Reginald Davies Papers

9 Oct

               Sometimes, when I am tired from doing the work I have to do, I take refuge in the letters of dead old white men. Leafing through Scottish archives can be a lot of fun and quite therapeutic, in the way that doing the washing-up can be quite therapeutic. I have, in the past, gone through George Henry Farmer’s diaries of the Conference of Arab music in Cairo in the 1930s and Douglas Haig’s letters from the British invasion of Sudan in 1898.

This week I have been looking at the Reginald Davies papers in the Special Collections of the University of Edinburgh. I have decided to write about them because they are a richer mine of information than I ever expected and they would be well worth looking at, if you are the kind of person who looks at that kind of thing.

He went to Khartoum in 1911 and stayed there on and off until 1935 when he went to Egypt, where he stayed until 1942. Often when you go through the papers of colonial officials they are mostly full of invitations to parties and most of the letters you get are narratives of their holidays to Bournemouth (vel sim.). However, Davies, in his letters to his parents and siblings kept them constantly up to date of his movements. When in Alexandria, he sends a letter about every week. A good deal of it is about his children Marigold (Goldie) and Christopher (Kiff) but there is enough about his work and acquaintances to be a useful historical resource. He also even makes some good jokes to keep you chuckling through.

To whet your appetite, I will give a few examples:

In one letter home he describes a performance of Hamlet in Egypt by the Old Vic. “Many of the audience were in tears. This company is organised on the plan that the well-tried members shall be in the lesser parts and the coming young things in the leads. Thus we had Lewis Casson as Polonius and Cathleen Nesbitt as the Queen, while Hamlet was, we thought, superbly presented by a young man, Alec Guinness, who should have a brilliant future.” [hohoho].

He also describes his meeting with several Sudanese politicians and other notable men. He tells how El Sharif Yusif Effendi (whom the British call ‘Holy Joe’) narrated to him the story of the birth of the bat. “They were fashioned of clay by the Prophet Jesus, who blew upon them and gave them life.” It is for this reason they have no feathers (“Naturally, being of clay they would have no feathers”, Yusif Effendi is reported to have argued). He also often describes meetings with Sayyid Abd al-Rahman al-Mahdi and Sayyid Ali Mirghani. It was Davies who relaxed the British crackdown on followers of the Mahdi that had been in force since the invasion of 1898.

One of the more interesting (though sadly only sporadically written) artefacts is a diary that contains stories of his time spent in Darfur in 1920 as well as his journey across the continent to Nigeria. One particularly lurid story (which I do not repeat in its entirety here, partly out of taste) is about his colleague in Darfur, a man named Porcelli. Very soon after he met him a woman, who is Porcelli’s Sudanese mistress, emerges from his tent saying that he only gives him a small amount of money for maintenance and that he beats her. Davies advises the woman to confront Porcelli and say she will go back home. When she has done this Porcelli beats her more and Davies takes it upon himself to return her to her family. It is a small, but significant, illustration of the brutality that colonial rule could entail.

He also has a habit of writing and collecting “comic” doggerel (much of which pushes the definition of the word comic). This one below was by a friend of his called Hilly (R.J. Hillard?) and is one of the better ones. That probably tells you something about the overall quality. However, as might be of interest to some, he also received from Freya Stark two poems of not particularly high quality. He became a friend of Freya Stark in Egypt and they continued their correspondence into later life.


Sa’ad Pasha Zaghlul

Detested British rule

The mere thought of a protectorate,

Made him want to expectorate

Sarwat Pasha and Adli

Didn’t do so badly.

Their passion for autonomy

Was not inconsistent with bonhomie.

There were few things that Hassan Nash’at

Didn’t have a dash at,

But his character was far too sinister,

For him to be a cabinet minister.


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