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Ch 1. Downing College

Ch 2. Gold Coast/Ghana

Ch 3. East Pakistan

Ch 4. Zambia

Ch 5. Bangladesh

Ch 6. Retirement

Ch 7. Afterthoughts


Ch 2. Soil surveying in the Gold Coast/Ghana 1951−1961


Getting ready

Like many long-in-the-tooth old colonials I suppose, I often reflect on how fortunate those of us were who started our careers in the tropics in the 1940s and 1950s, and how sorry I am that young people seeking a career today do not have the seemingly boundless opportunities that we had for secure, fulfilling and sometimes adventurous employment on the frontiers of scientific knowledge and international development.


I came into the colonial agricultural arena in a different way from most old colonials. My first boss, Cecil Charter, deliberately recruited geographers in setting up what became the Gold Coast Soil and Land use Survey Department (SLUS) in the early 1950s. At that time, soil science was dominated by chemists. However, Charter recognised that soils were more than an assemblage of their physical and chemical constituents. He saw soils as part of the environment, recognising the important role that geomorphology and climate played in their formation, use and management.


However, I wasn’t totally unfamiliar with soils and agriculture. From the age of 14, I had had my own section of the family garden. In the summer of 1943 after I left school, I spent a month at a farming camp at Sedbergh, then in North Yorkshire, (where, on my first day, the first task I was given by a farmer was to dig a hole in a field to bury a cow that had died: unsuccessful, because the soil was too shallow). Later, as an RAF aircrew cadet awaiting training that never came, I was several times sent picking potatoes or sugarbeet in cold parts of Britain; and then, while at university 1947-50, I voluntarily went farming in different places during the long vacations, more, I must admit, as a geographer, to see different parts of the country than to acquire agricultural skills; (I remember one summer hoe-weeding a field on the Lower Lias clay in Worcestershire where war-time ploughing had turned up large numbers of ammonite fossils, some so large that – naughtily, with my superior academic knowledge!  − I told local co-workers that they were Ancient British tractor wheels). Also – presciently? − following a university lecture on soils, I had once dug a profile pit to examine the soil in my parents’ garden. I had an early exposure to geology, too. My father, a colliery manager, had frequently taken me underground on Sunday mornings from the age of 12, hoping that I would follow him into the mining profession; but my interest was solely in the faults and fossils that I saw, not in coal production.


In at the deep end

I was recruited on contract terms by the U.K. Crown Agents for the Colonies for service with the Gold Coast Government on the then princely salary of £532 a year; (teachers in the U.K., if I recall correctly, were then starting on £180). I went out to the then colony in April 1951 to participate in the soil survey of the Accra Plains which it was intended would be irrigated from the Akosombo dam on the Volta river, then at the planning stage. My first headquarters was in the Aburi botanic gardens on top of the Akwapim hill range, about 30 miles north of the capital Accra.


I was immediately thrown in at the deep end: a succession of deep ends, in fact. A government advance equal to my annual salary quickly enabled me to buy a Standard Vanguard estate car which I needed for fieldwork.¹ I didn’t drive then, so I went down to Accra with a driver to pick up the car, let him drive it out of town, then took over myself – including double declutching in those days! − intending to let him resume driving when we reached the foot of the hills with a succession of hairpin bends up the 1,300-foot escarpment. However, I seemed to be managing satisfactorily, so continued driving, dropped off the driver at Aburi, picked up my servant and chop box, and set out back down the escarpment and then north along the foot of the hills for my first field camp 75 miles away at Akuse on the Volta river. My first day’s driving (without L-plates to warn other drivers!) was enlivened by my having to ease my way – after nightfall – through exuberantly drunken crowds in two villages where the paramount chief had died, then experiencing my first corrugated dirt road, looking like a newly-ploughed field at night, and having to cross a deep gulley on two seemingly loose planks guided by my servant. I was an experienced driver by the time that I confidently took my driving licence test in Accra six weeks later!


