The story of Lord Delamere and his pursuit of pre-independent Kenya

By Amos Kareithi

When the irresistible beauty of Africa’s warm sun and her intriguing dense forests teeming with wildlife casts a spell, it leaves a nature lover breathless in desire. This has happened to some aristocrats who have gambled away their future and titles in Europe to forever bathe in the infectious warmth. Back in the day when little of Africa, her land and its people was known to Europeans, some aristocrats were notorious for forfeiting their inheritance and spending the rest of their lives in carefree hunting and merry making.

The dramatic entry of Hugh Cholmondeley, one of Kenya’s most colourful pioneers who started off as a hunter then turned into an agricultural expert and also doubled as a politician, policy maker and soldier captures the enterprising souls whose undertakings still have a bearing on our lives, a century later.

Even before he ventured into what was then referred to as British East African Protectorate that later became the Kenya colony, Cholmondeley, famously known as Lord Delamere had never led a dull life.

 Entranced by Africa

He came from a titled family whose ancestors were accustomed to large swathes of land, and money was never a problem. In fact, the first baron of the Delamere estate, Thomas Hugh Chomondeley, who lived between 1767-1855, had literally bought the title, according to Matthew Firestone, Stuart Buttler Paula Hardy and Adam Kartin in their book, Kenya, explain that he bought the title from the British Crown at an overpriced figure of 5,000 pounds; which to the prevailing economic standards today is about 2 million pounds or about Sh260 million!

Even then there was a feeling that the title had been overpriced. But the purchaser of the title had no problem forking out the money to outbid two other gentlemen who were also chasing the title whose monetary value stood at 1,200 sterling pounds. This was the price the Lord had to pay to own thousands of acres of forested land in Chesire, England.

When the grand old man passed on, he left his heir; the second baron to contend with the overspending that almost ruined the estate, according to a research being conducted by some scholars in England.

And when the third baron inherited the title, he was only 17, and decided to abandon his dream of pursuing a career in the army so as to manage the family estate. Whatever grand plans he had evaporated like the morning dew at the onset of the sun, as soon as he learnt about Africa and the hunting prospects it presented.

Charles Miller in his epic book, The Lunatic Express, recounts how Delamere was entranced by Africa when he first set foot on Africa in what was then known as British Somaliland where he had come to hunt lions.

Apparently, although Delamere loved Africa, its sun made him sick, going by accounts given by a trustee who said: “I am giving you my honest considered opinion that Delamere cannot stand the sun. Some men simply cannot. On several occasions he has been made sick by the sun.”

Gather museum specimen

Lord Delamere nevertheless made four more trips to British Somaliland where on one occurrence he was nearly mauled to death by a lion and had to spend five days tittering on the brink of death, sheltered from the punishing sun by thorn trees.

His mother was quite concerned about Delamere’s exploits and voiced her worries in 1896, prompting his mother, according to Miller to voice her concern. Ironically, when he first set foot in Kenya, he was not on a mission to acquire land.

His mission at the time was to gather some specimen for museums back home and had chosen to follow a route from Ethiopia that at the time had only been followed by four white men.

After trekking for almost a month, Delamere and his party were rudely shocked when after miraculously evading being killed by hostile Africans he was almost thrown out when his own countrymen sighted him near Lake Baringo in November 1897.

“Sir, please take note that you are now on British soil.

Honeymoon in Kenya

Any act of aggression on your part will be resisted,” read a letter he was presented by a runner dispatched by an illiterate James Martin who was a caravan master for Imperial British East Africa Company (IBEA).

Despite this rude reception, Delamere easily convinced the worried IBEA administrator who was quelling a mutiny that he had no ill motive. He also fell in love with the land.

He would later spend his seven-month honeymoon in Kenya and ultimately migrate to the country in January 1903, although he was destined to spend 10 months bedridden in Nairobi after an accident while hunting in Athi plains.

