Vol. 21 No. 23 · 25 November 1999

‘Going Native’

Dan Jacobson on sexual favours in colonial East Africa

5239 words

The recipient of the following letter was Sir James Hayes-Sadler, Governor of the East African Protectorate (soon to become known as the Colony of Kenya). Its author was a British settler writing from Nyeri, in the colony’s newly established ‘white highlands’. The year was 1908.

           Dear Sir James Sadler,

     A grave matter has occurred here.

     Complaints were made to me by natives whose confidence I have that their women were being brought to the Government boma [enclosure] for immoral purposes.

     Having induced them to venture to tell me about it – for they were nervous – I yesterday took down in writing this evidence and called in four independent Europeans to whom I read the statements made by the natives ...

     Immediately afterwards my wife proceeded to the Government boma and asked that the two girls be surrendered to her keeping. They were at once given up.

     The officer primarily implicated is the Acting Collector here, Mr H. Silberrad. No other officer here is concerned. Mr Silberrad admits the general truth of the charge, but says he is not so much to blame as the statement would lead one to think ...

     I have ventured to tell the natives, for the matter is known in all directions, that the Government is absolutely opposed to native girls being taken by Government white men and that, as Mr Silberrad has done so, I feel sure you will immediately take him out of the Province as a sign that the Government wishes to see that an officer who acts thus does not do so with the approval of the Government.

     I therefore very respectfully would urge you that it is essential for the prestige of the Administration that you immediately summon Mr Silberrad to Nairobi ... The real question involved is – how can an officer class be best made to see that intercourse with native girls is associated with evils that seriously detract from their position as Administrators?

     When I have laid before you the knowledge I have, and which it is impossible for me to spare time to do so by correspondence, you will I think feel that you can better deal with this particular case in a way that is just and politic. I shall be in Nairobi in three weeks’ or a month’s time en route to England.

               Believe me, Sincerely,
               W. Scoresby Routledge

This letter, written in a confident hand on thick, unlined, still-white paper, can be found in the Public Records Office in London. Dickens might have been pleased to invent W. Scoresby Routledge. Name and all. It is not often that a man so eagerly reveals himself to be an officious, loquacious, self-important prig.

I am not condemning him by the standards of our time rather than his own. His contemporaries thought ill of him too. Nowhere in his letter does he indicate the welfare of the ‘women’ or ‘girls’ to be of concern to him: he refers only to ‘the prestige of the Administration’ and to the ‘evils’ that the ‘officer class’ is bound to suffer from ‘intercourse’ with them. His anxiety about the scandal he is reporting becoming ‘known in all directions’ is plainly hypocritical, since he has already done his best to spread the news as widely as possible. Then there is the aplomb with which he instructs the Governor on what he should feel and do about the information being passed on to him. He also invites himself to Government House and reveals that he has already made public declarations on the Governor’s behalf without bothering to ask for the latter’s permission to do so.

No high official is going to enjoy being told in this way about the misdeeds of his subordinates. In writing to Lord Crewe, Secretary of State for the Colonies, and hence his ultimate master in London, the Governor does his best to swallow his irritation. Routledge had indeed been to see him, bringing with him the statements referred to in his letter. ‘He was inclined,’ Sir James says,

to look on himself as the trustee of the British nation for the morals of the officers of the Protectorate; this I told him could be safely left to the Administration ... It is to be regretted that the unpleasant matters dealt with in this despatch were brought to light by a private gentleman; but despite the unfortunate attitude Mr Routledge took up in the correspondence ... I consider that he has performed a public service in presenting the facts which had come to his notice.

Another official from Kenya, Monson by name, who happened to be on leave in London, was even franker in letting the Colonial Office know what he thought of Routledge:

He is a youngish man who has been in the Protectorate for some years doing nothing in particular: finally he bought land in the district of which Mr Silberrad has charge, went home a year ago, and returned with a wife (she was a Miss Pease and a member of a well-known Quaker family). Both Mr and Mrs Routledge have set themselves up as authorities on native customs and native questions: they have given some trouble to the Government by putting their oar in unduly in native affairs – where they seem to have attempted to ‘boss’ the natives of the district – to usurp the functions of the representatives of the Government. We are inclined to think that jealousy of Mr Silberrad’s authority may have had something to do with their intervention in the matter.

