The Cow Bells of Kitale
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.
Helen suffered from insomnia. Early in the morning of 8 June 1934 she heard the clock strike three in the drawing-room (Friston boasted a drawing-room as well as a dining-room, under a rambling thatched roof), and a little later the sound of the bells around the necks of the cows and oxen in the boma. But the cow bells were not heard again, and when at six o’clock the herd-boy went to let the animals out, there was a commotion. The bells had been stolen from around the necks of the cattle, and soon the squatters reported that the bells had been taken from their cattle, too: in all, 11 cow bells, worth two or three shillings each.
The Suk, including the two men who worked for the Selwyns, were immediately suspected. They ran towards the Brettell property, shouting a warning, pursued by the other ‘boys’, with Geoffrey Selwyn trailing behind. Several Suk ran out from huts on the Brettell farm where they had been cooking mealies (‘posho’) for breakfast. Three got away but, in all, six Suk were rounded up by what the prosecution at the subsequent trial called Geoffrey’s ‘little army’, and frogmarched back to the Selwyn farm. All denied stealing the bells, though Kumen and Munyuke, the Selwyns’ Suk workers, pointed out one or two of the culprits. Of the ‘strange’ Suk, Keyen had arrived from the reserve the previous evening with three donkeys, selling skins and buying maize from Brettell; Kiborot, an old man, was visiting his son Kirop (with whom they all stayed the night) to get three shillings to pay his hut tax; and the others had come to buy posho. They all had permission from the Brettells to stay, although none of them had his kipande.
Geoffrey Selwyn wrote to his brother on the day before his arrest, giving his version of events, which had begun with ‘a deuce of a shindy’. He first drank his tea and then followed his wife’s instructions in going to the Brettell property to seize the strange Suk, ‘and to see that there was no trouble’. He ‘plunged along’, through grass three feet high. The Brettell farm was a mile away and, dragging his bad leg, he got back a quarter of an hour after the others. By then the beatings had begun. Geoffrey was sent to impound the three donkeys belonging to Keyen, whom everyone called the ‘maradadi’ Suk, since his hair was matted with white mud in, someone said, a ‘fancy’ style. It was Keyen who would die in hospital, 17 days later.
After being questioned about the cow bells, all six Suk were beaten in turn, 12 lashes each: first Kibrot, then Kaitobok (who was still living in 1997), Kumen, Kamadei, Keyen and, last of all, Munyuke, whom Helen considered ‘the root of all the trouble’. (The old man, Kiborot, was beaten later.) Helen was, in the words of the prosecution at her trial, ‘the mistress of ceremonies’. One witness who said that her husband was present probably said so only to protect her. He was the houseboy Bushaubu, who did the actual beating, while other ‘boys’ held each victim down – in order, Helen said, to stop them ‘wriggling’, and so to prevent serious injury. The beatings were on the backs of the thighs, which the prosecution suggested was a more dangerous part of the anatomy to choose than the buttocks. Helen insisted that the decision to beat on the thighs was to make sure that no blows reached the spleen, which she knew was swollen and tender in most Africans, or the kidneys. At first the outer rim of a motor tyre, about two feet long, was used. But when Kaitobok was beaten it broke, and Helen ordered its replacement with a leather strop, taken from the neck of one of the oxen, and in consequence wet. The Attorney General would later describe this as an ‘inhuman weapon’. At the trial thousands of words of testimony were given, including much medical evidence, about the extent and seriousness of the damage inflicted, and whether this was what some, including the accused, called just an ‘ordinary beating’. Although the evidence is in part contradictory, it appears that the beatings caused bruising, but only superficial abrasions.
After further questioning about the bells, the Suk were all shut in the posho store, and Geoffrey set out in his car to report the matter to the police in Kitale, taking four-year-old Elizabeth with him. Helen gave him a memorandum for the DC, ‘as he could never remember’. At her trial one throwaway sentence in the memo was to prove damning: ‘I have had them beaten.’ Once in Kitale, Geoffrey, without his wife’s knowledge, withdrew the accusation of cow-bell theft and complained only that the Suk were without their kipandes. Was it necessary, or at least wise, to report the matter at all? Helen would testify that, with police encouragement, the settlers had become accustomed to dealing with ‘small cases’ themselves, and invariably by beating. But this was not considered to be a small case. And Brettell would make sure that it was not overlooked.
