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John Nottingham: Briton who became Kenyan at heart

JOHN NOTTINGHAM, A FORMER COLONIAL DISTRICT OFFICER IN 1950'S KENYA, POSES FOR PHOTOGRAPHERS OUTSIDE THE HIGH COURT IN CENTRAL LONDON, ON APRIL 7, 2011. FILE PHOTO | NMG
JOHN NOTTINGHAM, A FORMER COLONIAL DISTRICT OFFICER IN 1950'S KENYA, POSES FOR PHOTOGRAPHERS OUTSIDE THE HIGH COURT IN CENTRAL LONDON, ON APRIL 7, 2011. FILE PHOTO | NMG  

John Nottingham (1928-2018) was an anomaly. He was a Briton who became a ‘Kenyan at heart’. Some Brits must have considered him a traitor to his roots, to his race and to the government that brought him to Kenya in the first place.

Yet John was a man of conscience. A scholar who majored in Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford University, he was only 19 years old when, following his father’s insistence, he got a job with the British Colonial Office. It was 1952 and he was posted to Nyeri as a new District Officer.

But early on, he felt uncomfortable about his work and indeed what he was doing in Kenya at all. He arrived just as a State of Emergency was declared. That meant rather than assisting Africans in areas of development, he was advised to shoot them on sight. 

Shortly after he arrived, he witnessed one DO assault on old African man. He went to the resident District Commissioner named Hughes and registered a complained against his countryman. The DC vowed to see the DO was punished. But John quickly found that nothing came of his complaint.

But that one assault was insignificant compared to the torturing of Africans that he found once he was reposted to the Mwea Detention Camps. The scale of cruelty toward the indigenous people finally compelled John to resign. But instead of the Colonial Office accepting his resignation, they reposted him the North Tetu in Nyeri.

“That’s when I decided to secretly help the other side,” he said in an interview with Citizen TV. It was the British, he said, who’d given the pro-Independence activists the name Mau Mau. But to him, they were aggrieved people who had a just cause.

Sympathy, and indeed, stealthy support for Africans’ independence struggle eventually led to John joining the Mau Mau Veterans who filed a law suit against the British government several years ago. Serving as a witness in support of the claims that British troops had tortured, raped, wrongly detained and forced labor from Africans, John stood for the human rights that the British government claimed to uphold.

Noting that no more than 32 white settlers were killed during the anti-colonial war, over 13,500 Africans died in the same period according to official figures. However, according to unofficial figures, it was more than 50,000 Africans who died and many more who were tortured and maimed for life. But many of them lived to tell their stories to historians like Dr. Caroline Elkins (who wrote the award-winning ‘Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain’s Gulag in Kenya’) and Dr. David Anderson (who wrote ‘Histories of the Hanged: The Dirty War in Kenya and The End of the Empire’)

 After Kenya obtained its Independence in 1963, John stayed on and founded Transafrica Publishers which came out with more than 300 titles. They mainly focused on African history, politics and education. A number examined the lives African leaders like Nyerere, Kenyatta and Dedan Kimathi. And at age 85, he could still be found pouring over manuscripts in his offices in Runda.

Ironically, John’s own book which he co-authored with Carl Gustav Rosen, entitled ‘The Myth of Mau Mau: Nationalism in Kenya’ was not one of his Transafrica book titles. Instead, it was published by the prestigious New York-based book house, Praeger in 1966. Since its publication, it has served as an important antidotal text aimed at refuting the racist claims that Kenyans’ anti-colonial struggle was atavistic, barbaric and so brutal that it justified all the human rights violations the British inflicted on the African people.

John Nottingham was a humble, soft-spoken man who was alarmed by the hypocrisy of his fellow Britons which he witnessed first-hand during the Emergency as well as in the aftermath.

When he arrived in Kenya, it was only seven years since World War Two had ended and Britain had signed the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. Yet the degree of human rights violations that he saw perpetuated by his own countrymen against Kenyans clearly had a profound impact on his life.

His accompanying Mau Mau veterans to London in 2016 to advance their law suit against the British Foreign Office made him the only white-Kenyan to stand with the Africans. Yet because his cause was just and his conscience was clean, John Nottingham lived a grand and noble life. He remained true to his conscience and his convictions to the end, and he deserves to be reckoned a hero by both the Kenya Government and the Kenya Human Rights Commission.

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