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 Am established in the country—Native festivities and dances—Troubadours—Musical quickness of the natives—Dearth of musical instruments—My attempts at military organization—Hostile rumours—Preparations for resisting attack—Great battle and defeat of the attacking tribes—Victory due to skilful tactics of my Kikuyu force—Succeed in taking a large convoy of provisions into the starving Government stations—White men attacked and killed—Am supreme in the tribe—Native poisons—Although I am supplying the Government stations with food, I get no recognition at the hands of the officials.
The people in the immediate neighbourhood of the district where I was living now looked upon me as a great man. My advice had been good in their councils, and I had succeeded in bringing about peace with their bitterest enemies. They also regarded me as a great medicine man, on the strength of the iodoform, and of a bottle of Eno’s fruit salts, which they would come round in crowds to watch me drink, saying that the white man could drink boiling water; and they believed that I must have a stomach like iron, and, being utterly
ignorant, my friends were firmly convinced that it was impossible to kill me.
The news of my presence spread all through the country, and many threats to kill me were uttered—it being reported that some of the hostile chiefs were banding together for that purpose.
In the meanwhile, I invited some of the principal witch doctors to come and live near me, and at intervals of about ten days I would get the natives round about to come up to my house to dance. These dances were always held during the daytime, and the women took no part in them. The Kikuyu are a very musical people, singing wherever they go, and the warriors would come to the dances in a body, singing as they marched along, and keeping as perfect time and step as a regiment of trained soldiers. First of all they would have a kind of march past, and then, falling out, would form a huge circle, with all the women and the old men on the outside. First one warrior and then another would dart out from the circle and go through some weird evolutions. Every man was fully armed as if going on the war-path, and the movements took the form of a fierce fight with an imaginary enemy, each man, as he jumped out of the circle, rushing round and spearing his imaginary foe. If the man was recognized as a great warrior, he was violently applauded by the onlookers, and, encouraged by
the signs of approbation, would work himself up into a perfect frenzy; but if he was a man who had not distinguished himself in any way, or who was not popular among the tribesmen, his performance would be received in absolute silence.
One peculiar point that struck me about these people was the absence of any kind of musical instrument, even the usual drum. All their songs and dances were absolutely unaccompanied by any of the usual weird noises that, with most savage tribes, represent a musical accompaniment, and the only musical instrument that I ever knew of their making was a kind of whistle, something after the fashion of those made by boys at home from elder stems, and, I imagine, merely a toy; certainly I never saw them used by any but boys, and only on rare occasions by the boys themselves. I do not include among musical instruments the war-horn, an instrument usually made from the horn of a bullock or the koodoo, and which is used simply as an alarm.
One peculiar point about the applause on these occasions was that it was confined to the women, the men considering it beneath their dignity to make any demonstration, whether of approval or contempt. Although the women were not allowed to take any part in these dances themselves, they always appeared in full force as spectators, rigged out in their best go-to-meeting
suits of skins, with their bodies plentifully smeared with grease, and wearing all their ornaments. When any favourite warrior had the floor, they expressed their approval by waving bunches of grass, and at the same time raising a musical chant of “lu-lu-lu-lu-lu.” This chant, by the way, was the common form of welcome among them, as, when my safaris returned from one of my trips to Naivasha with food, the women would all turn out as we approached a village and greet us with this cry, which was taken up from hill to hill as we went along.
They had some dances in which the women joined, and these were usually held at night round a big fire. The Kikuyu seem to have more varieties of dances than any natives I know, and are, on the whole, a light-hearted race, singing all day long.
They have a class of strolling minstrels, resembling more than anything the old troubadours of the Middle Ages. There were only five or six of these troupes in the country altogether, and, like the troubadours, they were a privileged class, travelling from place to place and extemporising songs about local events and people—not always without a strong tinge of sarcasm, which no one dared to resent.
The Kikuyu were particularly clever in picking up the songs introduced by these troubadours, and a song that took the popular fancy
would be taken up at its first hearing, and spread through the country with as much, or even more rapidity than a music-hall ditty among the errand-boys of London, disappearing as rapidly when a new one came out.
There was a further resemblance to the troubadours in the fact that they dressed in a fashion of their own, and wore a ring of small bells strapped round each ankle, and a single large one of iron fastened to each knee. They seemed to be free to pass where they pleased throughout the country, and I consequently encouraged them to visit me—which some of them would do every week—as they were able to keep me informed as to what was going on all over the country, so that I was able to meet any emergency that might arise.
