Saturday, 24 September 2016

The White King of the Kikuyu

     With 22% of the population, the Kikuyu are the dominant and most progressive tribe in Kenya, and they provided its first president, Jomo Kenyatta. The reason is not hard to discern: living in the vicinity of Nairobi, they experienced the strongest effects of British civilisation. But it wasn't always so. Up to the end of the nineteenth century they dwelt ensconced in fortified villages, every clan being at war with every other. Not even a rooster was allowed in the village, lest its crowing alert enemies to the village's location. The breeding stock was hidden in coops out in the bush. Outsiders kept clear of their territory, for they would be marked for death. The first thing a passing caravan would know of the danger lurking in the undergrowth would be the twang of a bowstring, and a poisoned arrow striking down a laggard. Or else they would blunder into a poisoned skewer set into the underbrush at stomach level. All this came to an end when an intrepid white man arrived to trade, and unexpectedly became the white king of a savage tribe.

   John Boyes was born in Hull in 1873, the son of a Yorkshire shoemaker, and ran away to sea at the age of thirteen. Then followed a long series of travels around the Atlantic and Indian Oceans until he jumped ship at Durban to join in the Matabele War. With hostilities over, he worked his way north, arriving in Mombasa aboard an Arab dhow at the end of 1897 without a shilling to his name.
     But these were the great days of the British Empire, when men were men. The Government was offering good money to anyone who would transport food to the troops suppressing the Sudanese Mutiny in Uganda. Boyes therefore joined a partner in a scheme to take a caravan of donkey-drawn wagons to Lake Victoria. The profit of £200 he made on that expedition was the largest sum he had ever owned. After inflation, it would be the equivalent of £20,000 in 2016, or £79,000 in comparison to the average income. But it had been costly; he had lost nearly all his donkeys, his drivers had deserted, and he himself had nearly died of malaria. Taking stock of the situation, he realised it would be easier to sell food to the Government Station at Naivasha and the surveying teams building the railway to Uganda. All he had to do was buy the grain from the nearby agricultural tribe, the Kikuyu. The fact that they were likely to kill him did not faze him at all.
     By offering huge rewards, he managed to gather together a team of seven locals, including a few Maasai, who could speak Kikuyu. They hadn't managed to progress five miles when he was dragged back to the Government Station at Naivasha, and told in no uncertain terms that he was on a suicide mission, and he was definitely not going to do it on their watch. An armed guard escorted them out of the area, but once past their  jurisdiction, he made a long trek over the mountains to Kikuyu country.
     The few outlying Kikuyu he encountered gave their war cry and hurried off.  Before he knew it, he was face to face with a band of five hundred warriors, armed with spears and shields, their bodies painted with red clay, rattles clattering on their feet, and many resplendent in head dresses of colobus fur. Concealing his rifle, Boyes approached with bunches of grass in his hands to signify he had come in peace. Through his quaking interpreter, he asked to be taken to their leader.
     In response, they demanded to know the location of the rest of his expedition, and their guns. There weren't any, he replied. He came in peace.
     That the inhabitants lived in constant apprehension of war was clear from the aspect of Tuthu, the village he now entered. Constructed on high ground, it was surrounded by a cleared area to permit defensive fire, and protected by a boma, or palisade of thorn bush. The only means of entry was to crawl on hands and knees through a tunnel made of slabs of wood bound together by vines. Inside, he found himself among a collection of thatched huts and granaries of mud and wattle, erected on stilts. Before he knew it, he was surrounded by women and children fascinated by his pale skin and straight hair, and pulling on his clothes to see if they were part of his body. He was the first white man they had ever seen.
     Now, the Kikuyu had no chiefs as such. Every clan, every village, and every military unit, was run by a council of nine elders. The first among equals in this village council, the one Boyes was to consistently refer to as the "chief", was Karuri, a middle aged man who appears to have lived a very interesting life. Shortly they would become firm friends. But not right now. He told Boyes they were afraid that if they sold food to the white man, the latter would settle in the country and take their land. Boyes assured him that this was not the case; all the British wanted was a trade route to Uganda. In any case, if they were planned to settle, the last place they would choose would be cold Aberdare Mountains or the swampy area the Maasai called Nairobi. And this was the truth at the time he spoke.
