‘Going Native’

Dan Jacobson on sexual favours in colonial East Africa

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.

The full text of this essay is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

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