Whenever the name Richard Meinertzhagen comes up, it conjures up the image of a cold-blooded murderer, in my mind, from stories I have heard about him, the most famous of which was the deceitful assassination of the Nandi leader Koitalel arap Samoei in 1905.
Born on March 3, 1878 in London, his family were wealthy English bankers and his aunt Beatrice Webb was one of the founders of the London School of Economics.
Richard enjoyed a privileged childhood going to school at the prestigious Harrow School where his mate was none other than the future Prime Minister Winston Churchill while Oscar Wilde and Charles Darwin were close family friends.
As a boy, Richard was adventurous, enjoying fishing, hunting and studying birds with his older brother Dan on the large family estate of Mottisfont. Established in 1201, Mottisfont had its own history that long preceded the Meinertzhagen family. Originally built as an abbey, it was seized in the 16th century by King Henry VIII. There was a legend that the estate was haunted by the wandering ghost of a monk and young Richard was often found by the servants “hunting” the elusive spirit. Thus, from an early age Richard had a taste for the morbid things in life.
He rejected a career in the family banking empire and opted for military service where he was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the Royal Fusiliers in 1899 after training at Aldershot.
He was immediately posted to India to join a battalion of his regiment and other than normal regimental duties he participated actively in big-game hunting, becoming an accomplished marksman. In 1900, he was transferred to Mandalay, Burma and promoted to Lieutenant in February of the same year.
Following a zealous campaign to go to Africa, Richard was transferred to serve with the Foreign Office in 1902 and posted to British East Africa where he was attached to the King’s African Rifles. As soon as he arrived in Nairobi in May 1902, he resumed his passion of big-game hunting in the environs of the town. He regarded himself as a scientist-explorer first and only incidentally as a soldier.
During Richard Meinertzhagen’s tour of Africa there were frequent uprisings and rebellions against colonial rule in central Kenya and elsewhere. The colonial government adopted the strategy of “punitive expeditions” against the Africans which involved confiscation of livestock, burning of huts and crops and killing of suspected trouble makers, a very effective form of punishment.
Meinertzhagen was often involved, with his troops, in these expeditions and he was well known for his cold-blooded brutality. In one such expedition, at Muruka, led by Captain F A Dickinson of the 3rd Kenya African Rifles with the participation of Meinertzhagen, more than 11,000 livestock were captured at the cost of three men killed and 33 wounded. The body count on the African side was estimated to be 1,500 from the Kikuyu and Embu tribes on this single expedition.
Under Koitalel’s leadership, the Nandi had waged a successful 10-year armed resistance against the foreign occupation, humiliating British officers, one after another. Meinertzhagen was called in but even he found it difficult to penetrate the Nandi fighting machine.
He devised an evil trick to lure Koitalel. He invited the Nandi leader to a peace parley on “neutral” ground (current Nandi Bears Club) on condition that both parties come unarmed.
Having been convinced that the British wanted to discuss surrender terms and guarantees for their safe retreat from Nandi country, Koitalel accepted.
In an act of utmost betrayal, Koitalel stretched out his empty hand in greeting and in response Meinertzhagen stretched out a hidden gun and shot Koitalel in cold blood killing him immediately. His men machine-gunned 24 Nandi tribesmen, including most of Koitalel’s advisors.
Meinertzhagen was initially able to orchestrate a cover-up claiming he acted in self-defense and was commended for the incident which was pronounced an act of British heroism. He “collected” a cache of tribal artifacts for himself and sent Koitalel’s skull to London.
However, when the truth was revealed, pressure from the Colonial Office forced the removal of Meinertzhagen from Africa as “he had become a negative symbol”. On 28 May 1906, “he found himself on a ship being trundled back to England in disgrace and disgust.”
However, it did not take long before Meinertzhagen was able to redeem himself. Using his connections in high places he was soon posted to South Africa with the Fusiliers’ 3rd Battalion. He would later serve in Mauritius, India, Kenya, Tanganyika, the Middle East amongst many postings.
Meinertzhagen became a celebrated ornithologist and war strategist. But new evidence which came to light 30 years after his death in 1967 suggests that he was a master hoaxer and killer, unravelling a life built on lies.
In 1999, it was discovered that much of his ornithology collection was stolen and had been falsified. However, the most incriminating incident is the mysterious death of his second wife Anne in 1928.
He was the only witness at the scene and claimed that the gun had gone off accidentally while in her hands. It is thought that Anne may have threatened to expose him regarding his theft of bird specimens, with an earlier incident already covered up by his influential friends.
I have just read his book “Kenya Diary 1902-1906” (published 1957) with caution, based on these new findings. He was certainly a man of mystery.
Fortunately, the artifacts stolen from the Nandi by Meinertzhagen were returned to them in 2006.