058: Sussex graves of two British imperialists

Sir Harry Johnston at Poling, where he was buried in 1927
Sir Harry Johnston at Poling, where he was buried in 1927
Bexhill on Sea cemetery
Bexhill on Sea cemetery

The now fading photographs of the men who represented the British monarch in Africa and the Caribbean seem similar: plumed hats, medals and awards on their chests, sword by their side. In fact governors seem to be very different, from the Irish Catholic John Pope Hennessy (Sierra Leone, Bahamas, Barbados between 1867 and 1876), the socialist Sydney Olivier (Jamaica 1907-13), Matthew Nathan the London Jew and Royal Engineer (Gold Coast 1900-3, Natal 1907-9), and two who are buried in Sussex.

Gordon Guggisberg was a Canadian officer in the Royal Engineers who surveyed the Gold Coast (now: Ghana) 1902-14 and after war service in France was that colony’s governor 1919-27. A short period in British Guiana (now: Guyana) was followed by sickness in England, and he died in a boarding house in the seaside resort of Bexhill on 21 April 1930. Respected by African leaders, when Paramount Chief Ofori Atta was in London in 1934 he and others went to Bexhill to pay their respects at Guggisberg’s grave. Stunned by the absence of a memorial, they arranged for one to mark the ex-governor’s grave (right).

Harry Johnston’s grave is in Poling, a hamlet south of Arundel where he lived from the 1900s (he died, visiting his sister in Worksop, in 1927) after representing Queen Victoria in British Central Africa (now: Malawi) and Uganda (1899-1901) – the Queen knighted him at the early age of 37. Trained as an artist, he was a skilled linguist whose monumental study of African languages was published in 1922. Johnston’s funeral had a wreath from the President of Liberia. The grave is marked by a flat stone with the tribute Amazimage ku Buganda galaga nti Bungereza eyegala bona bekua babere ne dembe (his faithfulness to Buganda shows that England wishes all whom she protects to be free), which was from the Kabaka (king) of the Baganda, who had visited Poling in 1914. His widow Winifred employed Eric Gill to letter the tablet inside the church, which states his attributes: administrator, soldier, explorer, naturalist, author and painter.

Guggisberg’s widow, actress Decima Moore, died in 1964 aged 93. Winifred Johnston was buried with her husband in 1933.

It is doubtful that anyone who knows the Luganda language has visited Poling in the past half-century, or that Guggisberg’s achievements in Ghana are seen now as anything more than being largely due to African efforts with cocoa farming in the 1920s, but both graves suggest that some of these British imperialists had a lasting impact on some  African leaders.


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