In 1941, with London burning in the Blitz, a group of hedonistic English nobles partied shamelessly in Kenya. Far removed from falling bombs, the wealthy elites of “Happy Valley” indulged in morphine, alcohol, and unrestricted sex, often with their friends’ spouses. But the party turned sinister in the early hours of a January morning for Josslyn Hay, Lord Erroll, who had been enjoying the favors of the beautiful young wife of a middle-aged neighbor. Hay was found dead, a bullet in his brain. The murder shocked the close-knit community of wealthy expatriates in Nairobi and shined a harsh light on their louche lifestyle.
Three decades later, author James Fox researched the slaying of Lord Erroll, an unsolved crime still sheathed in a thick cloud of rumor and innuendo. What he discovered was both unsettling and luridly compelling. White Mischief is a spellbinding true-crime classic, a tale of privileged excess and the wages of sin, and an account of one writer’s determined effort to crack a cold and craven killing.
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The Murder of Lord Erroll
By James Fox
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1982 James Fox
All rights reserved.
THE WHITE HIGHLANDS
It is generally a benefit we confer when we take over a state. We give peace where war prevailed, justice where injustice ruled, Christianity where paganism ruled. (Whether the native looks on it in that light is another matter. I'm afraid that possibly he does not as yet appreciate his benefits.)
LORD CRANWORTH, 1912
I would add house management [to a list of hints for prospective settlers' wives] were it not that the supervision of native servants is an art in itself. One could not, for instance, learn by experience in England when is the right time to have a servant beaten for rubbing silver plate on the gravel path to clean it, and this after several previous warnings.
LADY CRANWORTH, 1912
Lady Cranworth had been given a chapter to herself in her husband's textbook for the new arrivals, which described the first decade of white settlement and portrayed Kenya as the white man's heaven on earth. He called the book Profit and Sport in East Africa, and a later edition, with more restraint, A Colony in the Making. He described the sheer pleasure of the experience, the undiluted nobility of the landscape with which Englishmen and Scotsmen from landed families would instantly feel familiar; the unlimited scope for game shooting, the richness of the soil and the millions of acres of virgin grazing land waiting to be settled. Although public schoolboys, he suggested, had acquired a bad reputation as colonists elsewhere in the Empire, Kenya was different. Here they were particularly suited to local conditions. Their high opinion of themselves was shared by the natives, particularly the Masai, their ignorance, "often colossal," of farming would give them the benefit of a fresh eye on the unusual obstructions that the tropics would put in their way, and as for their devotion to sport, there was nothing the native liked better than eating large quantities of meat. Clearly Lady Cranworth, like the strident memsahibs that Karen Blixen described later, had already succumbed to fierce measures on the domestic front.
The British Government had officially taken over the country, as East Africa Protectorate, in 1895, to compete with German imperial expansion in East Africa. The Germans were building a railway into the interior from the port of Tanga. The British raced ahead and built their own line, 580 miles long, from Mombasa on the coast to Lake Victoria. It took five and a half years and was completed in 1901, to great acclaim.
Before that, any journey inland was an Arab slaving expedition to Uganda or a gruelling Rider Haggard romance undertaken by a lonely white man, a Thompson or a Livingstone, with an army of deserting porters and under continual threat of attack by the nomadic Masai.
The Indian railway workers imported by the British died in great numbers, not on the spears of the Masai "Moran" (young warriors), who seemed to accept the railway and the superiority of British weapons, but from dysentery, malaria, Blackwater fever, tsetse fly and from the heat itself. Many others fell prey to the man-eating lions of Tsavo, who held up the work for several weeks and seemed for a time to be invincible.
