Karen Blixen

Karen Blixen, when she was in Denmark, after leaving Kenya.

| File | Nation Media Group

Love and hate in times of syphilis; from Karen Blixen to Adolf Hitler and Lenin

Once upon a time, syphilis was the disease of the high in society – the nobility.
Fancy this. In Kenya, after Karen Blixen realised that she had contracted syphilis from her husband, the Swedish aristocrat and second cousin Baron Bror Blixen-Fineke, she told her secretary, Clara Svendsen: “There are two things you can do in such a situation: shoot the man or accept it.”

As Kenya quietly marks 120 years of syphilis’ presence in the country, the story of the disease and how it was initially viewed makes an interesting reading – more so as we go through the biggest epidemic of our times, Covid-19.

Unlike in Covid-19, there seems to have been no historical stigma on syphilis, perhaps because it was entrenched in the high society, soldiers, explorers, and hunters.
The story of Karen Blixen, whose birthday was marked last week, is quite interesting. While in her 20s, she had fallen in love with her second cousin, Baron Hans Blixen-Finecke and after that marriage collapsed – she was actually jilted. She sailed to Kenya where she married Hans' twin brother, Bror. It was Bror who would infect her with syphilis as they struggled to manage what would turn out to be a doomed coffee plantation in Karen, Nairobi.

But when she learnt she had contracted syphilis, Karen accepted her fate. “If it didn’t sound so beastly,” she wrote, “I might say that …it was worth having syphilis in order to become Baroness.”

Karen was a nice woman, at least to the Africans. At her home in Karen, Nairobi, she would entertain colonial African chiefs including Josiah Njonjo and Chief Kinyanjui and lived to her description as a rebellious and artistic child.

Taking opium

But syphilis was eating, nay tormenting her. Sometimes, according to her biographer Judith Thurman, the agony of her syphilis would force her to the floor “howling like an animal”. That was, perhaps, the reason she was normally taking opium.

The worst happened. Bror left and the coffee business collapsed. Karen then turned to another hunter, the good-looking Denys Finch Hatton – the man buried in Ngong Hills – son of a British aristocrat. Finch Hatton was rich. He had the money, the looks, and a plane. Karen gave him food, love and he reciprocated by taking her high up in the skies to show her the “face of Africa from the air.” That story is well told by Error Trzebinski in his biography of Finch Hatton, Silence will speak.

Before Bror left, he was said to be in love with the most famous Nairobi socialite Beryl Markham – while still married to Karen. But in colonial Nairobi, the white settlers seemed to distinguish between sexual escapades and love. When Ms Markham was once asked about the affair, she said: “Of course I made love with him, sometimes when we were out there, there was nothing else to do but make love…But I never did have a love affair with him.” It was Finch Hatton who was training Ms Markham how to fly in the bush. Enough of Karen.

In Uganda, the Buganda king, Kabaka Mutesa, was also infected with syphilis. While historians differ whether he had gonorrhoea or syphilis, there was a Buganda song which praised those who were infected with a venereal disease. It said,  “Atalina nziku mugwagwa, atalina nziku mudembe (He who does not have gonorrhoea is a fool; He who does not have gonorrhea is an unrefined person).

From whom Kabaka Mutesa contracted the disease is not known, but the presence of syphilis and gonorrhoea was blamed on Arab slave traders. Thus the king’s court was always suspicious of the first missionary doctors in Buganda. Mutesa, at first, refused to take his medicine – not unless they were tested first on his subjects.

But by seeking to bring medicine, the British administrators had found a soft entry into Buganda and the rest is history.
So rampant was syphilis in Uganda that an inquiry was conducted in 1907 – but ended up with an exaggeration that half of all Ugandans were infected and that they would be “exterminated in a very few years”.

And the Ugandans were not the first to praise syphilis. When syphilis first swept through Europe in the 15th century, Erasmus, the famous Catholic humanist, wrote that nobles who had not had the disease were “ ignobilis et rusticans” – or rather ‘country bumpkins’. Simply put, those who had not acquired syphilis were looked down as unsophisticated rural folks.
How the disease erupted in Europe is not known but for good measure, it is blamed on the escapades of Christopher Columbus – the great sailor.

His crew is thought to have got infected with syphilis in America and his admirers and critics say that while he introduced the “New World” to Europe, he also took syphilis. In essence, syphilis is said to be the only disease that was introduced to Europe from America.

