“As imposing a show as possible”: Aviation in colonial Sudan and South Sudan, 1916-1930

This essay by Dr. Brendan Tuttle looks at the establishment of the Juba Airport and the Juba Hotel in the light of a broad colonial history and legacy.



Tayara Jatna tahuom

Sawaga zol mal khom

Ramat alghanabil kom

Katalat humar Kaltoum

Fil Mourada.

An aeroplane came to us swaying

Her pilot had no target

He hit us with a bunch of bombs

which killed the poor Kaltoum’s donkey

In the Mourada.1


On April 15, 1930, Mary Russell, the Duchess of Bedford (or ‘The Flying Duchess’, as she was popularly called), a British suffragette, ornithologist, and long-distance-record flier, landed at Juba, “with its sodden mud-caked aerodrome,” and got stuck (Bennett, 1932, p. 157). Juba was a “new station”, she wrote in her diary, and the view from the newly-made aerodrome there was astonishing, “as if the occupants of the tropical bird aviaries at the zoo had all been let loose” (Jones, 1971, p. 144). She would have liked to remain a little longer, to see the birds. But some workers at the airfield wrestled the aeroplane free from the mud, allowing her to continue south, to Dodoma, in Tanganyika (present day Tanzania).


Mary Russell had left Lympne Airport in Kent, on England’s southeast coast, five days earlier, at 5:13 a.m. on April 10th, 1930. Ten days later she landed in Cape Town, where she was met with a bouquet of wildflowers and a crowd of onlookers. Reporters rushed to telegraph her flying times between cities: Lympne to Oran, 12 hours, “in time for dinner”; Oran to Tunis, 6 hours; Tunis to Benghazi, 11 ½ hours; Benghazi to Assiut, 9 hours; Assiut to Khartoum, 9 hours… (Bluffield, 2014, p. 249). For anyone who had travelled between those places, these were astonishing times. But Mary Russell had no desire to be “styled a ‘record-breaking flying Duchess”; her ambition, rather, was to promote a much more routine sort of flying by “strengthening … the belief of the [British] Air Ministry in commercial aviation from England to the Cape” (Bennett, 1932, p. 163). By 1931, Imperial Airways (a private carrier subsidized by the British government) opened the first weekly England to South Africa service—quite a turn-around from just a few years earlier when cinema audiences in England watched newsreels of the departure of two men, Flight-Lieutenent Haines and Mr. C.R. Thorn, in an aeroplane “to chart … unexplored lands in the Sudan” (British Pathé, “Air Age,” 1930) and air travel to southernmost South Sudan from London meant “learning how to crash”.


Imperial Airways timetable May 16, 1931 (Airline Timetable Images)


Upon Mary Russell’s arrival in Cape Town, newspapers celebrated the “courageous enterprise of a woman [who] set out to prove how much smaller the gap between the ends of the Empire has recently become” (Bennett, 1932, p. 163). When she returned to England, the editors of the Times (London) wrote that Mary Russell “and her shipmates have the distinction of having flown to India and back, and to the Cape and back within a far shorter space of time from start to finish, than any other human beings…” (Bennett, 1932, p. 612).2 For many, the opening up of the Cape-to-Cairo route seemed to shrink the world. But South Sudan was hardly an isolated place, and the speedier routes opened up by aeroplanes did not reduce the ‘gap between the ends of Empire’ for colonial subjects.


Heavier than air flight much reduced the time it took to get from colonial India to Sudan, but it did not create altogether new connections. Pre-colonial South Sudan had long been startlingly global. When Ferdinand Werne, a member of Muhammad Ali Pasha’s expedition up the Nile in 1841, arrived in Gondokoro—not far from the site where Juba would be later established—he met King Logunu (or, Lakono, a Bilinyam rain master) who was wearing a complicated feather hat, blue beads from Ethiopia, copper bracelets, and a blue cotton shirt made of India cloth. He explained to Werne how people exchanged the iron that they produced there for copper, beads, cloth, and salt that had travelled along trade routes linking Gondokoro to Sennar and more distant places, like India and Egypt, by way of Nasir, the Ethiopian highlands and Fazogli (Kurimoto, 1995).


Heavier than air flight much reduced the time it took to get from colonial India to Sudan, but it did not create altogether new connections


Not everyone experienced the ‘shrinkage of the earth.’ As much as air-travel seemed to bring some places closer together, it increased social distance. Segregation by class was advertised as one of the greatest benefits of air travel offered by Imperial Airways (Bhimull, 2007, p. 88), and flight did not ‘lower’ gendered barriers. When Lady Mary Heath (the first woman to hold a commercial flying license in Britain and the first to fly solo from Cape Town to Cairo) arrived in Entebbe in 1928 she found that she was not allowed to proceed between Juba and Wadi Halfa without an escort; the Royal Air Force did not feel the route was suitable for women. She was only allowed to continue by paying a man named Dick Bentley £5 an hour to escort her. (For a few years, Captain Dick Bentley made a sort of career of escorting women back and forth across South Sudan.) Beryl Markham, the first woman to fly nonstop from Europe to New York, pointed out that this was simple sexism; the worst errors of judgement had been made by men. “[F]lying over the Sudd the late Ernst Udet let himself run out of petrol while crossing it during the dry season and forced-landed on a ridge of hardened mud, where,” she wrote, “after several anxious days, he was found by [Captain T. Campbell Black]” (1943). Women had to put up with the bad example set by men. Brig.-Gen. A. C. Lewin (on whom, more below) made a similar error and stranded himself and his wife in the swamps west of Twic East for two weeks.


More, even, than creating a smaller world, air travel was expected to usher in a new era of peace. With the end of the First World War Aviation News declared in 1919 that “the contraction of distances and the bringing of the nations of the world into closer touch with each other will help to make misunderstanding between peoples rarer. Knowledge is the chief factor in destroying ancient prejudices” (Aviation News, 1919, cited in Millward, 1998-1999). Yet within the story of the development of “Africa’s skyways” lie some disturbing ironies. In “Devolutionary Principles in Native Administration” (1935), John Almeric de Courcy Hamilton, a member of the Sudan Political Service, wrote that “[a] realisation of the interdependence of the modern world, the growth of communications and the annihilation of distance render impracticable any idea of leaving the ‘native’ races to work out their own salvation, uncontaminated by contact with the ‘whites’” (p. 182). Colonial rule was constructed on the idea that the divisions between colonizers and colonized people were self-evident and easily drawn. Telegraph wires and aeroplanes threatened these divisions. The ‘interdependence of the modern world’, then, J.A. de C. Hamilton argued, required the firm hand of imperial management, meaning greater separation and inequality.


This essay attempts to tell the story of aviation in colonial Sudan, beginning in 1916 with the Darfur Campaign that tied the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan together, and ending in the 1930s with an empire that was not merely tied together but also tangled and knotted in ways that colonial administrators were anxious to detach and separate. It chronicles colonial efforts to re-establish boundaries and exclusions through technologies of connection, violent conquest, tourism and leisure travel. This early history of aviation in Sudan offers two contradictory images. While the British imagery of aviation in the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan remains on the whole heroic, it was part of the terror campaign by which colonial authorities established the racialized hierarchy that provided the scaffold of colonial government. Telling this story fairly requires bringing these elements together. It also means leaving other stories out. This essay pays very little attention to the stories that dominate histories of aviation, the ‘romance of the air’ and ‘technological progress’ or to the ‘first flights’—such as the first aeroplane to land at Khartoum, which touched down there on 12 January 1914, and the second, a hydroplane, which followed two months later and had taken seventy-nine days to get from Alexandria to Khartoum (Walkley, 1936; Dawes, 1993; Jones, 1971).3 But it does include some campaigns and patrols, and discussions of Native Administration and tourism, chiefly because these are settings where the boundaries separating colonizers and colonial subjects were sorted out and defined.


