The British Empire Library

The Fannin Papers: The Life And Letters Of Katharine Fannin 1902-1970

by Judy Aldrick

Courtesy of OSPA

Peter Fullerton, (Kenya, 1953-62)
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 Abyssinia.

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 lengthy report.

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.

British Empire Book
Judy Aldrick
Old Africa Books
978 9966 7204 2 9


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