima, on whom they might rely for grain, from whom they might obtain slaves for trading - but to whose raids they were occasionally subject. The Baggara perceived that British rule had favoured the hill people against cattle nomads like themselves; ending the slave trade and punishing Arab raids on the hills, but apparently unable to stop hill people from stealing their cattle. They were ready to encourage British action, and ready to supplement British forces and - as British officers later acknowledged - were ready to exploit any opportunity for 'picking up a stray cow or a Nuba' in the wake of a raid.

In later years British officials could categorize this Baggara involvement as part of a general pattern of Arab oppression (retrospectively excusing their own behaviour as the consequence of Arab manipulation). But the chiefs, or meks, of neighbouring hills - other 'Nuba' - were equally willing to encourage and exploit punitive raids, and one of them supplied seventy armed men for the punitive force, who were to play a crucial role. They too saw such raids as the chance for themselves - and their followers - to pick up a little loot in authorised raiding. In 1910, one British administrator engaged in a punitive raid in the Nuba hills casually noted that he spent an afternoon with the 'friendlies', 'watching them doing a little looting'; and the photographic record of Patrol No. 32 reveals a similarly relaxed attitude to this kind of behaviour.

An outline of events

Agabna had ceased to pay tribute in 1916, and the number of thefts blamed on his people had grown steadily. In consequence, the people of Nyima were by the beginning of 1917 subject to the kind of limited punitive measures which were commonplace; essentially an attempt at intimidation by a company-level force. In April 1917 this force made a botched raid on Agabna's own village; as they retreated, in some confusion, the district administrator, Hutton, was shot dead. The death of this officer led to an immediate decision for a large-scale punitive mission, but for the next five months of the rainy season there was only limited activity: a slightly reinforced body of soldiers made a series of minor raids, burning houses indiscriminately and seizing livestock. By October 1917, a much larger force had been assembled, ready for a much more methodical exercise in violence.

Leonard Smith, the commander of Patrol No. 32 was reluctant to risk direct assaults on the rocky hills of Nyima, which offered many natural hiding places and fastnesses for a populace who had ample stocks of firearms. The intention was to encircle the hills with fortified positions and so to force the surrender of the populace through hunger and thirst. The patrol followed this policy through; using artillery against the hills to prevent riflemen from sniping, and then drawing steadily closer in to the hills. When it seemed that there was no further resistance from a hill, it was stormed. Captured houses and grain stores were destroyed; captured livestock were impounded to pay for ‘fines’ or to pay compensation to those who claimed to been raided by Nyima people. However, only some people were allowed to surrender. Only young men, with guns, were accepted as prisoners. Older men, women and children, or even young men without guns who attempted to give themselves up were 'turned adrift', sometimes hundreds at a time; either to return and starve in the hills, or to seek refuge with the people on other Nuba hills, or with the Baggara - refuge which would in either case have involved the acceptance of a servile and marginal position.

This policy was the centrepiece of the assault on Nyima society, and it was maintained even after the capture of Agabna at the end of December. Agabna, together with a kujur of Nyima, was captured by the mek of a neighbouring hill and his 'friendlies' who persuaded either them - or more likely, their remaining followers - that further resistance was futile. The two men were ‘tried’ and publicly hanged within a day of capture; no record survives of the trial or of the precise charges which they faced. But the capture of Agabna was only one aim of the patrol; the stated objectives demanded 'the seizure of all arms, ammunition, cattle etc and the destruction of enemy crops' and 'the capture of all young men'. The patrol continued until late February, at which point Smith deemed that a sufficient number of young men had surrendered with rifles and enough destruction had been done and the patrol was called off. Nimr, the neighouring mek who had helped the British was rewarded with a 'robe of honour' and a hundred pounds, and was recognized by the British as the new ‘ruler’ of the hill. Then the soldiers marched away, apparently taking with them dozens of young male captives who were forcibly conscriped into the army. Overall, 4,000 individuals had been captured, as well as 1,132 cattle and uncounted sheep and goats.