Geoffrey returned to the farm with an askari who turned out to be the cook’s brother. After a certain amount of socialising, the askari handcuffed the prisoners and asked Geoffrey to drive the whole party back to Kitale in his car. It was now four o’clock. According to gossip, Geoffrey said that he wouldn’t allow monkeys or baboons in his car. There was nothing for it but to stay the night. This was one of many mistakes that Geoffrey made. It was Helen who insisted that the open maize crib was too cold a place for the Suk to sleep and that they must find shelter in one of the native huts. She brought them water to wash themselves and provided plenty of posho. At 3 a.m. the askari began to march his prisoners back to Kitale, handcuffed in pairs. Once it was light, they were seen by at least one European farmer, out and about early. They reached Kitale at 11, having walked the last nine miles in three and a half hours. It was a forced march, since the askari was anxious to get back for the police sports that Saturday afternoon. It cannot have done any of them much good.
On the other hand, if the beating had been very severe, it’s remarkable that they were able to cover such a distance in that time. Kumen, against whom the police preferred no charges, walked back to the Selwyns’ farm, covering at least 34 miles, and on the Monday was able to do enough work to earn his posho. For several days Helen continued to treat and dress a small abrasion on his leg. But by Friday both Kumen and Munyuke were sick. Munyuke ran away to the Brettells and was not seen again. Kumen was hospitalised. As for the rest, after a weekend in the Kitale lock-up four of the prisoners needed to go to the native hospital. As Keyen’s condition worsened, the DC, Henry Izard, was ‘pulled out of the Club’ to record his dying deposition; the Selwyns were also present.
Helen Selwyn’s trial would focus on a matter of fact and a matter of judgment. Why did Keyen die on 25 June, from what causes, immediate and remote? And what were her motives in ordering the beating of men, some of whom she must have known were innocent? For the prosecution, the doctors in charge of Keyen’s case reported in very great detail that the septicaemia (or cellulitis) which caused his death was the result of the beating. But for Dr Arnell, a close friend appearing for the defence, it was ‘highly improbable, almost impossible’ that Keyen had died as a direct consequence of the blows he had received. As for the treatment he had subsequently been given, it was ‘entirely inadequate’: ‘I don’t think medical skill was used.’ Geoffrey Selwyn’s account was more vivid. ‘They just stick the nig on a low bench, a whiff of chloroform, and cut him up, and that’s that.’ But Arnell had only seen Keyen at the post mortem, and the judge discounted her evidence.
As for Helen’s motives, it became clear in the course of her cross-examination that her concern was not so much with the bells as with the livestock. Living as they did right on the Suk escarpment, she was sure that it would be only a matter of time before the cattle, now without their protective bells, were taken. Under pressure, Helen more or less admitted that, besides being a way of seeking information about the bells, the beatings (a form of torture, the prosecution suggested) were intended as a deterrent. What was not said at the trial, but is very probable, is that she used unusual force because, as a woman, she lacked legitimacy in the eyes of the African staff, who no doubt considered the bwana to be in charge. In any case, the bwana needed watching. He had been ‘run in’ before for some unspecified violence to Africans, and Helen had had to pay a fine and to explain to the ‘boys’ that the bwana had not meant to hurt them but that he was always very ill. The truth was that Geoffrey Selwyn had acted out of ‘intense irritability because the boys were so dull’. Helen wrote that he was ‘becoming more and more irresponsible both in thought and actions’. Knight had heard Geoffrey boast about how natives ought to be handled, and Knight and Brettell believed all the ‘mad and painted lies’ told them by the ‘boys’ themselves.
At about the time of Keyen’s death, Helen collapsed with malaria and heart trouble. She was in bed for two weeks (‘I don’t remember much’) and was taken by Dr Arnell in an ambulance to a neighbouring farm owned by a South African family, the Vickerstaffs, where Elizabeth had gone immediately after 8 June, and would spend the next year. Liz remembers being taken in to say goodbye to her father, who was in bed. When able, Helen wrote to Gordon Selwyn in Winchester: ‘I am in great trouble.’ Brettell demanded that the DC should run her in for trespass and for beating ‘boys’ who had had permission to stay on his property. With four men in hospital she was to expect the worst. Most of the farm workers were now arrested. The Arnells advised her to take on an expensive lawyer named Shaw. (Gordon Selwyn sent back the title deeds of the property so that funds could be raised to pay for the defence, but they were returned since the bank manager thought it best for the accused to have as few assets as possible.) Helen then had a relapse.
