Richard Cox, in "Kenyatta's Country", wrote in 1963 that the Kenya settler was slipping into history: "and when, like the Dodo, he is extinct, the memory of all that he was and tried to be, all that he did to make Kenya a country, not just a colony but a real country, will be forgotton."
There are tales about the Kenya Settler which make ones hair stand on end. Steamy stories of drugs, drink and wife-swapping create frissons of fascination and the antics of the notorious "Happy Valley Set" make good, but inaccurate, film material. If one believes it all, it is easy to reach a conclusion that the Kenya settlers were unpleasant, overindulgent and arrogant sex fiends.
Cox's view was that most settlers were unusually eccentric and he commented that there is something about them "of Lawrence Durrell's renegade diplomat who put on a dinner-jacket to eat hippo steak in the jungle. Except that the Kenyans [did] the reverse. They invariably put on pyjamas and dressing-gowns for dinner. Indeed one Governor so disliked this practice that he would stay up-country only on the understanding that his hosts dressed normally in the evening." Cox added that after a few months in Kenya one began to look out for idiosyncrasies as instinctively as if one were gathering the evidence needed to certify a relative.
Farming in Kenya in the early part of the century was risky, perilous even. Before the first world war transport was entirely dependent upon horse and oxen. Ox tongas were quite a popular mode of transport for people living some distance out of Nairobi. One of the reasons for this was that horse sickness was a scourge, the longest guarantee that could be given for a pony was five days. The ubiquitous tick and tsetse fly spread diseases which killed cattle and sheep with impunity and crop diseases were endemic; many of them unknown to science. Droughts and floods which are still the way of things in Africa caused heartbreak and bankruptcy. One day a farmer could be desperately searching for 'a cloud the size of a man's hand' as plants withered under a pitiless African sun, and the next the heavens could open raising water levels in the rivers three feet or more in an hour, sweeping away seedlings and dam walls.
Virtually every settler was deeply in debt, not only to suppliers but large bank loans kept their endeavours, often only teetering along until disaster struck. One such calamity occurred when the government, after the First World War, changed the currency from rupees to shillings. The rupee had been valued at 1s 4d but after the change it was valued at 2s. Almost overnight overdrafts were increased by two thirds. One of those to suffer badly over this was Ewart Grogan and he was never really able to forgive the British Government. Many soldier settlers, who had put their gratuities into farming and borrowed heavily on them were also ruined.
Under these conditions, it is hardly surprising that there was a certain amount of eccentricity about. While the perceived picture of the settler was a cross between a rakish aristocrat and a wild west hell raiser my own view is that most people were delightful and rather conservative with a small 'c'. In the latter years a sort of 'Kenya look' evolved which in a sense seemed to play up to the reputation that the settler seemed to have in Britain. During the Mau Mau emergency people wore revolver holsters and the fashion for men and women in the fifties was to wear elephant and giraffe hair bracelets while the young men favoured very 'shawt shawts', showing off bronzed tree trunk-like legs. There was also a confidence, a swagger even. But in the early days it was a different matter.
The people who farmed outside Nairobi in the area known as Kabete were some of the earliest settlers in Kenya. Many of them had been brought up in pre-First World War Britain among the privileged echelons of society where ladies had worn long skirts, hunted side-saddle and were not expected to earn their living from their own labours. Where the rigid class system was unquestioned but about to be overturned by the shock of 1914-18. Arriving to farm in this raw land provided a golden opportunity for adventure and to throw off the financial and social constraints which for some, especially the women, was beginning to suffocate. The Kabete settlers were highly educated and brave and theirs was was a cordial society.
Major Charles Taylor went to Kabete in 1909 and in 1927 he married Kit, a serene, beautiful and intelligent person, who herself had arrived in Kenya as a little girl in 1904. Their daughter, Kathini, was brought up in Kabete and I am indebted to Mrs Taylor and Mrs Kathini Graham, for so many charming vignettes about Kabete and the people who lived there.
