The Cow Bells of Kitale

Patrick Collinson

In a court in western Kenya, on 13 July 1934, Major Geoffrey Selwyn and his wife, Helen, were jointly charged with the murder of a ‘native’. Geoffrey Selwyn, my father-in-law, died before the trial began. Proceedings continued in his absence, and my children’s grandmother was found guilty of manslaughter and sent to prison. The trial attracted much attention at the time, and when Helen Selwyn was sentenced it made the front page of some British newspapers. But the case was soon forgotten, unlike the more lurid pieces of white mischief which went on in the so-called Happy Valley. Yet the Selwyn affair mattered more, and like George Orwell’s Burmese Days (published in the same year), it encapsulated almost all the stresses of British colonialism.

In 1934, aged four, Liz Selwyn, my wife, lived with her parents on Friston Estate, a farm 17 miles beyond Kitale, at the extreme north-western limit of the White Highlands of Kenya, the Trans-Nzoia. The farm was only four or five miles from the ridge which formed the border of the tribal homeland of the Suk, more properly called Pokot, a Southern Nilotic pastoral people. Europeans were not supposed to enter the Suk reserve, which, to prevent ‘incidents’, was a closed district; while any native working outside the reserve was obliged on pain of imprisonment to carry at all times an identity certificate or kipande, usually placed in a metal container hung around the neck – though many Suk refused to comply with this symbol of servile status. No native was allowed to live on European land unless he was contracted to work for 180 days a year.

Geoffrey Selwyn was the son of a Victorian clergyman and headmaster. Helen Selwyn, née Worrall, was one of five daughters. There were also five sons, all of whom died prematurely. Her father was an artist who never earned much money. Her mother, Marijama, ran a boarding house for other painters, took in washing, and made sure that the girls acquired the means to earn their own living: hairdressing, shorthand typing and, in Helen’s case, massage. They were very close, but the family had few resources to draw on in trying to cope with what happened in Kenya. They were typical of the majority of British citizens who stood up for the national anthem but had little idea what the colonial enterprise was about.

After going to India to become a soldier, Geoffrey Selwyn had gone on to a farming apprenticeship in Uganda. The First World War took him to the Western Front. In his short, unpublished memoir, ‘Scenes from My Life’, he describes how, ‘thoroughly fed up with the mud of France’, he took advantage of some leave in London to visit the War Office and request any posting which would take him out of the trenches. For the last two and half years of the war, he was in Kenya with the King’s African Rifles, and also served in Portuguese East Africa. He shot a hippopotamus, which provided meat for his men and (a proleptic touch this) ‘many kibokos’ (weapons made from skin and used to administer a beating). On another occasion his personal ‘boy’, a Nyasa, picked up his rifle and tried to shoot him. ‘I had him beaten 24 times by a remarkably large corporal.’ There was also some serious military action. Half his company were driven into a river by German soldiers, many were shot down as they tried to cross, and the crocodiles, attracted by the blood, took the rest.

Curiously, his memoir contains no mention of what the war did to Geoffrey himself. Whether as the result of a wound or some other mishap, he was left almost paralysed down one side, unable to use one arm and dragging a useless leg after him. Around Kitale they called him ‘Bwana Nguu’ – ‘Bwana Leg’. (When Liz went back there in 1997 she met an old man who still remembered ‘Nguu Selwyn’ – no longer ‘bwana’.) He was also left with a degree of memory loss. It was in a military hospital that he met Helen, who was nursing him. In 1920 he became a beneficiary (if that is the right word) of the Soldier Settlement Scheme, which placed ex-officers on farms in Kenya, holdings which were typically of a thousand acres or so. Those chosen had to find £1000 of their own money. Geoffrey had about £1000, Helen £600 or £700. But the unfavourable exchange rate (the result of ‘currency stabilisation’) determined that the money was worth no more than half that. Helen later testified that it was ‘just used up’ in getting the farm going and paying the workers. Much depended on a practice which allowed ‘squatters’ to cultivate part of the land in exchange for labour services, an arrangement resembling medieval villeinage. (In 1933 Helen had a squatter imprisoned for refusing to cut 12 loads of grass.) Life was very hard. It was not until 1926 that the railway came to Kitale. The farm never made any money, and the Selwyns were overdrawn at the bank. In 1929 Helen went ‘home’, and Liz was born in October. (Her sister Barbara, then aged eight, was at an English convent school.) When Geoffrey joined them a month or two later it was clear that something had to change. He looked for a position of some kind but without success. A deal was struck with his elder brother, Gordon, a leading Anglican theologian and Dean of Winchester, who took possession of the title deeds of the farm and offered them a loan. But the condition was that Helen was to take over. Her husband was to follow her instructions, even obey her orders.

