By Amos Kareithi
The passage of time washes away memories, reducing victims of atrocities into inanimate statistics. When this happens, the perpetrators are tempted to believe that their past deeds can be wished away and forgotten. But truth has an uncanny habit of popping out during the most unlikely times, enacting the brutality with even more intensity.
History too has a tendency of echoing this past so loudly that not even the most soundproof walls can drown it.
More than a century ago, a military officer, working on behalf of His Majesty’s Government combed the breadth and length of Kenya unleashing terror.
Power of life
- 1 Governors ‘to pursue’ justice for Talai clan
- 2 Veterans of Nandi resistance to Britain seek compensation
- 3 The final disrespects of villains, heroes
The officer had the power of life and death, as he ably demonstrated to the African villages he passed through. Although at the time the Africans had no legal recourse or any way of documenting some of the atrocities meted out on them, posterity has to rely on the meticulously recorded daily logs maintained by the ‘evil genius.’
Thanks to Richard Meinertzhagen’s penmanship, the world can piece together how he and other British troops “introduced law and order” by brutalising all those who opposed them.
Although Meinertzhagen lived and worked in Kenya in 1905, leading punitive expedition all over the country, echoes of his actions are engraved in his book, The Kenya Diary (1905-1906).
During his lifetime, Meinertzhagen was celebrated as a fine soldier, but a reading of his book brings to life some of the horrors Africans that had an encounter with him went through.
Although the soldier credited with crushing the Nandi uprising by killing Koitalel Arap Samoei pretended to be a gentleman, he comes out as a sadistic man.
On October 16, 1905, Meinertzhagen writes how a Nandi man whose name he does not give, allegedly left three of his daughters under his care.
According to Mertzahagen’s account, the girl’s’ mother had died and the girls had been occasionally sent to deliver eggs, milk and vegetables.
When these daughters of his “friend were taken to him, the soldier decided to exploit their labour and would occasionally beat them up.
”The first things they asked for was clothes but I refused and they do their work in native kit. I make them sleep in my house,” he explained.
Of course the presence of the girls had fuelled some rumours about Meinertzhagen taking advantage of the sexually, which he denied. Using his famous camera, he made the bare-chested maids pose for him and used the pictures for his book.
Meinertzhagen writes how he relished whipping the three girls whenever they did something inappropriate although he lied to their father that he could not bring himself to beating a woman, as this was unacceptable back home.
Once, he went in pursuit of Nandi warriors on a mission, which kept him away from his house at the fort for some days. When he returned on November 8, 1905, he found that another white man, Unwin had already occupied his house and his bed.
Meinertzhagen recalls,“he calmly established himself in my house and he had not only slept in my bed in my absence but he had made immoral advances to my servants.
I gave him 10 minutes to clear out.” At the time it was not unusual for a white man to take advantage of his position to engage in immoral activities with local girls who were working for them for no pay.
One such man was Mayes, a distressed seaman who had been recruited as a soldier after a mutiny broke out in Uganda and was later retained as a transport officer. Apparently, Mayes was married to Sally, a Mauritius born Creole, woman Meirnertzhagen described as dirty looking.
Sally had been abandoned in Mauritius by the fun loving Mayes who established a harem of where he was entertained by half a dozen of concubines he kept at Nandi fort.
The jilted wife made desperate attempts to trace Mayes and finally succeeded when she landed unannounced at his doorstep to interrupt a party that was going on. Predictably, she scuttled the merry making to the distress of Mayes and amusement of other white men.
Besides partying with local girls, the white men traversed across Nandi land seizing whatever animal they could land their hands on. Those who resisted the seizing of their animals were shot and killed.
On one occasion, the whites that claimed they were on a punitive expedition seized 10,000 head of cattle and 70,000 sheep and goats. As if this was not enough a total of 500 Nandi warriors were killed, forcing an entire community to sue for peace.
At times even the brutal soldiers sympathised with the locals and defied orders to attack and seize the animals of residents in Nyanza. Merinertzhagen claims he defied orders to attack the residents of Kavirondo whom the British administrators claimed were unfriendly.
He writes,“The headquarters seem obsessed with the idea that the Kavirondo are unfriendly to us. They wish us to enter their country and commence operations against them.”
This he believed was just an excuse for the administrators to grab their cattle using whatever excuses they could fabricate. Although Meritzhagen tried to cover up his inequities the truth is popping up 115 years later. He has been exposed as a liar, thief and murderer in an article written by James Parry for Sunday Express.
In Parry’s expose, Meinertzhagen came out as a killer and liar who even falsified other people’s work to emerge as an authority in Ornithology (the study of birds).
Although he created an image of a knowledgeable gentleman whose word was taken, as authority in many fields, there appears to be evidence that the world had just accorded him blind faith.
“So well regarded was he as a public figure that his observations were taken on trust and entered unquestioningly into the natural history records.
“His status as a protagonist in some of the most important chapters of 20th-century history remained equally uncontested even after his death in 1967.”
However, Parry notes there is now compelling evidence that Meinertzhagen was a killer and a thief and that his versions of certain events were grossly exaggerated and fictitious.
This casts doubt on his wife’s death. Although it is clear that Meirntzhagen was a deluded fantasist and a scheming as well as a manipulative fraudster.
Meinertzhagen who was a master at blowing his own trumpet mesmerised the world when he claimed he had managed to meet Adolf Hitler a record three times.
He was so brave he later claimed that when Hitler saluted him with the standard “heil Hitler, he cheekily responded with heil Meinertzhagen!”
In one of the alleged meetings, Meinertzhagen claimed he had hidden a gun into Hitler’s office but spectacularly failed to assassinate him.
It was later discovered that during the times he claimed to meet the German dictator, Hitler was not in Berlin, meaning the meetings never took place.
Knack for lying
His knack for lying is aptly demonstrated by the stories and discoveries he fabricated about birds, which were later, entered in books and journals.
Apparently, even thieves and fraudsters are at times philanthropic for Meinterzhagen donated 20,000-bird specimen to the British Museum.
However, when the specimens were subjected to some tests, scientists were scandalised to learn he had actually donated stolen property.
The specimens, it turned out had been stolen from other collections and carefully relabelled so as to hoodwink the world they were Meinertzhagen’s.
The soldier had gone to an extent of fabricating stories of how and where they had been shot. According to the Daily Express Meritzhagen’s ornithological deception is still being unravelled.
It is believed that when his world started falling apart and some of the lies he had documented became evident, his wife threatened to expose him.
This some observers believe could have motivated him to kill his wife in cold blood and later claim that her gun had accidentally gone off, blasting her life away in July 1928. As a result of his deception, some birds believed to be extinct, going by his doctored records showing their locations, have been discovered to be alive.
Despite all these lies truth had a way of catching up with Merinertzhagen. He also had a way of confronting his pasty when it popped out.
He vividly describes how he came face to face with his bloody past more than 50 years after he killed Koitalel. He claims that when he visited Nandi Fort in 1956 where a party of about 25 Africans received him and were introduced, one at a time.
“When we arrived at the final chief, a young man Elijah (the chief) to my horror said: ‘this is the gentleman who shot your grandfather,’ Meinertzhagen writes. To this he could only muster under his breath” I hope you will forgive an act of war.”