Sparked by a single clue from WWII Burma, Ed Keazor recounts the hurdles and dead-ends in his quest to uncover the identity of a mysterious military doctor amidst reservations regarding name, ethnicity and the discrepancies between the history books and official records.
Earlier in November I was approached to moderate the launch of former BBC Lagos Correspondent, Barnaby Phillips’ impressive biographical work “Another Man’s War”. The story follows Isaac Fadoyebo, the now famous Nigerian veteran and his experience in Burma alongside fellow West African soldier David Kargbo in World War II. Both were injured in fighting and only survived as a result of the kindness of Burmese villagers who risked their lives to protect the two Africans. Years later, Fadoyebo had a life-long desire to thank the family of the man who had saved his life – a task that eventually involved Phillips and his writing pursuits. The resulting book is a thoroughly moving human story and without doubt, one of the finest works on West African soldiers in World War II.
While preparing for the book launch I came across something that could potentially revise the record books of African Military History. In Chapter 10 of the book, when Fadoyebo and Kargbo receive convalescent care in a military hospital near Calcutta, Phillips refers to a certain Army Doctor at the hospital, a man named Major Savage. He is described as “an immensely caring man … of mixed Scottish and Gold Coast ancestry and married to a woman from one of Gold Coast’s leading families.”
This description struck me personally, for two reasons. As a student of West African Military History, I prided myself on being familiar with all of the first generation of West African Army Officers but I simply had never heard of a Major Savage. I had also just written a short biography of Dr Agnes Yewande Savage, the first Nigerian woman to qualify as a physician and the daughter of the Nigerian physician Richard Akinwande Savage. She was of mixed Scottish heritage as her father had been married to a Scotswoman and she had spent most of her professional life in the Gold Coast (modern day Ghana). The coincidence was too much to ignore. Could this Savage be a close relative of the unknown army doctor? Why hadn’t he been mentioned in the history books on the topic? Thus I began a search to try and join the dots and unravel the story of this mysterious Major Savage.
I did not need to look far. A source I had used for my research on Dr Yewande Savage. Followed the life of Dr Richard Akinwande Savage, the descendant of a freed Slave of Egba (South-Western Nigeria) origins. This gentleman had studied Medicine at Edinburgh University, married a Scotswoman and had a number of children, including a son, Richard Junior. Born 1903, at 15 Buccleugh Place, in Scotland, he also studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh and practised for a time in Africa, before finally retiring to Scotland. This information strengthened the possibility that Richard Savage Junior could be the same army doctor Major Savage, however it did not provide anything near to comprehensive proof. Savage could have been a popular name to adopt or even a cousin. There had to be something beyond a shared name to confirm his identity.
With this resolution in tow, I headed to the UK National Archives at Kew where a whole day’s search finally provided promising results. There I came across the records of one Captain R.G.A Savage FRCS (Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons) in Volume 2 of the July 1945 edition of the Army List. This was extremely important as it confirmed there had indeed been a West African doctor of the same surname registered with the British Army around the time Fadoyebo would have sought medical attention in Burma. This brought me closer to resolving the identity of the mysterious Major, however the list had only published his initials and not his name. The catalogue of coincidences was now growing. Surely the R.G.A Savage had to be Richard G.A. Savage? I was getting close.
The final piece in the puzzle came when I found the full names of Captain R.G.A. Savage in the United Kingdom Medical Register. In the 1943 Medical Register, I found the records of one Richard Gabriel Akinwande Savage, who graduated from Edinburgh University in 1926 and qualified in 1927. Quite simply Captain R.G.A. Savage was the son of the Nigerian Doctor Richard Akinwande Savage and the brother of the first Nigerian female Doctor Agnes Yewande Savage.
I had also omitted one small but extremely important fact from this narrative. Until then, the first African to be commissioned as an officer under Her Majesty’s Service was widely acknowledged to be Seth Anthony, a young indigene who served in the Gold Coast Regiment. But my findings at the Medical Register suggested otherwise. Anthony had only been commissioned as Second Lieutenant on 4 April 1942 whilst Savage received his call of duty on 23 September 1940 – over a year before. This detail is as simple as it is significant. Captain (his actual rank, the Major having been a temporary one) Savage was actually promoted to the rank of Captain exactly a year later (September 1941). In essence, by the time Anthony was promoted to Captain in January 1945, Savage already had over three years’ worth of experience in the same position under his belt.
There is no question that Savage was commissioned at least 1 year and eight months before Anthony. But several questions remained: why had Savage been disqualified from previous studies on the topic? After all his father was of Egba descent, an ethnic nation in Western Nigeria – a fact underscored by the African names given to his children. Had history done him a great disservice or was there some other logical reason why recognition for a path he pioneered was granted to a later contender?
In simple terms, there is overwhelming evidence that Captain Richard Gabriel Akinwande Savage was the first African to receive an Officers Commission. However, Seth Anthony will remain the first African Infantry Officer to receive an Officers Commission, as Laud Victor Ugboma shall remain the first Nigerian to be granted the same status (having received his own commission on 28 August 1948).
It is difficult to say why Savage had been omitted from historical texts for over seventy years. Perhaps his mixed race might have resulted in his being regarded as a European Officer. However this is discounted Isaac Fadoyebo who described him (albeit erroneously) as being of mixed Scottish and Ghanaian heritage. This at least suggests that his African origins were known and acknowledged. Savage was as said to have retired to Scotland after his service, “having found Africa vexing” (Africa in Scotland). There is otherwise little information available in general reference texts about his life after service. However a numerous members of the larger Savage family still reside in Lagos and Cape Coast, Ghana. Perhaps in the annals of their family history lie the answers to the last pieces of the puzzle in the life of an African pioneer seemingly forgotten by military historians until now.
The quality of the man is revealed by the fond memories African soldiers held of him. They recalled his immense kindness were especially grateful for his efforts in ensuring that injured African soldiers were sent back to Africa and not back to the battle front, as had been the request of their Commanders. Credit for the discovery of this long forgotten hero should go to the recollections of the late Isaac Fadoyebo and indeed the painstaking record of his biographer Barnaby Phillips. Perhaps, this may be deemed another letter of gratitude to another of his benefactors.
For the Keen & Curious
“Africa in Scotland, Scotland in Africa: Historical legacies and Contemporary Hybridities” 2004. Edited by Afe Adogame and Andrew Lawrence.
For the Hardcore Seekers
UK Medical Registers, 1859-1959. London: General Medical Council, 1859-1959. (Still published annually) (Accessed: 1943 Medical Register)
UK National Archives at Kew, London The Ministry of Defence Army list July 1945 volume 2.
About the Contributor
Emeka ‘Ed’ Keazor is a lawyer, blogger and author of several books. His recent compilation “The 100 Greatest Nigerians We Never Knew” featured in Africa’s Social Media Week in 2014. In Nigeria and abroad, he works to unearth the many hidden gems in our nation’s history, using his uncanny ability to cull the lesser known highlights from the archives in his ongoing appraisal of Nigeria’s history and key personalities.