Still, the Governor was stuck with Routledge and the information that he had been given. At their meeting he had learned that one of Silberrad’s women had formerly ‘belonged’ to an African policeman directly under his command, Mgalla or Mgulla by name. When this man had gone to the boma and demanded the return of the woman, a violent scene had taken place; it ended with Silberrad arresting Mgulla and having him thrown into the guard-house. On hearing this, the Governor decided to instruct a circuit judge employed in the territory to go to Nyeri and hold a formal inquiry into events there. Routledge immediately demanded the right to sit ‘on the Board’ – i.e. alongside the judge. ‘This,’ the Governor wrote to Lord Crewe, ‘I could not permit.’ However, he did give permission for Routledge and his wife to attend the sessions and to put any questions they liked to those giving evidence.

So off to Nyeri went the judge chosen for the task, William Barth. He returned to the capital soon afterwards with a severe attack of dysentery and was immediately confined to the European Hospital. The sixty or seventy pages of notes he had hastily scrawled down during the inquiry make up the largest single item in the file from which I have been quoting. Taken page by page they are a mess. Barth’s handwriting is vile to begin with and soon becomes impenetrable in many places. (Perhaps the dysentery was already affecting him.) His witnesses appear and reappear in no particular order and tell their stories in incoherent, self-contradictory fashion. No record is kept of the questions they are ostensibly answering. Most of what they say is in any case roughly translated from Swahili or Kikuyu. The Routledges interrupt the proceedings with comments and requests whenever they feel like doing so.

Not all of this is Barth’s fault. (‘In no sense,’ he remarks, ‘was the inquiry a judicial proceeding.’) He was given no secretarial help at any stage during the hearings, and a curt entry in the folder tells us why. ‘The authorities did not like to hand over a report of this kind to the Goanese clerks for typewriting and no one else was available to do the job.’ Which is to say: the evidence Barth was accumulating was considered suitable for white eyes and ears only.

Ironically, the authorities succeeded all too well in their attempt to keep the stories elicited by Barth as private as possible. His hard work was eventually to be dismissed as ‘illegible’ by one haughty official in London and as ‘barely intelligible’ by another. Both comments are true enough, but they also miss the point. It is precisely from Barth’s scrappy notes, or what can be read of them, along with the many formal documents in the file, that there emerges the inner substance of ‘this nasty and delicate question’ (as it was described by yet another official in London). The story unwittingly assembled by all those involved – whether in the colonial backwater of Nyeri, or in Government House, Nairobi, or the Colonial Office in London – is full of pathos, brutality and grim comedy. It is also commonplace. That is one of the reasons it is so interesting. It brings together not only the officials, high and low, of an empire envied all over the world for its wealth, size and self-confidence, but also a group of illiterate, aggrieved, mutually accusatory tribesmen and women from the Kenyan highlands. (‘The subject race’, as the Governor habitually refers to them.) The cultural and political differences between the parties appear at first sight to be beyond the capacity of language to express. Nevertheless they all manage to reveal more of themselves, as individuals and representatives of their societies, than they could have imagined.

In the end what is most surprising is not how different they were from one another, but how much they had in common. Sexual appetite, for example. A strong sense of hierarchy within the different spheres that each group occupied. The constant search for advantage of one kind or another. Assumptions about the profoundly differing entitlements of men and women; let alone those of blacks and whites. The ever changing, often denied, always returning claims of something that, for each of them, resembled justice.

The first point to emerge from Barth’s inquiry is that the three ‘women’ with whom Silberrad ‘had relations’ were in fact children. Barth’s guess was that two of them, Wameisa and Niamberi, were between 12 and 14 years old; the third, Niakazena, he cautiously describes as ‘a girl of more mature years’. The second point is that – their youth notwithstanding – they had all ‘belonged’ to another man or men. In fact, Wameisa and Niamberi had already been employed and enjoyed by Silberrad’s predecessor in the posting, a man by the name of Cecil Walter Inglefield Wightwick Haywood. Which of course meant that Haywood, who held the rank of Collector and was therefore Silberrad’s superior in the official hierarchy, was now in the soup too.

