IN 1885, the Durham Light Infantry was fighting in northern Africa against an army of native warriors, known as the Mahdists or Dervishes, when they found, floating on the River Nile, a baby who had become orphaned by the battle.
So they adopted him, gave him a name – Jimmy Durham – and he grew up to marry a lass from Bishop Auckland and become possibly the first black soldier in the British Army. His is an extraordinary story, and there are plenty more of those in the new exhibition, Courage, Comrades, Community.
The Mahdists went into the Battle of Ginnis, in Sudan, on December 30, wearing their “jibbahs” – smocks covered with multi-coloured patches which they believed gave them immunity from their enemies’ weapons. Unfortunately, when confronted by the 2nd DLI, the jibbahs’ magic didn’t work, and the Madhists were put to flight, dropping one of their jibbahs, which is now in the DLI Collection.
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The following day, the DLI officer, Lt Henry de Beauvoir de Lisle, found the last of the warriors on a nuggar – a river boat – on the Nile, trying to head home to Berber, a Sudanese town 500 miles away.
De Lisle stormed the nuggar.
The warriors fled over the side, swimming to safety.
They left behind one soldier who was too injured to move, and a baby boy covered in war paint.
From the injured man, de Lisle learned that the boy’s name was Mustapha, that his father had been killed in battle and his mother had just fled. The baby then lifted his arms to the Durham leader, who picked him up, and in that instant, the bond between baby and regiment was forged.
The infant had only a few words – he would make a gun with his fingers, point at someone and shout “bonsy morto” – and the British soldiers adopted him as their pet. They called him James Francis Durham, after two of the sergeants who tended to him, and he went on route marches sitting astride the pommel of Sgt AM Stuart’s saddle.
In the summer of 1886, the DLI was posted to India. De Lisle planned to leave the boy in a mission school in Cairo, but this upset the sergeants, who offered to donate a day’s pay a month to keep him with them.
So Jimmy stayed with the battalion, attending schools as he travelled, and learning a musical instrument – probably the clarinet, but possibly the bugle.
In 1899, it was decided that he was old enough – no one knew his age, but it was guessed that he was 14 – to join up as a boy bandsman.
The papers had to go to Queen Victoria for royal approval, and on May 23, he was enlisted as Territorial Number 6758 in the DLI – probably the first black soldier to serve fully in the British Army.
When the 2nd DLI was brought home, Jimmy became well known in south Durham through performing concerts with the DLI band and, on July 25, 1908, at Newcastle Register Office, he married Jane Green, 23, the daughter of a Bishop Auckland blacksmith.
The marriage coincided with the 2nd DLI being posted to Ireland, where the cold, wet weather didn’t agree with Jimmy and on August 8, 1910, he died of pneumonia in Fermoy Military Hospital, Cork. Three weeks later, in May Street, Bishop Auckland, Jane gave birth to his only child, a daughter, Frances, who remained in the town until she died, unmarried, in 1998.
To see all the available documents on Jimmy Durham’s extraordinary life, go to the learning zone of the durhamrecordoffice.org.uk website.