The moral vanity of empire

March 26, 2012 - 9:00am -- Nick Young

Lost Lion of Empire: The Life of ‘Cape-to-Cairo’ Grogan
by Edward Paice
HarperCollins, London, 2002. (Paperback, 470 pp)

There is something rather unsettling about a book that relates so much of East Africa’s colonial history with so little mention of the ‘natives,’ who appear in these pages only as nameless and voiceless porters, servants or labourers. This is, to be fair, not a history but a biography: of Ewart Grogan (1874–1967), a British imperial adventurer and entrepreneur whose impact on Kenya was almost as formative as the impact of his hero and early mentor, Cecil Rhodes, on what is now Zimbabwe. (Kenya, however, at least avoided the indignity of ever being called ‘Grogania.’) It is, arguably, also apt that the natives should appear here as anonymous and generally passive, a mere accessory to the story of empire: for that, it seems, is how Grogan saw them. He was, on Paice’s account, a prodigiously energetic, stubborn, and in many ways visionary man. The visions, however, all turned on the economic potential of a ‘virgin’ land. What unsettles 21st century sensibilities is that seeing a place as ‘virgin’ entails—much as in the earlier colonisation of the Americas—seeing its existing human population as largely beside the point.

While still in his twenties Grogan won fame as the first Victorian explorer to travel, in 1898-9, overland from ‘the Cape to Cairo.’ He is still erroneously commemorated by Wikipedia as “the first person to walk the length of Africa.” In fact he departed not from Cape Town but from the port of Beira (in Mozambique) and most of his journey was over water. After warming up with a few big game hunts, he sailed in relative comfort down lakes Nyasa (Malaŵi) and Tanganyika, whose shores at that time were dotted with missionary, trade and military outposts, and again took to the water in Sobat (South Sudan), sailing down the Nile to the Mediterranean. It was the bit in the middle that really brought him fame: a 1,000 mile trek north, mostly on foot, along what is now the border between Uganda and Congo and then across the vast swamps of the Sudd.

The chapters dealing with this journey are dull, and the book nearly went back on my shelf at this point. It is too easy to guess what is coming: malaria and dysentery, wild animals, hunger, lost equipment, terrified porters, cannibals, etc. Paice writes fluently and clearly but is not skilled or penetrating enough to make such predictability interesting. The best parts of the tale are, indeed, those told more directly in excerpts from Grogan’s own letters and published accounts.

Of more interest and lasting influence were Grogan’s entrepreneurial schemes. In 1903, he acquired a stake in a vast forestry concession in the Aberdare Mountains. He then waged a long and eventually successful campaign to facilitate extraction of the timber by getting the Colonial Office in London to build a branch line from the Mombassa-Uganda railway (which had been laid, at the end of the 19th century, at such vast public expense that opposition MPs in Westminster dubbed it the ‘Lunatic Line.’)

In 1904, Grogan bought, for a song, a 136 acre tract of swampland in Nairobi, when that city was still “a bastard child of the railway” (p. 151) – a squalid settlement of tin-roofed huts lacking water or sanitation, and where “at night, lions and other animals strolled the streets.” In 1948 he made a handsome profit by dividing and selling what had by then become prime real estate in a boomtown.

Meanwhile, he had built a lavish home in the city and an even more palatial hotel, ‘the Carlton of East Africa,’ with “a pet storage space where guests could leave lion and cheetah cubs,” “sumptuous eight course dinners, featuring such luxuries as caviar, lobster and aspic of foie gras,” and nightly dances to live music by a 5-piece (entirely European) jazz band (352).

In 1922, he developed the colony’s first deep-water port on a stretch of Mombassa waterfront. The Colonial Office had planned its own port and at first scorned Grogan’s initiative, but the government scheme was beset with delays and, as international trade soared, “only Grogan’s Mbaraki [port] stood between the African and European farmer and bankruptcy” (p. 324).

Grogan himself had become a substantial farmer, with various estates growing coffee and raising sheep and cattle. Quixotically, he also brought ice-packed trout ova from Scotland, via sea, rail and finally ox-cart, and managed within a couple of decades to establish 1,500 miles of thriving trout streams, “one more proof that all [he] deemed best about ‘home’ could be replicated in the East African Highlands” (p. 190). Of more economic significance, Grogan developed a 30,000 acre estate in Taveta, a sparsely populated, low-lying and previously semi-arid area whose productive potential he realised through massive irrigation schemes to establish sisal plantations.

These ventures were punctuated by recurrent clashes with both the ‘home’ government in London and its local administrators. Grogan cast himself as the champion of European settlers, numbering around 2,000 in the early years of the 20th century. Some of these were “aristocrats and public schoolboys [who] went to East Africa in pursuit of profit, sport and adventure. Above all, they nostalgically sought the freedom of . . . an ‘earlier England, a world that no longer existed.’” (197) More numerous were “British South Africans . . . who gave the country the over-riding feel of being a South African colony . . . They were an altogether more rough and ready lot, used to the hard knocks of the Boer war and the frontiersman’s life.” (198).