Aerial view of Juba in 1930, showing the aerodrome, with aeroplane in centre frame, courtesy of Durham University Library (SAD 717/18/2)


The first Juba airfield was cleared in 1929, two years after the construction of Juba town had begun. In the days when Mary Russell landed there the airfield turned into a muddy bog with every rain. Juba was a crucial hub in the Cape-to-Cairo route and improvements were needed. Record-breaking flights, like Russell’s 100-hour dash from Kent to Cape Town, helped to encourage the British Government to subsidize commercial aviation. Imperial Airways was created as a kind of public-private partnership, “a private monopoly with a public subsidy” (Lyth, 2000, p. 869).4 The Anglo-Egyptian Government of Sudan gave a concession to Imperial Airways, which arranged with the Shell Company for the construction of a murram runway and increased the landing fee to sh. 52 for small planes (and sh. 108 for large ones) to pay for it. Juba was a customs port then, requiring all air traffic to stop there; the rate increase stirred outrage among European members of the Legislative Council of the East Africa Protectorate who felt the fee increase would disrupt empire-building by discouraging tourism and the resettlement of more Europeans in Kenya (Kenya, 1936, pp. 934-938). In February 1931, Imperial Airways opened the first 2,670 miles of the weekly England to South Africa service, which connected the Croyden airfield in the south of London, through Juba, to Tanganyika Territory (now part of Tanzania), and a mooring place was established near Rajaf to the south of Juba, for Imperial Airways’ Calcutta flying-boats, which carried passengers between Khartoum and Kisumu (on which, more below).


But before examining the place of the Juba airport in the history of aviation in colonial Sudan, it might be helpful to draw back a step, and describe how the use of aeroplanes in colonial Sudan became part of colonial rule, the anxieties produced by global interconnection, the role of sightseeing in reestablishing colonial boundaries and the opening of the Cape to Cairo route.


Airpower and the Darfur Expedition of 1916


The history of flight in Sudan really begins on May 14th, 1916, in Darfur, when a biplane dropped a collection of little green handbills and several 20 pound bombs on a family near Mellit, who were looking on as some soldiers took their grain. “They said that one of Adam Tamim’s children and one of his wives had been killed by a bomb from the aeroplane the day before as they were standing in the village”, H.A. McMichael, the Assistant Director of Intelligence, reported, “several other women were badly wounded, but no soldiers killed” (SAD 128/7/2-3). Thus began the Anglo-Egyptian campaign that defeated the Fur armies outside El Fasher in May 1916 and deposed Ali Dinar. By 1917, Darfur was part of the British Empire.


In 1900, the Anglo-Egyptian government had recognized Ali Dinar as the Sultan of Darfur, provided that he acknowledged Anglo-Egyptian suzerainty and paid an annual tribute of £500 to Khartoum. Over the next decade, Ali Dinar grew increasingly frustrated; Britain had done nothing to discourage French encroachments on his territory or raids by Anglo-Egyptian subjects into southern Darfur. He found himself isolated, struggling to enforce his rule, and denied British support; the Darfur Sultanate was the last independent kingdom among those that had once formed a chain across central Africa, and he was suspicious of British and French designs on Darfur and Wadai, Darfur’s neighbor to the west. In April 1915, he refused to pay tribute to Khartoum.


The First World War provided ambitious British authorities in Anglo-Egyptian Sudan with an opportunity for campaign decorations and military advancement. Francis Reginald Wingate, the commander-in-chief (Sirdār) of the Egyptian Army and Governor-General of the Sudan, concocted an elaborate Ottoman plot to justify a campaign to annex Darfur. The Sultan Ali Dinar, Wingate claimed, had been duped by “Turco-German propaganda with which Darfur has been flooded” (SAD 200/2/15), which had the aim of inspiring an anti-British movement that would “stir up … the whole of the Tripoli Hinterland against the Sudan and Egypt” (SAD 200/2/91), and was “all part and parcel of the big Turco-German scheme for the invasion of Egypt and the Sudan” (SAD 200/2/99).5 With the outbreak of the First World War, Wingate argued, “[i]t was essential to disabuse the native mind of the conception, which is being insidiously introduced from external sources, that British power was on the wane” (Wingate, 1916, SAD 130/1/37). Flying machines would supply visible proof of British power. “The machines … would carry two machine guns … and would be capable of delivering at least 1,000 lbs of high explosives,” Major Percy Groves, then Chief of Staff of the Royal Flying Corps, wrote. “This reign of terror could be maintained in Darfur … [and] [o]ccupation by a comparatively small force could then follow without opposition” (1916, p. 3; SAD 200/6/92). The British Foreign Office approved operations against El Fasher on May 1st, 1916 (SAD 128/6/3-4).


The Darfur Campaign was an enormous undertaking. Simply getting four BE.2c biplanes to Darfur required an extensive infrastructure of railways, roads, camels and motor lorries, landing places, portable sheds, repair shops, petroleum depots, and a huge staff of laborers, drivers, mechanics, and veterinarians to maintain it. “I will not weary you with all the details about this”, Wingate reported to Kitchener, “suffice it to say that to get even the first portion of the aeroplane convoy to Nahud has given us no little trouble” (SAD 128/3/40); the lorries carrying material from the railhead at Rahad to the aerodrome at El Nahud were “marooned for days” in the soft sand (SAD 129/7/14). Fifty-six camels were required just to get two RAFs tent from Rahda to Jebel el Hilla; additional camels were needed to carry spare engines for the aeroplanes: “These poor camels used to complain loudly,” one pilot later recalled, “and usually died afterwards” (Slessor, 1957, p.652). The wood and canvas aeroplanes were flimsy and warped in the heat; bits would tear off and hang limply until a mechanic with a ball of heavy twine and a mouthful of pins came along and stitched and glued the craft back together. Aeroplane fuel evaporated in the heat. Tires had to be filled with sorghum stalks to prevent punctures from thorns. The pilots frequently lost their bearings and couldn’t distinguish between people and horses. The flight commander, Captain E.S. Bannatyne, arranged for huge white arrows made of calico to be laid down at intervals to point the pilots to their destination. (The calico arrows were quickly “appropriated by the local dressmaker” (Slessor, 1957, p.653).) One pilot, Bellamy, suffered a nervous breakdown; another, Slessor, was shot in the thigh.


Darfur Expedition Communication Lines for Aeroplanes, courtesy of Durham University Library (SAD 129/7/19). Bashawish (Sergeant-Major) Badda of the Nuba Rifles acted as John Slessor’s navigator between Rahad and Jebel Hilla. Slessor later wrote that Badda had fought under the Khalifa against Kitchener at Omdurman before ending up in the Anglo-Egyptian Army. Badda may have been the first Sudanese person to fly in an aeroplane (Slessor 1957, pp. 17-18, 653).


