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Boustead, Sir (John Edmund) Hugh (1895–1980), army officer and colonial official, was born on 14 April 1895 on a tea estate above Nawara Eliya, Ceylon, one of the two sons of Lawrence Twentyman Boustead, whose family had a hundred-year connection with Ceylon, and his wife, Ethel Margaret Alers-Hankey. His maternal grandfather served in the Indian Civil Service; and Sir Maurice Hankey, secretary of the war cabinet in the First World War, was his mother's cousin.

After preparatory school at Horton Hall and Cheam School he became a naval cadet at the Royal Naval College, Osborne, in 1908, and later at Dartmouth. In 1913 he joined HMS Hyacinth as a midshipman and once had to spend a night ‘up the masthead’ as punishment for carrying away the admiral's gangway when bringing a sailing launch alongside—a punishment longer than the commander, who had forgotten to call him down earlier, intended. When war came in 1914 he was up the mast of the Hyacinth again, in the south Atlantic on look-out for the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, and was later involved in actions against the Konigsberg and other German ships off east Africa. With the seas cleared of enemy ships, he did not relish a routine security role on the Cape station, but ardently wished to fight in France, particularly as his brother Clive had been killed at Gallipoli serving with the Dublin fusiliers. After leaving his ship he enlisted in the South African Scottish as a private under the name of McLaren, but when the regiment was posted to Bordon camp in Wiltshire, he was traced by his worried parents. Made to face his formidable cousin, Sir Maurice Hankey, he boldly stated that it was out of the question for him to return to the Royal Navy. He was perhaps fortunate to have such a powerful relation, for Sir Maurice arranged for him to continue his service with the South African Scottish, but under his own name—and without stigma.

Boustead fought with his regiment in the brief and successful campaign against the Turks in Libya, marching 180 miles from Mersa Matruh to Sollum with a 94 lb pack, and then went to France in 1916, where his brigade joined the 9th Scottish division between Armentières and Lille in Flanders. Wounded in the fighting near Delville Wood, he was sent home and, having recovered, was commissioned second lieutenant in the field. He was later awarded the MC for bravery in the battle of Arras, during which he was again seriously wounded; but he returned to France in 1918 to serve with the South African brigade. Just before the armistice he volunteered for service in the British mission to assist the White Russians of Denikin's army against the Bolsheviks. Alongside White Cossacks he saw successful action—with the Lewis gunners he had trained—against the Red Cossack cavalry and, while in Russia, received news of a bar to his MC, the Russian order of Vladimir with cross swords (equivalent of the DSO), as well as the welcome news from the Admiralty of the king's pardon for his desertion from the Royal Navy. After the defeat of the White armies, he was withdrawn with the rest of the British force.

Boustead applied for a regular commission in the army, but first had a spell at Worcester College, Oxford, reading Russian and playing a prominent role as a sportsman. Already a well-known lightweight amateur boxer, having been the army champion at this weight, he was called to London at short notice by the president of the Imperial Boxing Association to fight against a French services team. Having knocked his opponent out in the third round, he changed into white tie and tails on the train back to Oxford and attended the Trinity College ‘commem’ ball with ‘some enchanting young Danish girls’, dancing the night through and bathing in the Cherwell early next morning. Selected in 1920 for the British team at the Antwerp Olympic games he competed in the modern pentathlon; and was prevented from taking part in the 1924 Paris Olympics only by a motorcycle accident shortly before the event.

Boustead joined the Gordon Highlanders and served with them in 1921 in Constantinople and Anatolia during the war between the Greeks and Turks. In 1924 his battalion was posted to India and, fearing more barrack life there, he applied for a transfer to the Egyptian army. He arrived in Cairo, however, just after it had been decided to create a new British-officered Sudan defence force (SDF), following a mutiny by Egyptian troops in Sudan. He was, therefore, told to remove his kilt and other uniform and proceed to Khartoum in the guise of a civilian official. Thus began a period of twenty-four years' service as soldier and administrator in Sudan.

Boustead joined the camel corps—which was mounted on camels until the late 1930s—and his first station was at Bara in Kordofan province, west of the Nile. Here his temperament and style were ideally suited to the family atmosphere of the companies and the manliness and intense sense of fun of the Sudanese soldier, although he was horrified on one occasion to see a rutting camel seize one of his men by the neck, shake him like a rat and grind his neck to pieces. In 1929 he joined the staff of the British general commanding in Sudan, the ‘kaid’ of the SDF, and in 1931 was promoted commander of the camel corps with its headquarters at al-‘Ubayd. A great admirer of Douglas Newbold (the governor of Kordofan and later civil secretary of Sudan) for his erudition, wit, and humanity, Boustead always co-operated harmoniously with the civil administration, as for instance in 1933 when the camel corps was called on to stop fighting between the Arab Baggara and the Nilotic Dinka.

A shortish man with—latterly—a face wrinkled like a walnut, Hugh Boustead had a great capacity to inspire and lead, and did extraordinary things as if they were a matter of course. Although not unattracted to women and once engaged, he remained single, preferring a challenging life nearly all spent overseas. When on leave he sought new challenges, as when in 1930 he climbed the Matterhorn, and his mountaineering skills gained him a place on the 1933 Royal Geographic Society's Everest expedition. In the interim his 1932 leave was spent on an extensive survey—led by Ralph Bagnold, founder of the long range desert group—of the Libyan desert, Jebel ‘Uwaynat, and the edge of the Tibeste and Ennedi mountains. Responsible for the fauna collection, he collected sixty-seven specimens of migratory birds and joined in the finds of beautiful and wonderfully preserved rock pictures of giraffe, buffalo, gazelle, and antelope.

