Votes & Views -19 – The Enigmatic Ornithologist

Let’s face it, among billions of very ordinary people, most of average intelligence and abilities, there is always a scattering of truly extraordinary folk, people gifted with one or more talents that tower so far above their contemporaries, that they become legends.

The enigmatic ornithologist you are being directed to is Richard Henry Meinertzhagen; scion of an influential London banking family and aristocracy; soldier, scientist, hunter, geographer, artist, spy, writer and, according to himself – cold-blooded killer.   His varied career and numerous books, as well as his self-confessed infamies have spawned a shelf of publications about the man.   None of these have I read; so I shall confine myself to the man’s wildly popular book Kenya Diary, 1902-1906 (Oliver & Boyd, 1957), which deals with Africa and which I started reading a few days ago; reluctantly at first, since it really seems to be the diary it purports to be – but then with increasing interest and delight mixed with incredulity at what I was reading.   This was high adventure indeed in all its grisly details.   I won’t pretend I didn’t sneak a little peep at the big G on the net to learn more about our writer – but more of that later – this is what I read in the diary.

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 Kenya if one takes his diary at face value.   He was the law, the prosecutor, the judge – as well as the executioner and sheriff, not to mention the arbiter of the people’s morals.   He records the odd feeble attempt made by his Political Officer, or other superior to keep him in rein, but the impression one gets is that he did exactly as he deemed fit.   On the other hand, he is not shy of accusing his Political Officer of egging him on to continue raiding the Tetu people so that the former had ‘more captured stock to give him sufficient revenue to build his new station’ – strange and contradictory behaviour and utterances.   But read on.

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 Kenya – though he declares that he can’t wait to be rid of the place.

In some ways RM had extremely prescient views on African history, rather at odds with his role as the mailed fist of the British Empire in subjugating the Kikuyu, Embu and Nandi tribes.   He had the temerity to suggest to the then High Commissioner that Africa belonged to the Africans, that someday they would be educated and armed and this would lead to a clash with the flood of Europeans that Sir Charles wanted to settle on the land.   Less than a year later he records saying to Lord Delamere that Kenya ‘…is a black man’s country.   How are you going to superimpose white over black?’ Later in the book he repeats a description of the first instance, saying that he ‘cannot see millions of educated Africans – as there will be in a hundred years time – submitting tamely to white domination’, which smacks more of an old man’s memories – and repeats thereof – written with hindsight of the very recent Mau Mau rebellion in 1957 – not from the fresh notes of a youngster of 1903.   Rather more believable is his naiveté, when he writes, after having killed and looted the Kikuyu for the better part of a year, that he found them to be rather fine fellows, who would be ‘most progressive under European guidance’ completely ignoring the rancour they might feel at being dispossessed.   Immediately after this statement, he does state, with remarkable hindsight, that they would be most susceptible to subversive influence and that he could foresee much trouble.   Still, we are reassured that he had many friends among the Kikuyu, whose greatest asset was their cheerfulness and the fact that they bore him no grudge!

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 Tanganyika border, where he intercepts and disarms some German soldiers who are trespassing – and then quite inexplicably, crosses the border to make the acquaintance of the German officers at Moshi Fort.   Our intelligence gatherer leaves a few days later, considerably more informed as to German military capabilities, and within a few days he is able to neutralise a German spy, posing as an Austrian Count during his travels on the Serengeti.   Not only does he manage to foil the man by burning his camp, he also abstracts two boxes of valuable documents, which contain maps and an assessment of the Voi-Taveta route – which RM states to have been invaluable to Smuts’s forces in 1916.   One wonders why he would act thus, seeing that the Congo Act of 1885 resolved that British and German colonials would not blindly follow their parent states into conflict – if that should ever occur, since they had perfectly amiable feelings towards one another.   In the book he bewails the fact that Mount Kilimanjaro has been left to the Germans, and notes that the chief of the Wachagga tribe was most unhappy with German rule and asked RM why the British didn’t throw them out.   He hastens to add that he does not doubt that Britain will triumph – ‘we seem to get most of what we want – eventually’; such prophetic words.

