Explorer who ‘bought’ Mt Kenya for four goats

Climbing Mount Kenya.
Climbing Mount Kenya. PHOTO | COURTESY 

This week as we were arranging my aunt’s funeral I happened to meet my two cousins, Kara and Peter Karianjahi. Out of interest I asked if their family name had anything to do with John Boyes whom the Kikuyu had nicknamed “Karianjahi” for his love of cowpeas.

To my surprise, my cousins told me that their grandfather used to cook for Boyes in the 1920s and he was also nicknamed “Karianjahi” because he travelled everywhere with his master.

Perhaps my family can now officially lay some claim to fame in the history of the WaKikuyu!

Boyes was an extraordinary man. He was the ideal opportunist, explorer, hunter, ivory poacher, trader, gambler, reprobate, soldier, and yes, even king. He exemplified the renegade African adventurer.

Born in 1875 in Hull, England, he ran away from home at the age of 14 and went to sea on a fishing boat. Later, he went on board a tug-boat as a tramp and after much hardship and a collision at sea, landed at the port of Durban in South Africa in 1895.


Finding his way inland, he reaches Johannesburg where he was employed as a fireman. He then trekked to Matabeleland in Southern Rhodesia where he enlisted with the Afrikander Corps in putting down the first rebellion there.

After going into trade in Bulawayo, Boyes returned to the coast working his passage on an Arab dhow to Mombasa where he arrived in 1898 to a cool official reception. Immediately seeing an opportunity, he arranged for a caravan to carry provisions for the “coolies” (Indian workers) working on the Uganda Railway past the man-eating lion camps.

Following the railway construction, his men deserted him when they reached the boundary between the Maasai and Kikuyu tribes at which point Mr Boyes decided to venture into Kikuyuland.

Despite being warned by Captain Gorges, the British officer in-charge of Naivasha, not to attempt to go into Kikuyuland, Boyes nevertheless proceeded via Kedong Valley where he was out of the official’s jurisdiction.

Travelling over the western flank of the Aberdares, he met Kikuyu leader Karuri wa Gakure and the two struck a deep friendship, even becoming blood brothers in an elaborate ceremony with another leader Wang’ombe wa Nderi.

However, the friendship was largely one of convenience to both parties as Boyes saw it as an opportunity to penetrate the rich food resources with which he could continue his lucrative trade supplying the railway on one hand, while on the other, Karuri had not failed to notice the powerful artillery in Boyes’ camp that could prove very effective against his enemies.

Boyes quickly integrated himself into the Kikuyu community living a simple life that included developing an intense liking for cowpeas and young Kikuyu maidens . He eventually married three.

As he helped Karuri conquer more territory from his enemies, Boyes was able to extend his sources of food for supply to hungry government stations. Because of his military prowess and powerful modern medicine Boyes was now almost deified by the Kikuyu and news of his powers spread throughout the Mount Kenya region. He established his headquarters near Tuthu in Muran’ga.

As Boyes travelled further into Kikuyuland he came across Dorobo poachers trading in ivory, which he purchased and transported to Mombasa for sale making him a not inconsiderable fortune. During one of his travels to Mombasa, he took a few Kikuyus with him and they were mesmerised to see the Indian Ocean and large ships sailing on water, adding to their absolute admiration of the white man.

During the early part of the 20th century, Boyes became so emboldened that he started marching his band of men while flying the Union Jack. Carrying out punitive expeditions on those villages that did not toe the line, he would confiscate livestock, food, ivory, and even levy taxes as if he was a parallel government.

This did not endear him to the colonial administration and John Hall who was commanding Mbiri Station (now Murang’a) pursued Boyes relentlessly in 1901. Boyes was detained and charged with dacoity (an act of violent robbery committed by an armed gang).

He was taken to Mombasa and charged officially before a court of law. Although he was eventually discharged, Boyes felt nothing but sheer disdain for “petty” officials of the government. On 27 January 1933, John Boyes appeared before the Morris Carter Land Commission laying claim to the second tallest mountain in Africa stating “I have legal claim to Mt. Kenya according to native law which I propose to place before you for your consideration. During the blood brotherhood ceremony, it was decided that I should take the mountain.”

He alleged that he acquired the mountain for four goats and some rolls of cloth. Witnesses agreed that Chief Wang’ombe had received the goats, but it was not clear what the purpose of the transaction was.

Boyes’ claim was dismissed by the commission which stated, “We find that the claims are so wild and conflicting that not even the Kikuyu could criticise us for inquiring substantiation from other sources before we affirm as a fact that any practice of making such payments existed.”

Even though Boyes lived with the Kikuyu for several decades his personal views were unflattering and, in his book, “John Boyes, King of the Wa-Kikuyu” he repeatedly refers to them as “niggers”. He died in 1951 and was buried at Forest Road Cemetery in Nairobi.