On 12 July warrants were issued for the arrest of Helen and Geoffrey Selwyn on a charge of murder. Helen was told of this by the Arnells and, accompanied by them, she left the farm for the Kitale Nursing Home, where she would spend the next two months, at first guarded by an askari. Elizabeth would come reasonably often, with the Vickerstaff children, and go off ‘quite happily’. As for Geoffrey, he was visited by two policemen, and given the choice of immediate arrest or proceeding to Nairobi, the only place where he could apply for bail. He chose to return at once to Kitale, driving the policeman in his own car. There being no suitable accommodation in the prison, he spent the night in the Kitale Hotel. The next morning he met up with Helen in front of the District Magistrate. Bail in a murder case was routinely denied, and both were remanded in custody.
Geoffrey had another ten days to live. He was taken to the prison at Eldoret, 44 miles away, but after a few days showed symptoms of malaria, a recurrent problem. On 15 July he complained of swelling in his lower limbs, which was indicative of blackwater fever (nephritis), from which he had suffered six years earlier. By now Helen had managed to secure bail for him, but it was too late. On 18 July he went into hospital, and by the morning of 23 July it was clear that he was about to die. Helen was sent for from Kitale. She herself had been unconscious for two days and when she was put in the car hardly knew what was happening to her. ‘They said he was unconscious,’ she wrote to Gordon, ‘but he knew my voice and touch . . . and made the only sound he could. He just waited for me to come . . . and then just peacefully died. Everything seems to have come to an end.’ He was 46. Everybody went to his funeral, from the DC downwards.
In spite of all it was a good marriage and remote – in every way – from the serial infidelities and other kinds of white mischief that flourished in Kenya’s Happy Valley. ‘Geoffrey’s pension was stopped of course,’ Helen wrote to Gordon, ‘so we are done.’ The War Disability allowance had been paid only since 1929. Could the back-pension be paid, which would make it possible to keep the farm going? Apparently not. At this point the Dean of Winchester took up the cudgels. During August and September 1934 he never ceased to exert himself on behalf of his sister-in-law.
Geoffrey’s great-grandfather was Thomas Arnold of Rugby, which meant that Matthew Arnold was a great-uncle. Geoffrey was born in the spring of 1888 at Toxteth, where his father was principal of Liverpool College. His mother, one of the daughters of Thomas Arnold the younger, was the sister of Mary Arnold, Mrs Humphry Ward. Another sister was married to Leonard Huxley, son of Thomas, so Leonard’s sons, Aldous and the zoologist Julian Huxley, were Geoffrey’s cousins. When Gordon launched a fighting fund to pay for his sister-in-law’s legal expenses, Julian Huxley, who knew Kenya and had written about it (he was a cousin by marriage of the writer Elspeth Huxley), sent £10 and hoped to be able to give more once his new job started at London Zoo. ‘Freelancing is no joke when there’s a world slump on.’
Geoffrey’s father, Edward Carus Selwyn, left Liverpool in the year of Geoffrey’s birth to become headmaster at Uppingham, where he succeeded the legendary and much loved Edward Thring. Selwyn became legendary for the opposite reason, as one who did not suffer fools gladly, and as a flogger. In 1895 his wife died; Geoffrey was seven, Gordon ten. In 1907 Edward Selwyn was forced to resign, ‘the Trustees having made up what they are pleased to call their minds’, as he put it in his parting speech. (The boy whose beating precipitated the resignation went on to become a bishop in Australia.) Gordon Selwyn, who also had a difficult time as a headmaster (as Warden of Radley from 1913 to 1918), was married to Phyllis Hoskyns, the daughter of his colleague at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, Sir Edwin Hoskyns, 13th baronet, a distinguished New Testament scholar and son of the Bishop of Southwell.
