Lord Delamare: Trophy hunter who started modern large-scale farming

Friday November 29 2019
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Lord Delamere's heir, Thomas Cholmondeley (now deceased) with a journalist in their baby corn farm in Naivasha in this past photo, and (inset) the third Lord Delamere aka Hugh Cholmondeley at the family's Soysambu farm. It was the senior Delamere’s own persistence, his vast financial resources and assistance from government veterinary and agricultural officers that led to his ultimate success as a large-scale farmer. FILE PHOTOS | NATION MEDIA GROUP


The third Lord Delamere, aka Hugh Cholmondeley, had just turned 28 in 1898 when he visited Africa for the first time.

Like other Europeans at the time, he was first attracted to Africa by the sheer prospect of adventure.

He wanted to have practical experience of the continent, a break from his rather boring upbringing in “polite society”, among the British bourgeoisie.

Not long before this, he had graduated from the prestigious Eton University. Education there was full of praise for the high levels of European scientific achievements and civilisation.

The young, arrogant and restless Delamere hoped that an adventure to Africa would provide an opportunity to experience, first hand, what he imagined to be the equivalent of the “Garden of Aden”. What with tales about big game and “noble savages”.

Delamere’s first visit to Kenya was therefore as a big game hunter. By the time he arrived from the direction of Somali and Ethiopia, he had killed elephants and collected ivory worth $14,000.


He travelled back home but came back in 1903 imbued with greater imperialist fervour. On arrival, he immediately applied for a government post.

Sir Charles Eliot, the Commissioner of Kenya at the time who believed that European settlement was the best strategy to provide the required wealth to defray the expenses of colonial administration and to make the just completed Mombasa-Kisumu Railway pay its way, appointed him a sub-collector and land officer.

Delamere used the latter position to obtain his own land, which was slightly over 100,000 acres on the floor of the Rift Valley within the precincts of present-day Naivasha. In subsequent years and with the removal of the Maasai from the area in 1904, he expanded the farm through the purchase of more land almost doubling the initial acreage.

He called his farm Equator Ranch, later Soysambu, still owned by his descendants today.

Delamere had finally chosen to be a pioneer farmer in his own right but also as an ardent supporter of Pax Britannica.

He dabbled in politics to protect his own interests and those of other European farmers. Eliot encouraged very many Europeans to settle in Kenya as immigrant farmers from Britain, New Zealand, Australia and South Africa. Delamere influenced his own brothers-in-law, Galbraith and Berkeley Cole, as he did other individuals who were his friends to come over.


He even gave some of the pioneer farmers a few of his own livestock and seeds and possibly money, to start them off. By this time, the Land Bank had not been established to give the settlers seed money.

During these early years, large-scale farming entailed engagement in agricultural experiments. Delamere initially contemplated coffee production but was immediately attracted to rearing sheep and cattle and cultivating wheat. He imported livestock breeds from Britain and wheat from the US.

Unfortunately, both the livestock and wheat were not accustomed to local diseases and pests. His stock, which by the outbreak of the First World War numbered 23,000 sheep and 1,600 cattle, were almost decimated by diseases like pleuropneumonia and rinderpest.

The wheat was wholly destroyed by rust. The incidence of such diseases and the uncertainties of the early years of settler farming made the impatient and poor European farmers to sell their land or simply abandon them and go back home and try their luck in other ventures. Conditions during the First World War worsened the situation.

It was Delamere’s own persistence, his vast financial resources and assistance from government veterinary and agricultural officers that led to his ultimate success as a large-scale farmer.

Elspeth Huxley, his biographer and colonial historian, described him as an “energetic, fiery, shrewd, aggressive and visionary pioneer”.

Equally important, Delamere’s success was largely attributed to the assistance the colonial state accorded him and other European farmers.

Historians have argued that from the onset of British rule in Kenya, the colonial state accorded European settler plantation agriculture preferential treatment at the expense of African peasant subsistence agriculture.