She seems to have had some success. ‘I have got the farm back into a state that I thought we should be able to make it pay within a year or two,’ she said at her trial. The labour force was small by local standards (even so, in 1934 the Selwyns employed at least 11 men, including a cook and houseboy, two of them Suk – there were no female servants). Coffee was added to the staple of maize and there were some dairy cows. But the early 1930s was not a good time to be farming in Kenya, or anywhere else. In the Depression, the price of both maize and coffee dropped by more than half. In the cold words of an economic historian, ‘coffee had been planted in large quantities on unsuitable land by unsuitable people.’ The situation of such unsuitable people as the Selwyns was as desperate as that of poor white dirt farmers in the Southern United States, and what we now call race relations were inevitably affected.

A particular anxiety for the white farmers around Kitale was petty and sometimes not so petty theft, usually involving the semi-itinerant Suk, for whom cattle rustling was, and for some still is, a way of life, related to the needs of their social and marital system. The Selwyns lost six cows in this way, but five were found and returned, and compensation handed over for one that died. Coffee, maize and car tyres had also been stolen. No one giving evidence at Helen’s trial thought it a huge problem. But, as we are always being told, it is apprehensions of criminality which matter. Helen became convinced that there was a conspiracy to rustle her cows and oxen. Farmers who could manage it hired former askaris (policemen) as guards, paying them ten or twelve shillings a month. The Selwyns could afford only to put some of their own workers on guard duty when the maize was ripening, as much to scare off pigs and baboons as to deter human thieves.

Were the Selwyns racist? No doubt they were, Geoffrey especially. Helen was attentive to the needs of her own ‘boys’, who were mainly from the Bukusu tribe, and her practical nursing skills were always made available to anyone in the area who cared to make use of them. When she went to prison one of her main anxieties was what would happen to her boys, since within a matter of weeks the farm would go to ruin and they would be out of a job. But she spoke to them like children and imposed fines (a strictly illegal procedure) for ‘insolence and that sort of thing’. On one occasion the fine amounted to a month’s wages.

Fines didn’t work with the Suk. The Selwyns never trusted their two Suk workers. Helen wrote that they had been ‘getting more and more out of hand’ and were forming small ‘gangs’. ‘They go about entirely naked but with bodies well greased to prevent being caught,’ she said – but in fact this was sun and wind proofing. ‘They are the most silent and swiftest runners in Africa.’ Once or twice thieves had been caught, tightly bound and put into the store while a runner was sent to fetch the police. But even before the runner had left the farm the Suk would have succeeded in struggling free and breaking out of the store.

Meanwhile, bad feeling between the Selwyns and their immediate neighbours, the Brettells, was exacerbated by knowledge that the Brettells were ‘encouraging’ strange Suk onto their property and trading with them. This was a contentious issue: were the settlers to live like gentlemen farmers, exploiting the native population as labour, or were they to form commercial relationships with black Africans as fellow producers? The Selwyns were on one side of this argument, the Brettells on the other. The bad feeling otherwise had to do with the fact that the Brettells had been converted to Buchmanism (Moral Rearmament) by another neighbour and their own employer, a prosperous farmer and padre called Knight. Knight had sacked the (very competent) manager of his mill and replaced him with Brettell. Knight and Brettell had tried to recruit Geoffrey Selwyn to the cause but he had told them where they could go. This rankled. Both the Selwyns regarded Buchmanism as a narrow-minded perversion of Christianity, and Geoffrey’s outspoken resistance to its ideology was not irrelevant to their problems.

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