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Letters to the Editors: Gillian Fazan

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I enjoyed your article which I read in the Spectator and will be signing up to History Reclaimed.

From: Gillian Fazan
To: History Reclaimed Editors

Subject: I enjoyed your article which I read in the Spectator and will be signing up to History Reclaimed.

My father, SH Fazan, was a colonial administrator in Kenya from 1911.  He had been born in 1888, the son of a doctor and he had been a scholar of Christ Church, Oxford, where he read classics and philosophy, with a particular interest in moral philosophy.  He was part of the much-lauded King and Country generation of the first world war. His younger brother, who was a student doctor at the outbreak of war, was killed at the battle of Augers Ridge in May 1915. His older brother, also a doctor, survived but his son was killed in the second world war. All of them were keen sportsmen. A sense of fairness, of public service, of self-sacrifice, and an obligation to do one’s duty were integral to their identities.

When my father sailed for Kenya, aged 23, in November 1911, he probably looked forward to the adventure but would have had no doubt about the benevolence of the British Empire and thought that he was doing something worthwhile.  He was not enticed by high pay or good prospects. His starting salary as an assistant district commissioner was £250 a year. Conditions were primitive and I believe that I am right in saying that of those who joined the service at the same time only he and one other survived the experience.

The job called for astonishing self-reliance and courage. He was fortunate to learn from John Ainsworth, a famous pro-African administrator, in Kisumu on the shores of Lake Victoria; and my father was similarly committed to progress for Africans. During the first world war he was not permitted to return to England where he would have liked to join up with his brothers. He was posted to Turkana where he alone was in charge of a desert-like province roughly the size of Scotland. There was no existing base there and no roads or railhead when he went. He took the train as far as it went and walked the remaining two or three hundred miles with head-load porters and mules. He had to choose where to build his base and then build it. I have a photograph. It was a rectangular thatched mud hut. The Turkana people were warlike and constantly at odds with their neighbours. His job was to try to bring law and order to the territory to promote development and prosperity. In that inhospitable and desert like place, which he patrolled on foot, it must have seemed an overwhelming and even pointless task. He once told me that in the next two years he spoke no English. There was no one to speak English to. He also commented that the food was tedious. I wish I had asked more as I cannot imagine what his diet consisted of as obviously there was no refrigeration.

During this period his younger brother was killed in the war. I have the letter his mother wrote to him to tell him and have often wondered how long it took to reach him, and how it reached him at all and how he dealt with it when he had no one to talk to. He was a very young man, alone in a foreign place who had just lost his dearest brother. Eventually he became very ill and was shipped back to a hospital for tropical diseases in London. He was soon back in Kenya and by the end of the war was on the coast. He told me that he would walk from Mombasa to Malini along a track made by the man who maintained the telegraph line and would often come across basking crocodile on the path. He said that at the end of the war they held a thanksgiving service on the beach at which every race and creed was represented, standing together on the sand. All willingly took part, except the Roman Catholics who stood slightly apart.

In the years that followed he had increasingly senior roles, but still lived simply. When the Prince of Wales or the Duke and Duchess of York visited, the English community would pool their belongings to try to make one place look fit for purpose.

Early in the 1940s, when he was 52or 53, he resigned from his post as the senior Provincial Commissioner in Kenya, to accompany African troops to Palestine and Burma as their liaison officer to ensure that African troops were looked after properly, had problems dealt with and that they could communicate with their families at home, as many of the African were illiterate at that time and did not speak English. I have seen reference to him travelling on average 100 miles a day for this purpose. He visited East African troops wherever they were engaged and intermittently returned to East Africa to visit their tribes to ensure their families knew what was happening. He did not have to do that. He was no longer young but he volunteered because he knew of the high casualties amongst the carrier corps in the First World War and wanted to do his best to support African troops in the Second.

The pace of development in the colony during the 50 years he was there was astonishing. There were no cars and no roads at the beginning and the port was rudimentary with ships being unloaded by head-load porters. Gradually that all changed and by the time of independence Kenya was a fully functioning modern state. It is a complicated story which my father told in his book Colonial Kenya Observed (Bloomsbury Academic, 2020).

At no stage was he well paid and he did not get much home leave. My father worked with unfailing dedication for his King and later Queen and for the people of Kenya and he believed that he had done his best and made an important contribution to the improvement of African lives. It was never his intention to do anything harmful.

As slavery and colonialism now seem to be interchangeable terms, his descendants will think he was a slave trader. Honestly it makes me weep.

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