The British Empire Library

Kenya's Northern Frontier and Far Beyond

by Hugh Walker

Hugh Walker has written an illustrated autobiography of his remarkable life. One can hardly conceive of a less propitious start to life as that which befell the author. Indeed he was one of three illegitimate children of a Welsh Nurse whose story has all the hallmarks of the Brief Encounter storyline with the equally unfulfilling conclusion to those involved. The young child ended up in a home for unwanted children in the early 1930s when the prospects for such children were not good. Fortunately, the young Peter Rogers (which was his real name) was adopted by two well meaning elderly spinsters, renamed as Hugh Walker and joined a family that seems to have been forever consigned to the history books. As the author relates, the spinsters were very much a product of an era that had too many women and not enough men due to the Great War. They had also grown up in a privileged, imperial family and had spent time out in the Raj with their soldier brothers and their vocabulary and manners reflected very much a late Victorian/Edwardian mindset. This did not necessarily mean it was totally conservative in outlook. When war broke out, Hugh and his aunt evacuated from Kent to the Lake District and ended up staying with various artist friends with their own cosmopolitan outlook on life or as much as one can muster during a global war. It appears that the natural landscape and open spaces suited young Hugh and they stayed with him even as he was packed off to public school.

Hugh was too young to fight in the war, but he was not too young to miss the re-introduction of National Service from 1947. He had not done particularly well at school with the important exception of showing an aptitude for languages. Consequently, the technical regiments were not interested in young Hugh, but when he saw an opportunity to join the Somaliland Scouts as a national serviceman he seized it and started his love affair with Africa. It was interesting to read that one of his jobs as a young serviceman in East Africa was to guard American oil surveyors. It is always fascinating to find these unusual connections that slip through the history books - no doubt these prospectors were connected to trying to make the economy self-sufficient and as part of someone's development plan for the region. Hugh's propensity for languages served him well in Somaliland and encouraged him to apply to the Colonial Service as his National Service days drew to an end. The 1950s was the high water mark of efforts to develop British colonies in general and African ones in particular. Hugh had expected to be sent back to Somaliland after his training, but ended up being sent to Kenya instead, just as the Mau Mau uprising began in earnest.

Cheshire Yeomanry (Earl or Chester’s)
Fort Hall Kenya
He was initially posted to to an area largely inhabited by the Maasai who seem to have captivated the hearts of so many who lived and worked amongst them. There was a lovely quote he gives on the reality of trying to work in the region: "I spent much of my time attempting to mobilise almost-naked warriors to hunt down Mau Mau gangs in the area. Unfortunately, they seemed far more interested in eating meat, looking for honey and sleeping with girls". Sentences like this instantly transport you through history and give the kind of perspective that you could never hope to learn from a history book. Another interesting anecdote was when he had to read the Riot Act out in Swahili when a local strike seemed it might get out of hand. District Commissioners had such a variety of roles to play, including those of local magistrate who has to follow the law scrupulously and this would have included reading out the Riot Act in an appropriate language that the listeners could understand. The fact that they dispersed proves that the rule of law could and was upheld. Interestingly, Hugh Walker makes a point of explaining that he knew absolutely nothing about the mistreatment of any prisoners during the Mau Mau period which has been alleged by subsequent historians.

Cheshire Yeomanry (Earl or Chester’s)
The mechanics of the job of District Commissioners is very interesting to read too. One of their key roles was to fly the flag and be seen and be available to peoples who could be spread out over a huge area and in often inhospitable terrain. The fact that it was a requirement that DCs had to be out 'on safari' at least 10 days every month and had to travel at least 100 miles shows just how much they were expected to administer, dispense justice, listen to petitions and get to understand the local population and their concerns. In many ways this sounds far more responsive than almost any other form of government administration in these places have ever had since - and I'd even say more so than here in Britain also. Not that this kind of connection could not be manipulated by authorities if it suited them. Hugh explains how he felt somewhat betrayed when he had encouraged many in Mandera to participate in a referendum to choose if they wished to join with Somalia or remain as part of Kenya. The vast majority chose the former but as Kenya hurtled towards independence it was clear that the new country was not keen on ceding territory at the birth of their new nation. Consequently, District Commissioners like Hugh were requested to go back out amongst those populations explain why their votes had not been honoured and that they should stay loyal to the new nation being created. It obviously caused Hugh much angst and also physical danger as separatists sought to murder government officials (and did indeed kill people Hugh knew) in order to reverse this policy choice by the new Kenyan government. This danger and disillusionment saw Hugh resign from the newly created Kenyan Civil Service and head over to the new imperial trouble spot of Aden. Literally a case of out of the frying pan and into the fire!

