Elizabeth Watkins has done it again. She has illuminated another phase of Kenya's
Colonial history with a lucid biography. First it was Whitehouse, now it is her father,
I first read of Oscar Watkins in Geoffrey Hodges' Kariakor. the Carrier Corps. the Story of the Military Labour Forces in the Conquest of German East Africa, 1914-1918. His role in protecting the health and interests of the unfortunate porters who
struggled through Tanganyika was legendary. Some were still alive in Embu in the
1950s and I heard their tales of toil and deprivation. Their memorial stands in the centre
of Nairobi today: one of three fine figures on a plinth.
Oscar was a creature of his time. Like many others he volunteered to fight in the Boer
War and later entered the Colonial Service in Kenya. There are so many links, both official
and settler, between South Africa and Kenya in the first decade of this century. But he
was not a conformist. He believed in revealing the facts in a culture that was given to
confidentiality. And he was not given to propitiating his seniors.
The description 'too cerebral to be popular' tells so much of Oscar and of the Colonial
Service. Kenya was run on a shoestring. The early Governors were mostly mediocre and
believed in keeping the settlers sweet. Sir Percy Girouard was one of the better ones. But
he had little influence over personnel policy. It must have been wrong for young Oscar
to have seven stations in fifteen months.
Oscar just did not fit in; he was not a team player. He was side-lined into the
Education Department. As African Industries Officer, a non-job to keep him out of
mischief, Oscar toured the country looking for new development potential. He was soon
so senior that promotion could no longer be denied to him. So he was offered the residency
of Swaziland which he refused.
Both Oscar and his wife fell foul of the powers-that-be. She had stood as a candidate
for the Legislative Council in support of the small farmers against the large estates and
lost narrowly. The Secretary of State noted on Oscar's file: "Mrs Watkins would be of
great value if they would only try to use her instead of repressing the irrepressible''.
Eventually Oscar returned to the Administration to act as Provincial Commissioner in
Mombasa and substantively to Eldoret and Ngong. He had sacrificed his career to his
So much for the biographical detail. Elizabeth Watkins deftly outlines the big issues
of Kenya politics; farm labour, land tenure and the crucial Morris Carter Commission,
the development of local councils and rising dissidence among the Kikuyu. It is a full
story, well told. And it is good to recall that 'Wispers', Oscar's home near Muthaiga, is
still lived in by his family.