Most of the work of the Darfur Expedition was done by ground forces: about 3,000 men armed with rifles and maxim guns and supplied by more than 2,000 camels as well as lorries and armored cars. The aeroplanes mostly flew reconnaissance flights, dropped proclamations,6 and carried messages between aerodromes, maintaining lines of communication. Ali Dinar’s army was defeated at Beringia, near El Fasher, on 23 May 1916. British forces encountered practically no resistance two days later at El Fasher, which was by then occupied only by some young boys and servants. Ali Dinar had fled. By the 25th, the aeroplanes were no longer airworthy, having been damaged by the heat and ‘bumpy atmosphere’. The pilots were sick. Disappointed, Colonel P.J.V. Kelly, who led the campaign, offered a reward of £150 for the capture of Ali Dinar.


As for ‘the restoration of government prestige’, W.T. Massey, a correspondent for the Daily Telegraph reporting on the bombing of El Fasher wrote that onlookers were dumbstruck to see the pilots climb from the machines: “One who found speech was heard to say:–‘The Government was always great, but now it is greater than ever’” (Massey, 1916; SAD 129/7/16).7 But Colonel Kelly did not think that the aeroplanes were worth their enormous cost and effort. It hardly seemed to matter. The bombing of El Fasher was still held out as an argument for more aeroplanes. “Aeroplanes in Darfur are a distinct novelty and already they are having a most alarming effect on the inhabitants,” Wingate wrote to Captain R.C.R. Owen (SAD 200/3/241-2). “I often think that our best plan in dealing with recalcitrant wild tribes would be to have some good armoured aeroplanes in various localities in the Sudan and despatch them against rebellious tribesmen instead of having to organize expeditions with all the paraphernalia and difficulties of carriers and other transport,” Wingate said(SAD 200/3/241-2, to Owen, 20 May 1916).


‘Government prestige’ was mainly a matter of maintaining a credible threat of violence. The crucial thing was that armed men would show up wherever there was any sort of open challenge to colonial authority—and that everyone knew that they would, indeed, arrive quickly. All those camels and lorries and carriers and the veterinarians and mechanics and other paraphernalia required to convey the aeroplane convoy to Nahud, and their getting marooned in the sand and the broken-down aeroplanes and other mishaps and delays, had made a profound negative impression. It did not take a great leap of imagination for Wingate to conclude that the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan would benefit greatly from an improved system of aerodromes and fueling stations.


Confusion and legibility: enforcing colonial divisions through aerial domination and ‘native administration’


What would eventually be a routine air-service connecting colonial stations did not emerge fully formed after the First World War. There was much groundwork to be done. The Cairo to Cape Town route was surveyed by the R.A.F. in 1918 and forty three landing grounds were cleared and supplied with petrol and oil in 1919. The first attempt to fly this new route was sponsored by The Times in 1920 and made in a Vickers-Vimy bomber with two pilots, a mechanic, a rigger, and Peter Chalmers Mitchell, the Secretary of the London Zoological Society and propagandist responsible for the idea of distributing Le Courrier de l’Air, a leaflet propaganda newspaper, over German lines with hydrogen balloons. After leaving Malakal, they got lost and their motor, (which they had patched with soap), overheated, forcing them to land on a patch of burnt grass in the vicinity of Bor. “Dinkas quite friendly, fetched water,” the pilots recorded in their log. Two weeks later, near Tabora (now in Tanzania), after a series of mechanical problems and dozens of forced-landings and crashes (“slight cuts and bruises”), repairs and other mishaps (“all burst into tears”) the aeroplane was “beyond repair” (Jones, 1971, pp. 23-25).


That same year, in 1920, four years after the Darfur Campaign, two infantry columns and two D.H.9 aeroplanes were taken up the Nile River to Nasir on barges and used to bomb and machine gun Garjak Nuer villages and cattle camps in the Sobat District to enforce submission to colonial rule and impress the ‘recalcitrant’ Nuer (Omissi, 1990, p. 54; Mawut, 1995, pp. 97-98; Sprigg, 1935, p. 216).


During the 1924 Revolution of the White Flag League led by ‘Ali ‘Abd al-Latif, (after a demonstration by students of the Khartoum Military College and mass demonstrations in Khartoum, Khartoum North/Baḥrī, and Omdurman), four aeroplanes turned and raced and wheeled above Khartoum, swooping down to discourage people from gathering. Authorities in El Obied, “sought to impress people by making an aeroplane … fly over the city, … with limited success, as it crashed on landing” (Vezzadini, 2015a, pp. 83-4; Omissi, 1990, p. 54)! The aeroplanes that flew over Khartoum and El Obied in 1924 were little more than an aeronautical footnote in Sudan’s inter-war period, a small part of a larger history of anti-colonial nationalist protests. After 1918, anti-colonial and nationalist ideas circulated across the colonial world on telegraph wires and newspaper pages.


British authorities were particularly suspicious of effendiyya, lower ranking government employees (who frequently worked in the post office), and of ex-slaves, the so-called “de-tribalized” people who had made up a stratum of itinerant craftsmen, tailors, carpenters, laborers, and petty traders in Sudan’s towns and did not fit neatly into the rigid categories of Native Administration (Vezzadini, 2015b). Colonial rule was built on the idea that the boundaries separating colonizers and colonial subjects were self-evident. Elena Vezzadini has brilliantly described how British understandings of anti-colonial protest broke down as activists and intellectuals drew on the Wilsonian idiom of “self-government” and claimed their right, as colonial citizens, to petition the League of Nations. Accustomed to disparaging resistance to colonial rule as religious fanaticism or tribalism, the post-World War I British colonial government was ill-equipped to respond to anti-colonial activists who articulated their protest in a secular, international language, citing Woodrow Wilson for evidence that self-determination was ‘a natural right of nations’; since the principle of self-government prohibited the imposition of foreign rule, British colonial rule had no legal grounds. British efforts to impose colonial order on the situation, in turn, involved efforts to reestablish familiar categories by dividing the population up into a neat “series of self-contained racial and tribal units” and limiting the influence of “alien customs” by restricting movement (Mawut, 1995, p. 206 n.4; Vezzadini, 2013).8


British officials were thus on what seemed, (to them, at least), the more familiar ground of “tribes” and “superstitions” in 1928, when the Government sent four bi-planes to attack the prophet Gwek Ngundeng at Wechdeng. British officials had been suspicious of Gwek since 1920; and the British, with their armies and habit of believing rumors and sorting people into ‘loyal’ and ‘disloyal’ subjects (and enrolling ‘loyal’ groups in punitive raids against ‘disloyal’ ones), had been incorporated into the web of regional politics.9 In 1927, then, when Gwek refused to provide labor for a road-building scheme, rivals spread around rumors that he meant to raise a rebellion. And so, on the theory that Gwek Ngundeng’s authority was rooted in “wizardry” it was thought that a flight of aeroplanes would provide visible proof that the Government held a greater Power. Percy Coriat, the Political Officer on the patrol, hoped that the tiny twenty-pound bombs carried by the aeroplanes would produce a huge explosion, vaporizing Gwek’s 60-foot pyramid in a cloud of smoke. Messengers were sent to instruct “loyal” chiefs to evacuate. But the planes could not be made ready in time and the date passed without incident.