Deep end No 2 opened when I arrived at the Akuse rest-house and found the colleague who was supposed to introduce me to soil surveying sick in bed. I evacuated him to headquarters two days later, where he was transferred to the laboratory on his recovery. Fortunately, Charter had trained a cadre of local staff in cutting and marking traverse lines, collecting soil samples and recording vegetation and land use at regular intervals along the lines. My job was mainly to examine the soil samples brought in each day, classify them and make a map. That first survey was a detailed survey of the Kpong Pilot Irrigation Area – which threw me into Deep end No 3. The soils were so-called black cotton soils (now Vertisols) developed over basic gneisses, about which little was then known, and especially about their suitability for irrigation on the gently undulating landscape of the Accra Plains. Charter was 75 miles away, and we didn’t have field telephones then. My geographical education was fully stretched!  However, using my existing geographical knowledge, I made a detailed contour map of the site which helped to explain the distribution of deep and shallow soils.


Charter (Trinity Hall, mid-1920s) was a botanist. After a few years teaching in China and Antigua, he had spent a year studying soil science at Aberystwyth and then returned to the West Indies in 1931 where he worked mainly as an agronomist on sugarcane estates in Antigua and Trinidad, but also undertook soil surveys in Antigua and Barbuda, Trinidad and Honduras. In 1944, he moved to the West African Cacao Research Institute in the Gold Coast to initiate soil surveys of the cocoa-growing areas of that colony and Nigeria. By the time that I joined him in 1951, therefore, he had a vast practical knowledge and experience of tropical soils and crops; and it was from him while walking around the Aburi botanic gardens in an evening when I was at headquarters that I learned the names of many tropical plants. I picked up my soil science as I went along: from Charter, the literature, attending international conferences and study while on long home leaves (effectively six months in a two-year cycle).


In deeper still

The Kpong survey completed, I moved on to the reconnaissance soil survey of the Accra Plains where Deep end No 4 quickly opened up. A newly-recruited colleague who joined me for the survey did not adapt well to fieldwork and withdrew to headquarters, and simultaneously another survey closed down. So, six weeks into my career, I found myself in charge of a party of 300 men living under canvas in an area near the present port city of Tema − then a fishing village of 300 inhabitants − where all food and water had to be brought in for 25 miles by lorry every day, while simultaneously trying to keep track of soils and recorded field observations coming in from ten field traverses every day but Sunday. In retrospect, I don’t remember feeling overwhelmed by this. I think other members of that generation will recall their similar reaction to such challenges. We just got on with it.

 In 1953, the SLUS headquarters moved up country to Kwadaso near Kumasi in Ashanti, but I stayed at Aburi for another two years in order to maintain liaison with relevant government offices in Accra and the newly-opened Soil Science Department at Achimota College (later University of Ghana at Legon) where Peter Nye and Dennis Greenland later did their classical study of soils under shifting cultivation. At that time, while writing up the report on the Accra Plains survey, I was put in charge of soil surveys of the country’s two savannah zones in the south-east and the north where I introduced other newly-recruited staff members to soil surveying.


Figure 2.1. Treading the straight and narrow in the Gold Coast forest zone

Reminiscences of a career in Geography

The high life

At Aburi, our houses were built over large metal tanks that collected rainwater run-off from the roofs and which we had to use sparingly. Aburi’s mean annual rainfall was 48 inches spread over two short and unreliable rainy seasons, though it was supplemented by run-off from cloud water for about 300 nights a year. One weekend sometime after my arrival, my neighbours found what they thought were mouse droppings coming through cracks in the wooden plank ceiling of their bedroom and invited a zoologist from Achimota College to come and inspect the roof cavity. In fact, he found hundreds of bats sleeping there and six inches of their droppings on the floor below them, the weight of which was beginning to bend the plank floor/ceiling. So the droppings had to be cleared. Unfortunately, some were left of a side roof and it rained, washing the droppings into the 5,000-gallon tank on which we depended for our water supply. So that had to be cleaned out, too, and for several weeks we had to have water brought to us daily in 4-gallon kerosene tins from the neighbouring Governor’s rest-house until the next rainy season began.


