Richard Meinertzhagen: the diary of a soldier in East Africa

By Mark Nicholson

They say I’m a quarrelsome fellow

God rot it, how can that be?

For I never quarrel with any,

The whole world quarrels with me

The history of the world is mainly about the conquest of peoples by other, usually more numerous, stronger, or better-armed, opponents. All great empires - Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Han, Mongol, Ottoman, Spanish, British, Russian etc. - have taken over land that was not theirs and subjugated or even massacred the original inhabitants. By today’s standards all would be deemed guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity. We all know of the Spanish conquest of Latin America but the conquest of Africa is rarely called by that name mainly because it was a subdivision of a vast continent by at least seven or eight European countries.

Following the Berlin Conference of 1884/5 and the subsequent carve up of Africa by colonial powers, East Africa came under British Administration as the British East Africa Company in 1895. Modern-day Kenya was declared a colony in 1920 and got independence just over four decades later. European ‘administration’ generally meant a Bible in one hand and a gun in the other: quite understandably, the local inhabitants were generally not going to cede their land and surrender their culture and their traditions without a fight.

In spite of his German surname, Richard Meinertzhagen (known as RM) was a true son of the British Empire from a wealthy family in England. After his education at Harrow, he joined the British army as a junior officer in the Royal Fusiliers in Burma and in 1902 he applied for transfer to the King’s African Rifles in East Africa, a regiment that comprised two colonels, an adjutant and a tiny handful of junior officers in their twenties. The soldiers comprised Swahilis from the coast and from the Maasai tribe, warlike pastoralists who had been fighting the dominant agricultural tribe, the Gikuyu (more commonly known as the Kikuyu today) for centuries. Strangely, neither tribe reacted in the way expected of them by early British officials, who anticipated that the Maasai would forcefully oppose British annexation, while little or no resistance was expected from the Gikuyu. Instead, the Maasai actively co-operated with the British and provided levies of untrained warriors that accompanied British punitive expeditions. Although often removed from their traditional lands, the Maasai did not resist the British. By contrast the Gikuyu, far from standing aside as had been expected, opposed the British entry in a series of short engagements, in which they suffered considerable casualties. Soon, however, collaborators began to emerge. 'Chiefs' were created by the British, both sides benefited considerably from the connection. Despite this cooperation, earlier resentments festered, reinforced by the loss of land to European settlers and by the unsettling effects upon tribal life of the proximity of Nairobi and the teaching of the Christian missions. A few decades later the Gikuyu began organized political protest that would lead to independence.

From 1902 until 1906, RM kept a detailed diary of his exploits, his observations and his punitive expeditions against the various tribes that opposed the British administration. RM was clearly a difficult, even arrogant, man and rapidly made enemies of his brother officers within a week of his arrival in Nairobi which he annotates in his diary as "Row No.1" and "Row No.2" .

In April 1903, he writes: “I had a splendid view of Kilimanjaro early this morning. The huge snowfields were clearly visible. It does seem a shame that this wonderful mountain should have been given to Germany. But I do not doubt we shall eventually get it. We seem to get most of what we want - eventually.”

RM was sent out to the bush to ensure obedience to the new administration and to suppress all resistance. No towns existed outside Nairobi which then consisted of one hotel and one shop selling ammunition, tinned food, paraffin and jam. With no roads he roamed the bush often travelling fully armed 20-30 miles a day facing dangerous wildlife and armed tribes. Some of his punitive expeditions were so brutal they would have made Heydrich* proud. After a particularly vile murder of a white trader, RM launched an attack on a Gikuyu village and razed it to the ground, killing every single man and woman, sparing only children. Hundreds were killed. Later on, in another attack, he gave instructions that no woman or child should be harmed. Three of his own soldiers speared a woman and clubbed two children to death. RM shot all three of them, buried the murdered villagers and left his soldiers to the hyaenas and vultures. “The lesson to be taught was discipline….two of the men whom I shot I personally liked”. In March 1904, an attack on the Embu/ Irrryeni left 796 of the “enemy” dead but resulted in their submission to the Government.