To restore government ‘prestige’ it was decided to bomb and machine-gun the pyramid and surrounding village. The machine-gunning was terrifying. Two elderly men and two-hundred cattle were killed. But spectacles often came up short. The bombs had little effect. A man with a rifle shot one of the wood-and-canvas planes, wounding the pilot and grounding the aeroplane. Feeling that the residents of Wechdeng had not been sufficiently terrorized, Coriat sent troops to loot cattle and burn villages and fields and to gather the chiefs together to witness the demolition of the pyramid with dynamite. “They were told to keep their eyes on the Pyramid which would vanish with a reverberating bang when I dropped my handkerchief. The result,” Coriat later wrote, “was something of an anti-climax. A puff of white smoke and a few lumps of earth tumbling down the side was all they saw” (Coriat, 1939, p. 234). 10


“Nuer mound of Deng Kur”(c. 1901)11, Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford, 1967.26.187


Administrative histories of South Sudan that focus on policy and administrative decisions tend to conceal the ways that the Anglo-Egyptian state was not so much a single administration (which was gradually extended) as a patchwork of alliances. Administrators were caught up in a constant, shifting play of alliances and ambitions; their letters and reports are full of rumors about agitators, potential revolutionaries, and secret societies (Johnson 1991) and speculation about the motivations and plans of South Sudanese chiefs and kings and their French, Belgian and Ethiopian competitors (Johnson, 1991). Officials complied detailed “personality reports” and a “Who’s Who” of chiefs, prominent individuals, and anyone thought to have any influence over others whatsoever.


Officials complained about the use of third-hand, unreliable information from ‘secret agents’ and personal contacts. It was all very complicated and made Wingate increasingly paranoid and obsessed. Even his mustache grew pointier. He uncovered dozens of secret, anti-European plots and schemes cooked up by secret societies (nationalist, pan-African, Turco-German, anti-government, pacifist, and so on) that, he believed, had infiltrated the Egyptian military academy, Ali Dinar’s court, and the Khartoum telegraph office. Even copies of primary school magazines written by schoolchildren were carefully filed away under “intelligence.”12


Aeroplanes, for many officials, offered a way to make sense of this confusing situation. How much easier it would be to peer down and see the colony spread out below, like a map.13 But arranging the world so that it could be viewed in this manner was not merely a matter of looking down from an aeroplane. It required a great deal. The introduction of “Native Administration” in the 1920s, with its hierarchies of chiefs and chiefs’ courts, the registration of subjects and tax-assessments, the recording of court cases and efforts to codify customary law, and the mapping and demarcation of ‘tribal boundaries’ were efforts to re-organize Sudanese society, to cut through the complexity of alliances and personalities and draw everyone under a single, centralized chain of command that could be neatly diagrammed.


Bringing about the “panoptic ambitions of aerial control” (Satia, 2010) involved the forcible relocation of villages along roads built by corvée labor. ‘Pacification’ was the name given to the practice of bombing settlements and forcing people to leave their homes and farms, (often by burning villages so that they could not return), and resettling them along to roads so as to be more easily supervised. Airpower required groundwork. Establishing new relations between vision, knowledge, and power involved a great deal of force.


Colonial tourism in Sudan: punitive sightseeing and a trip to Khartoum


During the same period, Khartoum became a popular station on Cook’s Nile Tour, where “the more adventurous could even visit battle sites and the Mahdi’s tomb, and view the bones of his soldiers, bleaching in the desert sands” (Lyth, p. 184). This genre of travel also provided a new method of representing the Government. During the late 1920s, British officials drew on a long tradition of pensioning off “hostile little chiefs” (‘les petits sultans qui se montrent hostiles’) in colonial India, and arranged punitive sightseeing visits for South Sudanese chiefs. This punitive tourism was modeled after the fashion of the dark tourism popular among those who visited the battlefields of Kerri and collected souvenirs there.14


Sightseeing tours for southern chiefs were modeled on Cook’s itinerary for Khartoum but designed to bewilder and demoralize. Chiefs were taken on a city tour with stops at Mr. Aziz Kfouri’s model dairy farm, the zoological gardens, the Sudan Light and Power Company’s Power House, the armory and the aerodrome, and the palace. These itineraries drew heavily on Cook’s and a genre of travel that Rupert Stasch has called ‘primitivist’ tourism; each station was carefully staged to create a kind of encounter between “archaicness” and “modernity,” or provincialism and “the world,” all in the hope that the visitors from South Sudan would come to see themselves as backwards (Tuttle, 2015).


Not surprisingly, airpower figured prominently in these tours. A pilot stationed in Khartoum, Flight-Lieutenant C.K.J. Coggle, described how, in 1928, after the disappointing performance of the R.A.F. over Ngundeng’s pyramid, Nuer Chiefs were brought to Khartoum to see the armaments and aeroplanes there. British officers carefully planned an “intimidation display” that included flying in squadron formation and targeted bombing and demonstrations (“by our most accurate shots”) of the Vickers and Lewis guns (p. 177). “Every available man was to be turned out, including the clerks and medical orderlies, to make as imposing a show as possible” (p. 174). The chiefs—who were some of the very first South Sudanese to fly in an aeroplane—were persuaded to climb into Fairey IIIFs and flown around above Khartoum to frighten them.


Percy Coriat (photographer), 1928. “Nuer chiefs”, RAF Khartoum 1928, standing in front of a Fairey biplane outside a hangar (Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford, 2007.34.3.2)


Sightseeing tours for chiefs shared this basic feature with much tourism: a heightened attention to difference, whether between the tourist trip and ordinary life, between there and here or work and leisure, or between hosts and guests. The “‘primitivist’ tourism” that Stasch (2011; 2014; 2016) describes is organized around the encounter of the civilized and the primitive and, with a kind of dull predictability, always evoke scenes of “first contact.” This was colonial theater played on an endless loop. In Khartoum, drawing on tourist scripts and images of modernity (ice and electricity, scientific dairy farming, exotic zoo animals, clothing, and especially aeroplanes) that were counterpoised to features of life in South Sudan, British officials carefully staged theatrical encounters between provincial ‘primitive chiefs’ and a world-wrapping ‘modern Government.’ The performance of this dichotomy was meant, in no small part, to make representations of the Government as an entity standing firmly over and apart from its subjects persuasive (cf. Leonardi, 2015).


For sightseers from Europe, tourist sites in Khartoum were designed to provide support for the colonial enterprise in Sudan by continually evoking the “fiendish atrocities” of previous rulers like Ali Dinar and Muhammad Ahmad (the Mahdi). In 1930, one thousand tourists visited the Khalifa’s house, which had been converted into a museum. “The little museum at Omdurman plunges the visitor straightway, by evocation, into one of the blackest, most cruel and lawless chapters of African history,” Odette Keun wrote in A Foreigner Looks at the British Sudan (1930). “The weapons—the thickset clumsy guns, the deadly barbed spears—the chain armour, the flags, the robes and seats of the chieftains, the old gala carriages, so carefully preserved in the small grey rooms, bear witness to a period of fiendish atrocities a living generation can still remember: the domination of the Mahdi and the worse tyranny of the Khalifa, his successor” (Keun, 1930, p. 6). The “clumsy guns” displayed in the museum’s dimly lighted rooms were counterpoised to Khartoum’s wide streets and machine-like military parades. “I was never so much impressed in my life as I was on being present at a review of some four thousand troops the morning after our arrival in Khartoum,” Captain F. A. Dickinson wrote of his visit there; “Cavalry, galloping Maxim brigades, mounted infantry, the two infantry brigades were on parade. The precision and exactitude with which they performed their different and varied evolutions, like so many machines, as they marched and countermarched, was little short of marvelous” (Dickinson, 1910, p. 131).