Involved with these three girls were various African men. Wameisa, for instance, appeared to be under the protection (in a manner of speaking) of her brother Jiqua. He had, he claimed, received 40 goats for her from another man called Lizo. This was after the departure of Haywood from the district. Here is a pan of Jiqua’s account of what had happened next:

Wameisa was living with Lizo. Lizo did deposit goats with me, 40 goats. I did not pay them back. He has not asked for the goats. I went to Wambugu [the local chief] and told him that I heard my sister was wanted now by Silberrad. Wambugu told me to let my sister know where and when she was wanted ... Wameisa refused to go to Mr Silberrad. I saw her refuse. She said she did not want to go. She was crying. Lizo said that she must go. If she did not go we would be beaten ... I came to Mr Silberrad and asked him for mali [goods, money]. Mr Silberrad gave three rupees to Wameisa and told her to return the next afternoon. She got the three rupees from his cook.

‘If she did not go we would be beaten.’ At this point Jiqua is referring to himself and his sister; in effect he is reporting a threat uttered against them by Lizo. Lizo, however, remembered events differently. More distantly, let’s say. He was also anxious to deny that he had ever handed over those 40 goats:

I know Jiqua and Wameisa. The girl belonged to Mr Haywood. I was sick with a sore leg. So I called Wameisa. She came to me for two days then she went back home. Then I sent for her. Jiqua said the price of the girl was 40 goats and three head of cattle. The goats and the cattle were not deposited ... I went to Wambugu and told him that this is the girl Mr Silberrad wants ... She said I was the person selling her to the European ... I do not tell anybody that if the girl does not go to Mr Silberrad her people will be beaten. Mr Silberrad did not tell me to use force. He said she could stay at home or come to him if she likes ... That is all I know about it because after that she was not in my control.

As befits his status as local chieftain, Wambugu strikes a man-of-the-world note in describing his dealings with both his fellow tribesmen and the white officer:

Jiqua asked me who was the owner of the girl. I knew that the 40 goats were paid for her ... I made a shamui [arrangement] with the brother of the girl because Mr Silberrad wanted her. She was not crying, she was not pushed by anyone ... I think Mr Silberrad is the chief government officer. Anyone who lives in the boma I consider in the care of the Government. I am not afraid of Mr Silberrad but I will not say anything which I have not seen with my own eyes. I saw Mr Silberrad on the verandah of the rest-house. I asked him about the news about Nairobi and he asked me about the news in Nyeri. He told me the sun was hot in Nairobi and we talked about that too.

How did Wameisa remember these events?

Lizo told me I was wanted by a mzungu [white man]. I said I was unable to go. Lizo said even if you have refused you will go. He went away and came back for me after a few days. He said I should go to the European ... I did cry to Lizo and my mother ... I was wearing Kikuyu clothes when I went to the boma. I changed clothes outside. I did object to my clothes being changed. I lived with Mr Silberrad as his wife and with him as my husband ... and then Mr Routledge came and took us away.

That her change of garments had a symbolic importance for her and her new master emerges from the statement by Silberrad’s cook, who played a key role in all these transactions.

I said she must take her clothes off and gave her a blanket. The bwana [master] asked if I had taken her by force and she said she came of her own accord. I took her to the bwana’s room and she stayed there. In the morning Mr Silberrad said to tell her she could go home for now because she was young ... In the morning she put on her skins.

The second of the girls interrogated, Niamberi, tells much the same kind of story about her induction into Silberrad’s household.

An askari [African policeman] was sent to take me. He gave me to the cook who took me to the bwana. I cried when I was taken to the bwana ... Mr Silberrad asked me to sleep on his bed the night I came. It was perhaps 9 p.m. I slept till morning then he told me to go to the cook. I slept there three nights. Mr Silberrad came and slept on the bed with me. He had connection with me on the bed. One night I slept alone with the cook. The reason why I did not sleep with Mr Silberrad was because I had my courses.

