Denis Hills, 90; Author Was Once Sentenced to Death by Idi Amin

From Times Staff and Wire Reports

Denis Hills, a British writer, lecturer and adventurer once sentenced to death by Idi Amin for describing the Ugandan dictator as a “black Nero” and “village tyrant,” has died. He was 90.

Hills died April 26 in Richmond, England, of natural causes.

He was teaching at Makerere University in the Ugandan capital, Kampala, when Amin seized power in 1971. Appalled by Amin’s butchery, Hills made the remarks in the manuscript of his 1975 book “The White Pumpkin.” Outraged, Amin arrested Hills, tried him for espionage and sedition and condemned him to death.

Amin used Hills’ imprisonment to make Britain “kneel at his feet.” Two British envoys who brought an appeal from Queen Elizabeth II to spare Hills’ life were forced to crawl on their knees through a low entrance to a hut where Amin received them. The day before Hills was to be shot, Amin freed him in exchange for an apology and retraction of the remarks.


Born near Birmingham, England, Hills studied at Oxford then traveled Europe and Africa, mastering German, Polish, Russian, Romanian, Italian, Turkish and Swahili. He wrote for newspapers, edited a Polish cultural magazine, taught English and published books such as “Return to Poland” and “The Last Days of White Rhodesia.”

During World War II, he served with the British army in Africa and Italy. At the end of the war, he allowed Russians and Ukrainians who had allied themselves with Germany in the fight against Stalin to escape instead of sending them back to the Soviet Union, where he knew they would be executed or imprisoned.

He also persuaded authorities to cast a blind eye so that the Fede, a ship carrying 1,200 Polish Jews who had survived the Holocaust, could leave La Spezia in Italy for Palestine, an event immortalized in Leon Uris’ novel “Exodus.”

After the war, he taught in Germany, Turkey, the former Rhodesia, and Uganda. He also climbed mountains, biked the length of Europe from the Arctic Circle to Salonika, Greece, and wrote books about his adventures.

His 1992 autobiography, “Tyrants and Mountains: A Reckless Life,” earned the comment from a London Sunday Times reviewer: “This book has classic status.”

Divorced twice, Hills is survived by a daughter and two sons.