Michael Blundell

Sir Michael Blundell.

| File | Nation Media Group

Sir Michael Blundel: The colonial era's Mr Fix It

What you need to know:

  • He came out to Kenya in 1925, a young man of 18 years, carrying a hundred pounds, a shotgun and two tin trunks.
  • He was giving up the place he had won at Magdalen College, Oxford, and the chance of taking over his father’s law firm.

Sir Michael Blundell — farmer, soldier, politician and a settler who stayed on — was attending a passing out parade of Kenya Air Force cadets and waiting for President Jomo Kenyatta to arrive. 

Sitting next to him was a portly Kikuyu man, smartly dressed in a suit and tie. He kept looking at Blundell and muttering to himself. Eventually, he asked Blundell for his name. When told, he gave a broad smile and said, “In the Emergency, you were my target. I took an oath to kill you.”

He went on to say that he now had a restaurant in Nakuru and was doing quite well. They both laughed and chatted till the President arrived and made his speech. This was four years after Kenya’s independence. 

When Blundell told me this, it was clear that he saw the incident as saying a lot about the spirit of post-Independence Kenya—a spirit that he had played a part in creating. He was a man who Clive Mutiso, in an article in the old Executive magazine, said could claim to be at the hub of modern Kenya’s history.

I was fortunate to have the opportunity to talk with Blundell on many occasions. The first time was when George Mbuguss, then Managing Editor of the Nation, asked me to interview Blundell about his memories of Kenyatta—for it was Blundell who had recommended Kenyatta’s release from detention. 

Michael Blundell

Michael Blundell with Moi, Martin Shikuku and others at Lancaster House in 1962.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

When I rang Blundell, he said gruffly, “You’re not James Fox, are you?” (He was thinking I might be the author of White Mischief.) When I replied, “No, John Fox,” he said, “That’s fine, come to my house tomorrow and we can talk over a cup of tea.” 

Later, I interviewed him about his role in the two Lancaster House conferences that created the blueprint for Kenya’s independence. Finally, I had many weekly conversations that he used when writing his memoir, A Love Affair With The Sun. 

All these interviews and conversations, plus my study of the collection of Blundell’s documents held at the Bodleian Library of Commonwealth & African Studies in Oxford, have provided the material for a series of four articles on Blundell’s role in Kenya’s transition years—the move from a colonial state to an independent nation.

He came out to Kenya in 1925, a young man of 18 years, carrying a hundred pounds, a shotgun and two tin trunks. He came to be an assistant at a farm in the Kipkarren valley owned by an old boy of Wellington College, where Blundell had also been a student. 

He was giving up the place he had won at Magdalen College, Oxford, and the chance of taking over his father’s law firm. I asked him why he had chosen that path. He said he was very fond of gardening and, from a very young age, he had been fascinated by books and maps of Africa. 

I think there were other and deeper reasons, one of them being to escape from a very dominating father. But that is another story.

After a few years, Blundell acquired his own farm in the Solai Valley. Had it not been for the outbreak of the Second World War, he might have stayed only a farmer. How he became a soldier is quite a story. 

He was not caught up in the first wave of recruitment because of his age and the fact that, as a farmer, he was in what was known as a reserved occupation. However, one day when he was sitting on his veranda and going through the post that had arrived, one of the letters had a strange feel. When he opened it, out fell a white feather — a fairly common way for a woman to accuse a man of cowardice.

Blundell was still thinking about who might have sent the feather when he heard the sound of a motorbike approaching. It was a dispatch rider carrying an order to report to Lord Erroll in Nairobi as soon as possible. 

Sir Michael Blundell.

Kenya’s first president Jomo Kenyatta with Sir Michael Blundell. 

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

Lord Erroll, whose murder was to be the main theme of James Fox’s White Mischief, was at that time responsible for army recruitment. He had recommended that Blundell should take over command of a Luo brigade that was on the verge of mutiny, not because of any military experience, but because Blundell knew the Luo language. 