Grogan saw such human resources as essential to the development of the colony. To advance their interests, and the greater cause of Empire, he shuttled between London and Kenya lobbying political grandees, writing caustic letters to The Times and deploying his fame as an explorer to deliver silver-tongued speeches on numerous public platforms. (The same silver tongue—which Paice is inclined to attribute, along with Grogan’s “piercing” green eyes, to Irish ancestry—also proved useful in lining up investors in his own enterprises.) During a two-year break from the colony he briefly entered electoral politics in the UK, standing as Tory candidate for Newcastle-under-Lyme in the two general elections of 1910. He lost both times to the local Whig magnate, Josiah Wedgwood.

Plaice attributes Grogan’s conflicts with the British establishment to the “moral vanity of the Colonial Office,” which was theoretically committed to protecting “native interests.” As far as Grogan was concerned, the Office was staffed by remote bureaucrats who did not understand the realities on the ground and whose default position was to defer policy decisions.

One quandary was what to do about the 18,000 Indian labourers who had been shipped across the Indian Ocean to build the Mombassa-Uganda Lunatic Line. Two and a half thousand of them died on the job, but many of the survivors settled in the colony and by the early 1920s the Indian population outnumbered Europeans by three to one. The Indians established themselves in commerce and were quicker than native East Africans to demand political representation in the colony’s affairs. This was a thorny issue for London, because entirely ignoring Indian demands would risk further inflaming nationalist sentiments in India itself, the crowning jewel of empire; whereas conceding to Indian demands would enrage the European colonists, who were making veiled threats to declare independence. Grogan’s analysis, as relayed by Paice, was that the trouble stemmed from London’s earlier failure to adopt a more vigorous policy of white settlement. Sufficient numbers of Britons, who were ‘born to rule,’ would have prevented the problem ever arising.

Representatives of Indian and European populations were called to London in 1923 to confer on the matter. We learn in passing that “[T]he Revd. J. W. Arthur, a missionary, was nominated to represent the views of the African population.” (p. 306) The resulting compromise was that the Indians would get a few seats on the colony’s Legislative Council, but would continue to be barred from farming land in the most fertile areas. It is none too clear how this compromise served “native interests.”

What is clear from this book, if we didn’t know it already, is that British imperial policy in East Africa, although buttressed by a generalised conceit about fitness to rule over lesser peoples, arose from no master plan but from ad hoc and often sluggish bureaucratic responses to various crises and lobbies, yet was ultimately and pre-eminently responsive to the business interests of men like Grogan.

What is odd about Paice’s account is that he appears not only to accept this as brute historical fact, but to applaud it. At one point, for example, he writes:

“By the 1890s the IBEA [Imperial British East African company] was bankrupt and only a brilliant campaign orchestrated by Grogan’s mentor, soldier-explorer Frederick Lugard, stopped the British government from abandoning Uganda altogether” (p. 146)

“Brilliance” here is presumably measured by the success of the campaign, not by its wisdom, nor by its outcomes, and certainly not by any reference to “native interests.”

Grogan did not die a spectacularly rich man. His business ventures, some of which incurred substantial losses, were mainly financed by his wealthy wife (to whom he was multiply unfaithful) and by the string of investors he charmed with his gift of the gab. Although he enjoyed opulence, by any standards, throughout most of his life, it is easy to believe that he did not care much about money per se. It was the activity that mattered, the struggle to overcome obstacles to his grand visions, the relentless effort to shape the world.

I can understand Paice admiring such energy and single-mindedness, but his account should at least be tempered with some attempt to assess Grogan’s legacy. Kenya today is in some respects thriving and seems to have a fair prospect of achieving ‘middle income’ status. But political and economic power have been closely interwoven ever since the country became independent in 1963. This is nowhere more evident than in land ownership. Only 17 per cent of Kenya’s land is arable, and ownership of that land is heavily concentrated among a very small elite, led by the families of the three post-independence heads of state: Kenyatta (whose family is estimated to own half a million acres, including land that Grogan developed in Taveta), Moi and Kibaki. It would be hard to argue that men like Grogan caused such kleptocracy, but they certainly offered an object lesson in marginalising the overwhelming majority of the population from ‘development,’ a master class in how to get rich on juicy government concessions, and a model of lavish consumption in elite Country Clubs. The lunatic railway line, meanwhile, which might have proved a gift of enduring value, has been sadly neglected because of the rival interests of politicians who dominate the road haulage industry. But at least the trout streams remain.

Kampala, March 26, 2012