French troops

But it is now accepted that the first recorded outbreak of syphilis was in Italy where it was spread by French troops in 1495 – the reason it was also nicknamed the French disease, until the term syphilis was coined by an Italian physician and poet in 1530.
President Donald Trump was not saying anything new by terming Covid-19 as China virus. It is a long blame game. The Dutch used to call syphilis the "Spanish disease", while the Turks called it the "Christian disease”. The Russians called it the "Polish disease". In Britain, they called it the French or Spanish pox. It made them feel better to associate it with their enemies. Muslims called it the European disease.

And that was before it was brought to Africa.

The first recorded reports of syphilis in Kenya were in 1901. It is also recorded that between 1907 and 1919, there was a steady decrease in the number of patients. The colonial medical authorities had to look for a word that could describe the disease since there was no local word for it. For instance, they picked the word “gatego” among the Kikuyus and scholars are in agreement, perhaps, that the “history of the word gatego suggests that the disease may well have referred to the effects of a marital infidelity charm.”

But in 1920, there was an outbreak of syphilis in Nairobi but did not achieve “phobic” status. However, the government was concerned about syphilis – only because its widespread could tamper with the provision of labour. As a result, two clinics were opened in Nairobi, specifically to treat venereal diseases.

The best known was the Special Treatment Clinic, which was for many years nicknamed Casino Clinic and is still located off River Road.
Globally, syphilis also turned into a racial scandal. The best known scandal took place in the US between 1932 and 1972 when the United States Public Health Service denied 400 black Americans treatment, and for 40 years, as part of a government-sponsored study to ostensibly watch the progress of syphilis among the blacks. The patients were told they were receiving free health care. It was only in 1997 that President Bill Clinton apologised to the victims of the Tuskegee Syphilis study and agreed to compensate the families.
Historians are today concerned about Adolf Hitler’s behaviour and how his syphilis led to the genocide.

Hatred among Jews

For Hitler, it has been claimed that he got syphilis from a Jewish prostitute in Vienna in 1908 and psychiatrist claim that this explains his hatred against the Jews. The story of Hitler’s ailment is contained in diaries by his personal doctor Theo Morrel.

So concerned was Hitler about syphilis that 13 pages of his book Mein Kampf were devoted to the disease. He wrote in one paragraph: “The job of combating syphilis – the Jewish disease – should be the task of the entire German nation."

As Historians continue investigating this connection, the best book on the subject is Deborah Hayden’s Pox: Genius, Madness and the Mysteries of Syphilis.
It is now documented, and rather too late, that Lenin also died of syphilis, although official documents had attributed his death to stroke. However, in 2009, a Lenin historian, Helen Rappaport in her famous book Conspirator: Lenin in Exile revealed that Lenin, probably, caught the disease from a prostitute in Paris.


“It was the unspoken belief of many top Kremlin doctors and scientists that Lenin died of syphilis, but a decades-long conspiracy of silence was forced on them by the authorities,” she writes.

She revealed that doctors who examined Lenin’s brain after his death in 1924 concluded that he had syphilis – and thus joined the likes of Henry VIII, Adolf Hitler, Napoleon Bonaparte and Ivan the Terrible.

Thus, Karen Blixen was not alone in her struggles in Nairobi. But she kept much the details to herself. She visited leading venereologists in Denmark and while there managed to halt the risk of more infection. It was never cured and led to a spinal degeneration problem and lightning pains. Had she narrated these struggles, perhaps we could have an idea of how the aristocrats lived with the ailment in colonial Kenya.

Again, whether she knew that the man she was marrying was infected is not clear. What we know is that Karen’s new husband was described by close friends as “one of the most durable, congenial, promiscuous and prodigal creatures who ever lived.”

In the book, The Man whom Women Loved, Baron Blixen is aptly described as “a philanderer…a gambler (and) a heavy drinker.”

Karen did not end up well. In her final years, and after leaving Nairobi, she lived on grapes, champagne and oysters. Twice, she had been nominated for Nobel Prize in literature. The disease ravaged her and in 1962, she died at Rungstedlund. The cause of her death was recorded as emaciation. She was 74.
While syphilis has been eliminated in most places, it is estimated that there could be at least 200,000 Kenyan infected.

[email protected] @johnkamau1


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