Lake Naivasha

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The stamps shown above are from British East Africa, which consisted of the colonies of Kenya, Uganda and Tanganyika. The one on the left dates from the late thirties in the reign of King George VI. It shows a view of Lake Naivasha, a beauty spot in an area of Kenya known then as the White Highlands. I’ve been there on Google, it’s very nice. In those days Lake Naivasha served as a landing place for Imperial Airways’ flying boats on the Southampton to Cape Town route and, as such, was an important link in the Empire’s communications network.

It was also the playground of a gang of sybaritic white settlers, known as the Happy Valley Set, who had the time of their lives boozing, shooting game, shooting up and fucking around to say nothing of the fun they had pushing the Africans around. In King George’s time, Lake Naivasha was a wonderful place to be white. As, indeed, were the White Highlands in general. Here perfectly ordinary white people had been able to acquire vast acreages of land for small money and thereby live the highlife and indulge their delusions of grandeur.

The reason white people (and only white people) could buy land in the Highlands at less than one pence per acre was that the British had alienated this land from the indigenous population. This process was brought about by ‘pacification’ campaigns. These had proved necessary because, inexplicably, the local people had been less than enthusiastic about handing over prime agricultural land to a bunch of undesirable aliens who had just arrived from the moon.

One people in particular, the Nandi, proved particularly nettlesome. These naughty natives had raided passing caravans as well as the construction parties building the Mombassa to Uganda railway that was part of Britain’s great civilising mission. These attacks were, naturally, too much for the civilisers and they told the Nandi to pay a fine of three hundred cattle or else. The Nandi didn’t pay one dead cow so the British did what they always did when annoyed by natives – they sent a punitive expedition to learn them.

It was a big one – eighty British officers, fifteen hundred African soldiers and policemen, thirty-five hundred armed and unarmed porters, one hundred Somali levies, one thousand Maasai auxiliaries, ten machine guns and two armoured trains. Even so, it was, by itself, not quite enough to conquer the Nandi. Knavish tricks were called for.

On October 19, 1905, a Captain Meinertzhagen of the King’s African Rifles met with a Nandi leader, Koitalel arap Samloei, and his advisors under a flag of truce. As the two men went to shake hands, Meinertzhagen shot Koitalel dead. The machine guns then opened up and killed twenty-three of Koitalel’s entourage. These sneaky murders, along with the killing of some six hundred warriors and the rustling of ten-thousand head of cattle, broke the back of Nandi resistance. After a follow-up punitive expedition that killed more Nandi, took more cattle and burned their crops, the Nandi threw in the towel. It’s difficult to fight when you’re starving to death. In the subsequent at-gunpoint settlement they lost large sections of their territory to the railway and the white settlers.

The Nandi, along with all the other unwanted Africans in the Highlands, were shunted off to reservations in the time-honoured practice of European colonisation from the Pizarro brothers onwards. The Highlands and its fine agricultural land were reserved to whites and sold at rock-bottom prices to European migrants, largely from Britain. The only black people allowed to stay in the Highlands were servants and labourers.

King George’s daughter, Elizabeth, was visiting Kenya when he died in February1952 and it was at the Sagana Lodge shown in the right-hand stamp from 1954 that she first learned she was Queen Elizabeth II. In 1947 this charming royal residence in the foothills of Mount Kenya had been given as a wedding present from the colony to the princess and her prince charming, Phillip. The Kenyan colonial government had no money to waste on its native population, by now quite done in from fifty years of exploitation and mistreatment at the hands of the settlers. But finding the money for a charming gift to the royals was quite another matter.

The colony was still solidly in the grip of the white lords of the Highlands who had every reason to curry favour with the heir to the throne. They sought friends in high places to protect them from what Macmillan would later call “the winds of change” that were sweeping through Africa. Britain’s post-war Labour government had been making very unsettling noises about actually enfranchising black people. So the settlers used their loot not to build some latrines for the Africans stewing in Nairobi’s slums but to give an African pied-à-terre to a filthy-rich Englishwoman who already had more homes than she knew what to do with.

It couldn’t last and nor did it. Even by 1952 the party was drawing to a close. The Happy Valley Set were gone, lost to wine, women and song, along with murder, suicide and those winds of change. And, just eight months after Elizabeth’s pop-in to her royal pad at Sagana, the Mau Mau stabbed a white woman to death in the Highlands, the first European casualty of the Kikuyu uprising. The British were caught quite with their nickers down, having been too busy boozing and bonking to notice the natives’ growing anger and desperation.

Panicked and outraged, the colonisers hauled up their nickers and went on the warpath. Then the mask of the civilising mission with pretty stamps fell away and the world looked on as the British tortured and murdered thousands of Africans to crush the rebellion. It took them a lot of torturing and murdering but by 1956 the Mau Mau had been defeated and Kenya was still in the hands of the white settlers. However, while the insurgents may have lost the military fight, the British had lost any hope of pretending they were the good guys. That was a bit difficult to do when white settlers were openly boasting of having behaved like the Gestapo during the insurgency.

What’s more, the war had cost British taxpayers some fifty-five million quid which a broke Britain really couldn’t afford. And, with the Suez debacle effectively calling time on Britain’s imperial pretensions and the winds of change now a tempest sweeping the continent, the British found, to their surprise, it really was time to leave beautiful Lake Naivasha and its happy valley. For Elizabeth it was goodbye to her charming royal lodge at Sagana and the disappearance of her ubiquitous profile from Kenya’s stamps.

Those pretty stamps, the torturing and the murdering, all turned out to be in vain. The British went home, the Kenyans were left with painful memories and ageing philatelists were left with a lot of old stamps. Sic transit gloria mundi.

In writing this article I am particularly indebted to Timothy H. Parson’s The Rule of Empires: Those Who Built Them, Those Who Endured Them, And Why They Always Fail. For students of history in general and of colonialism in particular, I highly recommend this book.