From sabotaging him not to get a job, to snooping on his mails and private life — the British intelligence never gave Jomo Kenyatta a rest.
As archival files on him indicate, life at 95 Cambridge Street in London, where he stayed between 1933 and 1937 was hell for Jomo Kenyatta.
At one time, Kenyatta was unable to pay his rent for 18 months and was reported to the Colonial Office by his landlord, a Mr S Hosken.
At first, Mr Kenyatta was staying on the first floor of this house, now classified as a historic building because of his residence there, before he shifted to attic — the crawl space below the pitched roof.
Hosken seemed to think Kenyatta was refusing to pay and a Colonial office letter addressed to a Mr Wade seemed to suggest as much: “Hosken says (Kenyatta) is still well dressed and well fed and goes abroad at times (now in Denmark).
Mrs McGregor Ross has apparently washed her hands of him”, says a letter dated September 1936 at a time when even the Kikuyu Central Association (KCA) wanted Kenyatta to return home. “They seem to want him back – but wisely – won’t trust him with the cash.”
Actually, Mr Hosken had written to Jesse Kariuki, the chairman of Kikuyu Central Association which had hired the house for Kenyatta. It is not clear from the correspondence whether it was KCA which was failing Kenyatta or it was Kenyatta who was not remitting money.
What we know is that the KCA chairman (Mr Kariuki) had written to the landlord in April 1936 expressing concern about the amount that Mr Kenyatta owed. In his reply, Mr Hosken told Mr Kariuki Kenyatta “keeps telling my wife you will be sending a cheque… we both are owing everybody… at times I feel very disgusted at the whole affair, and have wanted to put this matter in Solicitors hands (and) also see our Foreign Secretary as to your association affairs. We have kept Mr K for three years not receiving any reward for our generosity…”
At that point, the KCA Murang’a Branch, according to a police report dated April 1936, started raising funds “for the purpose of sending two young educated Kikuyus to England to investigate the affairs of Johnstone Kenyatta who is unable to leave England by reason of his indebtedness to a Mr Hosken.”
Kenyatta had left Kenya in 1929 to campaign for land rights in British political circles, and this is when the intelligence started following him. They had a description of him too: “He was slightly splay footed, almost invariably hatless, but sometimes wears a blue beret.” Another description was that he was “slim build… with two punctures at the top of the right ear.”
Travelling with British Passport No. A18087 issued on February 1, 1929, Kenyatta’s occupation was that of an editor, which allowed him to hobnob with many writers, activists and publishers. Though his first trip was short and returned home in 1930 his second trip started a year later until 1946.
It was during this time that he met Nancy Cunard, an activist and whose father was the billionaire owner of Cunard Line shipping businesses. The British intelligence boss, Sir Vernon Kell, reported in 1933 that Nancy “had recently been associating, apparently with considerable satisfaction to herself with Johnstone Kenyatta.”
Whether Cunard was Kenyatta’s girlfriend is not clear but what we know is the British intelligence was following both of them.
In 1936, the Kenya Police finally asked the British intelligence to check on Kenyatta’s correspondence and they agreed saying they were “likely to be of considerable interest to ourselves”.
The reason they had decided to check Kenyatta was because he was a “negro agitator” and had “joined Communist Party, twice visited Moscow to study” and was the Vice Chairman of International African Service Bureau which was led by George Padmore with an office at 94 Gray’s Inn Road from where they published African Sentinel.
Like Kenyatta, Padmore was a journalist and they both believed they could change the world by writing books. And that is how they became friends with a British publisher Fredric Warburg whose company published Kenyatta’s Facing Mt Kenya in 1938 and later became famous for publishing George Orwell’s Animal Farm in 1945.
But it was Kenyatta’s struggle with rent that seems to indicate the kind of life he lived in London. Despite the earlier arrears, Kenyatta returned again to 95 Cambridge Street in 1938 and the Metropolitan Police wrote an interesting enquiry report: “He still owes a fair amount of money for rent from previous residence there during 1936 but appears to be able to convince the landlord, Mr Sidney Hosken, that he can obtain the arrears by writing to Stephen Gechugu of PO Box 59 Nairobi Kenya, South Africa. Hockan has written but has never received any money.”
But there is a letter in the file addressed to Mr Hosken by Kikuyu Central Association’s Jesse Kariuki regarding Kenyatta’s debt.
“I am very glad to inform you that the whole Kikuyu community is too busy in raising your money. But they are very particular to know about Mr Kenyatta himself, as he is not writing to us and explain all his troubles and his wishes to return to Kenya... so to safeguard our collection he must write us at once.”
“Further, I must frankly inform you that the trouble is increasing day by day in the Colony and Mr Kenyatta’s presence is very necessary. I don’t think the money will be sent to you direct, but I will send through strict order that unless Mr Kenyatta is on the train leaving London for Marseilles payment should not be effected at all.”
