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  • White Man at Daratoleh May 8, 2017

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Modern , trackback

    22 April 1903 a British column was attacked at Daratoleh (Somali) by dervishes: the British, as so often happened in Africa, were vastly outnumbered and the Imperial troops did the only sensible thing they could in these circumstances. They formed into a square and put their maxims to best use. Superior weapons did for superior numbers and, four hours later, the dervishes retreated and the British limped away, having survived the onslaught.

    Daratoleh was a celebrated name in Edwardian times: three Victoria Crosses had been given for acts of bravery that day. It would later be forgotten, though, as embarrassment at colonial expeditions and the shadows of other greater conflicts fell over those years. However, Beach has it in his files because of a strange report. A number of British soldiers claimed that a ‘white man’ in a topee was seen fighting with a whistle and directing the Dervish attack. See the paragraph above as an example.

    There is probably a straightforward explanation. The ‘white man’ may have been an African albino or, more likely, an Arab or Turk who had come to make jihad. It is unlikely that, as the British soldiers there believed, another European power was secretly involved. The Dervishes had recently annihilated a British force at Gumburu and many of their troops were carrying British weapons and wearing British clothes, which would have added to a general sense of disorientation.

    But Beach has been struck by how often these reports come of mysterious individuals in  enemy battle lines: he recently covered an example from the Americas. Can anyone give others of unlikely foes spotted shooting from the other side, factional or fictional: drbeachcombing At yahoo DOT com

    The obvious explanation is the natural propensity of soldiers for conspiracy theories: men (and today women) putting their lives at risk at the whims of superior officers try and explain a confusing world around them. There was also of course the justified fear of the rise of Germany…

    Gerrard C, 27 Jun 2017: Interested to read your piece on the white man at Daratoleh. Excluding mercenaries working for Manchu and Sikh governments against their countrymen, reports of whites beyond frontiers, participating in, or leading, attacks on settler forces are not uncommon.  Dee Brown noted that whites, thought either to be renegade former Confederates or perhaps ‘sqauw men’ who had taken indigenous wives and settled in indigenous communities, were participants in Red Cloud’s war.  Christopher Hibbert mentions claims from the Indian Mutiny that a horseman in the undress uniform of a European cavalry regiment – presumably a Russian – led attacks on British forces.   The story of Kimble Bent, an American-born deserter from the British army who lived among and fought beside the Maori against the British, is well known.  Other British deserters also joined the Maori. I suspect, however, that most reports of native forces led by foreigners discomforting British and American forces are based on plain old racism: the idea that natives could not defeat the forces of empire without European leadership.