We had electricity from a noisy generator from 6 until 10 in an evening, (when not interrupted by a storm); otherwise, we used Tilley lamps; the fridge was kerosene-operated; and servants brought up buckets of hot water for bathing from the kitchen. In the field, I recall my cook-bearer producing traditional English meals from local produce – including the universal colonial egg-custard – using a charcoal-heated, 4-gallon kerosene tin as an oven. Conditions were more comfortable in Kumasi: rarely-interrupted electricity supply − although the rest-house at Kwadaso in which I once stayed before moving substantively to Kumasi in 1955 was struck by lightning three times in one storm, the first of which blew the fuse-box off the wall – we had fans in rooms and offices, and, eventually, I had an air-conditioned bedroom.


Light relief

Hard work was enlivened by hard play. At weekends during Aburi days, we would go down to the coast at Accra to swim and surf, then drink and dance the evening hours away at the Accra Club before driving back − on mercifully near-empty roads by then − to our cooler hill station (or me to a field camp). I recall with nostalgia, too, evenings spent sitting outside a tent on the Accra Plains marvelling at the myriad stars filling night skies unpolluted by artificial lights; the sound, too, of frenzied drum rhythms and multiharmonic singing from distant villages. From such camps on the Accra Plains, in the late afternoon or at weekends, I would sometimes drive up to 35 miles to mission stations along the foot of the Akwapim hills for a game of tennis or badminton and different company.


I also remember, while visiting a colleague (the late Alan Stobbs) in the Nasia Basin in the north of the country, taking our field staff in our pick-up trucks on a short cut through northern Togo en route to and from an agricultural fair at Bawku in north-eastern Gold Coast, risking embarrassing explanations that might have needed to be made in case of interception, breakdown or accident in what was then French territory. In the Nasia Basin, too, local women traditionally used bunches of the strap-like leaves of the shea butter tree fore and aft to protect their modesty, and I recall my young colleague’s growing interest and excitement as an infestation of caterpillars rapidly stripped the leaves off these trees. Of course, we found  there could be ‘New Looks’ in women’s dress fashions in the Gold Coast just as there were in Europe.


In at the deep end again

Deep end No 5 came in January 1956 when Charter died (aged only 51) and I was asked to take over as head of SLUS, which was eventually reabsorbed into the Agriculture Department in 1957. That involved my promotion to Principal Agricultural Officer rank ten years ahead of when, following Government rules, I would normally have become eligible for such elevation.² By then, the Gold Coast was moving towards independence, which came in 1957. Nine of the ten UK soil surveyors who had been recruited in the early 1950s had reached or were coming to the end of their 5-year contracts and were not being replaced from overseas; (my contract had been extended for another five years). Our individual experiences are described anecdotally in Tony Young’s book on UK colonial and post-colonial land resource surveys (Young, 2007). Charter had specifically recruited bachelors: “one soil surveyor single = one soil surveyor; one soil surveyor married = half a soil surveyor; and one soil surveyor married with children is no damn use to me at all.” (He himself married twice, and had two children!) And that’s how it turned out with the ten of us recruited in the early-1950s: those who married returned to the UK at the end of their contracts and took up other careers; the only two who stayed in the profession remained old colonial bachelors.³


The first graduate Ghanaian field officer was appointed late in 1956 and a soil analyst in 1957, but no more until 1961. I struggled on with decreasing senior staff, my main objective being to ensure the writing up of the vast amount of new information on soils, vegetation and land use that had been acquired. Inter alia, that included making the first soil map of Ghana, and helping to organise and contribute to the book Agriculture and Land Use in Ghana (Wills, 1962).


Figure 2.2. Visit by Prince Philip to SLUS headquarters, Kwadaso

Amongst the pioneering findings of the soil surveys was Charter’s differentiation of two major soil groups in the country’s forest zone: Oxysols, strongly leached acid soils in high rainfall areas, considered unsuitable for cocoa production; and Ochrosols, less strongly leached soils in moderate rainfall areas and better suited for cocoa. Charter had also recognised what he termed ‘drift soils’ that were extensively developed throughout the country (and eventually seen widely in other tropical countries): soils with a superficial layer of fine earth (the ‘drift’) overlying an ironstone concretionary ± quartz gravel layer that overlay the weathered rock substratum. The term ‘drift’ arose from an analogy with glacial sedimentary drift in the U.K unrelated to the underlying ‘solid’ geology. In fact, during the course of our surveys, we recognised that the ‘drift’ was material brought up to the surface from lower soil layers and the substratum by the ubiquitous termites − in the same way that Darwin had recognised that earthworms brought fine material to the surface in English soils − leaving the coarse material behind as what we called the ‘stone line’ overlying the weathered rock.