The dances I arranged as a means of bringing the people together, so that I could talk to them afterwards and explain various things to them which they did not at first understand, such as the coming of the white men, who, I explained, did not come to raid their villages and make slaves of them, but wished to be friends in trade with them.
The information I got from some of my visitors with regard to what was going on in the outlying districts was also very useful at times. For instance, about this time I found that a tribe whose district lay to the north of us was
preparing to make a big raid through the whole country, as they did not want any white men there at all; and I also got news from time to time of Arab and Swahili traders being murdered on their way down from the north from the Turkana country.[7]
7. The Turkana country lies to the west of Lake Rudolph.
Of course, these things put me on my guard, and I began to get the men together and to give them some little military training, so that we might be ready for any attack that should come. One point in particular that gave me a lot of trouble was teaching them to keep guard. It is a peculiarity of the African native that even when surrounded by the enemy and expecting attack at any minute, he has no idea of keeping on the alert and watching for his foe. I had a remarkable instance of this in the case of my own servant, a Swahili, whom I found herding sheep for the Kikuyu, and took into my service. He had originally come to the country with a caravan of Swahili traders, who, with the exception of himself, had all been murdered. I put him among my askaris (soldiers), and one night when he was on guard, on making my usual round to see that all was right, I found him lying on the ground fast asleep at his post. I took his rifle away, and as that did not wake him I poured a bucket of water over his head. Even that did not disturb him much, the only effect
being to make him shiver and pull his coat over his head—possibly thinking it was raining—and then go on sleeping as peacefully as ever. So I called the other men and pointed him out to them, and they slipped a noose round his legs and pulled him by his feet, while I fired a shot in the air over his head. I thought that this would give him such a fright that he would never go to sleep on guard again, but it did not work and I had to find him another job. It might have been thought that his experience of having all his companions murdered through not keeping a proper guard would have been sufficient to make him keep awake, but this carelessness of such dangers is a native peculiarity which is very hard to overcome.
As I have said, I found it very necessary to have the natives better organized, from a military point of view, seeing the danger with which we were threatened, not only in respect of keeping guard, but also in their method of fighting. They had never been accustomed to observe any sort of formation in their attack, but simply made a mad rush at the enemy, so I taught them to keep together, forming a line with their shields touching. I had one or two lines in front of men armed with spears and shields, while the bowmen, with their poisoned arrows, took their place behind, protected by the shields of those in front. I had very few rifles, but hearing that
there were some in the country—a good way farther north—which had been taken from some Swahili traders who had been murdered, I made a night march to secure them, and succeeded in collecting about one hundred, but only some thirty of them were of any real use. Having managed to get some ammunition, I selected the best men out of the tribe and armed them with these rifles, taking great trouble in teaching them how to use them. After a time I was able to put the squad through the manual exercises in English, though it always puzzled me to know how they understood what I wanted them to do, as not one of them knew a word of English, but I suppose they simply imitated what they saw me do when showing them the various movements, and associated certain sounds with those movements.
All this time the country was in a terrible state of unrest. Every night alarming messages were brought in that the people from the north were coming down to attack us. One night it would be the followers of Wagombi—a big chief living near Mount Kenia, who could muster two or three thousand fighting men—who were on the war-path. This chief had raided the whole of the country at one time or another, and, though I had tried to get messengers through to him in the hope of making friends with him, they were always murdered. Another night it would be the
people of Tato who were coming down on us. All this time food was being collected and brought in, and I was anxious to explore the country still further, but was afraid to leave, on account of these rumours of threatened attacks. If I had gone away I should have had to take the best of the people with me, and I knew that during my absence the hostile tribes would have come down on the district, burnt the place out, and killed every one that was left. Besides, all the people urged me to stay with them, and not to go away just yet.
I had taken the precaution of placing outposts to give us due warning of any attack, which I expected would take place, if it did come, early in the morning, just before daylight, this being the usual time for an attack, and for this reason the Kikuyu will not keep fowls, lest the crowing of the cocks towards dawn should betray their villages—which are always hidden away in the bush—to the enemy. This practice of delivering their attack just before dawn prevails among savage tribes pretty well all over the world, and I think that the chief reasons which lead to this time being chosen are, firstly, that the night offers the best opportunity of gradually bringing the force up into such a position that the enemy are surrounded before they can discover the movement which is in progress, and, secondly, that it is the hour at
which vitality is at the lowest point, and consequently, the desire for rest and sleep has greater power over the body, and the force attacked is likely to be less alert and less fitted for strenuous resistance.
