British Empire Article

Contributed by Mervyn Maciel

by Mervyn Maciel
Uncle Gerald Reece of Kenya's N.F.D.
Gerald Reece
There is one individual, a legendary character of the former N.F.D., (Kenya's Northern Frontier Province), about whom I've always wanted to write. Not having met or served under him, I have had to rely heavily on the evidence of others in putting together this article.

The man I am referring to is none other than Sir Gerald Reece, known affectionately among his officers as "Uncle Reece", and amongst the locals as "Bwana Reesi". Once described as "that authority of African desert dwellers", he was well respected by all, yet held in awe by many a junior officer in the province.

Gerald Reece was born in 1897, and saw war service in France and Belgium in 1915. Although he qualified as a Solicitor after being demobbed, and practised in London from 1921-1925, he never severed his links with the army.

While he could well have carved a decent career for himself in the legal profession, he felt attracted to the Colonial service, and joined the Kenya Administration in 1925. Being a frontier man at heart, he must have felt the "pull" of the desert early in his service life. He served initially as a D.O. in West Suk and Turkana. From 1932, he was D.C. at Moyale, but two years later in 1934, he was seconded to the Foreign Office as British Consul for Southern Ethiopia at Mega. Here, he had to cope with the influx of refugees who poured in following the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in 1935. A year later, in 1936, he found himself as D.C., Marsabit (a district he dearly loved).

The N.F.D., comprising some 100,000 square miles, was no place for those who were not prepared to rough it out in these pitiless northern deserts. After serving as D.C. in Moyale and Marsabit, he was appointed Officer-in-Charge of the N.F.D. in 1939 following the appointment of his predecessor, Sir Vincent Glenday as Governor of the Somaliland Protectorate. Like Glenday, Reece loved the toughness of frontier life, the arduous foot safaris, and once described the N.F.D. as "a place where real life was to be found, adding that there was "something real and genuine about it all". He also felt that those who, like him, had experienced the hardships of war found "a certain peace in the solitude of the desert"- an aspect of frontier life I readily endorse. A former D.C. once described him as the archetypal frontiersman, impervious to privation and fatigue. He was also a serious man, and more frivolous junior officers sometimes derided his foibles, his slow speech, punctuated by a fuddy-duddy cough and a twitch of the nose to emphasise a point.

He was a hard taskmaster, and expected his officers to work long hours, and to spend at least half of each month on foot safari. And talking of the long hours he expected his staff to work, here is an extract from a letter to me, by my friend and frontier colleague (Francis da Lima) who was, truly speaking, a Personal Secretary to Reece (although designated 'Provincial Clerk' during the colonial era). "In fact, when there was real pressure of work, he would come to the office about 5 p.m., just as I was about to leave- with a hurricane lamp and sandwiches. I had to work on my typewriter until I finished the required job, and then I would be sent home with a .303 rifle-armed Dubas (Frontier Tribal Police) escort, since the area was infested with wild game at night. I never had cause to complain because he was too generous to me."

Gerald Reece was not one to suffer fools gladly, and knowing that those sitting comfortably in their Ivory Towers in the Secretariat or Treasury knew nothing about conditions obtaining in frontier stations - he often fought hard to get them to bend the Rules when it came to dealing with staff privileges etc. In this connection, we, Goans, remain ever grateful for his efforts in trying to improve our living conditions by providing us with free kerosene-operated refrigerators, and also the bare minimum of furniture. (In this connection it is necessary to point out that while the European staff were given the full complement of furniture for which they paid a modest rental, the Goan staff were hitherto allocated "empty" quarters!).

Memoirs of a Frontier Man
Dubas (Frontier Tribal Police)
Though tough in his dealings with his officers, there was also a kinder side to his nature as is evident from yet another extract from Francis da Lima's letter to me - "he was too generous to the poor and needy, and would part with the last penny in his pocket. He always kept in touch with people he had met. I know this from the letters I used to post for him to one Mr. Albuquerque (a Goan clerk) who Sir Gerald first met during his time as a young D.O. in Kachiliba (near Kapenguria.) Realizing how difficult life was for us, Goans, he would invite all Goans and their families to a sundowner at his house, bring out his old His Master's Voice gramophone, and play some favourite waltzes, and dance with our ladies!" I also understand that while he entertained his staff, and expected his officers to do likewise, he never wanted the Goan staff to reciprocate as they were paid far less than the European staff. (During my own time in the frontier, however, I remember that we, the Goan administrative staff always reciprocated, and lavishly too!) Greatly to Sir Gerald's credit must rank his setting up of the Dubas contingent a unique style of frontier tribal police, drawn from the most respected families.

Their uniform included a white Somali robe, a bright red turban, and sandals made from old tyres. Reece regarded the Dubas as sans peur et sans reproche- a truly prestigious force and the pride of every D.C.. When a former D.C. Mandera (my late friend Terence Gavaghan of "Of Lions & Dung Beetles fame), decided to withdraw rifles from the Dubas because two of their number had proved subversive, Reece was enraged and gave the D.C. a piece of his mind. Gavaghan, equally strong in his opinions, fought back and won! Reece never minded his officers 'letting off steam' if they had a good case.

I am sure he, like all frontier men, would have preferred to remain in the N.F.D., but in 1948, he was appointed the first post-war Governor of the Somaliland Protectorate and Military Administrator of the Haud and Reserved areas along the Ethiopian border. Under his Governorship, British Somaliland reverted to Protectorate status. In preparation for independence, he oversaw the Somalization of the Civil Service and Police, and devoted himself to educational and economic development.

What I have never been able to understand is, why such an influential and popular Administrator never wrote his own memoirs even though, in a letter to Francis da Lima in 1984, he had this, inter alia, to say -

"I have been hoping that now that you have more time to spare, you will get down to writing your memoirs. The Goan community played an important part in the development of Kenya in the early days, and records of ordinary life in homes and offices, even if you have not had any exceptionally exciting adventures, are eagerly sought and read nowadays. I am sure your six grandchildren in particular, would greatly like to know how people lived in the Colonies in the past"

And yet, in another letter dated April 1984, to my good friend, the late Monty Brown (of "Where Giants Trod" fame), he wrote -

"My memory is now very bad, and I never was a writer. Nor was I a collector of government papers because I always thought that official papers were the property of HMG for the use of my successor, and that they should not be removed for the purpose of writing memoirs..." Having read some of the reports and Office/Standing Orders to his D.C.s (while I worked at Provincial headquarters in Isiolo), I cannot believe that he "never was a writer". The very opposite seems true - he was a brilliant writer, but perhaps too modest to acknowledge this fact.

Sir Gerald retired in 1953 and he and his wife (Lady Alys Reece) settled in East Lothian, Scotland.

In not seeing any of his work in print, I feel we have been deprived of a valuable slice of Kenya's history from this colourful character, a rare breed of Frontier Administrators for whom I have the greatest respect and admiration.

This said, I am pleased to record that Gerald Reece and his work features extensively in the many books and memoirs by former Administrators, and more particularly in the excellent memoir of his wife (Alys) -"To my wife, 50 camels"

N.B. Although, as I've said earlier, I never had the privilege of meeting this legendary frontiersman, we have now established a close friendship with his daughter, Caroline Pennington (nee Reece)

map of British Empire
1956 Map of N.F.D. Region
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The Unforgettable Dubas of Kenya's Northern Frontier


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