When the BBC included a black actor as a Victorian soldier in the Empress of Mars episode last year, writer Mark Gatiss protested that there were no black soldiers in Victoria’s army but when he researched further he found there was at least one – James Durham.
The story of how Durham’s came to join the army is a remarkable one. Born in Sudan around 1884, he was abandoned, found and adopted by the men of the Durham Light Infantry in 1885.
It came about following the Battle of Ginnis during the Mahdist War. As part of the mopping up operation, a force of a hundred men was sent to destroy some enemy barges thought to be carrying stocks of arms and ammunition. This they did and as the defenders fled they found a badly wounded man and a small black boy standing on the riverbank next to a donkey.
The boy was handed to Colour Sergeant Stuart who nicknamed him ‘Jimmy Dervish‘. The wounded man explained that his real name was Mustapha and that his father has been killed and that his mother had run away. The soldiers couldn’t abandon him for a second time and took him back to their camp.
James Francis Durham as he would come to be known was examined by two Arab women who estimated that the boy was no more than eighteen months old. Even so, he was soon able to speak both English and Arabic and able to ride a horse bareback to water.
The nearest Durham had to a parent was the veteran soldier Jim Birley who treated him as a son. Each day he would put the boy in a leather bucket to wash him with water from a canteen.
In 1887, the battalion was posted to India and it was proposed that Durham be sent to a mission school in Cairo but a delegation of sergeants, led by Colour Sergeant Stuart, marched into the orderly room and demanded that the boy should go with them. This was agreed and the sergeants each donated a day’s pay a month to cover Durham’s living expenses.
It isn’t clear when Durham came to Britain but he was to live with the family of a soldier called Sergeant Robson in the north east of England. It seems that he had a happy upbringing and was close to Robson’s daughter, Stella, who he regarded as a sister.
Durham enlisted in the army as a bandsman in 1899 at the age of fourteen. He came to run the battalion’s Army Temperance Association for which he was Award of Merit by Field Marshal Lord Robert, currently on sale on eBay for £99,000.
In 1908 he married local girl Jane Green in Bishop Auckland and a year later she fell pregnant, although Durham was posted to Ireland without her. Sadly, he developed pneumonia and died at the Military Hospital in Fermoy, County Cork at the age of twenty-five never to see his daughter Frances.
The regimental records state: ‘He always proved a universal favourite and his loss was much regretted by all ranks in the Battalion.’ He was buried with full military honours in Fermoy, his grave surrounded by flowers and with a headstone paid for by the officers, NCOs and men.