Mr Taylor was an energetic coffee farmer who involved himself in many areas of Kenya's development including the formation of the East African Power & Lighting Company. Kathini remembers the senior chief in the Area, Chief Njonjo (father of a later distinguished Attorney General), sitting on the verandah discussing matters of common interest such as rain, or the lack of it, locusts, crops and earthquakes while they drank tea and the old Chief sniffed very strong snuff.
Miss Olive Collyer, went out to Kenya in 1908 and, after her brother had died while he was serving as DC Nyeri (see "Not Fair Dealings"), she settled in Kabete where she bred horses, grew flowers and vegetables and later grew coffee. She was an active member of the newly born Jockey Club and she founded the Horticultural Society. According to Kathini Miss Collyer, who was my great aunt, was a good-looking woman who wore long divided skirts and long-sleeved coats made in a faded khaki. Her only concession to femininity was a pretty scarf. She was less inhibited than most by convention and Kathini remembers the Parson announcing one Sunday, "Now let us pray for rain". "Hear, Hear" came the clearly audible response from Olive.
She never missed Christmas dinner with the Taylors and every year she was seated on Charles' right until Kit decided to rearrange the seating plan because, she said, she wanted to stop Charles and Olive passing the whole evening discussing manure. The servants, who knew perfectly well that the lady on the right of the host should be served first, firmly ignored the convention and served Olive first. She was much admired by the Kikuyu who lived in Kabete and was known as "Nya Weru" - the woman who works hard.
She was outspoken but also compassionate. Kit tells me of how, when bread was rationed during the Second World War, she gave all her bread to the African children; how she would sit up all night in the hut of a sick child and an African lady, Mrs Victoria Kabetu, told me how she remembers Olive collecting her all the other children in the area, and taking them to her house for a childrens' party.
The Church at Kabete was built after the First World War. A lady from Gilgil, Mrs Grist, had extended a kindness to one of the first builders in Nairobi. He told her that if ever he could do anything to repay her she only had to ask. She never had any intention of taking him up on his offer until she moved to Kabete when she asked him to build the church. The people who attended the church were farmers, missionaries, officials and professionals, the latter of whom were mainly from Kabete Veterinary Laboratory.
As the fabric of a new English society was being woven in alien Kikuyuland, there were no parishes in Kenya, but Kabete church was linked to Kiambu. One day it was mooted that this arrangement should change and Kabete Church should join the Church of St Marks, Parklands. In many ways this would have been a more logical arrangement because St Marks Parklands was very much closer than Kiambu and the Vicar of St Marks, Mr Carlisle, had set his heart on Kabete joining his church. However, at a very heated meeting the church members unceremoniously threw the suggestion out.
As the meeting broke up the vicar of St Marks Parklands walked away, shoulders bowed, clearly in distress and disappointment. Olive Collyer ran after him and put her arm round his shoulder, "Mr Carlisle, Mr Carlisle we do like you most awfully. Its just that we have always belonged to Kiambu."
Canon Harry Leakey was an early missionary at Kabete. His descendants have since distinguished themselves in many walks of life in Africa - not least in the field of archaeological discovery. Canon Leakey's wife and children would sometimes go to England for longish periods and his letters home have drawn an interesting picture of his life in Kabete with its frustrations and periods of loneliness.
One afternoon in the very early days of the Kabete community, Canon Leakey gave a large tea party for some visitors to his mission. His wife was in England and the preparations were all down to him. His letter to her describes how nerve-wracking he had found it trying to organise a party for a large number of people. He rushed hither and thither but finally all was ready and the whole community turned out. Everything seemed to be going well when suddenly he caught sight of Olive galloping down the drive with a bundle of sticks under her arm and he discovered to his horror that he had forgotton to boil the water for the tea.
Dr Jex Blake was a brilliant internationally renowned physician who specialised in hearts and lungs while his wife, Lady Muriel, created a wonderful botanical garden on their coffee estate called, Kyuna and under her chairmanship the Horticultural Society flourished. She had bright brown eyes and she wore dresses made of chintz or floral furnishing linen as she found they did not show the dirt when she was gardening.
Kit, went over to visit the Jex Blake's one day. As she and Dr Jex strolled along the shady paths through the riot of plants, he pointed out a huge red bloom, "Haemanthus" he said, "The flower of blood".