IIIFs of 47 Squadron on the Blue Nile at Khartoum in 1930 (Air Historical Branch-RAF/MOD (OGL v1.0)


With outstretched neck and legs


Accounts of aviators often placed them in the company of an earlier era’s heroic figures: Livingstone, Stanley, Speke, and Grant. “Think of Wolseley and his toiling Nile boats,” the editors of The Nation and Athenaeum wrote, “and of Herbert Stewart, and Fred Burnaby, and Kitchener himself! Over the scenes of their struggles and tragedies the [Vickers-Vimy flying] machine sped as easily as a flamingo when, with outstretched neck and legs, it seeks the Mountains of the Moon” (Anon. 1920, p. 804).15 Even “if they disappeared while flying,” Bhimull observed of this literature of pioneer aviation, “they disappeared courageously” (2017, p. 8); and in this way stories of flying were threaded into a larger colonial narrative in which machines were held out as evidence that Europeans had acquired the technology (and with it the right) to dominate Africans.16


Stories of flying were threaded into a larger colonial narrative in which machines were held out as evidence that Europeans had acquired the technology (and with it the right) to dominate Africans.


The great wetlands lying between Malakal and Juba figure prominently in early accounts of aviation in South Sudan, often to support a story of white men and white women triumphing over a black, hostile, and often ‘sinister’ or ‘prehistoric’ natural landscape. “If you can visualize twelve thousand square miles of swamp that seethes and crawls like a prehistoric crucible of half-formed life, you have a conception of the Sudd. It is an example of the less attractive by-products of the Nile River, and one place in this world worthy of the word ‘sinister,’” Beryl Markham, the first woman to fly non-stop from Europe to New York, wrote in her memoir, West With The Night:


“The surface of the Sudd, from the air, is flat and green — and inviting. If you should be either hypnotized or forced into landing upon it (and if, miraculously, and impossibly, you didn’t turn over), the wheels of your plane would at once disappear into the muck, while your wings would, in all probability, rest upon the slowly heaving mat of decomposed — and living — growth that in many places is fifteen feet thick and under which flows a sluice of black water” (Markham, 1942).17


These stories of courage and technological supremacy enjoyed a wide audience in Europe, because otherwise European claims to colonial possessions had little foundation. Since the nineteenth-century, colonial empires have been justified by what we would now call ‘humanitarian intervention.’ The abolition of the slave trade and defeat of tyrants and despots were held out to justify colonial annexations. And, in colonial Sudan as in other similar places elsewhere, technological expertise was held out as an argument to justify British rule. British administrators were thus anxious for colonial subjects to gawp at aeroplanes and other mechanical innovations, so that by doing so they could be seen to consent to British rule by acknowledging the superiority of their technological things.


Colonial hierarchies were also gendered. Record-setting flights helped to keep aviation in the international press, providing prestige for Britain, excitement for readers, and evidence of technological expertise. Much as machines like aeroplanes were made into a yardstick by which Europeans measured the rest of the world, relations between men and women supplied a figure for other relations of power. Even the most adventurous and fearless women had to be protected. In 1928, Lady Mary Bailey set out to fly from Croydon to Cape Town in a de Havilland Cirrus Moth. (When she returned to Croydon, in 1929, she had set a new record for the longest solo flight ever undertaken.) When she reached Cairo she was informed by the R.A.F. that because she was a woman, she could not fly unescorted across the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan. “If [she] were forced to alight”—she was told by the authorities there—“she ran the risk of abduction or even murder.” And so, Lieutenant Bentley—who was returning from the first solo flight from London to Cape Town—once again agreed to act as an escort.


Lieutenant Bentley returned to Sudan (en-route to South Africa) with his wife the following year. Mr. Bentley flew ahead in a small plane and Mrs. Bentley followed in a larger nine-seat Fokker piloted by Captain Donald Drew, an Imperial Airways pilot with a history of carelessness.18 They were accompanied by two racecar drivers, Glen Kidston and Tom ‘Scrap’ Thistlethwayte, and Mr. Watley, the aircraft’s mechanic. Just a little south of the contemporary village of Pariak, South Sudan, they spotted a herd of 200 elephants and decided to swoop down to photograph them. This accomplished, their ascent was arrested when the engines sputtered and coughed out a cloud of blue smoke.


Donald brought the plane in to land at a steep and awkward angle, and hit the ground so hard that the passengers tumbled into a heap in the cockpit. After they had disentangled themselves from their equipment and luggage, they huddled around the wreckage with their revolvers drawn. “Fortunately our fears were groundless,” Mrs. Bentley later said. A few residents of the area rushed over to crash site to see if they could offer any help to the disheveled passengers. Pretty soon Archdeacon Archibald Shaw, who ran the Malek Mission seven miles upstream, came by in a motor boat and put them up for the night. Mr. Bentley collected them from the Malek Mission the following afternoon in a government steamer.


Fokker F.VII b-3m being refueled at Mongalla, Walter Mittelholzer (photographer), 1930 (ETH Library/Swissair photographic archive collection).


“Mail, cargo and people”: routine empire-building and the adventures of leisure air-travel in Sudan


Record-setting transcontinental flights, air-shows, and military pageantry helped to promote air-transport and extend imperial claims. “We in England,” the aviator Lady Heath wrote, “do not realise that Africa, at least the greater part, is ours, and that her great storehouse of mineral and agricultural wealth is ours if we like to take it and use it” (Heath & Murray, 1929, p. 125). Transcontinental flights had demonstrated that routine flights were possible; what remained was to clear airfields and develop a financial model. Britain heavily subsidized Imperial Airlines and promoted aero clubs and record-breaking flights to extend its aerial empire, bolster ‘British prestige’ and promote British aircraft manufacturing. By 1919, Africa had been partitioned by military occupation. The end of the First World War introduced a sort of second ‘scramble for Africa,’ a rush to establish more routine forms of empire (McCormack, 1976). Chandra Bhimull, in Empire in the Air: Speed, Perception, and Airline Travel in the Atlantic World (2007), shows that the support provided by the British government for regular commercial air-travel and transportation was closely connected to the desire to build prestige and to reshape the empire by speeding up communication and altering the distance and relationships between different parts of the empire and its metropole. “Now the prizes were prestige and influence, routes and ports of call, and traffic in mail, cargo and people” (McCormack, 1976, p. 89).


The Equatoria provincial headquarters were moved from Mongalla to Juba in 1930. By the early-1930s, Kenya had been connected to Britain byway by Imperial Airways and a handful of regional charter and commercial carriers. Imperial Airways published the flying times between stops: Khartoum to Kosti, 2 hours, 20 minutes; Kosti to Malakal, 3 hours, 30 minutes; Malakal to Juba, 5 hours, 25 minutes. For anyone who had ever travelled between these towns by boat, these were remarkable times. A paddle steamer took twelve days to travel from Khartoum to Juba; by 1930, this distance could be covered in a single day, with time for tea on a veranda of the Juba Hotel. “An airway surpasses all other means of travel,” Flight Magazine marveled in 1932. “The traveler who starts off from suburban Croyden in an Imperial Airways liner will sleep in Athens, at Cairo, Wadi Halfa, Khartum, Juba, Nairobi, M’Beya, Salisbury, and Johannesburg. What an experience it sounds to spend a night at Juba and another at M’Beya” (Flight, January 22, 1932, p. 66)! One effect of all this punctual interconnection, oddly, was to make Juba seem more exotic to visitors, as if only the most intrepid ever spent a night there.