There could have been a Deep end No 6. It was while attending the Independence Day celebrations in Kumasi in 1957 that I noticed a wriggly red line on one of my hands. The doctor identified it as caused by larva migrans, a small worm that he said was associated with dog faeces in the soil: “do you need to have your hands in soil?” he asked. He said the worm would die naturally, but advised that I have a check-up at the Tropical Diseases Hospital in London on my next home leave, which I did. There they turned up onchocerciasis (river blindness) – transmitted by Simulium damnosum, the aptly-named flies that had sometimes driven us off the tennis courts near the Kpong rapids on the Volta river where they bred − and filaria transmitted by a mangrove fly which would eventually have caused elephantiasis. I had spectacular rash reactions to the treatments such that the doctors asked did I mind if they brought their students to see them. Fortunately, the treatments worked, and those turned out to be the only serious health misadventures that I had while working in the tropics (though I did have delayed, career-related reactions after I retired, described in Chapter 6).


Going wider and deeper

Charter gave me lots of international experience. In April 1954, I attended the Second Congress of the International Commission on Irrigation and Drainage in Algiers, followed by field trips through Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco; and on the way back, I spent a week visiting the Niger inland delta irrigation area around Bamako in what is now Mali. Later in 1954, I attended the Vth International Soil Science Congress at Leopoldville (now Kinshasa) in the Congo, where I nervously gave my first technical paper (on the black clay soils of the Gold Coast), followed by a field trip up the Congo river to places then named Stanleyville, Yangambi and Elizabethville.


Early in 1955, Charter sent me on a one-month field trip in a 15-cwt Bedford truck through Haute Volta (now Burkina Faso), essentially on a spying mission to see what the French were doing in the upper Volta river catchment that might interfere with downstream flow to the Volta dam at Akosombo which was then under construction. I recall arriving in Ouagadougou, the capital, as the town was celebrating the arrival of the first train from Abidjan in the Ivory Coast.


Figure 2.3. With Herbert Greene, Tropical Soils Adviser, visiting Uganda

There were other trips, too, to visit soil survey colleagues in Western Nigeria, driving each way through Togo and Dahomey observing − as I had in Haute Volta − the very different administration by the French, perhaps most noticeable in the French businesses and restaurants in quite small towns. Later, post-Charter, I visited former SLUS colleagues in Uganda and Sierra Leone; and also attended regional meetings at the Rice Research Station at Rokkupr in Sierra Leone and at a hill station in Guinea.


Ah, those were the days! For me, they came to an end with Ghanaianisation of my post in April 1961. However, while attending the VIIth International Soil Science Congress at Madison, Wisconsin, in August 1960, Louis Bramao, then head of the FAO soils service, invited me to join FAO with a view to my carrying out a soil survey in the Amazon Basin, to which I had readily agreed, of course. But that is another story!



Wills, J.B. (Ed) 1962 Agriculture and land use in Ghana. OUP, London


Young, A. 2007 Thin on the ground: Land resource surveys in British overseas territories. The Memoir Club, Weardale, Co Durham




¹ I also soon spent £25 (over half-a-month’s salary) on an Omega Sea-master wrist-watch, my original watch having quickly succumbed to the tropical heat and humidity. I am still wearing the Omega watch, more than 60 years after I bought it: surely one of the best investments that I ever made!

² It was at this time that I became Hugh. There was already a more senior Herbert when I was suddenly promoted to Principal rank. A move was made to call me Hubert (mercifully not Bertie!) which quickly became Hugh. To my colleagues in SLUS, I was – and still am – called Bram.

³ The single woman soil surveyor married and stayed teaching in West Africa for a time before returning to the U.K..

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