The railway was a splendid and ambitious piece of engineering, undertaken in appalling conditions and with truly Victorian confidence. The track crossed deserts, wound up mountains, descended escarpments and cut through forests and across swamps. It rose from sea level to almost 8,000 feet, running across the grazing land of the Masai and the homeland of the Kikuyu tribe, who were less well disposed to this invasion. It looked absurdly unequal to the task, this clockwork toy, with its four carriages and its dumpy tank engine, on a track that looked as pliable as soldering wire. But it was a stupendous journey, for the first part in the intense heat of the Taru desert, with no relief from the clinging and caking red dust which lay in ripples on the floor of the compartment. At Voi, in the coolness of the plains, there was the unforgettable sight of the great massed herds of zebra, giraffe, kongoni, wildebeest, Grant's and Thompson's gazelle, grazing across the savannah or running eight or ten abreast.
Nairobi was established in 1899, on the frontier between the Masai and Kikuyu, as the last possible rail depot before the track climbed 2,000 feet up the Kikuyu escarpment, the eastern wall of the Great Rift Valley. For anyone looking down into the vast floor of the valley for the first time, the sheer scale of the landscape was over powering—something quite new to the senses.
Tea was taken at Naivasha station, the beginning of the highlands, and from there on, up to Gilgil and then to Nakuru, the promised land was slowly revealed, in all its immense variety and beauty. After some miles of thorn and red rock, you emerged into thousands of acres of rolling English parkland, a haze of blue lawn rising and falling to the horizon, untouched by the plough and apparently uninhabited. Some of it resembled the landscape of the west of Scotland, with the same dramatic rock formations, grazing pastures, dew-laden mists. Streams rippled through the valleys, wild fig (sacred to the Kikuyu) and olive grew in the forests; the air was deliciously bracing, producing an ecstasy of well-being, and the quality of the light was staggering. There were scents too, the indefinable flavour of peppery red dust and acrid wood smoke that never fail to excite the deepest nostalgia.
And yet unless the land was productive and profitable, there was no point to this "lunatic express," as its opponents had described it in England. It had been built for prestige and superpower competition, and its only effect was to drain the Colony's budget.
The Commissioner for East Africa, Sir Charles Eliot, a distinguished Oxford scholar and diplomat, produced a scheme in 1901, soon after his arrival, of recruiting settlers from the Empire to farm the land. The idea was simply to make the railway pay for itself, by hauling freight from the uplands to the coast. The development of the Colony was a secondary consideration, indeed almost an accident. A recruitment drive was launched in London, and the first wave of settlers arrived in 1903 from Britain, Canada, Australia and South Africa. The photographs depict them as "Forty-niners" from the Yukon—a much rougher crowd than the later arrivals, who were drawn mainly from the Edwardian aristocracy and the British officer class. Nevertheless, there were many peers among these first arrivals—Lord Hindlip, Lord Cardross, Lord Cranworth, for example—and victims of the English system of primogeniture, such as Berkeley and Galbraith Cole, younger sons of the Earl of Enniskillen.
There were millionaires, too, like the amply proportioned American, Northrop MacMillan, a close friend of Theodore Roosevelt. There was the fabulous Ewart Grogan, a fiercely chauvinist Englishman who had walked from the Cape to Cairo. There were fugitives, wasters, speculators.
Above all there was the man who became the settlers' unchallenged leader from the turn of the century until his death in 1931, Hugh Cholmondeley, 3rd Baron Delamere, who had first set eyes on the Kenya Highlands in 1897, at the merciful end of a 2,000 mile camel ride from Somalia. He had returned to England for six unhappy years, to look after his estates, but the Kenya bug had infected him too, and he returned in 1901 to buy land.
Lord Delamere was a natural leader of the settlers. He had inherited an enormous estate in Cheshire and vast wealth besides, soon after leaving Eton—where he had distinguished himself as a reckless and unruly boy, untouched by the civilising classics. He was arrogant and wasteful, with a sudden, violent temper; his political instincts were austerely feudal, and physically he was small and muscular, and in no way handsome. But he had the gift of supreme confidence in himself and in his vision of the future for the Colony, which was inspired by an old-fashioned sense of duty to the Empire—the duty, quite simply, being to annex further territory on its behalf.