Imperial Airways timetable May 16, 1931 (Airline Timetable Images)


Commercial air travel transformed how many people imagined Juba. For ordinary South Sudanese, the air-routes that by 1930 stretched across the continent were largely inaccessible. Many people that I spoke to in Juba remarked that only the most elite were able to board an aeroplane, and that was only because the ticket was paid for by the government. If for British officials in colonial Juba it seemed that the aerodrome could make the empire as small as it needed to be to be effectively supervised and governed, for many residents, the experience of new forms of transportation was one of growing remoteness, as they were cut off from each new means of travel and the luxury accommodations that were established to service them.


While Khartoum and northern Sudan were gradually drawn into the orbit of leisure travel by Cook’s Nile Tours, holiday travelers were rare in South Sudan. It was much too expensive.19 Most passengers on Imperial Airways were colonial officials or business travelers. But aircraft then had a very limited range between stops; during the early 1930s there were roughly 30 stops along the London to Cape Town route, with four changes of aircraft and 2,000 kilometers of rail travel. Imperial Airways provided lots of opportunities for a kind of sightseeing that Gordon Pirie (2009) has called “incidental tourism” to emphasize how much it was a byproduct of mishaps. Frequent stops for re-fueling, mechanical failures, burst tires, low altitudes, inclement weather, and occasional unscheduled landings and crashes made tourists of all passengers on the Cairo-Cape Town route.


During a stop in Malakal, Grace Crile described how the passengers “were invited into a cool, screened tent for lunch. Here tables were spread and delicious Nile fish, veal, potatoes, beans, a compote of mixed canned fruit, and coffee were served on pretty Airways china. This is England-off at the end of nowhere,” Crile wrote (1936, p. 40). Other passengers would often wander off to see the sites there or to gawk at the residents of nearby villages, or photograph crocodiles.


Imperial Airways advertisement (Airline Timetable Images)


Imperial Airways commonly used flying boats for the route between Khartoum and Kisumu. These aircrafts had much to commend them. Flying boats eliminated the need to clear landing strips, since they could put down on any convenient body of water, provided it was smooth. During the rains of June to October, most of the landing grounds in the south were too sodden for landing. “We were,” Wing-Commander W.S. Douglas wrote of a floatplane tour of Sudan, “taking our aerodrome along with us; and if things got too bad, we could always flop down on to the water, throw out the anchor … and wait for better times” (p. 212). Floatplanes could hop their way along the Nile, following the river deep into the Sudd, stopping at villages with no clearings for aerodromes, and otherwise fly in weather that would ground a conventional aeroplane (Douglas, 1931).20 For passengers, the possibility of flopping down among crocodiles added a frission of excitement to every journey between Malakal and Juba.


Imperial Airways 1937 advertisement, One of the 28 Empire Flying Boats (courtesy of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum)

An African Airway Adventure – published in Flight magazine on September 6, 1932
The Imperial Airways Short flying boat City of Stonehaven was forced down through engine trouble 105 miles south of Malakal on August 29 [1932] while on its way from Juba to Khartoum. The 17 passengers were forced to spend a day or two in the desolate region of the Zeraf River before they were taken to Malakal by the relief aeroplane. They passed a not uninteresting, if somewhat unpleasant, time, and towards the end food supplies were running short; at night the mosquitoes were very troublesome. However, a four-year-old Italian boy kept them in high spirits with his merry ways, and the passengers arrived at Malakal looking well and happy (Flight, September 6, 1932). 

Imperial aircrafts in the 1930s were not equipped to navigate at night. Evening landings were for overnight stops, and any mechanical trouble or emergency landing in the afternoon generally turned into an overnight visit too. Passengers stopping overnight at Juba were taken by motor coach to the Juba Hotel. Grace Crile arrived there with her husband in 1935, in the early afternoon; “in time for tea on a veranda facing the tennis-courts and a garden filled with flowering tropical shrubs,” she wrote. “The bedrooms of the hotel are prettily furnished and each room has a screened veranda and an electric fan; the beds have adequate mosquito-nets. We luxuriated in hot baths and by seven-thirty were ready for the formal course dinner. During dinner a radio played in the next room, and we heard quotations of the various stock-exchanges the world over; so we are not far away from everywhere, after all” (Grace Crile, 1936, p. 43). Other passengers took the opportunity to stroll along Juba’s “pleasing water-front” or visit the mission church or a model ‘native village’, or look at the barracks, which were neatly laid out by the aerodrome.


Juba Hotel, 1936. Passengers about to leave the hotel in motor cars for aerodrome, Matson Photo Service (photographer), Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division


Juba on the Nile; Walter Mittelholzer (photographer), 17 February 1930 (ETH Library/Swissair photographic archive collection).


Incidental tourism was not limited to overnight stops, mechanical failures and unexpected landings. Imperial Airway’s passenger aircraft cruised at a low altitude to save fuel; and, prior to the use of navigation charts and radio beacons, the rivers and hills and motor roads and villages of Sudan were crucial for navigation. Flying at only a few hundred feet above the marsh, between Malakal and Juba passengers on the big flying boats would peer out the windows of the observation lounge and gaze in admiration at the animals below. “Herds of elephants are usually seen in the Sudd. Here also lumbering hippos wallow, glassy-eyed crocodiles bask in the sun, large water-snakes creep in and out of the high tiger-grass and feathery-topped papyrus” (Crile, 1936, p. 42). Pilots would sometimes meander off course and descend to allow passengers to take photographs and thrill as herds of giraffe or gazelle or elephant raced off just below the noisy, low-flying craft. “On our way the flying boat flew very low,” Winifred Vergette, a first-time passenger wrote, “once to see a herd of elephants, and another time giraffes: the elephants, of course, were terrified, and stampeded with their ears sticking right out” (Flight, 28 August 1931). Hard as it is to imagine today, passengers wanting to see a particular site would sometimes ask stewards to convey a note to the pilot with detailed directions. Even the windows could be opened for a better look.


Elephant herd swims through the Nile (taken from 10 m height), Walter Mittelholzer (photographer), 1930 (ETH Library/Swissair photographic archive collection).


Regular commercial flights over places like South Sudan also reshaped relationships between passengers and colonized people. During stopovers, where a little patch of “England-off at the end of nowhere” exhibited the white table cloths and china of British betterment schemes, passengers were served by “natives … in ‘formal dress’” (Crile, 1936, p. 40). Increased speed allowed those with access to seats on Imperial Airways’ luxury flying boats to put more distance between themselves and others. The view from the air afforded a sense of superiority to those with panoramic views of the Nile marshes and herds of elephants and “little native settlements of round, beehive-like huts” spread out at a safe distance below the comfort of Imperial’s flying boats.


Imperial Airways: a view from the ground


In October of 1937 the world’s attention moved to South Sudan, where Brigadier-General A. C. Lewin and his wife, Mrs. Lewin, had disappeared. The Brig.-Gen. had misread his compass, lost his flight-time-clock, and missed the aerodrome at Malakal. He came down somewhere near Kongor after running out of fuel. The pair were spotted four days later by a flying boat, which alerted the R.A.F. The Lewins spent a week in the swamp huddled together under a makeshift tent that Mrs. Lewin had erected on the overturned aircraft. In Bor, B.V. Marwood, the District Commissioner, organized a series of search parties composed of young men from Kongor and Bor. They were guided by aeroplanes and reached the Lewins five days later. They carried the two back to Bor on stretchers.


