The British Empire Library

The Wild Colonial Boy

by Roy Farran

Courtesy of OSPA

Review by Tony Bagnall Smith
This is a rare tale of dogged determination on the part of a modest young man deep in Central Africa: a brief part-biography engagingly written in an autobiographical style.

Roy Farran, The Wild Colonial Boy’s famous brother, has done more than justice to the fascinating trek Kim made across Northern Rhodesia, with nearly a thousand head of cattle, in 1955. He manages to make the reader feel he is travelling with Kim himself, rather than following a journey penned by an outside chronicler. It is a considerable achievement and makes the pleasure of reading about this adventure all the keener.

When I was asked to undertake this review, I had many misgivings: I had spent precisely nine days in Zambia since leaving Livingstone in 1932, aged seven; also I am no veterinarian and had never trekked the bush. But, after only a few pages, I began to be struck by the number of extraordinary similarities between my own father’s career in Northern Rhodesia and that of Kit Farran. John Smith had been employed in 1913, by the British South Africa Company, to go to Livingstone to take charge of ninety-four pedigree bulls sent out to improve the Africans’ stock. He detrained them at Maramba Camp and, in due course, sent them across N.R. In 1920 he became Head of Veterinary Services and realised his dream of creating Mazabuka Research Station. In 1997, I had written up my father's story in Vet in Africa (see Review in No.74 p.68). So perhaps I was a suitable reviewer after all.

Keith Derek Farran was, his older brother writes, ‘a difficult boy to handle’ and there is no concealing the fact that Kit often found authority irksome. I suspect he ‘did not suffer those HE thought fools gladly’; but the colonies were, for a hundred and fifty years, staffed by many with not dissimilar attitudes. Roy Farran’s brief but pointed Introduction deserves to be taken to heart by many who, largely through ignorance, speak ill of our whole colonial history.

Kit’s youth was strewn with problems and tragedies, touchingly related before this story starts on 19 December 1949, when Dr John Hobday suddenly hired him, in Mazabuka, into the Colonial Service.

As we experience the great trek with Kim, his loyal African assistants, and their herd of almost one thousand cattle we enjoy a virtual travelogue of information on the countryside we all pass through. The grasses, trees, landscape and weather are faithfully explained as are the villages and tribes through which the cavalcade progresses. We are held enthralled by the sheer audacity of driving hundreds of four-legged beasts over high, swaying, single-width suspension bridges and we almost wince, with our hero, at the sores on his feet as, astonishingly I have to say, he chooses to walk, sometimes for eighteen miles a day, in bare feet.

If Kim is our hero then Mary, the ‘cow with the crumpled horn’, is the heroine: without her I fancy this story might well have been very different. Through his handling of this plucky little cow we come to recognise what a natural cattle-man Kim was.

Those who believe all African stories should contain near-encounters with just about every wild animal in the book will not be disappointed: they are all here, calmly tackled and even more calmly recounted.

I enjoyed every page of Roy Farran’s touching tribute to his brother; those with a more recent and intimate knowledge of the times and the places will, I am confident, revel in them.

British Empire Book
Roy Farran
Caedman of Whitby


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