Richard Leslie Hill was born at Ramsbury, Wiltshire, in February 1901, a month too late (to his chagrin) to call himself a Victorian. He owed this sense of history to his father, also, like all first-born Hills of Ramsbury, Richard Hill. The village shop, Hill's Stores, had been in the family for at least a century, and was kept by his formidable grandmother Thirza. Her son had married Margaret Leslie, daughter of a notable Edinburgh Episcopalian minister, to whom his grandson bore a striking resemblance.
He went to the village school, but in 1913 the family emigrated to New Zealand, settling at Birkenhead, North Island, and he went to Auckland Grammar School. He had intended to join the army, but his failure to pass School Certificate Maths meant that both the Australian and, surprisingly, the Bolivian armies turned him down.
The firm faith that he inherited from his mother suggested an alternative vocation; he worked his passage back to England and entered St Augustine's College, Canterbury, to train as an Anglican Benedictine. St Augustine's sent him to St Edmund Hall, Oxford, where he read History, became Secretary of the Oxford Union and took his BLitt. His thesis was on "Toryism and the People", but, if politics beckoned, Hill realised that he had no resources; rather, as eldest son, it was his duty to earn enough to bring his family back to England. He borrowed the money to pay back St Augustine's from a Ramsbury benefactor; another Ramsbury connection found him a post in the Sudan Civil Service, in the Government Railways.
In 1927 Hill went to the Sudan, where he held various posts in the railways, serving as railway liaison officer during the war with the rank of bimbashi; he retired in 1945 and was seconded to University College, Khartoum, as senior lecturer in history. This translation, at first sight surprising, was official acknowledgement of two decades of wide-ranging curiosity about every aspect of the land in which he lived, its history, climate and geography, social organisation, agriculture, manufactures, ecology, communications (naturally), its public health. Characteristically, when he was appointed in 1927, his first action had been to enquire at the Bodleian Library for a bibliography of the Sudan; learning that there was none, he compiled it. A Bibliography of the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan from the Earliest Times to 1937 was published in 1939.
Hill's academic career now took off. He retired from the Sudan at the statutory age in 1949, and became lecturer in Near Eastern History at Durham University, a post he held until 1966. While there he was responsible for one of the most remarkable initiatives by any British university, the creation of the Sudan Archive.
Hill realised that the sources for writing the history of the country existed, if at risk from loss or dispersal. He knew where they were, and a public appeal was launched in 1957. His skill and pertinacity in pursuing documents of all sorts from all quarters of great variety, ranging from the papers of Sir Reginald Wingate (Governor-General, 1899-1916) to the handing-over of notes of district commissioners, records of tribal customs and letters home. All was grist to the mill, and with the flour from it Hill began to make history as, literally, he baked bread - the loaves he made were delicious.
In 1951 Hill had published his A Biographical Dictionary of the Anglo- Egyptian Sudan, the first expression of his belief that history can only be understood through the lives of the people - all of them - that make it. During his nine years at Durham he had the means to produce a much augmented second edition of his Dictionary, besides his much-reprinted monograph Egypt in the Sudan, 1820-1881 (first published in 1959), a biography of Slatin Pasha and Sudan Transport (both in 1965). Three visiting professorships followed, at the University of California, Santa Barbara, Simon Fraser University, British Columbia, and Ahmadu Bello University at Kano, Nigeria, where he was also dean of the history faculty and acting dean of Islamic Studies. In 1991 Durham University gave its "servant of the Sudan Archive" (his phrase) an honorary DLitt, the day crowned by happy competition with the Chancellor, Peter Ustinov, over the number of languages that each could speak.
Richard Hill spent the rest of his life at Oxford, where he had met his wife Juliana, whose own scholarly work was devoted to Politian. They made a touching pair, working together in the Bodleian, she sitting beside him even after she could no longer work. A series of articles and editions of unpublished texts on the Sudan culminated in A Corps d'Elite (1995), written with Peter Hogg, the history of the regiment of Sudanese zouaves, raised by Napoleon III as a bodyguard for the Emperor Maximilian in the belief that they were immune to yellow fever, which had proved disastrous to Lesseps' first attempt on the Panama Canal. Hill followed up each traceable member of the regiment, abandoned in Mexico: some stayed on, others spread round the Caribbean, some found their way home.
In all things, Hill observed punctilio. If that makes him sound pompous, he was not: who else could footnote the Azende tribe, "The Northern Sudanese were confident that the Azende were cannibals and called them by the suggestively onomatopoeic name Niam-Niam"? But his tall, spare figure, latterly bald, his neat moustache, gave him an aura of precision, conspicuous also in his fine italic hand. To all, he observed unfailing courtesy. It flowed from him naturally, like the perfect charity to which it was the natural expression. In his own field omniscient, he gave knowledge freely; what he did not know he sought humbly, for humility was as natural to him as charity.
One of the writers in Modernization in the Sudan, a volume of essays dedicated to Hill in 1985, recalled meeting the king of Tombol, who produced the typescript translation (a characteristic gift) made for him by Hill of the accounts of earlier European travellers, adding, "Do you know Richard Hill? He could tell you many things about the olden days here." Such exchanges must have taken place many times over the last 70 years. "Men's work cannot be separated from their lives" was his own summation: his life was long; his work will last even longer.
Richard Leslie Hill, colonial civil servant and historian: born Ramsbury, Wiltshire 18 February 1901; married 1937 Juliana Cotton (died 1988; four daughters); died Oxford 21 March 1996.Reuse content