5th September 1852

Sportsman and soldier Robert Copland-Crawford is born

Born in Elizabeth Castle in 1852, Robert Erskine Wade Copland-Crawford was destined to be notable for several reasons, not all of them good.

Although born in Jersey, he was educated on the mainland at Harrow and Edinburgh and, while still at school, was chosen to play football for Scotland in a match against England. It briefly looked like he might have won the game for Scotland when he scored the first goal in the match, but England equalised before the end and the game ended in a draw.

FA Cup player

His most notable match, though, was probably his last, the FA Cup semi-final in which he played for Wanderers against Queens Park. Like his first match, this one ended as a draw.

Rather than moving from one sport to another, as many would, Copland-Crawford played cricket simultaneously, initially for Harrow School, and later for Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC). However, his sporting career came to an end when he joined the army in the Edmonton Royal Rifle Regiment in 1873 and, in 1888, the Sierra Leone Frontier Police. In this latter role, he seemed not to have a great talent for diplomacy, ordering the arrest of a tribal chief who refused to meet with him. The arrest was resisted, not only by the chief but his supporters, resulting in the death of ten of his supporters and several injuries.

Debated in Parliament

Yet things were allowed to get a lot worse before they got any better. Only after Copland-Crawford’s capture of a town had resulted in the death of 131 locals and he’d had a servant flogged to death was action taken. The matter was raised in Parliament, with James Picton MP describing “the slaughter of an indefinite number of people in several native towns, the burning of six or eight towns, and punishments inflicted of a cruel character unknown to our laws on natives in the Colony of Sierra Leone or the neighbourhood. When I speak of the  slaughter of an indefinite number of people, I mean that we have no information as to the numbers; they must have been at least 300, and may have been 700 or 1,000… this slaughter was to a very large extent due to the unauthorised action of an underling anxious, I suppose, to distinguish himself, and contrary to the express and repeated warnings of those who were in authority over him”.

The underling of whom Picton was speaking was none other than Copland-Crawford himself who, according to Picton’s speech in Parliament, “was convicted and condemned to 12 months’ imprisonment. His health not being good, he was brought to England, and subsequently, his health not improving, he was released altogether”. Thus, aside from his flogging, he was barely punished any further for the deaths he had caused.


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