So the door of the Colonial Office was always open to Gordon Selwyn, who soon became a rather tiresome visitor. The civil servant in charge of the Kenya desk wrote on one occasion: ‘I will of course see the Dean with – mixed – pleasure.’ Gordon Selwyn had two concerns. One, prompted by what people in Kenya were saying, was that his brother had been wrongfully arrested and imprisoned without trial, even ‘murdered’ by the Government. He petitioned the Governor of Kenya for reparations, which he suggested might appropriately be used to pay for the children’s education. And to admit that a mistake had been made would remove a stigma from the girls. The Colonial Office refused to support the petition. ‘This is preposterous . . . plain silly.’ ‘It is not our job to worry about delicate Europeans who get run in for murder and die.’ ‘To talk of a stigma on the children is rather absurd when the mother is doing time for manslaughter.’ But relevant reports were sought and obtained from Kenya.
More promising were Gordon Selwyn’s efforts, prompted by many correspondents in Kenya, to prevent the forthcoming murder trial being staged in Nairobi. It was perhaps Geoffrey’s unguarded tongue which had decided the legal authorities against a local trial. He had boasted to the police officer who arrested him that he was not a bit worried, since ‘every single European in the area’ was ‘his personal friend’. No jury in Kitale would return a guilty verdict. Perhaps. With the exception of Brettell and Knight, Helen’s letters attest to the solidarity of local opinion against the Colonial Government, the habitual stance of white settlers for the past thirty years. Medical affidavits were obtained which suggested that to move her to Nairobi might have fatal consequences. The District Surgeon at Eldoret testified that she was ‘in a very sick state of health’, suffering from a fibroid in the womb which caused frequent haemorrhages and might require surgery, as well as chronic malaria. Gordon Selwyn wrote to the Colonial Office: ‘My sister-in-law has two little girls . . . They have lost their father. Are they also to lose their mother?’ And how could the extra expenses of witnesses for the defence be covered? Helen, fearing ‘all the clever crooked people in Nairobi’, wrote of ‘being pushed deeper and deeper into some horrible pit’. But Gordon’s efforts and those of his friends in Kenya prevailed. The Attorney General withdrew his objections to a trial in Kitale, but it was decided to hold it in Eldoret, where the jury, composed entirely of white farmers, some of them Afrikaners, would not have known the defendant but were, despite this, no more likely to return a guilty verdict than a Kitale jury.
The trial began on 24 September and lasted for five days. Helen was present for two of them and was examined and cross-examined for three hours. She later complained that the law officers for the Crown had twisted and wrested her evidence, that their motivation was ‘evil’, but the trial seems to have been reasonably fair. The judge directed the jury towards manslaughter, which everyone had expected, and this was their verdict, with a recommendation of mercy on behalf of all the accused. Glossing the verdict, counsel for the defence suggested that in the case of the five native co-defendants the recommendation acknowledged that they had only been obeying Mrs Selwyn’s orders, and the judge agreed, giving them a month’s hard labour each. Helen was very pleased about that: in her own testimony she had insisted on taking sole responsibility for the beatings. In her own case, Shaw suggested that the verdict amounted to ‘technical manslaughter’, since in Dr Arnell’s judgment the beating had been only a remote cause of Keyen’s death; and he asked that her poor state of health be taken into consideration. Mr Justice Webb professed himself ‘amazed’ at the extent to which she had taken the law into her own hands. (By implication this was a criticism of the way things were managed in Kenya: he had recently arrived in the colony.) He was also surprised that when the ‘boys’ arrived in court they all raised their hands in salute to their memsahib, whom they had not seen for two months. He said that in the case of a man he would have felt bound to impose ‘an extremely severe sentence’. But given the circumstances he sentenced Mrs Selwyn to 12 months’ imprisonment, in Mombasa.
That the Selwyns were charged with murder, and Helen tried for that offence, was not all that surprising, or unique. But the verdict must have been unexpected, since it was notorious that all-white juries never returned a guilty verdict in such cases. In only one other case in the history of the colony was a white woman sentenced for causing death or injury to an African.
After a spell in hospital in Mombasa, Helen served her time in the old Portuguese fort, where she could feel the sea breeze and see the ships come and go. Meanwhile, Gordon Selwyn had been collecting support and money for his sister-in-law’s cause, and had published a pamphlet setting out the facts as he understood them. In Kenya a petition was put up to obtain some remission of her sentence. One of the organisers of the campaign was the second Lord Kitchener of Khartoum, who was farming at Hoey’s Bridge (now Moi’s Bridge), on the Nzoia River, east of Kitale, although, in his opinion, ‘Mrs Selwyn was very wrong to punish boys against whom she had no evidence.’