     Just the same, Karuri was not prepared to trade. However, he did allow a woman to bring a gourd of water to Boyes, who then, in order to purify it, added some fruit salt. The onlookers screamed in amazement when they saw it effervesce, for they thought he was drinking boiling water.
     "Won't it kill you?" asked Karuri.
     "Certainly not!" replied Boyes. "Don't you know that it is impossible to kill a white man?"
      Then, as a further demonstration, he sent a porter back for his gun, and fired it into a baobab tree. Such trees are hollow, and the wood is very soft. As expected, the bullet passed right through. Boyes told him that the bullet had gone right through the mountain on the other side as well. The chief was impressed, but still not impressed enough to trade.
     At least Boyes had one success to his credit: he had been allowed to live. But probably he would have been forced to depart empty handed, his  expedition a failure, had it not been for a stroke of luck the following dawn. The village was attacked. He awoke to see the boma and village burning, and a rival clan stabbing and clubbing the inhabitants in the streets. Bellowing a war cry, the white man charged into the fray, blasting away at the enemy. They broke and ran.
     Boyes then pointed out to them that the enemy clan was bound to return and take revenge. They needed him and his rifle, and had no choice but to trade with him. Next, he produced a marvelous item of white man's magic: iodoform disinfectant. Up to then, they had always taken for granted that their wounds would become infected, if not gangrenous. He discovered that a small quantity, wrapped in paper, would bring him 20 or 30 pounds of flour. He left with 200 loads of food, each weighing 60 pounds, which he was able to sell for £400.
     Things were looking up. He reinvested it in trade goods, returned to Tuthu, and had a house built for himself on the European model. (Another website claims he also acquired three native concubines.) He made friends with the witchdoctors, who became his eyes and ears. Unfortunately, the new wealth of the village aroused the jealousy of the neighbouring clans, who started ambushing his porters and combining together in order to loot them and wipe them out. And the two items he was never able to purchase were, not surprisingly, guns and ammunition.
     Another stroke of luck came when news arrived of how, a couple of days' march away, on the slopes of Mount Kenya, one of the Kikuyu clans had massacred an Arab caravan and captured 100 rifles. To others this would have been a disaster; to Boyes it was an opportunity. Taking 100 picked men from his village, he instructed them in the methods of the British army square, which he had witnessed in Matabeleland. A row of archers was trained to shoot their arrows all at once on command, while the spearmen in the front rank knelt down. A forced march then led them to the rival clan's village at daybreak. So sudden was assault that not a single life was taken. Boyes simply pointed his own rifle at the chief and demanded, and got, all the captured rifles and ammunition.
     To his disappointment, only 30 of them were any good, for the natives, not understanding firearms, had simply thrown them on the ground and left them to rust. Nevertheless, there were enough for him to arm what was now his bodyguard, and train them in the parade ground exercises he himself had learned.
     Now he faced the same problem every nation builder faces: an army costs money. Several of the neighbouring valleys asked to join his confederacy and enjoy its prosperity and protection. Although it opened up new sources of grain for the railway gangs, the newcomers also required protection, hence a larger army and more expenses. And, after all, he was in it for trade and profit, not power. (A very similar dynamic was what ultimately led to the British conquest of India.)
     Rival chiefs took it as a sign of weakness when he sent out messengers urging a peace treaty and the cessation of raids. They burnt and raided several villages in his federation. Naturally enough, Boyes led a retaliatory raid against them and won. But after the battle he noticed both sides sitting down eating together and chatting about the highlights of the fight, and he became convinced that bringing all the clans together in a peaceful confederacy would be possible. So, over the next few months, accompanied by a small group of warriors, he travelled throughout the valleys, urging them to form a blood brotherhood with him. At last, at a great meeting, and with many speeches and much ceremony, a peace treaty was signed.