Kenya was always more fashionable among the aristocrats than Uganda or Tanganyika after the First World War. Uganda was a little too far from the sea, along the railway, and Tanganyika, until then, had been a German colony. The pick of the sites in the Kenyan White Highlands had an English air, almost like the rolling downs of Wiltshire, all on a supernatural scale and under such an immense sky, that when you are first exposed to it, you may be seized both with vertigo—from the sheer speed and height of the clouds—and folie de grandeur. Such grandiose surroundings were irresistible to the English settlers and often went to their heads.
In the earliest settler scheme, a million acres were given away on 999-year leases. The contract required a capital sum to be invested in the first five years and an annual rent to be paid to the Government. Failure to comply meant confiscation.
Delamere was granted the first plot, at Njoro, along the railway line north-west of Nakuru. It was at Njoro that he began the experiment that nearly ruined him, but that almost alone laid the base for Kenya's agricultural economy.
The distribution of the land was a chaotic process centred on the Land Office in Nairobi. In 1904, the year the Norfolk Hotel was built—soon to be known, from its guest list of English trophy hunters, as the "House of Lords"—the town still resembled a bleak and over crowded transit camp, with its rows of identical huts and its makeshift roads which were either knee-deep in mud, or carpeted with the red dust which hung in a cloud over the town. Prospective settlers pitched their tents near the Land Office and waited, often for months, for their applications to be dealt with by the overwhelmed bureaucrats. The Whitehall plan became a full-scale frontier scramble—appalling fights broke out almost nightly at the Norfolk—and under pressure, the laws protecting traditional African land rights were often loosely observed. The nomadic grazing land of the Masai in the Rift Valley, for example, was considered unoccupied, and stretches of Kikuyu land were added to farms alongside the reserve—a costly political mistake.
The English settlers were often quaintly ignorant about Africa—its history, the tribal distinctions, the wild animals, which were believed to attack on sight and on principle. They would be amazed by the virulence of the diseases that affected crops and livestock—some settled on land that the Masai had known for generations to be bad for cattle—and angry at the difficulties that were bound to arise where Edwardian attitudes met with the more cosmic outlook of the Kikuyu or the Masai. There were simple misunderstandings. Patience and politeness were the very basis of the African disposition, especially towards strangers and guests. But Western forms of gratitude were alien to most of the tribes—there is no word for "thank you" in Kikuyu. On their side the shrieking memsahibs rapped out their commands in pidgin Swahili, with a fierce English accent that sounded grating and discourteous to African ears.
There were notable exceptions. The more feudally minded pioneers like Delamere managed to establish a relationship with the African population that allowed a genuine intimacy, a form of startled mutual respect that was not to be repeated in the next generation.
The European's greatest fears, however, were reserved for the equatorial sun itself, whose rays were believed to damage not only the spine (hence the boom for the London tropical outfitters in "spine pads"—a thick strip of cotton gauze that stretched from the neck to the buttocks, worn with intense discomfort), but were thought to attack the liver and the spleen as well. Lord Lugard advised the wearing of heavy flannel cummerbunds. Winston Churchill, who took an unofficial tour to Kenya as Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies, feared its effect on the nervous system, the brain and the heart. If it was necessary to remove the hat, even momentarily, he wrote, "it should be done under the shade of a thick tree." Some advised never removing it at all, even indoors, since corrugated iron, although a brilliant British invention and a memorable contribution to British colonial architecture, was not considered adequate against the rays. Out of this came the fashion of wearing the double terai, two wide-brimmed, floppy hats, one on top of the other. Removing all this armour was done standing on the bed, well away from the siafu, the safari ants who hunted their prey—anything up to a large antelope—in brilliantly executed pincer movements, travelling in columns often a mile long.
White nerves were not calmed by wearing the hottest uniforms in the high temperatures of Africa. And yet the lengths to which the settlers went to propitiate the sun suggest a more irrational fear than that of sunstroke. They seem to revive the Victorian shibboleth that exposure to the sun was improperly sensual and immodest, and certainly not something that could easily be shared with Africans on an equal basis. Thus taboos were raised against it, the most peculiar reserved for women, who were advised to line their dresses and headgear not with flannel, but with bright scarlet cloth.