The British press gave prominence to the case when it first broke in July, with some sensational headlines – ‘native flogged to death’ – and to the trial in late September. The papers could not resist Geoffrey’s alleged remark about baboons, but the News Chronicle got the facts wrong, reporting that a ‘child’ had been one of those beaten and hospitalised, no doubt misunderstanding the term ‘boy’. Attention focused, in the press and elsewhere, on whether or not beatings were common, even routine, among the settlers. According to a piece in the New Statesman, ‘that an employer may beat his native servant without trial and at his discretion is acceptable as the proper thing.’ Helen wrote, before her trial, that ‘so many have told me with almost fear in their voice that it might so easily have happened to them, as they had from time to time ordered far worse beatings.’ More than one witness, including Dr Arnell, had suggested that such beatings were very common, all over Africa. We know that they were certainly used to ‘encourage’ Africans to work, when labour was in short supply.
There were legal precedents, the most famous from 1907, in the early days of the East African Protectorate. Three Europeans, led by Captain Ewart Grogan, ‘Cape to Cairo Grogan’, had flogged three Kikuyu men in front of the Nairobi Court House and a crowd of 250 other settlers, punishment for what seems to have been a very mild insult offered to two white ladies, one of them Grogan’s sister. An accomplice boasted that it had always been his policy ‘to flog a nigger on sight who insults a white woman’. Grogan was President of the Colonists’ Association and would vie with Lord Delamere for political leadership in Kenya. The flogging incident was intended as a gesture of contempt for the Colonial Office and its local representatives. When Grogan received a prison sentence of a month and a hefty fine, the Times of East Africa declared that the whole white population had been punished and placed ‘absolutely at the mercy of teeming numbers of brutal savages’. The Star of East Africa admitted that Grogan’s action had been lawless, but hoped ‘that Britishers will always be guilty of a similar species of lawlessness’. The Nairobi Incident was a piece of Kenyan history of which no one could have been ignorant.
In 1934 the issue was raised by Godfrey Benson, Lord Charnwood, a Liberal politician, who shared his concerns with the Colonial Secretary, Sir Philip Cunliffe-Lister, and asked a question in the House of Lords. ‘What really interests me is the impression which the defence, as reported here, is likely to create, that the beating of natives by white settlers at their own discretion is a very common practice in Kenya.’ Charnwood had probably been prompted by the New Statesman, and his questions led to the forwarding to London of a full transcript of the trial proceedings and the judge’s notes, in which all passages of relevance to Charnwood’s question are marked with blue pencil. There was also a telegram to the Colonial Secretary from the Governor, a tough and (with the settlers) unpopular Ulsterman, Sir Joseph Byrne, which seems to have put Charnwood’s mind at rest. On the one hand, Byrne said that ‘illegalities of this nature are unreservedly condemned by this Government.’ On the other, the Governor conceded that arbitrary corporal punishment as an alternative to imprisonment or a fine had its attractions for both settlers and natives, ‘and that therefore in such cases as may occur no report is made by either party.’ In other words, beating is always wrong and no one should have done it – but everyone did.
What was the significance of the Selwyn case in the colonial and racial politics of East Africa? It gathers up the experience of all the conflicting parties in what Bruce Berman and John Lonsdale, in their important 1992 study, called the ‘Unhappy Valley’. Was there a hidden political motive, unstated in any of the official documents? There was a widespread impression among the settlers that the prosecution of the Selwyns was intended to signal a policy of judicial even-handedness. In the same month, June 1934, Alex Semini was killed and his wife raped by several Kipsigis men in the Naivasha area. Can it have been entirely coincidental that the trial of the eight accused of the Semini outrage, leading to executions and the summary deportation of a whole clan, began on the same day as Helen Selwyn’s trial?
Whether such suspicions were justified or not, they are typical of the depth of mistrust which existed between white settlers and the Colonial Administration. The interests of the settlers, said by their leaders to be ‘paramount’, and seeking fulfilment in a kind of Rhodesian ‘responsible government’, were totally at odds with official policy, spelt out in the Devonshire Declaration of 1923, that it was the interests of the native population which should be ‘paramount’.