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 Kenya, so that he could turn it into a game reserve.   Quite unbelievably he states that he never had any desire to kill an elephant, finding them delightful creatures that it would be immoral to kill, especially if just for the monetary value of their ivory.   ‘It is a pity that an intelligent creature like an elephant should be shot in order that creatures not much more intelligent may play billiards with balls made from their teeth’.   A statement worthy of a modern-day conservationist.   He did not exercise the same restraint when it came to rhinos, and he describes a large number of more or less successful hunts.   A couple of instances are described when he shoots a brace of rhino so that they end up lying against each other – yet a visiting medical man who shoots three rhinos on one outing gets a roasting for unsportsmanlike behaviour, as well as being in breach of the game regulations.   Some inconsistency there, one could say.   Cheetahs, leopards and lions also fell to his rifle, but after a few foolhardy adventures, he developed more than a healthy respect for the latter big cats, and on bagging one on the bare Athi plain with no back-up or convenient tree at hand, he says ‘I do not like lion when I have to face them single-handed in the open’.   In company with a brother officer he indulges in a little pig-sticking using bayonets tied to bamboo poles – a sport much beloved of the military in India.   This time they meet up with a lion and RM’s companion insists on trying his luck.   Not unreasonably the horse balks, throws its rider into the lion’s maw, so to speak, necessitating our knight to come charging to his friend’s aid.   Between his makeshift lance and the fallen pig-sticker’s revolver, they manage to dispatch the lion – according to the diary.

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 England.   He pursued this hobby with great diligence in Africa, and he collected a huge number of museum specimens there as well as in other parts of the world later.   He became a respected authority on the subject; wrote numerous articles as well as revered guidebooks on the avifauna of Arabia.   Both insects and larger animals were also collected, skinned and dispatched to the British Museum.   He made several discoveries of varieties of antelopes as well as data on their distribution.   In addition he was the first European to collect and describe the giant forest hog, which was named after him.   RM seemingly spent a lot of time doing game counts on his excursions across the plains of Kenya.   There are a number of instances where he cites lists of exact numbers of half a dozen or more species – often running into the thousands.   One is led to wonder how he managed to enumerate 1247 wildebeeste and 1465 zebra , this in addition to some three thousand other animals of ten more species, spread over an area of twelve square miles, as he did on a November day in 1903.   On the other hand, Meinertzhagen gives the impression of being a stickler for exactitude and representing the facts as they were – come hell or high water; seemingly careless of whether the facts presented him in a less than favourable light.   Even more puzzling is the apparent bravado with which he describes acts of recklessness, brutality, and cold-blooded ferocity.   Speaking of a party he and a fellow-officer organised in Nairobi , RM says, ‘I think the real reason is that we are both rather perverse by nature and instinctively do the thing which we are least expected to do’.   His one-time friend and colleague, T.E. Laurence, describes him thus, ‘Meinertzhagen knew no half measures.   He was logical, an idealist of the deepest, and so possessed by his convictions that he was willing to harness evil to the chariot of good.   He was a strategist, a geographer, and a silent laughing masterful man; who took as blithe a pleasure in deceiving his enemy (or his friend) by some unscrupulous jest, as in spattering the brains of a cornered mob of Germans one by one with his African knob-kerri.   His instincts were abetted by an immensely powerful body and a savage brain …’ (Seven Pillars of Wisdom, 1926).   Almost regretfully, I finished the book.   It was engrossing, full of detail, action, anecdote – in short, I felt I had been in direct contact with a larger-than-life personality, of considerable intellect and talents.

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 Garfield, ‘he was a great scientist; he was a scientific fraud; he was a military hero: he was an incompetent officer; he was beloved; he was scorned; he was a killer; but he was not the mass murderer he pretended to be’.   He may not even have shot anyone himself – though he was undoubted the author of the Nandi massacre – and many believe that this was the man who killed a servant in a fit of rage in India (of which event no trace could be found), the only man who was present while his wife conveniently ‘accidentally shot herself in the head’ during target practice – which many believed to be his work.

