Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Stairs, William Grant

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STAIRS, WILLIAM GRANT (1863–1892), captain and traveller, third son of John Stairs (d. 1888) of Halifax, Nova Scotia, and of his wife Mary Morrow (d. 1871), was born at Halifax, Nova Scotia, on 1 July 1863. He was educated until the autumn of 1875 at Fort Massey Academy, Halifax, and afterwards at Merchistoun Castle, Edinburgh, until July 1878, when he passed into the Royal Military College at Kingston, Ontario, Canada. In September 1882 he went to New Zealand, where he was employed as a civil engineer in plotting and mapping the district near Hawke's Bay. On 30 June 1885 he was gazetted to be a lieutenant in the royal engineers, and he then went through a course of professional instruction at Chatham. This was completed in 1886, and at the end of that year he was the first candidate selected by Mr. H. M. Stanley for service on the Emin Pasha relief expedition. He sailed with the expedition, on leave from the war office, on 20 Jan. 1887, and arrived at the Congo river on 18 March. The expedition reached Leopoldville, near Stanley Pool, on 22 April, and the advance in steamers up the river commenced on 3 May. At Bolobo on 12 May the expedition was formed into two columns. Stairs accompanied the advanced column under Stanley, and commanded the second company of Zanzibaris. Yambuya, thirteen hundred miles from the sea, was reached on 15 June, and there the rear column was left behind under Major Walter Barttelot, James Sligo Jameson [q. v.], Mr. J. R. Troup, and Mr. Herbert Ward.

The march of the advanced column eastward from Yambuya commenced on 28 June 1887. A little later Stanley, writing of the qualities of the four members of his staff then with him (i.e. Stairs, Capt. R. H. Nelson, Mr. A. Mounteney Jephson, and Surgeon Thomas Heazle Parke [q. v.]), observed: ‘Stairs is the military officer, alert, intelligent, who understands a hint, a curt intimation, grasps an idea firmly, and realises it to perfection.’ On 13 Aug. at Avisibba, in one of the many attacks by natives, Stairs was wounded by a poisoned arrow, but, under the skilful care of Surgeon Parke, recovered. Then followed a terrible march of 156 days in the twilight of a primeval tropical forest. The little army dropped fifty men on 20 Sept. at Ugarrowa's settlement, and on 6 Oct. left Nelson and Parke and fifty-two men at Kilonga-Longa's. But Stairs, with Mr. Stanley and the rest of the party, emerged out of the forest into open country near Indesura on 4 Dec. 1887. A successful fight with natives took place on 10 Dec., Stairs leading one of the columns; and desultory engagements continued until, on 13 Dec., Mr. Stanley and Stairs reached the Albert Nyanza.

Unable to learn anything of Emin Pasha or to obtain canoes on the lake, the expedition on 17 Dec. retraced its steps to West Ibwiri, where Fort Bodo was constructed. On its completion, on 18 Jan. 1888, Stairs was despatched with a hundred men to bring up Nelson and Parke. By 12 Feb. Stairs had successfully accomplished his mission, which involved a journey of seventy-nine miles each way. Four days later he was sent to escort couriers as far back as Ugarrowa's (183 miles) and see them safely across the river. Later in the year Mr. Stanley left Stairs in command at Fort Bodo while he went in search of the rear column, of which nothing had long been heard.

Mr. Stanley returned without any information on 20 Dec. 1888, and on the 27th Stairs was sent forward with a hundred rifles to hold the ferry at Ituri River. On 9 Jan. 1889 Fort Bodo was burned, and the whole force crossed the river and established a camp in the village of Kandehoré, on the east side. Here Stairs was left in command, in company with Parke, while Mr. Stanley went to find Emin and Mr. Jephson. Stairs joined Mr. Stanley on 18 Feb. at Kavalli's on the Albert Nyanza, where Emin Pasha had already arrived. On 10 April a start for Zanzibar was made, the column being fifteen hundred strong. On 6 June Stairs was sent with a party to explore Ruwenzori, or the ‘Mountain of the Moon.’ He was only able, through lack of supplies, to ascend some ten thousand feet. Zanzibar was reached on 6 Dec. 1889.

Stairs arrived in England in January 1890, and was appointed adjutant of the royal engineers at Aldershot. He received from the khedive of Egypt, under the authority of the sultan of Turkey, the third class of the order of the Medjidie, and permission to accept and wear it was gazetted on 18 Feb. 1890. On 25 March 1891, influenced by a desire to obtain greater freedom for travel, Stairs accepted promotion out of the royal engineers to be captain in the Welsh regiment (the 41st). In May, with permission from the war office, he took command of an expedition of the Belgian Katanga Company to visit Msidi's country to the west of Lake Bangweole in the extreme south-east of the territory assigned to the Congo Free State. The Belgian Katanga Company, in which there was a good deal of English capital, was formed to open up the country by trading in indiarubber and ivory.

Stairs left Belgium in May 1891. He met with many obstacles at Zanzibar. Eventually, with German aid, he got together five hundred men on the coast, and on 4 July started for Lake Tanganyika along the beaten caravan track. Helped everywhere by the Germans, he reached the lake, and, crossing it, made an unprecedentedly rapid march to Ngwena on the river Luapula. He suffered from fever during the journey, but otherwise all went well. Katanga was reached, and the country found to be in a state of anarchy consequent on the death of Msidi. Stairs then took the caravan to the river Shiré, and by way of that river and the Zambesi on to the coast. While waiting at Chinde for a ship to Zanzibar, he fell ill of gastric fever. He died on 9 June 1892.

Stairs possessed all the qualities required for a leader of men and a traveller, winning the esteem and affection of those with whom he acted.

[War Office Records; Memoirs in the Royal Engineers Journal, 1892, in Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society, vol. xiv. pt. ii., and in the Times, 11 Aug. 1892; private sources; Stanley's In Darkest Africa. See arts. Jameson, James Sligo, and Parke, Thomas Heazle.]

R. H. V.