From Niakazena, the third girl, again the same:

The cook told me to come here to Nyeri and that I would be taken to the boma and kept like Wameisa. The cook asked me if I would like to go. I did not reply to the cook but when the cook asked me to come I came.

It was the liaison with Niakazena, however, that led to the episode which most disturbed Silberrad’s superiors and which was to damage his career irretrievably. Her husband or partner, Mgulla, the askari under Silberrad’s command, was very different in character from the complaisant or pimp-like Lizo. His statement could not begin more bluntly:

I have a woman. I paid four goats and thirty rupees for her. She is a Masai. She was captured by the Kikuyu when she was a little child. She stayed with me in Nyeri ... Mr Silberrad sent his cook to tell me to let my wife come ... that he might make a shamui with her. When I got information about what had happened in Nyeri I was under the Superintendent of Telegraphs. I told Mr Pigott my wife was with Mr Silberrad and he told me to go to the office. I saw my wife was in Mr Silberrad’s kitchen. I went and caught her by the hand and took her out. Mr Silberrad was on his bed reading a book and I asked why he had taken my wife. He caught a gun and came running and his cook came running in. He caught my shoulders and I caught his hands. When we caught each other Mr Pigott came. I was put in prison. I slept in the prison and the following morning Mr Silberrad said he didn’t want my wife to stop in the boma.

The last words on the episode spoken by Niakazena, the woman over whom the men had been brawling, have their own dignity:

I came back to Mgulla with eight rupees and four goats. Now I am living with Mgulla and will not leave him ... Mgulla has not spoken to me about this affair. He has not spoken a single word about it. I did tell my husband that I slept with the bwana.

This is how Silberrad described the fight between himself and Mgulla:

Mgulla came into the house with his boots on and shouted at me; I told him not to shout at me like that and he replied, ‘I shall shout at you as I like.’ It was for this gross breach of discipline that I ordered his detention in the guard-room, and not because he had anything to do with the girl.

Later, after the inquiry had ended, Silberrad produced a rambling, nine-page, handwritten apologia about his relations with the girls. In it he admits that he knew Niakazena had been living with Mgulla at one time; however, various sightings of her, and conversations with other people about her, had led him to believe that she had left Mgulla and was therefore ‘on the loose’ (his quotation marks). He would never, he says repeatedly, have had anything to do with her if he had known that she still ‘belonged’ to an askari serving under him. After mentioning again the impertinence of Mgulla in coming into the house ‘with his boots on’, his statement goes on:

He shouted at me; for this I drove him out of the house and told the guard on duty to put him in the guard-room until morning to cool his ardour ... I had no idea the man had any claim on Niakazena and directly he came about her I ordered her not to come to me and in the morning sent her away, saying I would have nothing whatever to do with her ... I told him that it is impossible there should be words about a woman between you and me. There is the girl, go away and make a shamui to buy her, and she shall be yours.

He does not refer to having drawn his gun during their argument and heatedly denies that he had ever used force, or allowed his servants to use threats of force, to compel Niakazena or any other girl to come and live with him. On the contrary: he paid them reasonably and they were free to leave him at any time. In no sense, therefore, were they his ‘slaves’.

Dayrell Pigott, the officer referred to in Mgulla’s evidence, also appeared before Barth, as did another white officer, William Dunn. The brevity and stiffness of their remarks show how much they hated being dragged into the affair and how reluctant they were to say anything which might damage their colleagues. (Doubtless they, too, had female skeletons in their cupboards – or beds.) Dunn blandly claims that he was not at the station ‘at the time of the occurrences referred to’; Pigott says that he had never seen anything going on in the boma which he felt he should report to his superiors. But he did recall telling Silberrad at one point that ‘if he had a woman there it would be discreet on his part to chuck her out’. Haywood himself did not attend any of the sessions of Barth’s inquiry; however, he subsequently addressed two memoranda directly to the Governor. In these, like Silberrad, he ‘emphatically and categorically’ repudiates the charge that he had kept any of the women as his slaves.