This was through alienation of large and fertile tracts of land to European settlers; collection of hut and poll taxes from Africans; the disproportionate allocation of tax revenue to the settler sector to provide it with the necessary infrastructure and financial assistance; the supply of forced and cheap African labour; the control of prices by statutory marketing institutions; and indeed, the fact that European administrators and farmers dominated the policymaking organs of the colonial state. For instance, Delamere was the chairman of the European farming communities’ political organisation: the Planters’ and Farmers’ Association, later called the Colonists’ Association.


European farmers used the association to aggregate and articulate their interests at the expense of Asians and Africans.

They agitated for European-dominated Legislative Council and Executive Councils and used these institutions to get what they wanted. Delamere himself became one of the first two European members to be appointed to the Legislative Council in 1907. Later in the 1920s, he was the leader of the European settler community in Kenya.

As leader of the European Settler Community, Delamere believed in some of the very racist ideas of the time. For instance, he never wanted European settlers to be regarded as immigrant communities like Indians.

He strongly opposed both the Indian representation in the Legislative Council and their demand for land in the Kenya highlands.

He believed Africans should be forced to work for Europeans as part of the civilising mission and that it was economically disastrous to allow them to own sizeable land.

Furthermore, Delamere himself occupied powerful decision-making positions in the colonial government. He was appointed a member of the governor’s Land Committee, the Settler Settlement Scheme, which was set up in 1917.

During the First World War, he also became a member of the powerful Governor’s War Council. He used these positions to influence state policy in favour of European farmers.

For instance, he influenced the establishment of organisations that ensured the effective and preferential processing, pricing and marketing of European agricultural produce.

These included the Unga Limited in 1908, which produced wheat and maize flour and stock feeds that were marketed in urban centres and farms in Kenya and parts of Tanganyika.

The other organisations whose establishment he influenced were the Wheat Growers’ Association, the powerful Kenya Farmers’ Association and in 1930 and the Board of Agriculture. These organisations ensured that European farmers minimised crop production and maximised returns from their sale.

Delamere usually had the ears of the pro-settler governors whom he often intimidated by the sheer force of his personality and reckless authoritarianism.


The political historian George Bennet writes that during Delamere’s early years in Kenya, he “appeared as the typical frontiersman, with hair flowing down to his shoulders, wearing disreputable clothes, ….” Bennet adds that Delamere once “locked the manager of a Nairobi hotel in the meat safe with several dead sheep”.

Unsurprisingly, his relations with Sir Joseph Byrne who was Kenya’s governor from 1931-1936 were not friendly at all.

A former soldier, Byrne refused to be intimidated by Delamere. Byrne, who believed in the policy of encouraging African peasant production during the depression, detested Delamere’s pro-settler stance.

At the time Delamere’s health had deteriorated and he died on November 13, 1931. Some European settlers claimed that he died of a “broken heart” under Byrne’s governorship.

Be that as it may, Delamere’s lasting legacy can be summarised as follows: During the colonial period and in the post-independence era, many Africans, either in admiration or imitation of Lord Delamere, have sought to grab large acreages of land to become large-scale farmers themselves at the expense of the majority of peasant farmers.

Land owners have used their wealth and positions in government to influence state policy in similar ways that Delamere did.

Moreover, Kenya continues to be a country that depends on exports of few agricultural commodities to developed countries.

Agricultural exports account for the highest proportion of the country’s foreign exchange earnings and Gross National Product. In exchange, the country imports manufactured goods at high prices.

In the end, therefore, the one individual who pioneered modern farming in Kenya is the same one who would sow the seed of its woes.

The export cash crop economy, which the third Lord Dalamere helped found, has perpetuated Kenya’s economic weakness and often led to food insecurity.

Prof Ndege teaches history at Moi University. [email protected]


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About the settler

  1. Lord Delamare abandoned the family’s extensive estate in England and travelled to East Africa in 1898 in pursuit of adventure.
  2. Known as Hugh Cholmondeley, he was educated at Eton.
  3. His titled family was accustomed to large swathes of land in Britain.
  4. Although Delamere loved Africa, its sun made him sick, going by various accounts.
  5. Lord Delamere encouraged colonialists to migrate to Kenya and occupy most of the land that he believed had no owner, what gave birth to the modern day land grabbing in Kenya.