Gerald – Life as a Colonial Officer

Gerald Harvey Thompson

OBE. MA. MSc. (Oxon). Hon. FRPS. (1917-2002)

Gerald Thompson


Life in the Colonial Services

At the outbreak of War the Joint Recruiting Board sent Gerald to The Royal College of Science, London University, to read entomology – always his favourite subject. The Government intention of making him an inspector of stored grain was frustrated by the German bombers along the south coast – particularly around Bristol – who reached the silos first. Therefore, he had no job to go to. Instead there followed a brief career as a gunner in the Royal Artillery, but while awaiting a vacancy at Catterick he was suddenly ordered back to Oxford to read Forestry – (he had earlier been awarded a Colonial Forestry Scholarship). A year later he found himself in the Gold Coast (now Ghana) for what was intended to be an instructional tour of eighteen months. Posted near the frontier with the Ivory Coast where there was uncertainty about the future actions of the French, he was at once put in charge of a district in Ashanti – an area about half the size of Wales – The annual budget was £30,000. Gerald was twenty four years old.

The hot and humid environment is one of the worst climates in the world and in those days the incidence of malaria and other diseases was high. He was scarcely comforted by the couplet:

‘Beware, take care of the bight of Benin; one comes out, though forty go in.’

The French did not invade and after doing an assortment of tasks to help the war effort (one of Gerald’s first duties on arrival in Ghana was to organise the collection of wild rubber to be sent to England for the manufacture of tyres. Other sources of rubber from, e.g. Malaysia, had been cut off due to flighting all over Burma

He settled down for the next eight years to life as a District Forest Officer. During the early years he spent three weeks in every month camping in the jungle, returning to base to write monthly reports and to arrange the payment of staff. (He estimates he spent a total of three years camping alone in the jungle). His work included surveying a new forest reserve by chain and compass (excluding any village where possible) in order to protect timber supplies and water catchment areas, and drawing up working plans for their management. He had the help of twelve labourers who cut the boundary lines. Working from 7am to 3pm each day leisure time was spent collecting beetles associated with dead and dying trees; this was his hobby, and at night after a bath by the light of a tilley oil lamp he would mount his day’s collection of beetles and write up notes. Eventually he brought home to England 3000 mounted specimens with notes, two hundred and fifty tubes of spirit specimens (larvae and pupae) and various wood specimens showing damage. The adult specimens were all left at the South Kensington Natural History Museum, Department of Entomology where the staff were most helpful in providing identification.

 Many specimens were new to science, and some were named after Gerald e.g. Cerambycidae. Leptostylus thompsoni sp.n Elaphidion thompsoni sp.n Colydiidae. Sosylus thompsoni sp.n Scolytidae. Rhopalopselion thompsoni sp. n. Tiarophorus intermedius sp.n Carabidae. Hyperecterus minor Britton sp.n (sp.n = new species). Types and paratypes are now in the new Darwin Centre.

There were no luxuries – no refrigerator or vehicle for the first eight years. Foods such as fresh milk, butter, potatoes and cheese were unobtainable. Tinned sardines and scrawny village chickens were his staple diet and he lost 40 pounds in weight during every eighteen month tour. It was a lonely life in which Gerald might not see another white man for weeks or even months. Gerald toured his district with porters carrying his loads, which included a tin bath, on their heads. work involvedhaving talks with the Chiefs and elders on the work of the Forestry Department, especially as to why areas of forest were reserved instead of allowing the trees to be felled and the land used for farming (preservation of water and timber supplies, anti-soil erosion).

In addition to running a forest district he was given two special jobs contributing to the war effort; the collection of wild rubber – Ficus sp. – by farmers – since the war extended to the plantations of Hevea sp. in the Far East. Payment was made in gunpowder for which the farmers were desperate in order to shoot ‘bush’ meat (antelopes). The solid wood boxes that the gunpowder came in were perfect for logs and therefore made excellent breeding cages for Gerald’s beetles. 

 The second war effort contribution concerned the construction of furniture for the West African Army. This project was based on Koforidua in the Eastern Province. Gerald recruited three hundred carpenters working in about 40 workshops scattered throughout the town. A Togoland overseer assisted him and every day Gerald visited each workshop on foot to keep an eye on quality control. The main products were uniform cases made from mahogany (Khaya sp.) or cedar (Entandrophragma sp.) of which hundreds were made. He had to give his talks through an interpreter who spoke Twi, the language of the Ashanti people. One problem was that he could not check what his interpreter was saying so Gerald learnt Twi – a difficult tonal language in which one word can have several meanings. After three years he became fairly proficient and could converse with the locals .

On admission to Hospital in Oxfordshire in his eighties he astounded the doctor who was treating him by talking to him in Twi – the doctors native language.

 He learnt many stories about Anancy (the spider) to amuse the children, and life in the ‘bush’ became much more interesting. One day he walked into a village to give a forestry talk and was somewhat shocked when all the children ran away screaming into the forest! On asking an elder of the tribe what was wrong he was informed that no white man had visited the village for fifteen years so none of the children had seen a white man and they thought he was an alien. The fact that Gerald was exceptionally tall at 6ft 5 ins was another factor! Everywhere he went he collected wood boring-beetles which were studied in his spare time until eventually he was able to submit a thesis for a research degree. This hobby, and his collection of classical records, helped to dispel the loneliness.

