A few weeks in a new episode of Dr Who, there was something of a story about one of the characters in that weeks episode. It involved a platoon of Victorian British soldiers who ended up working on some alien mining complex under the surface of the planet Mars. Rather than the actual setting being held to account for being outlandish, instead what came to prominence is that one of the actors was black.
The writer had been initially uneasy to have this fairly major character portrayed by a black actor on account that the army at the time had no black soldiers… except for one.
I actually have some sympathy for historical accuracy but on a show like Doctor Who, if you can tolerate 19th century soldiers trying to get rich on a Martian mine whilst working for an alien then surely this is not the setting to argue about the accuracy of the ethnicity of a fictional character though the BBC does as the BBC writer put it often shows its desire to become ‘more representational and make everything less homogeneously white’.
However, it got me curious about this black man from Africa who made a name for himself in the British Army.
It all started on 30th December 1885 when the British routed the army of the Mahdi in Sudan. The Arab army had just been defeated but the British still had some mopping up to do. The Madhi as characterised in the old Charlton Heston classic ‘Khartoum’ was something of a precursor to the current-day Islamic Fundamentalists and he enjoyed a widespread and fervorous following.
The British regiments turned their attention to some enemy barges that held a large stock of arms and ammunition and were thought to be moored several miles north along the River Nile. If they could be captured or destroyed, perhaps the Islamist fanatic Muhammad Ahmad and his army of Dervishes would finally be kicked out of the Sudan after four years of fighting.
A force of 100 mounted infantrymen was ordered to head downstream. Among them were soldiers from the 2nd Battalion of the Durham Light Infantry, commanded by Lieutenant Beauvoir de Lisle, aged just 21.
After covering 35 miles, the British entered the village of Kohehmatto, where the head man revealed — after, in the words of a contemporary account, ‘a little gentle persuasion’ — that one of the enemy’s barges lay some six miles away.
With the light fading fast, de Lisle took 12 volunteers to capture the vessel-.
‘In the dusk we saw the outlines of the masts of the barge,’ de Lisle recalled, ‘and soon after, we came on the party of 30 [Dervishes] pulling her upstream.’
De Lisle and his men dismounted as quietly as possible and crept forward until they were within 50 yards of the barge. Despite being outnumbered, de Lisle had the advantage of surprise and ordered his men to open fire.
Three volleys rang out across the desert, after which de Lisle and his men charged forward with bayonets fixed. The Arabs fled, leaving behind a badly wounded man with a shattered leg — and, standing on the riverbank next to a donkey, a small black boy, clearly less than two years old. Amazingly, the child seemed unaffected by what he had just witnessed. When de Lisle approached, the boy held up his arms and the Lieutenant picked him up, then handed him to Colour Sergeant Stuart.
Incedibly, the child seemed unaffected by what he had just witnessed. When de Lisle approached, the boy held up his arms and the Lieutenant picked him up, then handed him to Colour Sergeant Stuart.
Stuart was enchanted by the boy he nicknamed ‘Jimmy Dervish’. The wounded man whom the British treated revealed that the child’s real name was Mustapha, that his father had been killed and his mother had fled.
The boy kept pointing his finger at de Lisle and shouting ‘Bang! Morto!’ in imitation of a rifle shot and the subsequent result.
Neither Stuart nor de Lisle could bear to abandon him there alone so they took Jimmy back to camp, to decide what to do with him.
As the regimental journal The Bugle was later to record: ‘The night attack on the Nuggar [barge] has certainly altered the course of the lad’s life’.
This was an understatement — and then some. For little Jimmy, or James Durham, as he came to be known, would grow up to become, at the time, the only black soldier in the British Army. He even settled in Britain and married an Englishwoman.
Happily, after such a traumatic childhood, on reaching Britain, Jimmy never seems to have been racially abused. In all the accounts of his life, there is not one mention of him suffering any discrimination or even name-calling.
But even if Jimmy was victimised in this way, it seems likely that he would have had the determination not to let it get to him.
‘He was absolutely fearless,’ The Bugle recounted, and as a boy would ‘wander round the camp being no respecter of persons. His usual request was “aus laben”, which being interpreted means “I want milk”.’
Jimmy also seems to have been a quick developer. In June 1886 he was examined by two Arab women, who estimated that he was no more than 18 months old. But even so, he was soon able to speak both English and Arabic and, according to The Bugle, could ‘ride a horse bareback to water daily, and give a song and dance on a barrack room table’.
The nearest person Jimmy had to a parent was a grizzled veteran called Jim Birley, who treated the boy as if he were his own son. Around midday every day, Birley would place little Jimmy in a leather bucket, lather him in soap and wash him down with water from a canteen.
Many of Birley’s comrades felt similarly affectionate. In January 1887 the battalion was posted to India and the men hoped Jimmy, then aged two, would go with them. However, the powers-that-be decided he should be cared for in a mission school in Cairo, which met with much opposition. A group of sergeants marched into the orderly room and demanded that Jimmy should go with them.
‘Colour Sergeant Stuart was spokesman,’ The Bugle wrote, ‘and he was quite heartbroken at the thought that Jimmy was not allowed to come to India.’
When the battalion was away, the sergeants all donated one rupee — a day’s pay — each month to Jimmy’s living expenses.
At some point — it is not clear when — Jimmy moved to Britain and was brought up in the northeast of England by the family of a soldier called Sergeant Robson. He appears to have had a happy upbringing and grew very close to Robson’s daughter Stella, whom he regarded as his sister.
‘I hope you will always reckon me as your brother,’ he would later write to Stella. ‘I have known you from when you were a dear little child and I always used to look to your father and dear mother as my mother as well. They have treated me like one of you all.’
Unsurprisingly, Jimmy decided to join the Army. After all, the battalion was his de facto family — and in 1899, when he was about 14, he was enlisted.
Although he doesn’t appear ever to have seen active service, Jimmy played in the band, accompanied the regimental goat on parade and ran the Army Temperance Association in the battalion.
He was given an Award of Merit by Field Marshal Lord Roberts for his success in this last role, even though he held his temperance meetings in a room above a pub.
Recently, his medal was discovered in a house clearance and is currently for sale on eBay for a highly speculative £99,000.
On July 25, 1908, 23-year-old Jimmy married Jane Green, 22, from Bishop Auckland. Jane was white — and a century ago interracial marriage was, of course, highly unusual. But there is no evidence Jane was shunned by her community.
In November the following year, the new Mrs Durham fell pregnant and Jimmy was posted to Ireland with the battalion without her.
Although he seemed to enjoy Ireland — and even kissed the Blarney Stone, sadly the damp climate was not to his liking.
On August 8, 1910, at the Military Hospital in Fermoy, County Cork, Jimmy died of pneumonia at the age of 25. He would never meet his daughter Frances, who was born just three weeks later and would live until she was 88.
The regimental records state: ‘He always proved a universal favourite and his loss was much regretted by all ranks in the Battalion.’ He was buried with full military honours in Fermoy, his grave surrounded by flowers and with a headstone paid for by the officers, NCOs and men.
The affection for Jimmy continued long after his death. In 1984 his grave was vandalised but quickly repaired, at their own cost, by the people of Fermoy, surely a testament to Jimmy as well as the enduring acceptance of people of all colours to our shores.