One night an attack was actually made on us, though it did not turn out to be anything very serious, and was possibly simply a piece of bravado on the part of some of the young warriors who were anxious for war. They had not time to do much damage before we arrived on the scene and repulsed them, with the loss of a few killed.
Up to this time I had not really attached much importance to the rumours that an attack was to be made on us from that quarter, though I had taken all precautions against being caught napping; but this put me more on the alert than ever, while my people were absolutely terrified—especially as the latest rumour said that the people of Tato, who were coming down on us, had got the Masai to join them, as well as many of the Kikuyu who lived on the other side of the river which, as I explained before, was the boundary of the friendly district. This river was nearly two days’ march from the farther boundary of the Kikuyu country, and the inhabitants of the intervening district had made friends with the Masai to save themselves from being raided—indeed, those on the boundary
were half Masai themselves, having largely intermarried with that tribe. They would probably be able to muster a force of about two thousand fighting men; so having come to the conclusion that there was something in the rumour—after having made inquiries and carefully thought the matter out—I saw that it was necessary that we should be thoroughly prepared, and set to work to make my plans accordingly. Crossing the country through which the enemy would have to come was a deep ravine, with a river running through it. This river was crossed by a few bridges consisting simply of felled trees, which had been cut down so as to fall across the stream. I gave orders to destroy or remove these bridges at once, with the exception of one, against which I kept a guard night and day, to give us full warning of the enemy’s coming; my intention was to destroy the bridge as soon as the opposing force had crossed it, in the hope that I might be able to teach them such a lesson that they would leave us alone for the future.
At the top of the mountain overlooking the ravine I had built another house for myself, with a food station and trading store attached—as I made use of every opportunity of trading—and it was here that I decided to wait for the invaders. I had put a good guard there, which I visited every day myself, to see that things were all in order. The only path up the hill
from the bridge over the river zig-zagged up the mountain-side, and was very rough and steep, so that it was difficult for an enemy to approach in a body.
The people living near this station were in continual fear of an attack, as they had news from their spies that a considerable number of Masai were on the Kikuyu boundary, near Tato, and it had been the custom of this tribe to raid the country at least once a year, when the young braves would come out on the war-path after the circumcision ceremony to prove their fighting qualities. Their main object was loot, but they did not hesitate to kill all who opposed them, besides burning the villages and carrying off the cattle—and very often the women as well. I determined if possible to put an end to this raiding and wanton bloodshed.
The men guarding the bridge had been instructed to send two of their number to bring me word as soon as they saw the enemy approaching, while the remainder were to stay behind in hiding, and destroy the bridge as soon as the invaders had crossed, so as to cut off their retreat. The long expected attack came early one morning, and, following out their instructions, the watchers at the bridge gave me early warning that a large body of warriors had crossed the river, and we were quite ready to give them a warm reception. They came boldly on, never
thinking that we were waiting for them, and no doubt expecting the same easy victory that they had had on previous raids. But a big surprise was in store for them. Owing to the narrowness of the path, they could only approach in single file, and we waited until they had almost reached the top before letting them know we were there. I had given strict orders that no man was to make a move, or utter a sound, until I gave the signal by firing my rifle. Coming steadily on, they had got close upon us when I fired, and my rifle-men opened on them at once, while the bowmen followed the volley up with a flight of poisoned arrows. The invaders were taken completely by surprise, and before they could recover themselves the Kikuyu warriors swept down on them with swords and spears. Bolting in a mad panic, they were hotly pursued down the mountain-side, suffering severely in their flight. Arriving at the river, they found that the bridge was gone, and many of them jumped into the stream, of whom some got safely across, but a good many were drowned on the way. At least fifty had been killed, and many wounded, and these I gave orders were not to be killed, but brought in as prisoners, of whom, when all were collected, we had a very large number, so that the victory was altogether complete, while my force had suffered only very slight loss. The punishment we had administered was so severe
that the country was never again raided by these people during the time I was with the Kikuyu.
This victory having ensured the people security from any further raids—for a time, at any rate—I had now the opportunity for which I had been looking, of taking the food I had collected into the British settlement. I had bought a lot of flour, which I took into the Government station at Naivasha, and very pleased they were to get it, as I found that they were practically starving for want of food. Not only was this the case at Naivasha, but they were no better off at the Ravine; and so thankful were the Government to get these supplies that they made a contract with me to keep them provisioned, and I heard no more about my going into the Kikuyu country without permission!