The political realities of the new posting were revealed to Hugh on his very first night in his first posting when welcoming pot shots were taken at his residence. In reality though, in Aden there was no simple fight between anti-imperialists and British forces. Rather there were complex forces vying for power over one another. Egyptian backed guerillas vied with traditional leaders who fought tribal rivals who fought various Islamic sects and so on and so forth over ill defined borders with weapons provided by skilled traders. And the concerns of the wide open spaces of the Western Aden Protectorate were very different from those in the cosmopolitan port of Aden itself. Hugh's new job as a Policial Officer was to try and maintain law and order between the various factions in his territory. Once again the basic infrastructure meant that Hugh had to rely on the humble camel to negotiate with the various leaders although often in even more inhospitable terrain than he had been used to back in Africa. It is interesting to note that in one such memorable mission, he did indeed resolve an issue between two warring tribes only for his replacement to have been accidentally caught up in a vicious assassination attempt by one of the Sultans he had been working with who had tried to kill his own State Secretary by placing a bomb in an aeroplane that he had hoped would explode over the sea and so leave no trace. The bomb did go off, but over land so allowing investigators to uncover this cowardly attack and for the Hugh to appreciate just how close he had come himself to being a victim of the complex politics of the region. After this event, the author did go on to work as the personal secretary of the much praised Sir Richard Turnbull, but alas there is little elaboration as to what his role was there in what must have been a fascinating job at the heart of the decolonisation process in Aden. This is a topic that is still dear to so many historians and so his insight would have been invaluable. Even the most mundane of observations by participants can provide fascinating insights to researchers.

After Aden, Hugh temporarily left the Colonial Service but found one way to continue his public service life with through the BBC and their the Somali Service. Living in London was quite a culture shock after his years in East Africa and Arabia. The call back to the Colonial Service though came in the 1970s when he revisited one of his earliest jobs as a District Officer, although not in Africa, but in Hong Kong. Even someone talented at languages still has to have studied them somewhat and so he found the practicalities of trying to serve the local population harder than it needed to be for someone not so conversant in Cantonese and so he transferred to secretariat jobs instead. Again, this is an area that is not covered well in the literature and would have been invaluable to have been expounded upon. Hong Kong did though see a remarkable personal development as his original birth family managed to track him down whilst he lived there. Now as someone whose own mother was separated from her siblings at birth and who were all reunited later in life, it was fascinating to read how this reunion unfolded with his sisters and their families and even meeting his own birth mother. Although the story moved away from its colonial focus, it very much revealed the human dimensions that make everyone's lives so fascinating at heart - no matter how much or how little globe trotting they do en route. There is an equally interesting love story that results in marriage and retirement to Dorset and a well earned rest for the well travelled colonial officer in a world with no more British colonies. The author is not apologetic in the slightest, and nor should he be, about the benefits of colonialism. Hugh lived and worked in the dying days of Empire when the Colonial Office was genuinely trying to improve the lives of the populations under its control and prepare them for independence. In Hugh's own words, his job was really "getting to know the locals and attempting to help them find ways to resolve problems..." This idea of public service on a global scale is sadly one that has become foreign to too many of us in the modern world. Colonial officers like Hugh were genuine advocates for the people they had been tasked to help. They did not always have the resources or even the expertise to do everything they wanted to do, but they tried as best they could within the constraints laid down by others and the laws set down in black and white. And when one considers that Hugh's own life had started so unpromisingly, it illustrates that the British Empire could provide remarkable opportunities, unprecedentedly diverse workplace locations and fulfilling careers for those who wished to take them up. It is so important that we record their exploits for future generations to understand and appreciate in memoirs like this one.

British Empire Book
Hugh Walker MBE
Story Terrace


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by Stephen Luscombe