Here was a stripling twenty-four years of age, a veteran of a two years as a bank clerk, a stint in Military College and a couple of years making himself unpopular in the Indian Army – installed as an officer of the King’s African Rifles (KAR). He found his Swahili, Sudanese and Masai troops ill-trained and undisciplined, a matter which he soon set right, while his brother officers were generally labelled as ‘rejects’ of low military abilities as well as poor morals, who were more interested in their harems than their duties. He felt that soldiers were unpopular in Kenya among the administrators, and fancied himself very much as being of a higher and more educated standard than ‘civil servants that were enlisted from the gutter … given unlimited power over uneducated and simple-minded natives… abuse their powers, suffer from megalomania and regard themselves as little tin gods’. He revels in exercising his considerable powers in exposing the corrupt, the inefficient, the amoral and illegal among the Europeans, and having them removed whenever possible.
The Africans were to feel his wrath in a rather more material way. While I am not able to judge the effect of the KAR and their early campaigns in the territory from other reliable sources, it would seem from RM’s diary that his detachment played a huge role in destabilising the region. They raided the Kikuyu clans’ villages and herds mercilessly, taking most of their stock and burning huts, not to speak of inflicting casualties running into the hundreds. When some of his men, missionaries or other Europeans were brutally murdered in retaliation, he struck mercilessly, exterminating entire villages, men and women, sparing only the children. In this context, he writes with pride that he insisted on discipline among his own men. Two of his Manyuema levies who were responsible for spearing a child and a woman in a raid despite his explicit orders got short shrift. They were shot by their officer on the spot, and three of their compatriots who fled, ‘were bagged … all three before they cleared the village.’ Rather reminiscent of a grouse-shoot on the English moors. RM maintained that while what he did was illegal and contrary to military law, which was why he did not report it to the High Commissioner at the time, he acted with a cool head, aware of possible consequences and ‘would do it again under similar circumstances’. A man from a hostile tribe, posing as a porter in his retinue was tried as a spy and summarily shot by our man. Meinertzhagen was all things to all men in
Once the Kikuyu had been suitably cowed and punished, Meinertzhagen was directed to attend to the Nandi tribes. According to his diary, the administrator at Nandi boma, Mayes, was responsible for most of the troubles with the tribe, and the two men seemed to take an immediate dislike to each other. In no time they were at each other’s throats because of Mayes’s alleged frauds and self-enrichment schemes, which RM naturally reported, managing to get the former removed from office and installed somewhere else. Still, troubles with the tribe escalated and as the administrative officers dithered, RM knocked his troops into shape for the inevitable conflict which was to come. A number of actions were fought and since RM was a very capable officer, he had general success, killing numbers of tribesmen and raiding their herds. A senior laibon (chief/witchdoctor) of the tribe, Koitalel, was the source of the insurrection, according to the diary, so plot and counter-plot is described as these two parties jockey for position and it all comes to head at a carefully orchestrated meeting, where both the laibon and RM have an ambush in place. RM relates his role in the meeting, during which the chief and a number of his followers are gunned down, but he cites a prior attack by the Nandi as starting hostilities. This single incident was to be the cause of Meinertzhagen reputedly being recommended for a VC (according to himself) as well as three separate courts of enquiry as the matter was seen in a different light by a number of people who condemned the underhand assassination of the chief as distinctly non-sporting and un-British. Though our gallant officer emerged innocent of the charges (which were supported vociferously by Mayes, the administrator whom RM had removed from Nandi), his reputation was definitely tainted, and in 1906 he was removed from Kenya by the Colonial Office as they felt the British Government’s reputation for fair dealing and honesty were being called into question due to his actions. From the diary, it is quite plain that Meinertzhagen feels deeply wronged and that he is highly resentful at having to leave
In some ways RM had extremely prescient views on African history, rather at odds with his role as the mailed fist of the
Kenya Diary is not just an endless recitation of military endeavour. RM describes the countryside in great detail. No wonder, since he mapped and surveyed large tracts and traced the watersheds and tributaries of important rivers and climbed several peaks. His maps are acknowledged as being of a very high standard, almost works of art, and a number of sketch maps are included in the book. Almost at the end of his diary, he spends some time on the
At the ripe old age of 25, RM has some very interesting views on theology, religion and the afterlife; most unusual for a man in such a hazardous profession, moreover one who professes not to care too much whether he survives a fight or becomes a casualty – according to his diary. He does affirm that he ‘had full confidence in my ability to conduct myself as a good Christian’ – which may well have been true, but ability is not always what counts – intention, perseverance and delivery might have been better. We have his reassurance that prayer gave him great comfort and consolation, as well as giving him the strength ‘to do what was right’. A great boon to any arbiter of life and death in situations such as he found himself in.
