The Fannin Papers is a good read for two reasons. First because it is
the biography of a remarkable woman, Katharine Fannin, who
went to live in Kenya in 1925. She was successively a charity worker, a
government spy in Abyssinia, a wartime military intelligence officer, a
broadcaster and journalist and a campaigner for White Rule in Kenya
where despite her views she lived on, undaunted and pleasantly
surprised, after Independence.
Secondly, it is an excellent short history of the Italian Empire in Abyssinia and
Somaliland under Mussolini and of the British campaigns in World War II to defeat the
Italian army and restore Emperor Haile Selassie to his throne. This is a chapter in
African colonial history and decolonisation which is unknown to most readers.
Katharine Fannin was born in India in 1902 near the Tibetan border where her father
was a tea planter. She was sent home to England, brought up by proverbially horrible
aunts, and went to school in France and a finishing school in Switzerland. At the age of
22 she became engaged to a young doctor in the Tanganyika Medical Service, and sailed
out to marry him bringing all her wedding presents. On board, she met Charles Fannin,
changed her mind and decided to marry him instead. He was married but waiting for a
divorce. She kept the wedding presents and Charles tactfully negotiated her
disengagement from the doctor. It could only have happened in the days of "Are you
married or do you live in Kenya?".
Charles had been a South African Rhodes Scholar, won a MC in the Great War and
then gone to Kenya under the soldier settler scheme. His farm had failed and he started
again in government service as a surveyor. Katharine took a job with the Medical
Department in Nairobi and when Charles' divorce came through they married. They
motored a lot in Kenya and Uganda together, including an adventurous drive from
Nairobi to Mombasa in the year after L.D.Galton-Fenzi had made that journey by car for
the very first time. That safari may have given her the ambition for her later travels in
In 1938 Katharine went on home leave. She planned to go by ship to Mogadishu and
then drive across the Horn of Africa, through Italian Somaliland and Abyssinia, and
catch a ship at Massawa on the Red Sea coast. It was an audacious safari by any count
and do it alone was regarded by her friends as sheer madness. But her plan was to get introductions from the Governor of Kenya to the Italian Governors in Somaliland and
Abyssinia. The administration and the KAR in Kenya were both keen to find out what
was going on in Mussolini's new Empire to the north. Katharine had good qualifications
as a spy. Capable and used to tough motoring safaris, speaking Italian and French, and
with a knowledge of surveys and maps, she seemed the right candidate for intelligence
work. Obstacles were pushed aside and Katharine's mission impossible was organised.
Her 18 day journey through Somaliland, Abyssinia and Eritrea is legendary stuff and
reads like a female El ashman story. Her introductions worked. She was welcomed and
stayed with Italian governors and officers all the way. The Italians were glad to have the
opportunity to show an English visitor what they were achieving in their new colonies
which had pariah status in the world as a ruthless Fascist Empire. They went out of their
way to show her that Abyssinia had been pacified, opposition to their rule was minimal
and massive development work on roads and public buildings was going ahead.
The high point of her journey was her stay with the Viceroy in his palace in Addis.
He was the Duke of Aosta, a cousin of the King, a young and handsome 6'6" Italian
aristocrat who had been educated at Eton and Oxford. Katharine was bowled over, but
the Duke was equally delighted to have an educated English woman as company. He
took her to a grand concert at the Villagio Savoia where she sat in the company of Italian
Marchese and Contessas, and the Consular Corps, in a glittering array of jewels and gold
braid. Her description of the Viceroy's regime is an illustration of the astonishing way in
which the Italians had changed Addis Ababa in a few short years from a conquered tribal
capital into what the Duke of Aosta saw as the new Roman Empire.
Katharine was driven on to Massawa in a Fiat saloon lent by the Duke. Massawa was
the main port for Addis and the capital of Eritrea which had been annexed earlier by
Mussolini. There she boarded a ship to England. She went straight to the Foreign Office
and wrote up a lengthy report. This caused much interest not only in the F.O. but also in
the War Office where even in 1938 the prospect of war with Germany was seen as
potentially leading to an Italian invasion of British colonies in East Africa.
Katharine had decided to return to Kenya overland through Abyssinia. Her return
journey was equally well organised for her by the Italians. She was driven from
Massawa to Addis and stayed with the Viceroy again. He encouraged her to tour the
highland region south of the capital around Lake Tana and Gondar where there was an
Italian soldier-settlement scheme. She then headed back to Kismayu via Mandera on the
Kenya border and managed to call in for lunch with the DC, Bobby Tatton-Brown. From
Kismayu she boarded a ship for Mombasa and returned to Nairobi to write another
She described in detail from her notes and prodigious memory both the political and
military situation with sketch maps of the ports she had seen. She received a grateful
acknowledgement from both the Governor of Kenya and the Foreign Secretary but the
report caused controversy in London. There it was denounced as Italian propaganda by
the Abyssinian Association who were campaigning for liberation from Italian rule and
claiming that there would be a massive uprising against the Italians if there was foreign
intervention against Mussolini.
Katharine's report was unashamedly pro-Italian. She was an ardent imperialist and
took the view that Africa was better off under colonial rule whether it was British or
French or Italian. She had seen how the Italians were transforming Abyssinia from a
country dominated by corrupt war lords into a well-governed colony with Italian settlers
creating a modern economy as was happening in Kenya. But her views in a long letter to
The Times were not accepted in London by the F.O. or public opinion where the
appalling massacres of civilians and the use of mustard gas by the Italians in their
military occupation were unforgiveable.
Katharine spent the early years of the war in Accra where Charles had been posted as
Commissioner of Surveys. She worked for Military Intelligence there and supported the
Free French movement in neighbouring colonies. After the war she and Charles retired
to Mombasa. She became a regular correspondent for the Kenya Weekly News and the
Mombasa Times and an eloquent supporter of Michael Blundell's United Country Party.
We owe it to Judy Aldrick to have rediscovered the amazing life of this talented and
eccentric colonial. The author's research was painstaking and her sources well recorded
in the footnotes. The illustrations are well captioned and the index accurate. A map is
missing and needed by the reader to follow Katharine's travels in Abyssinia. As a
historian, Aldrick is masterly in summarising the British colonial era in Kenya and the
Italian era in Abyssinia. Without being judgmental, she nudges the reader into accepting
that Katharine's views were a product of her times and hopelessly unrealistic.