RM’s tour in Kenya ended with a personal confrontation with the laibon (ritual leader) of the belligerent Nandi tribe in western Kenya and he knew that one or other of them would be killed. When the laibon gave a signal for RM to be speared, RM pulled out a hidden gun and shot the laibon at point-blank range. This led to a Court of Enquiry and RM’s being sent back home to Britain. He was later exonerated.

Another astonishing aspect to his expeditions was the abundance of wildlife. When he had the time, he would count and record what he saw. Arriving in Nairobi for the first time he counted 6,193 animals comprising rhino, giraffe, zebra, warthog, baboon, ostrich, wildebeeste and at least six other antelope species. He seemed to shoot almost everything that moved, both as food for his troops, as specimens or often just for ‘sport’. Lions were everywhere and he shot them as frequently as others shot rabbits.

“10.xii.1902 The number of rhino is incredible. We and our men have in the last few days been compelled to kill 17 and yet the country is teeming with them. We saw 21 different rhino today”

There was a strange ambivalence in his attitude towards wildlife. On his journey to Mombasa on a ship he made enemies of the German officers by cutting free a pet monkey that had been thrown overboard on a rope to sober it up after it had been given too much alcohol.

The Germans all jabbered with rage, gesticulated, and were, I thought, at one time about to lay hands on me. I told them they were a lot of cowardly savages and left them livid with rage. I should dearly have loved to throw them all after the monkey and told them so. In consequence I am by no means popular on board”.

Yet when his beloved Jack Russell is ripped to pieces by baboons, he takes 30 soldiers, lays siege to their lair at dawn and kills every one they could shoot as they emerged yawning from their caves.

RM’s prescience was remarkable. On a meeting with the first High Commissioner, he suggested that the country belonged to Africans and that their interests would prevail.

“Eliot would not have it. I said that some day the African would be educated and armed; that would lead to a clash.”

He argued similarly with Lord Delamere who had remarked: “’I am going to prove to you that that this is a white man’s country’ ‘But’, I humbly said, ‘it is a black man’s country; how are you going to superimpose the white over black?’”. RM took the view “with which Delamere has no patience, that in a hundred years there may be 50,000 white settlers and 5,000,000 discontented and envious natives; can the white man hold out against numbers without terrific slaughter?”

He frequently wrote that he liked both Gikuyu and other tribes at a personal level and was clearly sympathetic to the aspirations and resentment of local tribes, while at the same time ruthless in suppressing opposition. He was vehemently opposed to the plan to resettle the Jews in western Kenya. “In the first place, the Jews’ home is in Palestine, not in Africa. The scheme would only add to political confusion, and God knows there will be enough trouble here in 50 years when the natives get educated”. He was equally scathing of missionaries. Of the White Fathers he said “They are definitely not white, but will doubtless soon be fathers”. He found that some of the Protestant missionaries were telling local Gikuyu girls that they could not become converts until they had slept with Christians. His own attitude to religion was far from orthodox. He rejected the divinity of Christ and put his religion as “To all religions that recognise the Unknown God”.

At the end of his 337-page diary, he wrote: “I fear my tour is marked by continuous violence and the slaughter of my fellow men and wild animals. In his defence, he lived in dangerous times; most of the time, he was on his own as a single colonial officer and a small company of semi-trained soldiers, threatened by thousands of hostile natives who were out to get him. He was a brave and tough soldier in an unknown land, and knew it was kill or be killed. He came very close to death on many occasions from poisons, poisoned arrows and hand-to-hand fighting.

Many interesting men have had their reputations tarnished later in life. Livingstone, Stanley and Meinertzhagen are good examples. RM served in World War One with distinction when he returned to East Africa and later in the Middle East but he was certainly guilty of some questionable acts. He was also a renowned ornithologist, though not beyond helping himself to bird specimens from the Natural History Museum in London. His diary is an extraordinary account of the beginnings of British colonialism in Africa.

*Reinhard Heydrich, one of the main architects of the Holocaust in World War Two, was variously called ‘The Butcher of Prague’, ‘Himmler’s Evil Genius’ and ‘The Man with the Iron Heart’ (by Hitler).