One can see why the two men were so concerned about that charge. The issue of slavery was an especially sensitive one to everyone drawn into the affair. Advocates of imperial expansion had always claimed that a British takeover of East Africa was a precondition for bringing to an end the ancient traffic in slaves between the coast and the Arabian peninsula. The suggestion, therefore, that colonial officers were themselves keeping African women as their slaves might have had unpredictable repercussions back in Britain. (‘It is much to be hoped,’ one of Lord Crewe’s assistants wrote anxiously, ‘that Mr Routledge will not succeed in having these matters raised in Parliament.’) In effect Silberrad and Haywood argued that in procuring their women they had not done anything but follow the customs of the local people. The Africans took it for granted that a woman who left her father’s or brother’s care had to be ‘paid for’ in one way or another by the man whose companion she was about to become. Thereafter she ‘belonged’ to him until such time as he might send her away. Yet no one ever called such men slave-owners or slave-traders. Why then should that allegation be made against themselves?

The ironies and ambiguities of this line of argument must have been obvious to the men’s superiors in Nairobi and London. If it were accepted, what damage would be done to the civilising, Christianising mission that had supposedly brought imperial rule to this part of Africa? How could it buttress the disparities in power and status between the rulers and the ruled? At what point exactly did respect for ‘native custom’ turn into exploitation of native custom? Or simply into ‘going native’? How could the men claim that they had never used force of any kind in procuring the girls when everyone knew how much power their positions gave them? (For that matter, how had intermediaries such as Lizo or Silberrad’s cook interpreted the instructions issued to them?) Which was the more deeply offensive aspect of Silberrad’s arrest of Mgulla: that he had acted as policeman, judge and jailer in his own case, or merely that he had brawled with a black underling over a black woman?

Silberrad and Haywood had other questions in their minds. They wanted to know what right a civilian like W. Scoresby Routledge had to bring to book officials like themselves.

During the inquiry Routledge described to Judge Barth a visit he had made to Silberrad’s house. The visit took place after he had rescued the girls, interviewed them, and written to various people in the district about them; now he told Silberrad that he was about to pass the story on to the Governor too.

Mr Silberrad said I should walk with him outside the boma in the dark. He said, this is the only occasion I have done wrong. For God’s sake let it go no further. I am however positive that I told him my opinion was that for any white man to have anything to do with native women was wrong from every point of view but for one in a position of authority it was absolutely unforgivable and that was true all the world over.

No wonder that, in the privacy of their written statements, both Silberrad and Haywood let fly against the man. Silberrad writes of Routledge’s ‘meanness’, his ‘vindictiveness’, his habit of ‘ferreting around’ in order to sabotage the work of government officials. Haywood goes even further. Routledge is a mischief-maker, a suborner of witnesses, a teller of lies, ‘a would-be Dictator of Morals’, an ignoramus who tries to gain the confidence of the natives by speaking to them in ‘a vile jargon which he calls Swahili’. And there is something else the Governor should know:

Regarding the evils of having intercourse with native girls, Mr Routledge is scarcely in a position to set himself up as a censor of such a practice, as he himself used to have intercourse with native girls, and not only he but also other settlers in Nyeri. This is a statement I am quite willing to prove, should Your Excellency require me to do so; as a matter of fact other officers who have been stationed at Nyeri could also corroborate it.

With all this material in his hands, the Governor acted as any bureaucrat would: he appointed a sub-committee to examine the documents and to report back to his ‘executive council’. The council then formally found the two men to be innocent of the offence of ‘purchasing girls as slaves’, since they had acted ‘according to native custom’. However, it endorsed the view that members of the Administration ‘who openly kept native women’ were ‘emphatically’ to be condemned. ‘Apart from the immorality of the proceedings,’ the council considered, ‘an English officer who acts thus descends from the position every white man should occupy in this country. Such proceedings tend to lower the British name and are detrimental to good government and an endeavour should be made to stop them as far as possible.’ Silberrad’s conduct in sending Mgulla to the guard-house ‘when he made a disturbance about the woman in Mr Silberrad’s house’ came in for a separate and much stronger condemnation. Accordingly, the council suggested that different penalties be imposed on the two men. Haywood should lose one year’s seniority and not be given charge of a district for one year; Silberrad should be degraded to the bottom of the list of Assistant District Commissioners and not put in charge of a district for at least three years.

