Thursday, May 7, 2009

Year when all men became equal at the end of a rope

By PETER MWAURA, [email protected]

Had Tom Cholmondeley been convicted of shooting Robert Njoya, he would have become the second white man in Kenya to be convicted of murdering an African. The first was Peter Poole.

The weekly American magazine, Time, chronicled his execution in its August 29, 1960, issue: “Precisely at 8 o’clock one night last week, the slight, heavily shackled form of 28-year-old English engineer Peter Poole dropped through the hangman’s trap door in Nairobi Prison.

For the first time in Kenya’s history, a white man was executed for killing an African.”

Major novel

So momentous was the event that it became the subject of a major novel. Robert Ruark, the American journalist turned author, who wrote several books based on Kenya, published Uhuru in 1962, based on the murder trial. The acrimony was well played out.

In those days, people sentenced to death were executed almost immediately, except in cases of appeal. Poole appealed and was executed on August 18, 1960 — eight months after his conviction.

He had been found guilty of shooting his African house help, Kamawe Musunge. On the fateful day, Musunge was riding his bicycle when two of Poole’s dogs stopped him and he threw stones at them. Poole came out of his house, drew a pistol and shot him dead. The case became a cause célèbre.

Poole owned an electrical shop on Government Road (now Moi Avenue), and was married with two young children. He had fought against the Mau Mau. In the white community, the view was that he would never hang because he “only killed a black man”.

On October 12, 1959, Peter Poole was charged with the murder and a white jury — Europeans at that time, unlike Africans, were tried by jury — found him guilty. He was sentenced to death.

Shot an African

Poole’s reputation of being irascible and arrogant did not help him. He had shot an African constable being attacked by his dog. He had drawn his gun on a dukawallah who refused to give him a discount on a torch. His parents circulated petitions for clemency, addressed to the governor, Sir Patrick Renison. They collected more than 25,000 signatures. However, not even the colonial governor could save him.

On the day of the execution, an angry crowd of Europeans assembled outside the prison. In their eyes, Peter Poole was a martyr. As one London newspaper commented, all men, regardless of colour, became equal at the end of a rope.

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