The British Empire Library

Northrup The Life Of William Northrup McMillan

by Judy Aldrick

Courtesy of OSPA

Peter Fullerton (Kenya 1953-62)
William Northrup McMillan (1872-1925) was an American millionaire who went to Kenya on a hunting expedition in 1904. He was captivated by that new country, stayed and became one of the leading Settlers in Kenya.

Initially, he created a huge hunting estate around the 01 Donyo Sabuk mountain near the Athi River in what later became Machakos District. It is now one of Kenya's National Parks. Over his lifetime, he poured his large fortune and enthusiasm into his adopted country, backing new business ventures of every kind and giving large sums to promote educational and other public services in Kenya. During World War I he became a British citizen and received a knighthood for his wartime services.

Northrup was born in Missouri. The McMillans were a Scottish family who had built up a vast business in the late 19th century manufacturing freight wagons for the American rail industry. Northrup was an only son, and inherited an enormous income from the family business. But he chose not to manage the corporation and became fascinated by exploration in Africa. He admired and later met Frederick Selous, the great explorer and hunter of that time in East Africa. He funded and mounted an expedition to Abyssinia to explore the Blue Nile, in the style of Stanley's journey down the Congo, but the expedition ended in disaster with wreckage of the boats. Northrup went on to Kenya to hunt big game, in particular lions, then regarded by hunters as prize sporting trophies.

Nairobi at that time (1904), as a result of the recent completion of the Uganda Railway, had grown into a town that reminded Northrup of his own mid-western upbringing. Conditions were ideal for a man like him, adventurous, wealthy and willing to invest. He acquired the 01 Donyo Sabuk property on which he built a luxurious hunting lodge in which he generously entertained VIP hunting parties, including ex-President Theodore Roosevelt on his prestigious Africa safari.

Northrup then bought Chiromo, said to have been the finest house in Nairobi, from Col. Ewart Grogan and made it his family home. (The house still stands and the estate now forms part of the campus of Nairobi University). Grogan was a man of similar age, wealth and entrepreneurship and was at that time the leader of the Kenya Settlers of whom there were already about 500. They have famously been described as in three categories - Aristocrats, South Africans and Eccentrics. Aldrick comments: "Northrup, the American Big Game Hunter, Gentleman Buccaneer and Philanthropist with money to burn, did not quite fit into any of these categories. He was a one-off, but a prominent member of that early pioneering group, whose input was so important in shaping the future of Kenya".

When World War I broke out in Europe, the Kenya Settlers under Grogan formed a battalion of The Royal Fusiliers, aka "The League of Empire Loyalists". Northrup took British citizenship and joined them. He served as a Captain in the arduous campaign against General Von Lettow-Vorbeck's army in Tanganyika. Later he became, together with Lord Delamere and Grogan, a member of the Governor's War Council and was knighted in 1918 for his services. In 1920 he was elected as a member of the first Legislative Council in Kenya. He worked not only for the benefit of his white settler constituents in Machakos but also for the advancement of Africans through the founding and funding of the Kabete Training School for Artisans and the Kabete School for Teachers.

This book is an enjoyable read not just as a biography of an extraordinary larger than life character (he was a man of 6 foot 3 and twenty stone) but also for its keen eyed description of the influential and much maligned White Settlers in Kenya's early days. Judy Aldrick (who lived in Kenya for over 20 years) has successfully rescued from obscurity Northrup's reputation as a pioneering entrepreneur and philanthropist and shown him to have been one of the giants of that era. He is otherwise remembered today for the McMillan Memorial Library, a fine neo-classical building in Nairobi, founded in his name by his widow Lucie, and opened in 1931 six years after his death. His grave is at the top of Ol Donyo Sabuk.

British Empire Book
Judy Aldrick
Old Africa Books
978 9 9667 5700 5


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