KCA according to the documents wanted to raise £400 for Kenyatta’s ticket to Kenya. Although Kenyatta maintained this address, he also resided at 15 Cranleigh House, Cranleigh Street, which he shared with a Jamaican girl, Miss Amy Geraldine Stock, identified by the intelligence as a “Labour Party speaker in whose company Kenyatta is frequently seen.
They are both registered as readers at the library at the British Museum.” Both were studying Sociology at the museum.
Also known as Dinah Stock, her relationship with Kenyatta has always baffled historians but her influence on him was immense.
Both had met at Trafalgar Square in May 1937 and by August, and according to her biographer, Kenyatta moved to her flat in Camden Town (perhaps because of his rent problems). But the biographer says that the relationship was “a working, not a romantic” and that it contributed favourably to Kenyatta’s growth politically and intellectually.
Dinah, a graduate of Oxford University, was left-wing activist and even Jeremy Murray-Brown, the Kenyatta biographer, says she “made no emotional demands on him but was a loyal and diligent collaborator.” She is credited with going through Kenyatta’s book, Facing Mt Kenya.
The British also made sure that Kenyatta did not get some good jobs. For instance, when a Nairobi recording company Shankar Dass wanted to record some Kikuyu language gramophones in London, it approached the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) for recommendations on a person “to censor the records”. As a result the school appointed Kenyatta as a member of “Panel of Additional Lecturers” which means he was employed by the university.
This worried the colonial office for they did not know “what nature of records are being made… as it appears they may be propaganda records which ought not to be done at all without the knowledge of ourselves and the ministry of Information.”
Kenyatta had also been employed by the Gramophone company of Middlesex and the Columbia Gramophone Co Limited as a translator of Kikuyu to English after he had been recommended by the University of London as an expert.
After the intelligence intercepted his letters, they decided to write to the company telling them “this man is looked upon as highly suspect and it is considered more than probable that he himself is the author of any seditious propaganda in Kikuyu which may leave the country.”
The intelligence and Colonial Office suggested to Sir Robert McLean of Gramophone records the name of Eliud Mathu – then a student at Balliol College, Oxford, to replace Kenyatta. Mathu had just left teaching Alliance High School for a course in UK and would later become the first African to be nominated to Parliament.
In between giving lectures and talks, Kenyatta was also working in the office of the International African Bureau together with Padmore – a man who made life easier for Kenyatta who was also writing opinion letters to Manchester Guardian and New Statesman.
In all his talks, the intelligence followed him and wrote reports. When he went to give a talk at International Labour Party Summer School at Letchworth, the intelligence reported that Kenyatta “told a woeful tale of exploitation of the coloured people by the whites (and) on political work done by missionaries to keep the natives down.”
In February 1940, Maj Gen Vernon Kell, the founder and first director of the British Security Service, otherwise known as MI5, told the Kenya Police Commissioner R.C.A. Cavendish that they have been following Kenyatta and intercepting his mails “but nothing has been seen which answers the description you gave”.
“We will let you know if anything interesting is seen,” Sir Vernon wrote. But four months after that letter, Sir Vernon was fired by Prime Minister Winston Churchill after MI5 was judged by the War Cabinet to be “completely unprepared” for the role it had been given during the Second World War — which was, the large-scale internment of “enemy aliens” in order to uncover any spies and agents.
For some years, Sir Vernon had been interested in what Kenyatta and Padmore were doing at the International African Service Bureau, an anti-imperialist lobby which was described by MI5 as “subversive in character” but which had several British members of Parliament as patrons. It was this bureau which used to organise public speeches at Trafalgar Square normally used for community gatherings and political demonstrations.
In one speech which irked the authorities, Kenyatta was quoted saying: “The workers of this country were fighting fascism directly and indirectly all over the world, but they did not realise that it was from the methods employed by the British government in her colonies that Hitler and Mussolini had learnt their tyrannical form of dictatorship.”
Even after he returned to Kenya, the intelligence continued to snoop on his letters. The most interesting was the identity of two women who had written to Kenyatta. The first was a woman only known as ‘Pumla’ who was also a friend of Mbiyu Koinange. The name Pumla had been extracted from a letter addressed to Kenyatta by another woman who had signed off as “Mademoiselle” and also as “Sister Tutor”.
This letter was intercepted by the intelligence in Nairobi and they asked London to trace the two women. “Mademoiselle writes in adoring vein to Kenyatta,” C.R. major, the East Africa Security Liason Officer for British intelligence, wrote in one of the letters.
“The main sheet of the letter was signed Mademoiselle and on the reverse Sister Tutor. We should be glad to know if you have any trace.”
The problem was that the address given in the letter belonged to a 72-year-old widow, Mrs Annie Eastham — who lived alone — and it took time before they realised that it was her daughter who was clandestinely using the address. There is no information on what became of the 44-year-old Miss Muriel Eastham, thought to be a member of Communist Party.
But that was the other life of Jomo Kenyatta in London.
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