Apart from a near escape from being bitten by a gaboon viper (10 mins to death) when he sat near it in the jungle one day, Gerald had only one serious during his years in the West African jungle. This occurred when he pitched his tent in a forest of high trees which, unknown to him, were growing in shallow soil There was no village nearby so the labourers made a shelter for themselves to sleep in that night. Well after dark a violent storm arose, with lashing rain and violent high winds, and soon – after much creaking – a large tree smashed to the ground whereupon he called everyone to his tent. Luckily the fly sheet had been erected as an extension to the tent and his staff of fifteen sheltered under that. In pitch darkness, illuminated by the occasional lightning flash they awaited their fate as trees were torn up all around the tent. Eventually the storm passed and dawn revealed how near they had all come to death. Surrounded by huge uprooted trees the tent remained unscathed. It seemed miraculous. They broke camp and left the forest as quickly as possible but the exit took many hours because of the fallen trees that had to be negotiated by the labourers with their loads. In one campsite, on a small level area on a hillside, there was a hollow log inhabited by a 6 ft. black cobra. As night fell it emerged from the log, went through Gerald’s tent on its way to hunt for food, and later, when Gerald was asleep, would return home via the tent again! Years later when Gerald camped at the same site the snake was still there – only by now it was much larger! Driver (army) ants were also a problem. One day Gerald found in the forest a bird with a broken wing; he carried it back to camp, put a splint on the wing and placed the bird in a cardboard box with food and water under the tent’s fly sheet. The next morning, on looking in the box to see how the bird was faring he saw only a collection of bones and feathers – army ants had passed through in the night. Gerald had slept soundly under his mosquito net because the four legs of his camp bed were each immersed in a tin containing kerosene, thus keeping the ants at bay.

In 1946 Gerald spent his leave in Oxford preparing his thesis on Gold Coast Coleoptera. An MSc. was awarded before he returned to duty in 1948 on what was to be his last twenty one month tour to the Gold Coast – this time he was accompanied by his wife Joyce and three year old son David. He was posted to Bekwai – sixteen miles from Kumasi, where the exploitation of mahogany, cedar and Iroko (Chlorophora excelsa) was the chief native industry. Trees to be felled required a license issued by the Forestry Department and no tree below 9ft girth above the buttresses was licensed. Felling was by axe, a hazardous job. Crosscutting into logs was done by pitsaw (8 feet long with a handle at each end, operated by two men). Hauling logs to the roadside was achieved by laying down a track of ‘skids’ and sliding the logs over these – hauled by 40-50 men. Each railway station on the Takoredi/Accra railway line had a special area where logs for sale could be left for up to two years. Inspectors from the sawmills on the coast travelled the line selecting what they wished to buy.

Some logs were converted into planks in the forest. This was done by the pitsawyersusing a pitsaw. The log was suspended over a large pit, one sawyer stood atop the log, the other in the pit. Their sawing could be surprisingly accurate. Gerald was glad to have seen the manual extraction of logs in the Gold Coast; it really was the end of an era. Five years later he saw the extraction of huge Douglas Fir and Hemlock from the forests of British Columbia using aerial ropeways and huge lorries each carrying 40 tons of logs.

Marriage and the birth of his son David raised Gerald’s thoughts of transferring to a climate where family life could be enjoyed; the downside was that forest entomology was his main interest and there were few jobs in this specialised subject. Gerald’s chance came in 1950 when Dr R N Crystal, his former tutor at Oxford, decided to retire early and Gerald was asked to succeed him as University lecturer in Forest Entomology at The Commonwealth Forestry Institute.

Returning to England would entail setting up house and for this Gerald had no money. He was not highly paid and had no savings; for his first tour he was paid £375 a year rising to £700 per year by 1948. He decided to stop collecting beetles in his spare time and start making furniture instead to take back to England. Carpentry had always been an interest. Unfortunately Bekwai had no electricity so no power tools could be used. Unlimited elbow grease was needed! Gerald managed to purchase some basic tools – saws, planes, chisels. The basis of construction would be by tongue and groove. Screws were only used in the refectory table for rapid disassembly.

The garage became a workshop and for fourteen months he worked by the light of a tilley lamp from 6pm till bedtime. The timber used came from a mahogany log which had lain in Bekwai log yard for more than two years and had to be removed. No inspector had shown any interest in it as it was so heavily infested with ‘pinholes’ – tunnels made by species of scolytidae and platypodidae but investigation of the depth of penetration showed that no tunnels entered the heartwood which, moreover, showed a fiddleback figure throughout. It was, infact, a very valuable log which was sawn into boards. From this log Gerald made a refectory table with eight chairs, a carving table, sideboard, tea trolley, three easy chairs and coffee tables. The furniture was assembled and glued in England – taking up 34 crates. Some of the furniture is still in use today – over sixty years later.

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