Agabna captured by the Brittish

The consequences of violence

The cost of all this to the populace of Nyima was clear enough, in one sense: a cost which might be quantified in terms of dead, wounded and abducted; of livestock lost and grain destroyed. And while Patrol No. 32 was unusual in its scale, the deliberate destruction of all items of value was characteristic of these patrols: 'Finding no opposition, we only burned the houses and grain and killed all the animals', wrote Savile of one minor operation in 1910. There was however a further cost: events such as patrol No 32 contributed to the remaking of ideas of authority and moral behaviour in Nyima, and across Nuba, by changing the terms of chronic conflicts within Nuba society that ran along the lines of age and gender. To understand how this happened, we must try and piece together - from fragmentary evidence, which includes the records of Patrol No. 32 itself - the changing nature of authority in societies in the Nuba hills in the early twentieth century.

Agabna and the Kujur

The British approach to governing the communities of the Nuba hills was based around the idea that there must be a source of authority in each community. In some cases, there might be two such sources, one religious and one political, with a clear divide, and a degree of competition, between the two forms. But British conceptions of authority did not go beyond this bipolarity. Every community must have a chief; the chief might be the same as the priest, or might compete with the priest; but there must be a chief. And, by extension, if members of a community refused to pay tribute, or raided their neighbours, this must be the work of the chief - or of a priest challenging the chief's rule. Seligman, observing Nuba societies in 1910 and no doubt influenced by the British officers with whom he dined - had argued that 'real' power lay in the hands of ritual specialists and that chiefs were subordinate.

Yet there is little evidence for such centralisation of authority in most of the communities of the Nuba hills; nor is it clear that local discourse distinguished chiefly authority and priestly authority in any systematic way; even Seligman's own account suggested that those with whom he dealt claimed both ritual and political roles. Where central authority had existed among the societies of the Nuba hills in the nineteenth century, it had generally been associated with the exercise of violence and with the mediation of relationships with the world beyond the hills. Individual big men - some of whom claimed particular prophetic powers which were of particular significance in the planning of raids - acquired followings of young men, who sought through service the means to accumulate wealth for marriage. In some of the hills, this relationship between individual/prophetic power and the organized energies of young men had come to be formalized through an age-grade system: young men worked as a group on the fields of young men - or they served as a group raiding, with the raids yielding livestock that could be used to start their own trajectory of acquisition as male household heads, or yielding captives who might be ransomed or sold as slaves, bringing in livestock or weapons. Leadership was associated with organizing young men in productive or destructive pursuits, and with using the product of such organization to trade with others. In the later nineteenth century, the importance of these organizers of violence had been enhanced by circumstances, as they were able to supply grain and slaves - each the product of young men's labour - to Arabs in return for firearms, which became items of bridewealth as well as tools of coercion.

Nadel, observing the people of the Nuba hills in the late 1930s (after several decades of British efforts to generate a central authority) was struck by the historical transience of such authority, and stressed that in most of the hills the attempts of local big men to build up authority were based on varying combinations of wealth, reputation, and involvement with particular places or practices which were believed to ensure general well-being. Through dextrous deployment of these resources, men might attract a following of young men, drawing as they did so on the chronic tension between young men and old over the distribution of wealth and access to women: there was always a ready supply of young men who thought their fathers and uncles were too slow in supplying the means for them to marry, and were willing to serve as cultivators and raiders for big men, in return for help with bridewealth. There was no single authority, nor even a bipolarity, in most communities in the Nuba hills. Agabna himself, cast as hereditary chief in British terms, was a member of a rain-making lineage, whose recent ancestors had parlayed this ritual role into a degree of authority over a growing following, and who had then used this position to secure recognition by the British as local chiefs. But their authority was not simply accepted by the people of the Nyima hills. Nor was that of the kujur Kilkun, Agabna's ally -who was seen by the British as the key to his support - yet whose own position was contested. Agabna, Kilkun and others all competed for the allegiance of young men - competed with one another, and with heads of families. Agabna, like other meks was not a despot in occasional conflict with a turbulent priesthood; he was one of many contenders for authority over young men, whose labour as raiders and farmers was central to accumulation.

Rebellious chiefs?