This is not the place to write about how Blundell re-activated the brigade and led it successfully through the Abyssinian campaign and then on to Sri Lanka. But the point I would emphasise now was how the experience of the war changed Blundell’s perceptions about Africans and their capacities. 

Talking about that during one of the sessions in preparation for his memoir, Blundell said that before the war, he wouldn’t have trusted any one of his African workers to drive his farm tractor. As he was saying it, three fighter jets flew over us, practising for a Jamhuri Day celebration. “Those are African pilots up there,” I remarked. “I know! I know!” he said.

Nevertheless, when Blundell was persuaded to campaign for a seat in the European-dominated Legislative Council, he asked an old settler politician what policy he should campaign on. “That’s easy,” his adviser said. “All you need say is that you support the sanctity of the White Highlands, the communal roll, separate education for each race, and you will be elected.” That is what Blundell did say — and he was elected.

However, it was not so long before he changed his political views. 

“When I was in politics, I saw the country as a whole,” he said. “You had to produce policies that everybody would follow—Asians and Africans as well. Charles Markham, one of my political rivals said, ‘People just won’t take that.’ In my next speech, I asked him, ‘Who are the people?”’

In our conversations, Blundell said that he thought many young Kenyans would see the movement towards independence as a struggle between the African population of Kenya and the British colonial power. 

Sir Michael Blundell

Sir Michael Blundell with former president Daniel Moi at Lancaster House, London, in 1962. 

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

But he emphasised that there were other struggles: between the European settlers, many of whom envisaged a white-ruled dominion, and the officials of the British Colonial office that saw their role as protecting the African interests. (That the three East African countries would cease to be colonies was recognised in the British Cabinet as far back as 1942.) 

As leader of the Europeans in the Legislative Council, he had to hold the ring between the settler population who were determined to maintain a white domination and those who recognised that the move to African majority rule was inevitable. He had also to take account of the sizeable Indian population that had acquired a significant role in the country’s trade and commerce. 

This community was split, also, between those who feared what would happen to them under African rule and those who had the same views as the African nationalists, even if they didn’t openly ally themselves with them.

And then the Emergency happened, from 1952. Blundell was one of the trio overseeing the response to the Mau Mau Emergency—Evelyn Baring, Governor; George Erskine, Military Commander; and Blundell himself, leader of the European members of the Legislative Council. 

Reflecting on the Emergency, which lasted eight years, he saw two events as immensely significant in shaping the outside world’s view of the Mau Mau. 

The first was the Lari massacre in 1953, whose victims included a chief, his family and supporters. Blundell said that up to that point, many people — particularly, members of the British Labour Party — saw the uprising as an understandable action of a people that had been suppressed under colonial rule. But the widely publicised brutality of the killings turned many of them against the methods being used by the Mau Mau fighters. 

The second event was the killing of 11 Mau Mau detainees at the Hola Camp. As Blundell said, it was an event that whipped up the feelings of those who had a strong distaste for the detentions, the villagisation policy and the Royal Air Force bombing of the freedom fighters in the forest.

I must also record one gem from a meeting Blundell had with the ageing British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, during the early years of the outbreak—one not mentioned in the official account of the meeting:

“This Kenyatta fellow,” Churchill said, “can’t you buy him off?”

As to Blundell’s own assessment of the Emergency’s impact, he saw it as reinforcing the views of a number of settlers that political changes were urgently needed in Kenya. In anticipation of the independence discussions to be set in train by the British Government, Blundell founded the New Kenya Group, which later became the New Kenya Party, the first multi-racial party in Kenya. One of its main policies was that, in order to ensure representation of the three main races in Kenya, elections would be based on communal rolls.

Blundell was the leader of the New Kenya Group’s delegation to the first Lancaster House Conference in January, 1960 — a conference to agree a road map for Kenya’s independence. And that will be the setting of the next piece in this series of articles.  

Next week:Michael Blundell’s role at the Lancaster House Conference and the road to independence