This incident perhaps provides a fleeting glimpse of what people living below Imperial’s airways thought about this new development in transportation. Carrying Europeans around on stretchers and beds was such a regular occurrence in those days that it became a symbol of colonial oppression. There is even a popular song in Bor, (bɛny iye, bɛny yekɔcdït, Master woe! Master of all the people /duɔn bä bɛnydït jal piny, Don’t let the master touch the ground), that is sung by schoolchildren to taunt oppressive schoolmasters. Bringing about the ‘annihilation of distance’ heralded by Imperial Airways still meant a lot of work on the ground: there were airfields and roads that had to be cleared of trees and termite mounds and other obstructions (often by prisoners in towns, and chiefs’ subjects between them) to provide landing spaces; fuel that had to be ported and trees cut for the barges that supplied the colony’s aerodromes; planes had to be unstuck from the mud; there were tables to set up and dishes to be washed, and passengers to be served; and there was luggage to be carried. And, not infrequently, Europeans still had to be carried around on beds.


Meanwhile, across the Nile in Yirol, Mading Riak (1936–2001), South Sudan’s first pilot was learning to walk. As a young man, Mading struck off to Ethiopia and joined the Ethiopian Air Force until he was “discovered as a South Sudanese” and deported, strangely, to Tanzania. He afterwards made his way to the Belgian Congo, where after an interval with the Congolese army fighting against the Simba Rebels, he was offered a scholarship to study in the United States. He attended Lincoln University and Ohio State University and worked as a flight instructor in California until 1973, when he found a job with East African Airways. The following year he took a position as a pilot for the Southern Region’s High Executive Council (HEC) government. When the HEC was dissolved in 1983 he joined the police (Kuyok, 2015).


Juba, 2017 – a postscript


In October 2017, I was talking to a man named Sebit about his youth in Juba in the 1970s. He was telling me about how, when he was seventeen years old, he used to wait to see the mail plane wheeling off above Juba. After the air-mail arrived, he would make his way to the market in Juba town to buy a newspaper for 1 pt.


So one day, somebody came and found me sitting there. I was opening the newspaper like this, and he said to me, “Hey, you boy. You just came from Malakiya up to Juba town to buy this, and you open it like this? So then somebody will see you’ll go off saying that you have read this and that in the newspaper—while you don’t know anything inside.

I looked but kept my mouth shut: because he is an elder to me I didn’t answer him. He’s an elder, I shouldn’t speak rubbish to him. Ai, I kept quiet.

Then another old man came. And finding him interrogating me, he asked, ‘What is your problem? The money is in his own pocket.’

‘We don’t want such people coming here and blackmailing people,’ the man said.

‘Did you ask him to read something and he failed? Let us try to interview him.’

So they pointed to me and they said, ‘Read this Arabic.’

And I read it.

‘Okay, you read this next line.’

And I read.

‘Okay, you read this next paragraph…’21


For young people in Juba in the 1970s schools and travel and literacy opened up experiences that would otherwise be unavailable; aeroplanes and air-mail provided access to information and networks of communication that spanned the whole earth; and these offered a way to imagine rising above the divisions of Sudanese society that Sebit saw as the result of racism and oppression. Air routes restructured time and space, bringing some places into closer contact while also creating new lines of separation and inequality. The first aeroplanes in South Sudan were used to terrorize people; the first airfields were cleared by people forced to do so. Schools were established to provide clerks to help to coordinate this. Once it was build, though, this infrastructure could serve other purposes as well. Telegraph wires strung up to facilitate colonial rule could carry anti-colonial messages. Airways established to transport colonial officials also ended up carrying newspapers.


-Brendan Tuttle



A note on images & sources


Images are from the Sudan Archive at Durham University, the Pitt Rivers Museum, the Swissair archive at the ETH Library Zürich, Björn Larsson and David Zekria’s collection of Airline Timetable Images, and the Smithsonian Institution, National Air and Space Museum.


This account of the Darfur Campaign of 1916 is drawn primarily from Francis Reginald Wingate’s papers at the Durham University Sudan Archive, which has digitized papers relating to the campaign against Ali Dinar, the use of aeroplanes, the capture of El Fasher, and the death of Ali Dinar in November 1916. These can be accessed at https://www.dur.ac.uk/library/asc/sudan/. For a helpful overview of the use of airpower in Darfur, see SAD 129.7.12- 19 (16 Jul 8 – 14) R.F.C. weekly summary of information.


The Sudan Archive at Durham University has also digitized the personal papers of Dr. Ina M. Beasley, who worked in the British Sudan from 1939 to 1949, and kept detailed personal diaries of her work in Sudan when she was Controller of Girls’ Education. Her description of an air journey from London to Khartoum, during which she visited the cockpit (finding it slightly terrifying), is recorded in SAD 657/7/20-29 (1945 December 29). She also describes her flight in a Lockheed Lodestar from Khartoum to Juba, and how the aeroplane descended “to look for game” during the flight in SAD 204/11/2 (1946 April 8). For background on Ina Beasley, see Rogaia Mustafa Abusharaf (2008) The humanism of Ina Beasley: her work and life in British Sudan (available online, https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/65318.pdf).


Flight International (or Flight) was founded in 1909 as “A Journal devoted to the Interests, Practice, and Progress of Aerial Locomotion and Transport.” It includes much that will interest students of aviation in Sudan (and is available online) including “Malakal Aerodrome: A Process in Runway Construction” (Flight, September 14, 1933) and “Floatplane Survey in the Sudan” (Flight, March 13, 1931). The first describes the process by which the aerodrome at Malakal was constructed in 1933. It consisted of a runway that was 500 yards long and 50 yards wide, with turning circles at each end. Much of the work was carried out by women who had been recruited for this purpose. The second describes an R.A.F survey of South Sudan undertaken to identify suitable landing places for floatplanes.


I have had to pass over quite a few other stories related to the earlier history of female aviators in colonial Sudan. For instance, in November, 1931, a 19-year-old British pilot named Peggy Salaman landed her de Havilland Puss Moth at Juba. Peggy spent the night at the Juba Hotel, after being discouraged from sleeping in her aeroplane by stories about leopards at the aerodrome. Before her departure she was presented with two lion cubs, which she named Juba and Joker. The cubs flew with her to Cape Town. Peggy planned to present them as a gift to baby Princess Elizabeth. Elizabeth’s parents sensibly refused, and the cubs appeared in the Christmas circus at Olympia. After an interval in a closet at her parents’ home in Paddington and a brief tour with Bertram Mills’ Circus, Juba and Joker were sent to a private zoo. (Here is a video of the two lions.)