In 1935 Boustead joined the Sudan political service. Posted to Darfur province, he became resident—with district commissioner's powers—in Zalingei, a district which marched with French Equatorial Africa along the west side of Jebel Marra, a massif rising to 10,000 feet. Boustead's objectives in this area were to stop oppression by local chiefs, and to set up organized local courts, as well as establishing primary schools. He gave priority to the education of boys and, through emphasis on hygiene and cleanliness, made washing and wearing impeccably white clothes fashionable. He also took strong measures for the conservation of the magnificent forest.

Recalled to military service on the outbreak of war in 1939, Boustead raised a new SDF frontier battalion composed of men from all over Sudan. Their role was to open the way, in co-operation with Ethiopian forces, against the Italians for the restoration of Haile Selassie as emperor. Orde Wingate, another former SDF officer, was the kaid's staff officer for the operation, but Boustead did not approve of his tactics. After the capture of Belaya, at over 10,000 feet in the Gojjam, Boustead was given the command of Gideon force consisting of his own frontier battalion and the 2nd Ethiopian battalion. This force achieved further notable successes against the Italians and entered Addis Ababa, where Boustead and his officers were invited to dine with the emperor. ‘Boustead Bey’ was awarded the DSO and won praise from the historian of the SDF for the way in which he harried the Italians: he had taught the British army new lessons in guerrilla warfare and ‘defeated and largely captured or dispersed four Italian brigades with all their equipment. The odds in man-power were ten to one against him; the odds in fire-power far greater’ (Orlebar, Story of the Sudan Defence Force, 108).

In July 1945 Boustead resumed his previous post in Zalingei, from which he retired in 1949. A chance meeting on leave, however, with Sir Reginald Champion, the governor of Aden, led to his appointment as resident adviser to the Hadhramaut states and British agent to the East Aden Protectorate under the Colonial Office. During his nine years there Boustead came to admire the qualities of the seafaring and mercantile Hadhramis and was enchanted by his new headquarters, the port of Mukalla—a white-walled city with houses fringing the harbour full of dhows. He plunged enthusiastically into his new task in a wild area, where there was still much tribal fighting despite the many truces which his predecessor, Harold Ingrams, had negotiated. Much preoccupied with law and order, he had no fewer than three forces—the Qu‘aiti armed constabulary, the Mukalla regular army, and the Bedouin legion—subject to his command. Despite this he was faced with a serious riot in Mukalla, and narrowly escaped a very severe blow to his person. He went on, however, to stamp his unique personality on the area, enjoying the company not only of the Qu‘aiti sultan but of qadhis, seyyids, and sultans with their family contacts in Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Far East—and relishing their spicy cooking. He encouraged education, agriculture, and famine prevention, and also successfully ejected a party of Americans from Aramco, the American oil company, who with the backing of the Saudi king, had begun drilling operations 30 miles inside the (disputed) borders of the Aden Protectorate.

In 1958 Boustead became development secretary to the sultan of Muscat and Oman, Sayyed Said bin Taimur, whom he found very half-hearted about plans for health, education, and agriculture. When Boustead suggested establishing a school in every governorate, the sultan refused, saying: ‘That is why you lost India, because you educated the people’ (private information). This post gave Boustead much less satisfaction than his other posts, and in 1961, shortly after oil had been discovered in Abu Dhabi, he became the political agent of its ruler. However, after a honeymoon period with Sheikh Shakhbut bin Sultan, he suffered, as others had, from the ruler's violent changes of mood and unwillingness to face the responsibility of his new oil wealth.

Boustead nevertheless stayed on in Abu Dhabi as Sheikh Zaid bin Sultan, who succeeded his brother as ruler, persuaded him to look after his large stable of horses in al-‘Ain. He continued to do this until his death in 1980, aged eighty-five. During this time he received many visitors, including young British officers serving in Oman and the United Arab Emirates, who liked to pay a sort of military pilgrimage to an eccentric and lovable figure. Reflecting on his own career, Boustead wrote in his autobiography, The Wind of Morning (1971): ‘there can be few deeper satisfactions than to have played a part in helping a country forward to a life of peace’ (237). In 1966 he was awarded the Lawrence of Arabia medal by the Royal Society for Asian Affairs, ‘in recognition of work of outstanding merit in the fields of exploration, research or literature’. Boustead died in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates on 3 April 1980.

Donald Hawley


H. Boustead, The wind of morning (1971) · J. Orlebar, Tales of the Sudan defence force (1981) · J. Orlebar, The story of the Sudan defence force (1986) · WW · The Times (9 April 1980) · Daily Telegraph (5 April 1980) · T. Green, The adventurers: four profiles of contemporary travellers (1970) · personal knowledge (2004) · private information (2004) · D. Shirreff, Bare feet and bandoliers: Wingate, Sandford, the patriots and the part they played in the liberation of Ethiopia (1995)


Bodl. RH, corresp. with Margery Perham · U. Durham L., Sudan archive


photographs, repro. in Boustead, The wind of morning

Wealth at death  

£82,324—in England and Wales: probate, 22 July 1980, CGPLA Eng. & Wales