     But the real crisis was to come. A clan called the Chingas controlled Boyes' principal caravan route, and while he was taking out a shipment of ivory and food through their territory, accompanied by only a few companions, the Chingas attacked another safari, killing all its members, including three Goanese traders. The death of these white men (well, white by Kikuyu standards) electrified the whole Kikuyu tribe. The Chingas rose in revolt.
    In the hope that a personal talk with the Chinga leader would sort things out, Boyes hurried off by himself. But it didn't work out. After a series of terrifying incidents, he and his companions ended up in a makeshift boma, which a vast horde of Chingas dancing around, brandishing the heads of the Goans on poles. For probably the first and only time of his life, Boyes admitted to being "on the edge of hysteria".
     But he soon regained his cool. Meanwhile, confident that his little party could not escape, the Chingas lit a huge fire out of gunshot from the boma, and began an orgy of drinking, feasting, and the chewing of narcotic roots, while shouting out insults to the beleaguered men and boasting of the tortures they would soon inflict on them. But while they were working themselves up into a frenzy in order to charge into the boma, Boyes and his men crept out under the cover of darkness and, on his signal, poured gunfire into their ranks, then charged in among them with spears. The Chingas scattered, while Boyes' men burnt as many bows and spears as possible before returning to their own boma.
     The next day they fought their way out of the boma and back into a friendly village. A few days later, Karuri and other loyal chiefs arrived with several thousand of their own warriors. With Boyes and his bodyguard at their head, they practically destroyed the Chingas as a clan. After less than two years, John Boyes was now undisputed king of the Kikuyu. And he didn't even speak the language.

     But he did manage to learn the language, though he preferred to pretend not to understand it when dealing with an uncertain clan. He played off the various witchdoctor factions - rain-makers, medicine men, and so forth - one against the other, and subsidized the wandering minstrels in order to keep in touch with all developments in the country. The chiefs would consult him on every major issue, and his orders were obeyed without question. His caravans passed unhindered.
    One day, while on a tour of inspection, he noticed a man bearing the signs of active smallpox. Alarmed, he explained to the natives that the disease could kill hundreds of them. Equally alarmed, they begged him to shoot the victim. Boyes was later to confess that, if he had done so, thousands of lives would have been saved. Instead, he ordered them to quarantine the patient in a special hut. The trouble was, they got tired of it all after a few days, and let him go, and when Boyes happened to see the same man in another village a few weeks later, he knew it was too late.
     Boyes sent to Mombasa for vaccine, and since the railway had now been put through, it arrived in just a few days. Although he quickly set out on an extensive program of vaccination, whole districts were virtually wiped out by the epidemic. To make matters worse, a drought struck, followed by a locust plague, and the lowland Kikuyu began to starve. The pitiful remnant struggled into the mountains, where there was still food, but the residents attacked them and robbed them of their few possessions.
    Boyes now organised a relief force. Gathering together what few sheep and goats the refugees still possessed, he organised a limited number to be slaughtered each day to keep them alive. He then send runners to Karuri and other chiefs to make arrangements for distributing them among the upland villages to be fed and housed. That he was able to achieve such a solution speaks wonders for his prestige and authority. And when the drought was over, he found that the refugees didn't want to go home. Unhappily for them, the hillfolk were not enthusiastic about supporting their lowland brethren indefinitely, and Boyes had to force them back to their old homes.