Peggy Salaman was the niece of the anthropologist Brenda Z. (Salaman) Seligman, who had visited Sudan in 1909–12 and 1921–22 with her husband, Charles Seligman; they recorded their observations in Pagan Tribes of the Nilotic Sudan (Routledge, 1932). Today the Seligmans are mainly remembered for the notorious “Hamitic Hypothesis” and the idea that because Africans were unable to build civilizations, Africa’s states and monuments had been produced by an invasion of “pastoral ‘Europeans’,” or Hamites (Seligman, The Races of Africa, Oxford, 1930, p. 100). This idea was held out to justify colonial rule by turning the continent’s buildings and monuments and kingdoms into supporting evidence for the need for the civilizing influence of an outside power. Charles Seligman also contributed to the idea that Africans were insensitive to pain. This theory was based on no evidence whatsoever and used to justify the use of brutal violence, such as aerial bombardment, against colonial subjects (see Seligman, C. G. (1932). Anthropological Perspective and Psychological Theory. JRAI, 62, p. 193; Kim A Wagner (2018) Savage Warfare: Violence and the Rule of Colonial Difference in Early British Counterinsurgency, History Workshop Journal, 85(1), 217–237).


South Sudan’s first pilots, Mading Riak and John Manak were born in the late 1930s and early 1940s (see Kuyok, 2015). Captain Aluel James Bol was South Sudan’s first female pilot. She has been followed by Amel Ajongo Mawut, Grace Toby Martirio, and Amer Majak.





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For consistency, this essay uses the anachronism South Sudan to refer to the region that is today called South Sudan.


 Song composed by Aisha Al-Fallatiyah, one of the most celebrated female Sudanese singers of the 1930s-1940s who, during World War II, toured the camps of the Sudan Defense Force in North and East Africa—quoted in Muhammad (1996).


 Video of Mary Russell’s return to Croyden from South Africa in her “Spider” (a Fokker F.VIIa) is available at https://www.britishpathe.com/video/the-flying-duchess.


 Marc Pourpe landed the first aeroplane (a Morane Saulnier) in Khartoum in 1914 and delivered the first airmail. Frank McClean, Mr. Ogilvie, and Mr. Horace arrived at Khartoum in the first “hydro-aeroplane,” a Short S.80 ‘Nile Seaplane’, two months later. The first flight linking England and the African continent by air was made by the RAF in 1918.


Imperial Airways operated from 1924 to 1939, when it became the British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC). In 1974, BOAC merged with the British European Airways Corporation, formed what is now known as British Airways (BA). For a short history of the rise of commercial aviation in Africa see Lyth (2000), for a longer account see Jones (1971). For a discussion about imperial competition for civil airways in Africa, how imperial priorities were felt to justify a “departure from the traditional British policy of leaving trade and industry to take care of themselves” with subsidies for Imperial Airways, and some of the debates that surrounded the risks of abdicating public control to private interests, see McCormack (1976).


The “Turco-German scheme” laid out to justify the invasion of Darfur was based on no evidence whatsoever. It did however bear a striking resemblance to another plan that Wingate had helped to engineer, by which the Sherif of Mecca, with British support, would inspire an anti-colonial uprising that would lead to “the overthrow and expulsion of the Turk from that part of the world” and the creation of an “independent Arab Kingdom in Arabia”, which, Wingate wrote, would make for a useful place to exile Ali Dinar if he surrendered (SAD 129/4/2-3). Wingate’s scheme in Arabia culminated in the “Great Arab Revolt” of 1916.


 Wrote Ali Dinar to Wingate: “The … aeroplane … you sent here to throw your pictures and papers about has arrived and distributed them. They are full of lies” (SAD 127/2/11 – Ali Dinar to Wingate, 17 May 1918).


 W. T. Massey (1916) ‘Airmen’s work in Darfur. Bombing the Sultan’s party’ (SAD 129/8/8), drawing on R.F.C. (1916) Summary of Operations of One Flight of the Royal Flying Corps During the Recent Operations in the Sudan: “NOTES (a) Attitude of Natives to Aircraft. Natives express no amazement when they see a machine flying, but when they see a man got out of it are staggered. One of them was heard to say: ‘The Government was always great, but now it is greater than ever’” (SAD 129/7/16).


 For a discussion of the Wilson and League of Nations in relation to anti-colonial nationalism, see Manela (2001).


 “Loyalty” was often simply applied to those groups that paid taxes and supplied translators and labor for roadbuilding and other schemes. The British often used people from tax-paying groups to raid tax-refusers. This provided a rather straightforward way to ‘buy’ British support for cattle rustling.


 Percy Coriat placed great stock in making a strong impression. He used to ride around on a horse to impress people.


  Photographed (probably) by Edward Smyth Crispin, from the C. G. Seligman slide collection. See Chris Morton (2006) “Nuer mound of Deng Kur,” Southern Sudan Project. Pitt Rivers Museum (available online, http://southernsudan.prm.ox.ac.uk/details/1967.26.187/).


 Consider, for instance, the contents of a fairly ordinary intelligence file: Melut School Magazine, “I live for Jesus,” No. 1, August 1948, UNP.36.F.11 (Juba Archives, Intelligence, Press & Broadcasts, JUB 19/8/48).


 This may also help to explain the particular passion of certain colonial officials for making dioramas. E.G. Sarsfield-Hall, an Assistant Political and Intelligence Officer, had a particular passion for dioramas (see Edwin Geoffrey Sarsfield-Hall (1975) From Cork to Khartoum: Memoirs of Southern Ireland and the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan, 1886 to 1936).


 In 1874, Baker had sent Laku-lo-Rundyang (Abu-Kuka) to Khartoum, in order to impress him (see Georges Douin (1936). Histoire du règne du khédive Ismaïl. Le Caire: Société royale de géographie d’Egypte. Volume 3, pp 82-83).


 Garnet Wolseley led the Gordon Relief Expedition (1884–85), during which Herbert Stewart and Fred Burnaby were killed at the Battle of Abu Klea (Tulayh). The Mountains of the Moon (Rwenzori Mountains), here, evoke earlier efforts to locate the source of the Nile.


 For an excellent discussion about the relation between representations of air-travel and imperial propaganda, and how these images exoticized, racialized, sexualized, and otherwise disparaged colonized people, see Bhimull (2007) and Di-Capua (2008).


 Markham, here, is clearly drawing on the language of Samuel White Baker’s “The Races of the Nile Basin” (Transactions of the Ethnological Society of London, 5, 1867, pp. 230: “[W]ho or what could penetrate the mysterious White Nile? — that region of marsh and pestilence, that sickly flat, cursed as an infernal Styx! — where in the countless windings of the stream through regions of interminable swamps it was vain to seek a resting-place.”


 In 1928, Donald Drew somehow lost a passenger named Alfred Loewenstein, who fell out of the aeroplane during a flight over the English Channel. Newspapers reported that Loewenstein may have simply mistaken an exit door for the door to the washroom and “in the darkness plunged from the machine” (The Evening Independent, St. Petersburgh Florida, July 5, 1928, p. 1). In The Man Who Fell From the Sky (Viking, 1987) William Norris sensibly pointed out that the door of a Fokker Trimotor requires considerable force to open in flight, and concluded that Donald Drew had thrown Loewenstein out of a back door.


 Though it is easy to compile a list of titled visitors to Juba’s aerodrome, because their visits were covered in the international press. In addition to famous aviators like the Dutchess of Bedford and Lady Mary, King Albert of Belgium and the aeroplane designer Rene Lefevre visited in 1932. The Duke of Windsor visited Juba several times.


 Elsewhere, flying boats hugging the coast allowed Imperial Airlines to avoid conflicts over air-rights.


 Interview in Juba, 10 October 2017.

    Juba International Airport

    Juba town