Archer, Geoffrey Francis

At a Glance:

Colonial administrator, ornithologist



Bird names: 3



Sir Geoffrey Archer [link]

Content Note: This profile discusses state-sanctioned colonial violence, and contains a quote with racist depictions of Ugandans.

The Birds:

Archer’s Buzzard (Buteo archeri)

Archer’s Robin-chat (Cossypha archeri)

Archer’s Lark (Heteromirafra archeri)

Archer’s Buzzard [link]
Archer’s Lark [link]

The Name:

Sir Geoffrey Francis Archer (1882-1964) had a long career as an administer in many of Britain’s African colonies: Kenya, Somalia, Uganda, Sudan. It was his interest in ornithology, though, that led him to this career. In 1901, Archer visited his uncle, the acting high commissioner of Uganda, and spent his time collecting birds throughout the region. This led to surveying work in Kenya, which in turn landed him an appointment as a district commissioner in Kenya. From this post, he was then transferred to Somalia, then called Somaliland, where his career as an administrator would collide with an effective movement to colonial occupation for the first time.

Sayyid Muhammad Abdullah Hassan, leader of the Somali Dervish movement, circa 1920. [link]

The British had initially occupied Somaliland as a means of supplying its more important bases in Aden (modern Yemen) and to prevent any other European country from having it. Given that they only wanted the area so no one else could have it, a motivation shared by both preschoolers and imperialist states alike, control over the area was initially loose. However, as the British occupation sought to tighten its grip in the beginning of the 20th century, and this was understandably met with resistance from many Somalis. The fiercest resistance came from the religious and nationalist Dervish movement, led by the military leader, religious figure, and poet Sayyid Muhammad Abdullah Hassan.

Hassan’s movement has been variously characterized as the beginnings of the Somali independence movement, a fundamentalist religious movement, and a jihad against colonial powers. The truth seems to lie somewhere in the middle of all of these– Hassan definitely seems to have viewed his resistance movement as being a natural outgrowth of his religious beliefs, and his antipathy towards the Ethiopian Empire may have been motivated both by their alliance with colonial powers against Somalia and the fact that their state religion was Christianity. His vision of an independent Somalia was explicitly of a Muslim Somalia.

Of course, the British were not particularly interested in the complex political and religious viewpoints of Hassan’s movement, and usually fell into two camps in their opinions of him: he was either the “Mad Mullah”, a religious fanatic that needed to suppressed but not taken as a representative of a worthy political movement; or he was a pawn of Ottoman/Turkish/German forces seeking to destabilize British colonial influence in East Africa. After WWI, now having the resources to send to what they considered a backwater, the British finally began a serious crack-down on Hassan’s movement.

As governor, Archer was put basically in charge of this effort. His proposed solution drew ridicule from many in the military, but his embrace of a new technology would prove decisive. In 1920, with other British leaders on board, 12 planes bombed Hassan’s stronghold, effectively ending the resistance. Hassan escaped, but died only months later of the flu, his movement having collapsed. The British would control the area for another 40 years.

Archer’s career blossomed after his success in ruthlessly destroying Hassan’s independence movement. He was knighted and appointed governor of Uganda, which was considered a much more important post. While there, he developed a reputation as being somewhat of a reformer, allowing Ugandans higher positions in the local bureaucracy than they had previously been permitted. However, it’s likely that this had more to do with a mistrust of the Indian workers that the empire has relocated to Uganda than out of any particular level of sympathy for the Ugandan. Even has he promoted them, Archer said of Ugandans:

“For Native Administration the qualities of scholarship and academic attainment are not to be prized so highly as the leadership of men. Brilliance in debate can hardly equal the initial advantage gained in youth by having led in the field a body of well trained and disciplined young men of similar age”

– quoted in Kirk-Greene 1992

Archer likely would have enjoyed a long career in Uganda furthering the aims of colonialism for maximum profit by the British if not for a crisis in the neighboring British colony of Sudan. The governor-general was murdered in the midst of a resurgent Mahdist uprising, and so Archer was appointed his replacement. As with Hassan’s rebellion, the Mahdist movement was a complicated mixture of anti-colonial resistance and religious fervor, led by Muhammad Ahmad bin Abd Allah, who had been proclaimed to be the messianic redeeming figure known as the Mahdi. Of course, the British again flattened this into a two-dimensional image of violent religious extremists. They were taken far more seriously, though– in their first iteration some 35 years previously, they had dealt the British a devastating defeat. Their second iteration, the Neo-Mahdists, was under the leadership of the son of the Mahdi, and the British authorities feared a repeat of the previous conflict.

Archer’s arrival in Sudan went poorly. Disliked by the established British authorities, who had probably hoped to be promoted instead of this outsider transferred from Uganda, and distrustful of a local intelligentsia that was whispering about independence, Archer immediately managed to make the situation even worse. His crackdown on local intellectuals made him unpopular among the Sudanese; meanwhile, he was seen by his fellow British as too lenient on the Neo-Mahdists. When he paid a formal visit to the Neo-Mahdist leader, it was the last straw for the British. He was forced to resign, ending his career early. He moved to India and got involved in the local salt industry, which was infamous for its taxation and brutal working conditions, before finally retiring to London.

J.F. McLaughlin

Archer’s Robin-Chat [link]


Ibrahim, Hassan Ahmed. 1980. Imperialism and Neo-Mahdism in the Sudan: a study of British policy towards Mahdism, 1924-1927. The International Journal of African Historical Studies 13(2), pp. 214-239. [link]

Kirk-Greene, Anthony. 1992. Badge of office: sport and his excellency in the British Empire. In: The Cultural Bond: Sport, Empire, and Society. p 185 [link]

Slight, John P. 2011. British and Somali views of Muhammad Abdullah Hassan’s ‘jihad’, 1899-1920. Bildhaan: An International Journal of Somali Studies. [link]

Thomas, H.B. 1964. Review: Personal and historical memoirs of an East African administrator, by Geoffrey Archer. African Affairs 63(252), pp. 245-247. [link]

Obituary: Sir Geoffrey Archer, KCMG. 1965. Ibis 107(2), p. 260. [link]