     Then one day a runner arrived to announce the appearance of what was obviously two British officers and a band of native soldiers. Boyes was elated. Now the burden of administration would be taken from his shoulders, and he could return to the full time business of trade. Calling together the paramount chiefs, he explained to them that a new era was about to begin. Now they would have roads, schools, irrigation, the proper rotation of crops, and medicine. The chiefs were swept up with his enthusiasm, and he set off with a small army in full regalia, the tallest man bearing a makeshift British flag. It was 31 October 1900. As they approached the military detachment, he later explained, it was the proudest day of his life.
    They arrested him! Boyes had to prevent his warriors from fighting, as the officer removed the Union flag and stripped off the insignia worn by the leading members of his troop. Marched into the officer's tent, Boyes was told he was charged with waging war, making treaties, impersonating Government, leading six punitive expeditions, and dacoity - each of which carried the death penalty.
    "What's dacoity?" he asked.
    "Banditry," explained the officer.
     "That part's a lie!" cried Boyes. "I was never a bandit in my life."
    On the trek to Nairobi, the native sergeant, who was afraid of losing the folder of charges against Boyes, handed it to him for safekeeping. At every community they passed, the inhabitants came out in full fighting regalia to greet their king, and Boyes was required to go ahead of his captors to calm down the crowd. Once in Nairobi, he had to wander around for a couple of hours before being seen by the sub-commissioner, who suddenly realised he had a "dangerous criminal" on his hands. Boyes was sent by train under armed guard to Mombasa and thrown into an old Portuguese fort.
    At his trial, witnesses testified that he had tortured them by pricking them with needles and rubbed in a strange, magical fluid. Others swore that he had wrongfully slaughtered their sheep and goats, admittedly in order to feed the starving. Still others told how they had been forced back to work in the lowlands when they were happily living in the hills.
    The judge threw out all the charges.

    The most amazing aspect of Boyes' achievement is that he did it all without any money, support, or even planning. After all, he never intended to be anything but a trader; it was only by accident that he found himself the King of the Kikuyu. Nevertheless, it is difficult not to agree with the verdict of his friend, John Hunter, the professional hunter, that under other circumstances he could easily have become another Rhodes or Clive.
    Untroubled, apparently, by either fear or hardship, John Boyes was what we in Australia would call a larrikin, and he continued to lead a very adventurous life. He was granted a thousand-acre farm on the outskirts of Nairobi, for the British had discovered that the area, which was ultimately to be known as the White Highlands, had an equitable climate, suitable for white settlement. Best of all, it was unoccupied. Neither the Kikuyu nor any other settled tribes lived there for fear of the wandering Maasai.
    All the benefits which Boyes had predicted for the Kikuyu came to pass - but there were drawbacks. Although materially, they had never had it so good, they were treated as inferiors. Also, some of their treasured customs, such as female genital mutilation, were outlawed. More tellingly, modern medicine, and the suppression of war, led to a population explosion, but the whites had occupied all the vacant land. Resentment lurked under the surface. John Boyes passed away in 1951, and the following year the Mau Mau terror began in earnest.
    Since most of the current generation have forgotten that bloody episode, it stands to reason that John Boyes' memory has suffered even worse. A major street in Nairobi is named after a Kikuyu terrorist, Dedan Kimathi, so you will hardly expect that the independent nation will cherish the memory of the man who raised their major tribe out of savagery.
    But they owe him a tremendous debt of gratitude.

References: Due to the wonders of the internet, it is possible to read online or download John Boyes' own account of his adventures.
Click here for the short version (35 pages), How I Became King of the Wa-Kikuyu.
Click here for the long version (315 pages), John Boyes, King of the Wa-Kikuyu.
It has also been republished as a hard copy, for those of us who like their books that way.


  1. Interesting piece here.
    This account corroborates the story my grandfather gave me about Boyes.

  2. either way kimathi was much of a terrorist as george washington..or..wait.. he might be one since it was not anglo saxon fighting another..

    1. Why are citing George Washington to me? I'm an Australian, remember: a proud offspring of the British Empire.
      In any case, "terrorist" is not a synonym for "rebel". It refers to the methods, not the cause. As the link I included pointed out, Mau Mau was a terrorist organisation, operating a campaign of murder to terrorise the civilian population, with fellow Kikuyu the chief victims. When Kimathi was captured, and taken to Nyeri Hospital with a gunshot wound, a police cordon was thrown around the hospital to prevent the crowds of angry Kikuyu, relatives of his victims, dragging him out and tearing him limb from limb.

  3. Those were hard times. The men did what they all had to do. As for now Malcolm, come settle here, it is ripe!

  4. Heard of the Karen suburb in Nairobi; a little heaven down here. So serene, you never wonna leave. Sweet Karen :-D