Not used to doing things in half measures, Delamere was allocated 100,000 acres in his Njoro Ranch that he called Equator Ranch.

He was supposed to pay the Government 200 sterling pounds per year for all that land although he was expected to invest 5,000 pounds in five years.

Judy Aldrick in her book, Northrup, The Life of William Northrup McMillan, writes about what some people thought about Delamere when he applied for the 100,000 acres.

Like his grandfather who had purchased a title from England crown by selling part of the estate, Kenya’s grandest land owner set about creating a dynasty by disposing off family property in Chesire.

There are reports that as he went on a spending spree with his sister, Sybill, who solely depended on a monthly allowance from the estate was so heart broken at the prospect of being a destitute that she committed suicide in 1911.

He arrived on Equator Ranch on a stretcher where 6,500 sheep, some of them imported from New Zealand awaited his attention. A further 1,500 cattle were also roaming the wild in Equator Ranch awaiting word from their master.

By the end of the year, 400 of the 500 merino sheep would be decimated by Pleura Pneumonia that had apparently been spread by 1,000 oxen he had bought from Nyanza.

Miller explains that Delamere was the author of these misfortunes as he had unwittingly chosen pastures rarely used by the Maasai who knew that they were deficient in iron. This was one of the causes of the high death rate of his livestock.

Further, he had to contend with cattle rustlers who persistently raided his ranch and made away with some of the animals that overcame diseases.

Despite his tribulations, Delamere was not a man who gave up easily for he established a modern dairy plant farm at Equator Ranch, which started supplying the whole country with butter and other products although it was led to waste by East Coast Fever.

The remaining animals were to later relocate to the 50,000-acre Sosyambu Ranch as Delamere who in six years had injected 40,000 Sterling pounds in Equator Ranch was heavily indebted, ultimately sinking his Vale Royal Estate in Chesire London into receivership owing to an outstanding loan of 17,000 sterling pounds.

Despite his misfortunes, the aristocrat immersed himself into hard work, waking up at 4am only to return home at 3pm to have his lunch as he tried to balance his delicate books of accounts.

He was a cantankerous man whose hobbies included vandalism, as he would organise rugby matches in his brand; at times inviting his guests at the hotel he had built to break all panes, and later gladly foot the repair bill.

Pioneer white settlers

Even as his livestock succumbed to disease, Delamere gambled more of his dwindling fortunes in wheat, barley and potato farming.

He also experimented with oranges and pig and ostrich farming, although the latter was to completely fail him.

Delamere was instrumental in encouraging colonialists to migrate to Kenya and occupy most of the land they perceived to be ownerless, as he would often travel back to his homeland to entice farmers to come.

He liberally gave away Kenya’s prime land as he printed brochures that were circulated in England, promising many more from Lacanshire or Chesire 640 acres of land if they took up his offer. The result was an influx of 200 settlers who would later make the core of the pioneer white settlers who wanted Kenya to be exclusively a white man’s country and would later dominate the proceedings in Kenya colony.

Although he had a soft spot for the Maasai, Elspeth Huxley, who authored Delemare’s biography: Lord Delamere and the Making of Kenya, describes him as a man who believed in the superiority of the white race.

He was of the opinion that the fate of Kenya could not be left to “untutored tribesmen clothed in sheep’s fat, who drank warm blood from the throats of living cattle and believed that rainfall depended on the arrangement of a goat’s intestines.”

Delamere, the pioneer farmer was also notoriously racist and had a warped sense of humour as he was fabled to ride his horse right over the banquet tables at Norfolk.

He also agitated for the banning of further migration of Indians into the Kenya colony in the 1920s and led violent protests when in the 1920s the Asians demanded political representation and a piece of the White Highlands.

Despite his antics that endeared him to other colonists and made Africans and Asians to loathe him immensely, Lord Delamere’s pursuits at the turn of the century continue to resonate more than 100 years later: for although he gambled away his estate in England, his agricultural ventures in Kenya paid off.

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