Friday, April 24, 2009


It was as I was digging around Jimena castle, virtually not physically, that the name of Hamo Sassoon kept cropping up. Now there’s hardly a long term resident of Jimena, Spanish or foreign, who doesn’t known of Hamo and acknowledge him with great respect.

I therefore decided to dig deeper to find out more about this man with the famous surname. I was shocked to learn that apart from my good friend at Jimena Pulse, Prospero, and the British Institute in Eastern Africa journal, Azania, nobody had published an obituary on his passing in 2004 and no biography existed either. Hence, in my own humble way, I decided it was time to right this wrong.

As you have no doubt guessed Hamo was related to Siegfried Loraine Sassoon, the English poet and author. Siegfried became famous as a writer of satirical anti-war verse in World War I, earned a Military Cross along the way and later won acclaim for his prose work.

Our Hamo was the great grandson of one of the original Sassoon brothers who went to England. I say our Hamo because this has very much become a family name. The great grandfather married an Italian and Hamo’s grandfather married Theresa Thorneycroft whose brother was the sculptor Hamo Thorneycroft. His sculptures can be seen around London and he was part of the Holland Park Circle. It was he who took the name of Hamo and brought it into the Sassoon family.

Hamo was born in 1925 the son of Michael Thorneycroft Sassoon. Siegfried was Hamo’s uncle who virtually brought him up and gave Hamo most of his tastes such as a love of classical music as his parents were too busy enjoying the gay 20s and 30s. Hamo studied literature at Oxford under Siegfried’s friend Edmund Blunden but then left when the Second World War started to become a conscientious objector. However he soon realised that with a name like Sassoon he had to fight and joined a cavalry regiment - The Inns of Court. Determined to get into the fighting he persuaded his brother, who was a tank officer, to get him into the Royal Tank Regiment. He went through the North African campaign including the Battle of Knightsbridge and was twice blown up in his tank. He reached the rank of lieutenant and in 1946 married his first wife, Flavia (ne Kingscote), who was of a military family.

He was one of the original students at the Middle Eastern School of Arabic Studies in Jerusalem. Most of the students became Ambassadors and Hamo was destined for the Foreign Service. He was desperate to be posted to an Arabic speaking country but with a Jewish name, even though only a quarter Jewish, it was deemed impossible so he ended up in the Colonial Service but only after returning to Oxford where he read - Soil Science.

Hamo became a District Commissioner in Nigeria and the Cameroons where he developed his keen interest in archaeology and through the intervention of Sir Mortimer Wheeler transferred to the Antiquities Department working in the Jos Museum. He became Director of Antiquities in Tanganyika in Dar es Salaam, later in Uganda where he had some nasty scrapes under Idi Amin.

Hamo was later Curator of the Fort Jesus museum in Mombasa (where he lived in the wonderful Portuguese fort). There he was responsible for the underwater excavation of a 16th Century Portuguese Frigate - so he learned to dive. He was Coastal archaeologist for a time before he went to the South Sudan with his future second wife Jean.

It was Jean who we have to thank for bringing Hamo to Jimena because she already had a house in the village – and her artist sister had been there for 30 years. Over a 20 year period this extraordinary man devoted his later years to working on uncovering the history of Jimena’s castle, the wider Campo de Gibraltar and being the impetus behind the annual Jornadas de Historia y Arqueología de Jimena de la Frontera. It is appropriate that he now lies at rest within the castle walls in the old cemetery. If you visit his grave you will read a tribute urging you to look around you to see his memorial. Nobody could have a finer tomb stone and of course on a clear day –you can see his beloved Africa.

That is only half the tale. Hamo’s widow, Jean, also has had a fascinating life. A doctor in her own right - at the University of Nairobi she was in charge of the Material Culture Project in the Institute of African Studies and also an Ethnographer of the National Museum. She worked closely with the archaeologist and anthropologist Louis Leakey who became famous for his academic work centred on the origins of man. That story, though, is for another day!

Many thanks to all the readers of this Blog who have taken the time to contact me with kind comments and to express their great fondness for Hamo. I am reliably told that the Institute for the study of the Campo de Gibraltar based in Algeciras has in the past asked Jimena Town Hall to name a street after Hamo. Regrettably nothing has even been done – perhaps this is a campaign that my good friend Prospero could take up.


Prospero said...

What a truly wonderful thing you have written, my friend!
One of Hamo's gifts was his humility, I always felt. Most of your article comes from thorough research, I'm sure, because he would rarely mention his past if at all.
Another of his gifts was his ability to get on with everyone, as anyone in Jimena, Spanish or otherwise,will tell you. He is remembered with much love here, I can asssure you. In fact, he was named A Favourite Son of the village the year before he died in 2004.
Long may his memory live.

Anonymous said...

And about time too! An excellent obit about wonderful, modest and scholarly man. Between the two of them, author Peter Luke and Hamo both lit their respective candles under Jimena and they still burn strongly.
Hamo's panegyric (he would have like that word) before he died set out the theory that Gibraltar really means Rock of the Birds (and why not? Tarik being some years out of date and never made the visit); and the famous Battle of La Janda where the Visigothic Kings were defeated probably took place somewhere near Pelayo above Algeciras, rather than the Rio Guadalete. That should give the respective Tourist Offices something to think about!!

Anonymous said...

I have a book in my library "Perseus in the Wind" by Freya Stark which belongs to my wife; in it is inscribed "For Bina, without whom it would not have been tolerable" Signed by Hamo Sassoon Juba April 1983-June 1984. We were neighbours of Hamo and Jean in Juba and remember them with great affection. Jean was working with me in Southern Sudan on a British ODA and World Bank aid project, and Hamo accompanied her there. I am pleased that you have remembered him so well in your salute. David Billing

Helen Bantock said...

We met Hamo in 1991, I think, when we were birdwatching around Jimena. He was with an author who was writing about his uncle and who sang in the same choir as I did. We were impressed by his friendliness and great knowledge of the local birds. In fact, we came across them again, this time when we were in our car and waved as we went past. However, Hamo wanted us to stop again and we had another long conversation-I wonder if he was a little exhausted with the intense discussion of family matters!
Thank you for your blog, it is very interesting.

Alison said...

I am a distant relative from the Thornycroft side (and my nephew is named Hamo). I lived in Kenya and learned of Hamo Sassoon's tenure at Fort Jesus when we were there. Thank you for your research, it is fascinating and I wish I had met him.