It was on this visit to Naivasha that I was able to renew my acquaintance with two most interesting people, whom I had met on some of my journeys with food for the troops in Uganda. They were Mr. and Mrs. Walsh, who, at the time I first met them, were engaged, like myself, in taking up food in donkey-wagons for the troops. They had, I found, established the first store in Naivasha. This was what I had wished to do some time previously, but had been forbidden by the official in charge—who, as I now have reason to believe, far exceeded his legal powers in doing so; but I was only a settler,
and he was one of the officials who had his knife into me.
This couple had come to East Africa from Mashonaland, where Mrs. Walsh had been the first white woman to enter the country, and had started by taking up the transport business, in which they had both had considerable experience, and in which Mrs. Walsh took a man’s share of the work, being the only white woman who ever ran transport in British East Africa. In spite of their many successful ventures, they are not numbered among the wealthy, their open-handed hospitality and careless, happy-go-lucky Irish temperament being against them in the race to accumulate riches; but there is hardly any one who has been in British East Africa who does not know them, and few who have not, at one time or another, shared their generous hospitality, which was as freely extended to the trader or settler temporarily down on his luck as to the Government official or missionary travelling in luxury.
I gave the authorities a full report on the country, telling them of the continual fighting and the trouble I had had right through. They said that they were quite aware of it, and that I could expect nothing else, but that they could give me no assistance, as they had quite enough troubles of their own, with the natives near at hand.
It appeared that during my absence from the
Kikuyu country my old partner Gibbons had returned from Uganda and gone into partnership with a man named Findlay to make a trading expedition to the Kikuyu country; but I had somehow missed him while transacting my business in Naivasha, as his route had lain farther to the east. I found that as soon as the two had entered the country they had had trouble with the natives, and some of their men had been killed. They had taken with them forty or fifty men, armed with rifles, and about one hundred porters, intending to trade for ivory. So far as I could gather, a chief had come to them and told them that he had a tusk to sell. When the Kikuyu come to sell ivory they do not show you the tusk but give you the measurement, from which you have to guess the weight; then, after the bargain is struck, you pay for the ivory, and the seller is supposed to bring it in. Gibbons bought a tusk, and sent ten armed men back with the chief to bring it in. These men were Swahili, who were terribly afraid of the Kikuyu. They had received the ivory, and were bringing it back to camp, when they were all ambushed and murdered. The rest of the safari lost heart at the murder of their companions and had scarcely courage to defend themselves, and Gibbons saw that his only chance was to build a boma, as the natives were coming in force to attack him. They had barely completed the
boma when they were attacked, and throughout the night the improvised fort was surrounded by a yelling horde of savages, bombarding them with spears and arrows and trying by every means to get through the defences. Gibbons and Findlay kept up a plucky defence, and by spurring on their men managed to beat off the attack. Things, however, looked even worse in the morning, when the natives were reinforced, and hemmed them in on every side. It was impossible to remain in the boma, as they could not hope to hold it for long against the hundreds of black fiends who surrounded them, and it was decided to make a sortie and, if possible, cut their way through and get out of the country. The attempt was made, and a fierce hand-to-hand fight ensued, in which Findlay received two bad spear thrusts, and would have been killed outright had not one of his boys come to the rescue, firing his rifle so close to Findlay’s assailant that he blew his arm clean off. Findlay was carried back into the boma, to which Gibbons and the few survivors also returned, and managed to strengthen their defences sufficiently to enable them to hold the savages at bay until a messenger could get through to the nearest Government station, from which a relief force of the King’s African Rifles was sent out, and after a week of terrible hardship Gibbons and his few remaining followers were rescued. Findlay, however, died later of his wounds.
This incident gives a good idea of the treacherous and bloodthirsty nature of the people among whom I was now spending my life.
On returning to Karuri’s I found myself on better terms than ever with the natives, and many other chiefs came in to profess their friendship. By this time I could speak Swahili well, and had mastered the Kikuyu language sufficiently to understand what they were saying, although I still spoke to them through an interpreter, as I thus had time to consider my replies. My thorough defeat of their sworn enemies, the Masai, had given me a great reputation among them, which was increased by their belief that it was impossible to kill me, a belief which had been strengthened by my defying the witch doctors to poison me and swallowing, in their presence, samples of what they considered their most deadly poisons without any ill effects. In consequence of the reputation I had thus gained my word was law, and I advised them that it would be greatly to their advantage to stop quarrelling and fighting among themselves, which advice I backed by severely punishing any one I caught quarrelling. With regard to my singular immunity from the effects of the poisons of the native witch doctors, it is, perhaps, difficult to find a satisfactory explanation. Whenever I met a witch doctor I always insisted on sampling any poisons he might have with him, which were
always prepared with honey, and appeared to me to be a mixture of honey and the ashes of burnt herbs—a black, sticky mess—and though not, perhaps, the most appetising morsel one could choose, yet not so unpleasant to the taste as to be objectionable. But, in spite of the opportunities thus offered them to get rid of the one man in the country whom they both hated and feared, I never felt the slightest ill-effects from these experiments. On the other hand, it must not be supposed that I ordinarily took any undue risks of death by poison. I never accepted any drink offered by my savage acquaintances or hosts without first seeing that the person who brought it carried out the usual custom of sampling it himself before I touched it, while I took all necessary precautions to ensure that my food was not interfered with.