At this stage, remarkably in my view, the entire file was sent to the Colonial Office for examination and confirmation. The Governor may have been a mighty man in the protectorate, but he was not mighty enough to demote two of his underlings without permission from his boss in distant London. (Which is how all the papers in question were eventually delivered to the Public Records Office in Kew, where I came on them while searching for something quite different.) In his covering letter to Lord Crewe, the Governor pointed out that Silberrad had been marked out as next in line for promotion, so the punishment proposed in his case was a particularly heavy one.

Now it was the turn of the civil servants around the Secretary of State to give their opinions. As such groups usually do, they fell into two camps: the doves and the hawks. Here, for example, is Mr Liberal Dove:

The practice of cohabitation with native women has been and is extremely common throughout the West and East African protectorates; indeed I am told that of the unmarried white officials there is only a small percentage who have entirely abstained ... If Mr Silberrad were degraded to the bottom of his class it would mean the ruin of his career in addition to a very heavy pecuniary fine.

And here Sir Tory Hawk:

No doubt concubinage does exist in the tropical colonies and is not taken notice of officially ... The particular question is whether officers who travel are to have a black woman appurtenant to them at every station or stations, just as a man keeps a change of clothes at his various country residences. There can be no doubt that such barefaced and open promiscuity brings the service into discredit and I think the sentences passed on these two offenders must be confirmed as an example.

In the end, the penalty on Haywood was varied in his favour: he escaped with a severe censure only. Silberrad’s demotion, on the other hand, was confirmed. The Colonial Office also approved a suggestion that the Governor should issue a formal warning to all heads of provinces and departments that ‘instances of this kind will be severely dealt with and may render officers concerned liable to dismissal.’ With that warning the episode is officially closed, though references to some of the (white) actors in it can be found in succeeding boxes of records. When Silberrad asks if a copy of the file could be sent to him, he is informed that ‘the proceedings are very long and partly illegible.’ When London hears from the Governor that he has promised to inform Routledge of the penalties meted out to the two men, the promise is deemed ‘unwise’; yet the officials decide that the undertaking had better be adhered to. When Routledge writes directly to London to complain that ‘the demeanour of the East African Government has been sub-hostile throughout,’ he is told that this complaint is ‘emphatically repudiated’. Later still, on his return from leave in England, Silberrad is posted to a place called Kyamata, and an official in London expresses regret that it is not more distant from Nyeri, the scene of his disgrace.

The disgrace actually followed him much further afield. His career, which can be traced through successive volumes of the Colonial List, was indeed ‘ruined’ by the consequences of his fight with Mgulla. Three years later he was transferred to Nyasaland (now Malawi). He remained there, retaining the rank of Assistant District Commissioner, for another 13 years. Only in the very last year of his service did his superiors finally relent and allow him to step up a single grade. I assume that this was done in order to give him a slightly larger pension than he would otherwise have received. Haywood remained a District Commissioner in Kenya until his disappearance from the list in 1914; there is no mention of a transfer in his case and it’s possible he went into the Army on the outbreak of the Great War. Barth eventually became a judge of the appeal court that was established to serve the three British territories in East Africa, Uganda, Kenya and Tanganyika. Sir James Hayes-Sadler’s last appointment was as Governor of the Windward Isles, in the Caribbean.

Inevitably, nothing more is heard of Wameisa, Niamberi or Niakazeni. Or of their menfolk.

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Vol. 21 No. 24 · 9 December 1999

Dan Jacobson’s article on sexual antics in East Africa at the start of the century (LRB, 25 November) is based exclusively on the documents in the Public Record Office and thus omits the fact that the moralising whistle-blower, Scoresby Routledge, feeling that the transgressor, Silberrad, had got off too lightly, went for the weapon of publicity by writing to the Times. This fact is to be found in Ronald Hyam’s Empire and Sexuality (1990), a serious history but also an entertaining romp though what British colonials got up to – ‘no bar sex or age or modesty or toilet training’, as John Berryman of one erstwhile colony put it.

Simon Currie

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