As a hunter he must certainly be given some credit, though he admits to indulging himself in an orgy of blood-lust at the start of his Kenyan experience. Admittedly he had to literally feed an army of some 200 lusty warriors in a country where lines of supply and communication were nonexistent, so most of the hundreds of animals shot were used for that purpose. He was a proponent of the light calibre .256 Mannlicher – a popgun like the great elephant hunter William Bell used. RM did not have Bell’s expertise and anatomical knowledge though, and he records a staggering number of rhino and other large game including lions, that he shot at, which got away. The fact that a leading firm of sporting arms and munitions once supplied him with bullets that would hardly travel fifty metres without plopping to the ground, added to the excitement of the chase. Our man relates some very interesting experiences, as well as other hunters’ entertaining exploits and mishaps. One of his closest shaves probably came from shooting an eland bull – one of the mildest of antelopes. He broke its shoulder with the first shot at 50 yards, all good and well; but the buck was a standing target when RM inexplicably was prompted to break its hind leg at 30 yards with the next shot. Our foolhardy hunter then moved in to cut the massive beast’s throat – at which it tossed him a dozen feet, necessitating killing it with another shot to the neck, before retiring to nurse a broken bone in his foot. Not exactly a sharpshooter then.
Rather strange is his condemnation at finding a Wanderobo camp, where at least twenty-five skulls of rhino and other game littered the ground, thus testifying to their wanton destruction of natural resources, which is a bit rich coming from him – more especially so since the offending tribe is of the hunter-gatherer persuasion. He is also completely opposed to the capturing of wild animals and ‘condemning them to solitary confinement and squalid surroundings’. From the vantage point of a half-century later he admits that the Masai were able to coexist among enormous herds of game with their cattle, but that European methods of farming could not. In all, his hunting exploits make for interesting reading, and should appeal to followers of the genre.
He displays a different face when he advocates game conservation. At one stage he speaks of asking his moneyed father for a loan to purchase a huge farm in
The vengefulness that he displayed against the tribes, when they killed his policemen, settlers or missionaries, was also extended to the animal kingdom. He writes with much relish of his revenge taken on a troop of baboons who had the temerity to kill his beloved dog who rushed into the middle of the troop that he was chasing for fun. He used a detachment of 30 troops; issued a 100 rounds of ammunition per man, and surrounded the offending band of monkeys during the night. In a battle lasting most of the morning, he managed to extinguish almost the entire adult population of monkeys of that group. Shades of the great generals!
