||8 Nov 1913
||Moseley, Warwickshire, England
||Teacher, Traveller and Author
||26 Apr 2004
||Richmond upon Thames, Surrey, England
||30 Jul 2015 |
||Henry Cecil Iliffe Hills, b. 1873, Emscote, Warwickshire, England |
||Caroline Oldham, b. Dec 1874, Wasperton, Warwickshire, England |
||7 Oct 1901
||Leamington Priors St Mary, Warwickshire, England
- Writer and adventurer saved from Idi Amin's death sentence
Tuesday May 4, 2004
Denis Hills, who has died aged 90, came to the world's attention in June 1975, when he was sentenced to death for "treason" by Idi Amin after describing the Ugandan dictator as a "black Nero" and a "village tyrant" in a book he was writing.
Hills had been a lecturer at Uganda's Makerere University since 1963, and, unlike many senior academics, had stayed on after Amin seized power in 1971. He had, however, intended to be out of the country before the publication of his book, The White Pumpkin, describing his life in Uganda.
But Makerere was periodically raided by soldiers and security forces, and was riddled with informers. The security police got word of the contents of Hills' typescript, and arrested him. A magistrate's court dropped all charges against him, but Amin intervened personally, ordering that Hills should be tried by a military tribunal. He was found guilty and sentenced to death by firing squad.
Waiting in a squalid Kampala cell (and, having spent a short time in one of Amin's prisons, I can confirm that conditions were indeed squalid), Hills was ordered into Amin's presence, and an extraordinary post-colonial game began. The Queen, said Amin, was a good friend of his. Hills would be shot the following day, but if the Queen were to apologise for her subject's behaviour, perhaps Amin would spare him. At the time, the Ugandan dictator was routinely described in the British press as a murderous sadist - and a buffoon.
Unfortunately, however, he was beyond the reach of any normal pressures. He had wrecked the economy, deported Uganda's Asians, killed thousands of African opponents, and periodically denounced the remaining 700 Britons in Uganda as spies who deserved to be shot. No one could be sure that he might not do so.
So, the prime minister, Harold Wilson, wrote an apology. The Queen sent Amin a personal appeal to spare Hills' life. For weeks, Amin almost jokingly equivocated: perhaps Hills would be shot, perhaps not. Finally, the foreign secretary, James Callaghan, said he would go to Uganda, but only after Hills had been reprieved. Amin, who liked to refer to himself as the "Conqueror of the British Empire", agreed. Hills apologised, and flew back with Callaghan. When the book was published the following year, the offending phrases were deleted.
Overnight, Hills became a celebrity, and, at the age of 60, launched himself into a final chapter of travel and sucessful books. He returned to Africa - to the then Rhodesia - and wrote Rebel People (1978) and The Last Days Of White Rhodesia (1981), describing the route from white rule and UDI to independence. Then it was Kenya and, in 1984, publication of The Rock Of The Wind: A Return To Africa.
Hills always wanted to be remembered as a writer, but for the first half of his life he was more of an adventurer. His autobiography, Tyrants And Mountains: A Reckless Life (1992), describes his education at King Edward's school, Birmingham, the city of his birth (with a wimpish Enoch Powell as a fellow pupil), his progress to Lincoln College, Oxford, and then a period travelling light in Germany, attending the 1935 Nuremberg rally en route.
Before the second world war, he was in Poland, editing a cultural magazine in Gdynia and, in 1939, teaching in Warsaw. His experiences then, and in the 1980s, would form the basis of his book, Return To Poland (1988).
When the Soviet Army approached, following the Nazi-Soviet invasions of 1939, Hills and his Polish wife, Dunia Lesmianowna, evacuated via Romania and then to Cairo, where he joined the British army. Attached to Pol ish troops, he went to Italy and took part in the battle of Monte Cassino. Later, he acted as liaison officer with the Soviet military mission at Taranto, and had the dreadful duty of sending back Russian nationals to the Soviet Union. He quickly found out that, on return, they were usually shot and he managed to prevent the return of many of them.
He also intervened on the side of humanity when a rusting ship, crammed with 1,200 Jews on their way to Palestine, anchored off La Spezia. The British authorities initially refused permission for the ship to sail, but Hills persuaded them to turn a blind eye, and the ship sailed - to be described in the novel Exodus by Leon Uris. After the war, he bicycled across Europe, and climbed in Turkish Kurdistan.
Hills found much of what he was looking for in Africa. In The White Pumpkin, there are some exquisitely poised descriptions of African plains and hills - of the bush, the rock and the soil. He also writes of the zest, joy, and fatalism of the Ugandans, and, in particular, of the young prostitutes of Kampala. When he returned from Uganda, I asked him if he had been seeking for innocence in those brothels. "Yes," he said.
He spent his last years in a home in London. He is survived by a daughter from his first marriage, and two sons by his second wife, Ingrid Jan.