The contingent and contested nature of Agabna's authority helps to explain the tense relationship which he - and other chiefs of Nuba communities - had with the British in the years up to the mid-1920s. The British recognized these men as chiefs because their wealth made them influential, and because authority over young men gave them a degree of coercive power which the British desired to harness; and they themselves hoped to derive further authority form association with the erratic but unstoppable power of the government, just as some had benefited from alliance with the nazirs of particular nomad groups in the nineteenth century . Yet they found the engagement an unrewarding one. They were expected to collect tribute for payment to the government: should they fail in this task they themselves were first exposed to violent expropriation during one of the infrequent passages of British administrators. The sole support they received in return for this was the assurance that government would approve any consequent depredations they might make on the wealth of their 'subjects'. On the other hand, they were supposed to prevent young men from raiding other communities, so that a principle source of livestock was now denied to these men. Effectively restricted to raiding their own subjects, Agabna and others found themselves in an increasingly difficult position, for they were unable to acquire resources needed to reward young men; and they were in an increasingly hostile relationship with male heads of families, who were now the sole legitimate targets of their violence. In such circumstances it was not hard for them to find themselves 'in practical revolt', as Wingate put it - perhaps simply because they lacked the authority which government assumed them to possess

Meanwhile, young men were tempted by other patrons; either aspirant big men who defied the restrictions on raiding; or - increasingly - government itself, which employed numbers of men from the Nuba hills as police or soldiers. In 1914, the 'revolt' of Fiki Ali, chief of Miri, which caused great anxiety, was apparently prompted not so much by the subversive preachings of pro-Ottoman gun-runners (as the British believed) as by his concern that the government was tempting away all his followers to serve in the Nuba Territorial Company. Chiefs of Nuba communities faced new demands from the state even as the basis of their authority was being undermined by the state.

The consequence of raids such as Patrol No. 32 was to exacerbate, rather than mitigate, this crisis of authority in the communities of the Nuba hills. These events did undermine the authority of household heads, with whom aspirant chiefs were in competition, for the destructive effect of raids fell most heavily on those who possessed capital - houses, granaries, and livestock, as well as women and children. When homes were destroyed, grain burned and cattle stolen it became ever more difficult for fathers to provide bridewealth for their sons, for they had no means to do so. But this weakening of the household brought no benefit to the meks, for societies which were the target of such raids anyway found the competition for young male followers more acute, as young men were killed, or wounded, or conscripted into the army. In societies such as Nyima, migration elsewhere must have been the major aim of young men for some years after the raid. Patrols broke down patterns of wealth and accumulation; encouraging an idea of authority which was based on coercion and violence yet diminishing the ability of chiefs to command young men, who were the central coercive resource. So it was that patrol followed after patrol in the Nyima hills; and Patrol No. 32, despite all the resources deployed and all the destruction wrought, was no more successful than previous patrols in establishing effective government authority.


The violence of the 'Patrol' did bring brief rewards to some. Participation briefly boosted the authority of those chiefs, like Nimr, who provided 'friendlies'. But such recognition, and the loot secured in action, brought only the most transient access to coercive resources. Once the soldiers marched away, Nimr was left facing the same contradictory demands which had propelled Agabna to 'rebellion'. British policy encouraged an authority based on coercion, and demanded that chiefs predate on their own subjects - only thus could they pay tribute and attract followers. But the government offered no routine support for this coercion, and those chiefs who failed to impose their authority were cast as rebels, liable to wholesale assault. Up to the mid-1920s, British policy towards the people of the Nuba hills locked these communities into a spiral of violence, in which authority came to be ever more closely identified with coercion. Only in the mid-1920s, when British policy shifted and officials began systematically to provide chiefs with coercive resources - rather than simply assuming that they possessed these - did the frequency of punitive patrols begin to diminish. In later years British officials liked to believe that the years of patrols had been a necessary prelude to effective administration, instilling the people of the Nuba hills with a respect for government. Yet it was the introduction of courts and armed chiefs' police which was the turning point; within a few years of these innovations, patrols had almost entirely ceased. Yet the legacy of the period remained; the patrols had confirmed that organized violence was the key to authority. So it was that the archetypal chief of the Nuba hills was, by 1940, not the traditional' ruler or the kujur - but rather the ex-NCO.