Daily Archives: February 28, 2014

‘White Mischief’ by James Fox


As a historian of British colonial societies, particularly focussing on the colonizers rather than the colonized, you often come across people who are parodies of themselves.  At time I feel that way about my own subject, Judge Willis.   It is even more true of the people who populate the pages of this book which highlights the decadence and moral vapidity of this bunch of British expatriate misfits in Kenya during World War II.

In the early hours of January 24th 1941 the body of Josslyn Hay, the Earl of Errol was discovered in a crashed car at a junction near Karen.  At first it was thought that he had run off the road, but closer inspection revealed that he had been shot at close range behind the ear.   The main suspect was Jock Delves Broughton, the sixty year old husband of the young and beautiful Diana, who was having an open affair with Josslyn Hay.  He was charged with the crime and the case heard in the Kenya Supreme Court. He was acquitted of the crime but many felt that he had, in fact, committed the murder or arranged for it to be committed, and even Hay himself confessed and denied the crime from time to time.  Multiple books and articles have been devoted to the question of Who Killed Josslyn Hay, but this is possibly the best known of them, forming is the basis of the recent film starring Greta Schacci and Charles Dance.

The British government officially took control of the Kenya Protectorate in 1895 in order to compete with German imperial expansion in East Africa.  To counter the German railway from the port of Tanga in what is now Tanzania, the British quickly began construction of the 580 mile long  Mombasa to Lake Victoria railway (on which I am travelling at this very minute).  Nairobi was established in 1899 as the last possible rail depot before the track climbed the Kikuyu escarpment overlooking the Rift Valley.  A scheme was produced in 1901 by the Commissioner of East Africa to encourage settlers to farm the land, thereby creating profits for the railway through haulage costs.  The first wave of settlers arrived in 1903 from Britain, Canada, Australia and South Africa, and they were followed by a second wave, drawn from the Edwardian aristocracy and British officer class.  They included peers of the realm and their younger brothers who were victims of primogeniture, millionaires and wasters who had cruelled their chances in England through scandal and bankruptcy.  Kenya was particularly attractive to the aristocrats.  The Kenyan highlands had an English or Scottish air and there were servants aplenty to protect them from hard work on their own behalf.  All this was at the expense of the African population.

This is a different type of colonialism to that which I have encountered in my studies of the 1820s-40s.  There is no frontier as such, just lines on a map drawn up in part of the scramble for African amongst the European powers.  They feared sunshine and madness, but for these aristocrats at least, there was not the contingency of life and death on a distant frontier.  The experience of the 19th century gave them a bombastic confidence in the treaties that they could produce almost by template by this stage, and all the qualms of the humanitarians that constrained (officially at least) the excesses of colonialism had been soothed and put at rest.  The ready availability of divorce for those who could afford it led to a succession of ill-fated marriages, and the alcohol, drug use and promiscuity of the Bright Young Things  back in England translated well to a Kenyan context. I’m finding many familiar names from 1840s colonialism, one generation on.  They are a quite different class of colonist to their parents and grandparents.This familiarity with an older type of colonialism has perhaps made me somewhat more tolerant of this bunch of indulged and heedless sybarites than other readers might be.  They are truly awful.

The book is presented as creative non-fiction, and I have no reason to distrust this framing narrative.  The author, James Fox, was a journalist working alongside the cultural critic Cyril Connolly who was himself the contemporary of many of the main protagonists.  Connolly had been obsessed by the story for many years and they co-wrote a newspaper article about it, which flushed out many ex-Kenyans and family members who had their own take on What Really Happened.  Connolly had died before penning his own account, and Fox took possession of his notebooks and continued the quest. This book is the result.

It is divided into two sections: The Murder and the Quest.  In the first section he introduces each of the main characters and their possible motives for wanting Joss Hay (also known as Errol) dead. He also argues against himself, pointing out the holes in the argument that might place them as the murderer.  In this regard, the lengthy ‘Cast of Characters’ at the start of the book is particularly useful, especially in tracking the marriages, divorces and intermarriages and the frequent change of title as peers ascended the table of precedence.  So too is the index, which is extensive.

In the second section, James Fox himself takes centre stage as he tracks down those participants still living or their descendants, culminating in what he thinks is the definite answer.  Of course, the continued publication of recent books suggests that many others think that Fox and Connolly have got it wrong.

It is hard to get past one’s revulsion for these larger-than-life characters and their lifestyle.  But I have recently met someone who could be a dead-ringer for any of these characters, holding tight to a vanished lifestyle and discredited politics.   The continued interest in the question suggests that this particular past is not yet a foreign country (to paraphrase L.P. Hartley), or at least that there are some who wish to hold on to it still.