Meinertzhagen had become interested in ornithology before leaving
Or not. A kind client, with whom I had discussed the aforegoing book and its author and this article, dropped in with a copy of Brian Garfield’s book, The Meinertzhagen Mystery (Potomac Books, 2007). An answer to my prayers, so to speak, and no time was wasted in continuing the search for some answers, which had already been hinted at during my preliminary search after data on the web. From the outset Garfield states that RM used to be one of his heroes; and that he first started to investigate his role in East Africa during the 1914–1918 campaign, in which the German von Lettow-Vorbeck ran rings around astly superior numbers of British and colonial troops under scores of generals. The reason – he was never there where the British expected him to be. Clearly a failure of intelligence. Who was the British Chief of Intelligence? None other than Capt. Richard Meinertzhagen. That’s where it all began, and among the numerous hymns of praise that were sung for our hero, slowly there emerged a solid body of evidence that Meinertzhagen’s exploits, adventures, military triumphs, diplomatic and intelligence work, zoological pre-eminence and personal reminiscences of history were a web of carefully edited fabrications concocted by a forceful and convincing actor, an overbearing personality, who charmed and fascinated people with wild tales of his life. In the words of
Let’s go back to RM’s arrival in
Meinertzhagen was recalled, as previously mentioned, and he had to kick his heels around a
Next we have our man as intelligence officer on the staff of the invading British force at the circus that the battle for Tanga was to become. I am no militarist, so I will not comment on the conduct of battle between thousands of landing forces and a few hundred askaris with a sprinkling of German soldiers; it just sounds like a complete fiasco. RM couldn’t resist a little creativity, and manufactures his ‘Boys’ Own’ version of a sortie, in which he manages to lose twenty-four of his twenty-five Kashmiris, besides shooting another couple of his men for showing cowardice! Once again there is no record of this besides in RM’s diaries. The respected General von Lettow-Vorbeck, who was to become a personal friend of RM in later years, mentions swapping lead with RM in his memoirs – but he too had to rely on the anecdotal evidence that he was fed by the latter, since it was night-time and he couldn’t possibly have seen who was sniping at him. After the smoke of battle had cleared, almost twenty percent of the British force were hors de combat, (more than the entire German forces in
During the ongoing war, RM’s intelligence reports which survive, clearly demonstrate that he had no idea that Lettow-Vorbeck was intent on leading British forces a merry dance, and tying up as many soldiers in his pursuit as possible, even though he could not hope to win a war in that fashion. RM’s diaries tell a completely different story – but why was none of this ever mentioned to his superiors? Instead he presented beautifully crafted reports, detailing an incredible amount information (that had been to hand since the beginning of the war from public sources), accompanied by his wonderful maps. He initiated the distribution of counterfeit local rupees – which were so poorly made, however, that they were used as kindling or wadding for the German artillery rounds. He was reputed to have launched a large force of African ‘spies’ against the Germans; a small problem emerged, though. Most of them were Nandi, and these lads harboured quite a grudge against our man – so what on earth would motivate them to help their British overlords as personified by their particular bête noire? Not a resounding success then. Among the other choice episodes chronicled by our man in his voluminous diaries is an improbable aeroplane flight to dizzying heights which no one had achieved with the then extant aviation technology (not to mention the scarcity of oxygen at an altitude of 17 000 feet plus). He rounds off his experiences in that theatre of war by cleaning out a machine-gun nest by hand-to-hand combat, culminating with the braining of the German Captain with his own knobkierie. Shortly afterwards he is invalided out of
That almost concluded Meinertzhagen’s connections with the African continent. After the convenient death of his wife, he is left with independent means and enabled to travel widely in the quest of ornithological data. He visited various parts of
He becomes a scientist, an award-winning, lauded ornithologist, with a slew of publications to his credit; recipient of a medal from the British Ornithologist’s Union; but as early as 1919 he was already barred from the
Here was a man who seemed compelled to see how much he could get away with; who spun yarns so wildly improbable that they were likely to invoke the scorn of those who disbelieved his lies – as well as the aversion of those who believed his tales, because to them he was a vicious killer. An Indian ornithologist friend, Salim Ali, said of RM: ‘Though possessed of many admirable qualities, he had the distinct streak of the bully in his make-up and could be unreasonable to the point of brutality at times.’ His literary legacy is based on some eighty-two volumes of carefully typed ‘diaries’ covering his entire life – much of the contents carefully edited, altered, added to and falsified – and therefore easily verifiable and found to be wanting in even quite simple elements of the truth. Even his typewriter, which he declares as having bought and used in typing his first field-diaries from 1906 onwards, had a font that was only designed in 1918. The fictional character that had been built up by its creator over the decades, ensured that he became ‘easy to suspect but difficult to accuse both because of his standing and because proofs were elusive.’