Let’s go back to RM’s arrival in Kenya.   Verifiable evidence places him in the position of staff officer, third or fourth in command of the KAR detachments.   Annual reports of the KAR show that RH held command of small detachments only during brief intervals when he led them from one post to another.   None of the bloodbaths he describes during his punitive measures against the marauding Kikuyu can be found in the records – this during a time when the one or two casualties during reprisals were noted scrupulously in KAR reports.

Only the Nandi massacre was true up to a point – the difference being that in all probability a fellow-officer, Sammy Butler (a life-long friend of RM – which might account for the deafening silence from that quarter), had machine-gunned the laibon and his retinue before RM even reached the venue, a plan that documents show, had been devised by his superior officers, who conveniently let RM take credit.   This killing of some twenty-five Africans was enough to cause severe discomfiture and international scandal for the British Colonial Office, and resulted in RM’s recall.   For the rest, his bloodthirsty exploits were of his own manufacture, but became part of ‘accepted history’ of the savagery of the British colonialists, so that they are still quoted extensively as facts in support of agendas for or against governments, racial groups etc.

Meinertzhagen was recalled, as previously mentioned, and he had to kick his heels around a London office for a few years until his lobbying resulted in the War Office relenting and sending him out to South Africa in 1908, we read.   His diary (not Kenya Diary) indicates that he passes some examinations and is promoted to Major and is given command of mounted infantry.   Once more his diary records a heroic episode, but, in fact, his promotion only occurred in 1915 – seven years later.   Obviously his duties in South Africa and later Mauritius were not to his liking.   He returns to London and then spends some time in the Mediterranean, Middle East and far East.   This is where one of his most infamous ‘murders’ was recorded as having taken place – at least in his diaries.

In a fit of rage at seeing his polo ponies maltreated by a syce, he beats said servitor to death with his polo mallet.   He manages to convince his superiors that it would be best to hush it up by burning the stable and body – and hey presto – another myth has been added to his reputation.   While it cannot be entirely disproved, none of the other diaries and reports of fellow-officers and officials make any mention of the event; we have only RM’s word.

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 Africa) against a tally of sixty-nine disabled German troops.   General Aitken was relieved of his post, and the War Office singled out the intelligence work of the force as the greatest contributing factor to the rout.   Guess who?

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 Africa – a decorated lieutenant-colonel.

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 Africa on field trips during the latter part of his life, but his reputation for cloak-and-dagger episodes were acquired elsewhere – and there are many of those chronicled in the book.   He plays a leading role in the creation of the state of Israel; he came within an inch of assassinating Hitler; he is deeply involved in anti-Communist espionage.   A number of crucial episodes of that period’s political history are propped up by verbatim fictional accounts from our man, which are accepted because ‘oh, everyone knows that!’ Each episode becomes a building block of this persona who charms, captivates, appals and scandalises the people he comes into contact with during the rest of his life.

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 British Museum as it had been established that he had purloined bird specimens.   He was reinstated at the plea of his relative by marriage, Lord Rothschild.   Not even the discovery of rare colour plates from a priceless book in the British Museum, which were found in his possession, led to a public prosecution.   Subsequently his scientific stature came increasingly under scrutiny, and to his ardent followers’ horror, it was discovered posthumously that of the twenty-thousand or so specimens of birds which he left to the British Museum, many were stolen from museums and other collections, while distribution localities that he had claimed, were fictional and some of his written work was plagiarised from others’ unpublished writings – in short, Meinertzhagen had perversely created havoc in a whole branch of science in which he had claimed pre-eminence for decades.   This was all to emerge only once he had died – though vague suspicions had already preceded his departure.

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.’

From Garfield’s book emerges a character of such complexity, solipsism and narcissist personality, that the biggest question remains: why was he not exposed?   Therefore, as beguiling as Meinertzhagen’s books may be, they come with a health warning: Reader Beware – Gullibility Crisis Ahead. If at all possible, read in tandem with Garfield’s book.

Published by Graham Giles

Cape History and history of families of Louw, Muller, Bowker, Giles

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