Tribute to John Nottingham

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 

Last Friday in Redhill, we buried a man who relentlessly fought for justice for Africans since coming to Kenya in 1952.

Born on February 25, 1928, in Coventry, England, John Nottingham was educated at Schrewsbury School. Leaving school in 1946, John was conscripted into the British Army where he was posted to Northern Ireland and Germany for his national service. In 1949, he left the army and was admitted to Oxford University where he studied politics, philosophy and economics.

While still in university, John applied to join the colonial service in Kenya, which had been romanticised in books and films as a country of adventure, teeming with wildlife and wide- open spaces. He was also influenced by his father, Captain Eric Cato Nottingham, who had served in the colonies including Nigeria and the Gold Coast (now Ghana).

In July 1952, he was offered a position as a cadet on probation, with training at Oxford University, learning Kiswahili and other skills considered essential kit for posting in Kenya.

Travelling by ship, he arrived in Mombasa in December 1952 and was immediately posted as District Officer, Nyeri one of the hot spots of the Mau Mau insurgency. John had envisioned his job as a District Officer would entail life akin to that of a secular missionary, working to improve African schools, court systems and encouraging general community development in the fields of health, sports and agriculture. He was completely astonished at what he found.

The immediate post-World War II era in Kenya was a dichotomy of incongruous interests. On the one hand, with victory in the war and a lull in African nationalist activism during the war years, the white settler community saw another opportunity to entrench themselves in Kenya and a new flood of settlers arrived including a considerable number of British soldiers seeking their fortunes in this paradise.

On the other hand, encouraged by returning African soldiers who had bust the myth of the white man’s infallibility during the war and a fresh crop of educated Africans and trade unions, the nationalist movement was rekindled with new vigour. Jomo Kenyatta’s return to Kenya in 1946 also had a profound effect.

Sir Philip Mitchell, who was governor from 1944 to 1952, failed to appreciate the real threat posed by increasing African militancy during this period and consistently downplayed its import in his reports to London. It was only when Mitchell retired in the middle of 1954 that the gravity of the matter was brought to light. Police commissioner O’Rourke reported that “a general revolt was afoot among the Kikuyu” following the mass oathing campaign.

Michael Blundell, the leader of European settlers, called for the immediate banning of the Kenya African Union and the imposition of a state of emergency, threatening a “settler backlash” if there was no immediate and resolute action.

The colonial administration was awoken from slumber and in a state of panic, embarked on creating drastic legislative and “special” measures to arrest the situation. Once the state of emergency was declared, violence on both sides escalated.

This was the situation that John Nottingham was thrust into upon his arrival in Kenya. Having served in Ireland, no doubt, he had witnessed human rights abuses by the British there and was therefore no stranger to the phenomenon.

No sooner had he arrived in Nyeri, than he encountered his first incident of brutality when an old African man was literally kicked along the floor of his office by one Francis Erskine, an officer of the Kenya Regiment.

It was claimed the old man had taken the Mau Mau oath. Although John freed the old man and reported Erskine’s unacceptable behavior to his superiors, no action was taken. This was to form the pattern in John’s career in the civil service.

He witnessed many incidents of torture including in the detention camps where amongst other “dilution techniques” detainees testicles were crushed with a Burdizzo (the same tool used to castrate bulls).

Returning to Nyeri after further studies at Oxford in 1958, it is claimed that in a daring act of defiance, John, while acting as District Commissioner, used funds from the Local Native Council (LNC) to pay the fines of a group of Africans who had been arrested and charged with holding an illegal meeting but did not have the money to put up the fines. By this time, he had been nicknamed wamwega (good man) by the local community but he was also on the watchlist of the colonial government for his unabashed support of the African cause.

For many years John had been advocating for the closure of detention camps with the detainees being allowed to go home without charge. He was vindicated by the horrible events of the Hola Camp in 1959 where 11 detainees were bludgeoned to death, 23 seriously injured and 60 others less seriously injured.

Foolishly, the colonial government supported the inglorious cover-up that the 11 detainees died from drinking contaminated water from a nearby water cart. The issue blew up politically when the truth came out in the House of Commons and, none too soon, the remaining detainees were freed paving the way for Kenya’s independence.

While serving in Nyeri, John received a circular letter in 1960 requiring all administrative officers to burn materials and documents relating to Mau Mau that could be used by the incoming African government to incriminate the British colonial administration. Instead, he collected all such material in his office and handed it to his friend Carl Rosberg, an American academic.

Retiring from the colonial administration in 1962 and acquiring Kenyan citizenship, John entered the publishing world. In 1967, he launched his seminal work with Carl Rosberg “The Myth of Mau Mau: Nationalism in Kenya” in which he documented the massive cover-up of the atrocities committed by the British during the period.

In more recent times, John Nottingham’s affidavits have helped the Mau Mau veterans win their historic legal action against the British Government in 2013.

A true hero, who at great risk to himself, sacrificed so much for truth and justice for Kenya.