"Oh how I wish I had learnt Latin at school rather than German!" Kit lamented.
"Maybe so, my dear Kit, maybe so, but in this case it would have availed you nothing. The word happens to be Greek!"
Given such everyday tranquility and pleasantness, which is what I myself remember in the Kenya after World War II, the skewed reputation of the Kenya settlers has always been a source of wry amusement to many of us.
Colonel Ewart Grogan was a brilliant man who had a defiant and rebellious streak and a caustic wit. He once said "East Africa is the home of the leopard, the tick, the baboon and the amateur official." [Trz] His main claim to fame was his epic walk from the Cape to Cairo all, they say, for the love of a lady. But the ever generous Kit Taylor reminded me that far more important than that - and all but forgotton now - was that he donated his house and garden at Muthaiga to build a childrens' hospital for all races. It was, and still is, known as Gertrude's Garden.
Muthaiga Club had a reputation amongst outsiders of a prurient bent, for being the hotbed, of what someone described as the "Tatler Group": those aristocratic bad apples who had been sent out to Kenya by their exasperated families. In fact the membership of Muthaiga Club consisted mainly of up-country settlers but also of some colonial administrators of which my father was one. It was a charming spacious place, with a quiet air of relaxed courtliness. Club staff would greet one with a mixture of respect and genuine friendliness and it was all run with what appeared to be an effortless efficiency.
Near the end of the colonial period Kit and Charles Taylor were having lunch at Muthaiga Club one day. "While we were lunching Ewart came in and he was very blind by then and deaf. He walked in to the dining room rather like an old lion and we called him and said 'Ewart come and have lunch with us.' We were half way through our lunch when an extraordinary procession passed us. It was General Wainwright, who lived up Rumuruti way, looking very dignified, walking with a stick. His sister came after him with two sticks, very, very dignified and a young man - the young ADC as it were - followed after them. Ewart Grogan turned to Charles and said, 'You know, Charles this place is supposed to be some sort of Moulin Rouge!'"
Mr Jim Cooper sent me a description of his childhood observations of Kabete when it was little more than a buffer zone between the Masai and the Kikuyu. It beautifully captures the colourful and the conventional of life at Kabete. although he himself has doubts.
"As regards the chapter about Settlers which you enclosed and asked for comments,... it is awfully difficult when writing about matters that happened 50 to 100 years ago to describe atmosphere and the way people thought in those days. It is so different from to-day in many respects. The facts of history are easy but the reasons why are not so obvious very often.
In 1897 A.S. Cooper, my Father's elder brother, was appointed Assistant Accountant and Storekeeper for the building of the Uganda Railway. In 1903 when the British High Commissioner, Sir Charles Eliot, sent out his surveyors to demarcate land not in effective occupation by African tribes and it was decided that Europeans would be invited to take up such land for farming. My Father, H. Douglas Cooper, was one of those to respond to his call.
He arrived in East Africa in 1904. He had already some experience of farming abroad in Chile. On arrival, in partnership with J.H. Gailey, who had recently set up business in Nairobi as Gailey & Roberts, and with C.N.M. Harrison, the Nairobi solicitor, he bought 3000 acres at Kabete at two rupees per acre. There was little local knowledge as to what would grow. The only other Europeans in that area at that time were Canon Leakey and his family at the Church Mission Society Mission about two miles up the track in the Kikuyu Reserve. The land he took up became known as Kirawa Farm, simply because when his brother was riding out that way he asked a Kikuyu what the area was called and whatever the reply was he later remembered it as Kirawa or something similar, and so it was named.
In 1909 some 200 acres had been put under cultivation. The crops tried included maize, oats, potatoes, vegetables, linseed and sisal, but most important of all 45 acres of coffee had been planted and the first shipment of coffee to England had fetched 50 shillings per hundredweight. My Father had obtained the coffee seed from the French Catholic Mission just outside Nairobi. I believe they had obtained their seed from their Mission Station in Harrar, Abysinnia. The coffee on Kirawa was one of the very first plantings of coffee which was to lead to one of the country's major industries.