Settler aspirations were never going to be fulfilled. In Rhodesia the ratio of Europeans to Africans was 1:22, in Kenya 1:176. In Kenya a mere 16,700 square miles were reserved for Europeans, in Rhodesia 76,000 square miles. Nor was this a simple matter of numbers and ratios. Kenya was, strategically and politically, very different from Rhodesia. The large Indian settler element was a further complication: in the early 1920s the whites threatened the Unilateral Declaration of Independence when it was mooted that Kenya would become an Indian settler colony. Grogan said then that the elected members of the Legislative Assembly ‘should never agree with the Government, but always be in opposition’. The politics and economics of this unresolved contradiction were, of course, far more complicated than this simple storytelling can hope to embrace.
Then there was that other ground bass of Kenyan politics, the conflicting interests of the ‘small men’ and the ‘big men’. Helen Selwyn’s letters become bitter only when she complains about the strangers in Nairobi: another world where, according to Berman and Lonsdale, people were ‘good at handling guns, women and a constant flow of champagne’. ‘No one in or round Kitale is wealthy enough to help or have any influence,’ Helen complained. ‘No one in this country has ever been treated by the Nairobi people like this.’ Only in the remote Trans-Nzoia were the small men politically dominant, and only private means from some source outside the country, coupled with success in coffee growing, could save ‘poor white’ farmers. And coffee prices were going through the floor.
These harsh conditions bred confrontations like the one at Friston on 8 June 1934. Farmers like Helen Selwyn were desperate and fearful. Post-colonial liberals will ask why the whites were there in the first place; by what divine law were the Suk kept off much of their own land and, more to the point, the Masai moved off theirs, to create the White Highlands? How can anyone justify the degradation of these men – of the women we hear nothing – to the status of ‘boys’? Kenya was, in the words of its historians, a ‘conquest state’, created by punitive and squalid violence, motivated by an imperial ideology of progress, even if from the start native African interests and forces were collusive. White settlers, however absurd their aspirations, were a racial aristocracy, never doubting their inborn superiority. Their attitudes are well represented by Helen’s comment about the Government of Kenya: ‘They are all shopkeepers, and all for the native at all costs.’ Quite apart from the philosophy of trusteeship, the Government of Kenya knew that much of its revenue came from African peasant farmers. The received wisdom was that British commerce and industry were ‘pro-native’ rather than ‘pro-settler’.
Helen Selwyn was released early from prison in late April 1935. Back in Kitale she felt the absence of Geoffrey more acutely than ever. ‘I feel rather like a ship without rudder or anchor.’ In the only surviving letter to her own mother, she writes that Elizabeth wouldn’t let her out of her sight, afraid that she would be spirited away again. As soon as she could, she got back to the farm. It looked as pretty as it ever did, nestling in a little green hollow among gum trees. But the property had been rented to ex-missionaries called Fripp, who had no experience of farming, and were making free of everything, ‘even all our silver’. The Fripps drove a hard bargain. Helen longed to take the farm on again, to make a success of it, but what was she to do? She moved from one friendly house to another, sometimes earning her keep as a masseuse. Elizabeth was not well and needed her tonsils out, and for that and many other reasons her mother wanted to get ‘home’. But how would she live in England?
In September she did go back, to settle Elizabeth in the convent at East Grinstead, where she joined her sister Barbara. (Liz will never forget the sound of the great door of St Margaret’s slamming shut as her mother left her.) Helen then returned to Kenya, to settle matters with the Fripps, who later became good friends. She travelled once more to England in May 1939, hoping that her skills as a masseuse would help her into the new profession of physiotherapist. But her age was against her and in February 1940 she went back to East Africa in a wartime convoy, to spend the last nine years of her life making some kind of living, finishing up as a masseuse and housekeeper in Kitale Hospital. On 26 September 1948, aged 56, Helen died of stomach cancer in Kitale Hospital, with Eva Knight by her side; Padre Knight conducted the funeral (the Brettells had also become friends). For fifty years the graves of Geoffrey and Helen Selwyn went unmarked. But in 1997, when the BBC took Liz back to Kitale, they were traced and a memorial was erected.
What of Friston, intended as a little bit of Sussex in Africa, nestling in its green hollow? Nothing remains to identify the site but a concrete base on which a water tank once stood. A traditional African farmstead, Keiyo (the Brettells’ place is now Luhya, the Knights’ Mwisho), is surrounded by its three or four acres of maize, tall enough in a good season for children to play hide-and-seek – children too poor to go to school, even though the school is only a stone’s throw away.