Of Oil, Stones and Wisdom in Uganda and My White Men Zombies

zom.bie noun \ˈzäm-bē\
: my learning, my living, my growing
: Homo Coprophagus Somnambulus
: a mixed drink made of several kinds of rum, liqueur, and fruit juice

Here lies Arthur Delmar Combe: prolific mineralogist, volcanologist and petrologist.

You are excused if you have never heard of A. D.  After all, who was he but the man for whom the mineral ‘combeite’ was named? So what if the discovery combeite in 1957 has led to important medical developments in biocompatible bone restorations as well as numerous orthopedic and dental innovations?

The sinking, stinking Entebbe European Cemetery is the final resting place for this former Assistant Director at the Uganda Geological Survey who had  a heart for the ageless stories of stones. The beautiful black block of Ankole granite used to fashion his headstone was a loving tribute to his pioneering work in mapping the crater lakes of southwestern Uganda and his discovery of potash-rich deposits in Toro.

Now, like much of Uganda’s inglorious past, Arthur Delmar Combe lies forgotten … and we wake to a grey dawn.

I have discovered pitifully little about A. D. Combes. An excerpt in the journal Nature from July 16, 1949 sheds some light:

Mr. Arthur Delmar Combe. Born in Adelaide in 1893, Combe was educated in Sydney, to which city his family had moved during his early years. While yet a boy he developed the keen interest in mineralogy which determined his choice of profession.

By the sudden and unexpected death of A. D. Combe on May 23, at the age of fifty-five, African geology has lost one of its most striking and colorful personalities, and a career of brilliant achievement in Uganda and the adjoining territories has been unhappily cut short.

And from The Sidney Morning Herald:

The Australia Museum archives provide important information into Combe’s early work in mineralogy

The name of Arthur Combe first appears in the Museum Minerals register in 1919. Arthur had a passion for collecting minerals and was encouraged in this by G.W. Card, Curator of the Mining Museum …

Such was his enthusiasm, he worked as a miner in several mining fields such as South Blocks, Broken Hill, North Lyell on the west coast of Tasmania, Yerranderie in the Burragorang Valley (in fairly rugged country, although it was only 90 km in a straight line south-west of Sydney) and Mount Painter, South Australia.  All of these mines ceased working many years ago, so most of the minerals Combe collected would be unobtainable today except in collections. He was a most discerning and intrepid collector.

In the early 1920s he was appointed as a geologist on the staff of the Uganda Geological Survey. For nearly twenty years from the early 1930s until his death in 1949, on each occasion when he was on furlough from Uganda, he spent part of the time in Sydney with his father and sisters and always visited the mineral department of the Museum.

It was only a short trip from Uganda to mining areas in Zaire (then the Belgian Congo) such as Katanga where Combe made an outstanding collection of uranium minerals. He also collected from other areas in southern Africa …

… He told of a big lump of pitchblende, the chief ore of uranium and very radioactive, which weighed a few hundred weight and which was kept outside the mine office at Katanga. Male employees who had too many children used to go and sit on this monster specimen now and then in the hope of becoming sterile.

In southwestern Uganda A. D. opened the doors to detailed research on the petrology of the Rwenzori and Albertine basin, thus blazing the trail for the oil exploration today.

A regular research partner and coauthor of his, Arthur Holmes, wrote:

… my old friend and collaborator, the late Mr. A. D. Combe, began a systematic survey of the province which he completed only a few months before his lamented death in 1949. At intervals the specimens collected by him, amounting in all to well over a thousand, have been sent to me for petrological study.

A joint memoir, was penned by Arthur Holmes as a “lasting monument to Combe’s insight as a volcanologist,” but I have not been able to get a copy or abstract of it.  It provides a critical petrographic and chemical analysis of the region stretching from the Muhavura Mountain in Kisoro to the sands of Kaiso in Hoima.

Combe recorded his own findings on the case with another Uganda-based mineralogist, W. C. Simmons. In 1933 they wrote a detailed report on their studies in Kisoro that was published in the Uganda Geological Survey. Unfortunately the report ‘The volcanic area of Bufumbira. The geology and petrology of the volcanic area of Bufumbira, south-west Uganda’ is not freely available for my perusal.

However, in its place are documents, photos, maps, sketches and numerous diary entries from Combes on his research at Katunga, the Holocene volcanic mountain near Igara. His work on the local minerals Katungite and Ugandandite continue to inform geological and archeological study.

Additionally, he all but definitively found that there were no gold deposits in western Uganda – information that would have saved thousands of poor Ugandans valuable time and money in the late 1980s “gold rush.”

Ah, but why should you bother with a rock-obsessed random Australian?

No reason.

As long as Uganda doesn’t forget to remember. As long as the past  remains our present. As long as knowledge doesn’t die and learning doesn’t end.

Perhaps then Arthur Delmar Combe can rest.

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5 Responses to “Of Oil, Stones and Wisdom in Uganda and My White Men Zombies”

  1. Aah, so that’s who that road in Entebbe is named after. Thanks for doing all the digging and remembering a great man.

  2. And he is in Entebbe?
    And he is named after what?

    I’m troubled.
    We have such a rich history, yet I spent hours on end studying about the Tennessee Valley Authority!!

  3. Wow. I know the man is dead and cannot appreciate the post but it still feels good that someone spared a thought. This is really interesting. Let me check out the other “zombie”stories.
    Great post.


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