By 1909 other settlers were arriving in East Africa and amongst them was C.M. (Charles) Taylor. He bought a block of land with a partner which had been part of Kirawa and they also planted coffee. A sleeping partner of this venture was a cousin of the Cooper family, Major E.G.H. Harrison who had been in command of 3 Kings African Rifles. He had been seconded from the Duke of Wellington's Regiment to the Sultan of Zanzibar's army at the time of the Arab revolt of 1896. The next year, in command of a Company of the East African Rifles, he had been ordered to march from Machakos to Jinja to help quell the Uganda Mutiny. He marched the 400 odd miles in 21 days and fought actions at Ravine and Mumias on the way. He told me the story of all that just after the Hitler war and how his final act was to round up the remnants of Emin Pasha's army of a decade earlier, left behind in Uganda. They were mostly Nubians; one of them, an Effendi or officer, had fought with the Emperor Maximillian in Mexico in 1860. Most of them took service under the British and their families were granted land outside Nairobi. These men all had stories to tell.
Then, of course, there were the Elkingtons. He was a younger son of the well known Sheffield family who made plated silver. His great hobby was horses and hunting and having imported hounds from England, set up the Masara Hounds of which Charles Taylor was a whipper-in and my Father the Hon. Secretary.
My Father's brother, A.S. Cooper, was the first Honorary Secretary of the newly formed East African Turf Club and by the time he left in 1909 to take up a post in Nigeria, it was well established. Both Gailey and my father were keen members and Kirawa had horses to graze and be looked after. The first race over hurdles on the Nairobi Racecourse was won by a grey called Diablo, owned by Gailey and ridden by A.S. Cooper. In the judges box was my Father. He had driven the horse from Kabete in the farm pony cart earlier in the day.
Just after the 1914-18 war Lord Delamere bought a 20 acre plot from Kirawa on which he built Loresho House. Soon after this was completed he decided he wanted to buy 200 or 300 acres on which to plant coffee. Somewhere I have the letter he wrote to my Father explaining that he would not argue about price but he didn't propose to pay. It would be on mortgage. I remember as a small boy riding up to Loresho House on a Somali pony while my father walked using, as he always did, an ebony stick with a spear at one end. I grazed my pony on the so-called lawn while Father and Delamere discussed business sitting in deck chairs on the shallow verandah. A Masai approached with a chit in a split stick and offered it to Delamere who took no notice. The Masai tried again with a grunt. I watched entranced as Delamere without apparently interrupting his conversation hurled my father's stick at the Masai who ducked and stood away while Delamere remarked to my Father, "I hate being interrupted, don't you Cooper?" Delamere had a special relationship with the Masai who thought the world of him. In later years when I farmed at Naivasha and employed a number of Masai I used to hear a lot about Delamere.
Another vivid memory I have is as a small boy about 6 years old perhaps, watching land being ploughed by oxen. At the end of each headland, as a guide to the ploughman, a stake was planted and on this stake was a human skull, several ox teams and several skulls. It is the sort of thing a small boy does remember. My Father told me in later years that Kirawa was what he described as a 'frontier farm' to keep the peace between raiding Masai from Dagoretti and the Kikuyu. Years later after the last war - about 1947 - I was waiting for the cart to return to collect coffee we had picked that day on Kirawa. An old Kikuyu, Waweru, was holding the company enthralled by a story he was telling. I had been counting money and had not been listening so I asked him to start again. He recounted the story of how in the year of the great famine, the year the Government came - miaka ya Serkali - which I took to be about 1897, the Masai came raiding from Dagoretti. He with other members of the Kikuyu warrior age group retreated and came along the ridge where we were now sitting. When the Masai retreated from their raid the Kikuyu attacked from the flank, "...the men we killed and the women, as was the custom then, had their right hands cut off. Ai! Ai!.... That is where it happened" he said, pointing to the ridge on Kirime Kinwe where I had seen the skulls as a small boy. Perhaps that was the last Masai raid.