Debility, irritability, even nervous breakdown, were warned against, on account of the heat and the altitude, as well as unexpected mood swings from elation to depression. Small grievances would quickly become great ones. "Take plenty of wine after sunfall," Lord Cranworth prescribed, "more especially Burgundy and Port. These enrich the blood and are an excellent prophylactic."
The farming of this land was immensely difficult, a heart-rending process of trial and error which tested the very hardest pioneering temperament. Despite their privileged backgrounds, the early settlers turned out to be of the right calibre. Yet most of them were chronically undercapitalised, and without the lessons of Delamere's energetic experimenting, his ability to match disaster with more and more cash, hope might have died for many of these farmers. Delamere spent almost as much time advising his neighbours as he spent on his own sprawling interests. By 1906 he was fanning 160,000 acres at Equator Ranch—all of it enclosed by 1,000 miles or so of barbed wire fencing. But by 1909 he was broke. The estates in Cheshire were drained and he was forced to sell up there and borrow against what remained of the family trust.
His predicament was typical, if more dramatic than most. He had tried sheep, cross-breeding local ewes with English rams, local rams with New Zealand ewes, and cattle, crossing Hereford and Shorthorn with the local Boran. They were variously struck down by rinderpest, which rots the flesh of a walking beast, pleuro-pneumonia and Texas fever, which claimed the Herefords; by sheep-pox, scabies, swine fever, foot and mouth, and by East Coast fever, the deadliest of all the viruses, borne through the herds by ticks.
Delamere would take his rifle and shoot a whole herd of zebra to prevent the spreading of the viruses. He would dip all his cattle each day, but to little effect. Then he discovered that the land was deficient in minerals, so he switched to barley and wheat, which was wiped out, again and again, by black stemrust. After the fungus came the locusts, and there was a drought which struck for three years from 1907. He moved his cattle and sheep to Soysambu, Elmenteita, the present headquarters of the Delamere estates on the floor of the Rift Valley near Lake Naivasha. There they began to prosper. He diversified, growing lucerne to improve the grass, and strawberries for the lotus eaters who were gathering in Nairobi. He even tried ostrich feathers, which soon went the way of all fashion, blown away by the motoring boom.
On top of all the problems, the bureaucratic obstruction of the Land Office, which insisted on petty and needless regulations, was intolerable to the farmers. (Written permission was needed, for example, to draw water from the stream that ran through your farm.) The simplest decisions were taken in London, where they were filed away for months. Delamere, as usual, led the fight against them, on one occasion, when his application was refused to build a flour mill on a chosen site, by stacking firewood under the Land Office itself and threatening to set fire to it. The Land Office quickly reversed its decision.
Delamere believed that if the settlers were prepared to take slender profits to open the country, they should not, at the same time, be choked with red tape. Out of these early conflicts a bitter hostility developed between the settlers and Government over the question of land, which was to dominate the Colony's history until independence.
Excerpted from White Mischief by James Fox. Copyright © 1982 James Fox. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Table of Contents
- Part One: The Murder
- 1 The White Highlands
- 2 Happy Valley
- 3 The Fastest Gun in the Gare du Nord
- 4 The Bonny Earl of Erroll
- 5 A Spell in Masai Country
- 6 Sundowners to Sunrise
- 7 The Body in the Buick
- 8 One Visit Too Many
- 9 The Angel of Death
- Part Two: The Quest
- 10 The Voice on the Escarpment
- 11 Acumen and Intuition
- 12 The Mayor of Nairobi
- 13 Bullets in the Garden
- 14 Miss Wilks and the Missing Hour
- 15 Letters from the Wanjohi
- 16 The Greatest Pouncer of All Time
- 17 Palaces and Appearances
- 18 Pearls and Oysters
- 19 A Good Racing Man
- 20 Blackmail
- 21 White Royalty
- 22 Abdullah and the Afghan Princess
- 23 Lady Delamere
- 24 The End of the Trail
- Cast of Characters
- Image Gallery
- About the Author