Several theories occur to my mind to account for my immunity. One is that the concoctions which I took, in spite of the witch doctors’ assurances that they were deadly, were not poisons at all. I think it quite likely that they never carried their real poisons on them, but specially prepared them, in the secrecy of their own huts, for each individual, and that they were merely trying to frighten me.[8]
8. It is the Wakamba who deal in poisons and sell them to the neighbouring tribes. They pretend to have a monopoly of them in East Africa.
Another is that the Kikuyu had no poisons at all.[9] It must be remembered that the African native is one of the most superstitious beings in the world, and there is no doubt that many of the deaths attributed to the action of the witch doctors were really due to pure funk. The natives are so oppressed with a belief in the occult powers of the medicine man that it is well known that it is generally quite sufficient for him to curse an individual and assure him that his death will take place on or before a certain time to ensure that the man will simply give up the ghost according to the prophecy. Instances of this sort of thing can be quoted in connexion with most primitive races, either in Africa or India. I know very well that some of the native races of British East Africa have deadly poisons, and do not hesitate to use them, as two white men of my acquaintance met with horrible deaths from poison administered by some Wakamba, while I know of more than one similar instance occurring among white men on the West Coast. But with the native the ingrained superstitious fear of the medicine man is generally quite sufficient to cause death under the influence of his curse. So deeply rooted in the native mind is this belief in the power of these quacks that I
know of a native doctor, holding the post of Assistant Colonial Medical Officer in one of our West Coast colonies, who definitely stated that he could do nothing for a certain man who was ill, and of whom it was rumoured among the natives that he had trodden on poison which had been scattered on the floor of his house by a native medicine man for the purpose of poisoning him. This official was a prominent member of the Church of England in the colony and the possessor of several first-class European qualifications, yet he frankly said that he could do nothing against the arts of his heathen rival!
9. The poison put on their arrows is, I believe, innocuous if merely swallowed; it needs to be inoculated in the blood to be effective.
It is quite possible that a reason for my escape may be found in the superstitious fears of the witch doctors themselves. One of the greatest assets of these men was the belief, which they carefully fostered among the natives, that any one attempting to injure them would bring some terrible disaster upon himself. If they actually believed this themselves—and by constant reiteration of the fraud they may at last have brought themselves to believe it to be a truth—it is quite likely that they feared that any attempt to injure me, whom they reluctantly admitted to be more powerful than themselves, would, in the same way, recoil on their own heads.
I may mention that the medicine men of the Fantee and Ju-Ju systems, on the West Coast, frankly admit that their arts are of no use
against the white man, who absolutely disbelieves in them, so that possibly my want of faith in their mummery served to protect me from their kindly attentions and from any serious attempts at poisoning.
It should be remembered also that by “medicine” is meant incantation—that the drug is supposed to act rather through the medium of the incantation than through any potency of its own. Hence the powers of a poison to do harm would depend more on the magic possessed by the medicine man than on the power of the drug. So that a poison would have no power to injure a medicine man possessed of more magic than the man administering the drug.
After collecting more food, I went down with it again to the Government station at Naivasha, the road to which, through the bamboo forest, was extremely difficult; but when I wanted to improve the track the Kikuyu strongly objected, saying that if a road were made it would make it much easier for the Masai to raid them. As it was, in case of a raid, they could get away with their cattle through the bamboo forest. But if roads were made through the forest they would be at the mercy of the raiders. They also feared a descent by the Kalyera, another branch of the Kikuyu tribe, along the fringe of whose country I had to pass when taking supplies down to
Naivasha. Where their path joined the main road into the Masai country my caravans were frequently waylaid. To put a stop to this I built a camp at the junction of the two paths, and left some armed men in charge, but they were continually being attacked, and several of them were killed.
On getting the food into Naivasha I was told that there was no limit to the quantity they would take if I could only provide it. I again made a report to the Government as to the difficulty I had in obtaining the supplies; but, as usual, no notice was taken.

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