In 1913 Madge Paten from St Albans came out to East Africa to join the staff of the Scott Sanatorium. She married Douglas Cooper the following year. In the book "Jubilant My Feet" by Elisabeth Church, my Father and Mother were described thus 'Old Douglas Cooper owned the nearest coffee estate to the mission. Upright, deeply respected, fair and strict, he filled us with awe. Mrs Cooper had been one of the earliest 'masseuses' ever to qualify, her long skirts swept the ground, her white hair crowned a lovely face full of humour and kindness."
Almost immediately the 1914 war broke out. My Father, who was then nearly 40 and because of his health, never very robust, found himself turned down for military service. Instead he took over and ran the farms for Taylor, Bampfylde and De La Pasteure. He spoke an odd mixture of Swahili and Kikuyu. He used to get his leg pulled quietly at times about his language but he was held in considerable respect and even affection by many, especially the older Kikuyu.
His personal servant, Kanio, was cook and major domo whose word amongst African staff and labour was law. When my Father and Mother went on safari fishing or whatever, Kanio would have tents and everything laid out and inspected. He would supervise everything even to getting porters where necessary. When my Sister and I were young we had an Irish nanny for a while who could be rather beastly at times. When our parents were out Kanio would sit guard, watching over us until the nanny got fed up and gave notice. When my Father died in 1936 Kanio retired to the land that had been bought for him in the Kikuyu Reserve. However, when war broke out in 1939 and I was called up for service in the K.A.R., Kanio turned up and informed me that he was coming as my servant because I was the son of my Father. His age was acknowledged by the men of my platoon of the 3 K.A.R. My Company Commander, though, considered this bad for military discipline and had Kanio medically examined. He was old but in good health except for loss of teeth. He was deemed medically unfit. He was very angry and, standing before the Company Commander, demanded to know whether he was expected to eat Italians. He had to go but appointed a young Mkamba in his place who remained with me for the next five years and who, I realised, had orders which were not always mine. Kanio was indomitably protective. When the Mau Mau troubles broke out, once again he returned to Kirawa, this time to keep an eye on my Mother.
For many years at Kirawa there was a Post Boy called Njau. In a white shuka with a kikapu (basket) on a stick over his shoulder he would call at the house first thing in the morning to receive letters for the post or for delivery to shops or the Bank and receive a shopping list from my Mother. He would walk in to Nairobi where he would do the shopping. He would visit the Bank and cash a cheque for the wages and then walk back to Kirawa. In all the years he did this he was never molested and never a cent went amiss. I can think of many other stories of a like nature to illustrate the sense of understanding and trust that existed between many of the old settlers and the Africans who served and worked for them.
In Mrs Church's book mentioned above, she goes on the describe some her own impressions of a few of the other people in Kabete:
"Other European neighbours were Miss Lovibond and Miss Olive Collyer, both keen horticulturists who must have cut a dash in the pre-first world war days when it needed an exceptionally adventurous spirit to leave the security of Edwardian England to make their lives in a raw untamed 'colony'.
There was Major Charles Taylor and his lovely gentle wife Kit...I think Kit soon summed me up and I look back with gratitude for her many words of wisdom. She quietly challenged my hasty unthought-out opinions helping me to realise that missionaries did not have a monopoly of understanding of the African."
This chapter has only offered a flavour, a mere whiff, of how one small group of Kenya settlers lived and what they were like. To some it may be disappointingly prosaic but it seems to me important to draw a different and I hope more accurate picture of the Kenya settlers before legend takes hold.
20 JUNE 1997. Kit Taylor told me the story that the Kabete church 'belonged' to Kiambu. For some reason it was mooted that Kabete should join the Church of St Marks, Parklands. At a meeting the church members became very heated, so heated indeed that, to Kit's astonishment, her husband, Charles left his seat in the hall, took over the chair and said. "Who wants to remain in the Kiambu Parish? ... (barely a hesitation) passed unanimously. Meeting closed."
As the meeting broke up the vicar of St Marks Parklands walk away, shoulders bowed, clearly in great distress and disappointment. Aunt Olive ran after him and put her arm round his shoulder, "Mr Carlisle, Mr Carlisle we do like you most awfully. Its just that we have always belonged to Kiambu."
Back to Table of Contents | Back to Articles | Chapter 19