Lamu Island II

Copyright: G J Wright 2018

NB: I did not keep a diary and events are not in strict chronological order.



When I arrived in Lamu in 1960, I felt that the police, like the island itself and its population, was out of touch with reality, in a state of ennui.  This was epitomised for me when returning to my office after lunch one day I found a large Arab gentleman dressed in a dish-dashi (a neck to ankles white gown) topped by a Muslim cap, casually thumbing through a filing cabinet.  He introduced himself as Sheikh Fadhil Maawiya.  When I questioned his presence and the fact that he was perusing confidential police files he looked surprised.  He said that Inspector John had not objected, inferring, so why should you?  I called the report office Corporal and told him to show the gentleman the door.

It appeared, that the late incumbent, sub inspector John, had indeed allowed local people free access to his office and the files.  I hadn’t had a choice to talk with sub inspector John before he left, but I suspect that he was intimidated by the local pseudo-Arab hierarchy and unable to resist their arrogance.  I found none of the customary handing over taking over notes, perhaps because the move had happened so precipitately.

I’ve found that Sheikh Fadhil was a member of a local family who had been prominent in Lamu, probably for centuries, and that they considered themselves an elite.

I issued instructions that in future, no one was to enter my office unless invited to do so by myself.

I found myself once again in the position of ex officio Immigration Officer.  I did not expect much immigration work apart, perhaps, the odd person coming from the Gulf on one of the dhows.  I was therefore somewhat surprised to have a local gentleman apply for a temporary travel permit (which was free) to enable him to visit Tanganyika.  Thumbing back through the counterfoils of the permit book I found that such applications were frequent and apparently granted without question.

Asked his reason for visiting Tanganyika, he said that he was a Hawker.  Anyone less likely to be a Hawker I couldn’t imagine.  Asked what he was selling, he hedged, but finally admitted that he didn’t sell anything, he wanted to visit relatives.  I declined his application for a temporary travel permit and suggested that he apply for a passport.

Not long after that, I had a call from the Liwali (a third-class Magistrate having jurisdiction only over people native to the protectorate) demanding to know on what grounds I had refused the application for a travel permit.  I declined to give him reasons, stating only that I was acting under the provisions of the Immigration Ordinance.  The Immigration Department supported my decision.

I should explain, that the title “the Colony and Protectorate of Kenya” then referred to the fact that a 10-mile coastal strip from the Somalia to the Tanganyika border was notionally territory owned by the Sultan of Zanzibar and termed the Protectorate.  The protectorate disappeared when Tanganyika gained independence, amalgamated with Zanzibar, and became Tanzania.  The Sultan died in exile in the UK.

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Main Street, Lamu

The District Commissioner’s house at Lamu was a large old rambling building in which he lived in some state.  The living room on the first floor extended over the width of the building and was more in the nature of a gallery.  Persian rugs, brass bound Zanzibar chests, large circular brass trays, Arab coffee pots and other works of art, dominated.  Leading off this room on the first floor was a courtyard, open to the sky, with a large polished wood dining table.

From time to time, I was invited to dine.  First, sherry in the gallery, always dry sherry, probably Tio Pepe.  Conversation ceased at just on 6 PM when John Simpson adjusted his Omega timepiece to the BBC time signal on the radio.  Why horological accuracy was so important in leisurely Lamu was never made clear, but the synchronisation was a serious ritual.

At a pre-set time, dinner was announced and we adjourned to the inner courtyard which was resplendent in candlelight over the polished wood table.  Boys dressed in sparkling white Kanzu with a red cummerbund topped by a red tarbush, served soup.  The host then deposited his remaining Sherry into the soup before starting to consume it.  I’ll never forget the first time that I was his guest, I couldn’t believe my ears at the noisy way in which he rapidly slurped his soup.  Some months after this, during a visit by the Assistant Superintendent, Graham Clark, we were both invited to dinner.  I felt obliged to warn Graham about the DCs rather uncouth attention to his soup.

John also had a much-prized sailing boat, clinker built, about 18-foot-long, sloop rigged with an old fashioned standing lug mainsail.  He employed a local boatman to maintain the craft.  Occasionally, I would be invited to go sailing with him.  I recall one occasion when he let me have the helm, sailing along in a fairly stiff breeze on a port tack, the lanyard on the port shroud parted.  I could have released the main sheet to take the weight of the mast, but I luffed up, went about onto the starboard tack with the intact shroud taking the weight.  John, who considered himself a yachtsman par excellence, couldn’t believe his eyes at this smart, seaman like manoeuvre.

Another character, was Louis Barreto, a Goanese former civil servant who lived with his Somali wife, Amina, and two teenage boys.  Louis had a small shop in the main passageway through the centre of Lamu old town, but what exactly he sold I was never really quite sure.  The shop seemed more like a hobby.  He was well read and always ready for a chat.  It was soon clear that he was very left-wing, and, I think, probably a Marxist.  I was often invited to his house for curry.  His sons were delightful boys who had clearly benefited from their father’s erudition.  When my friend Alec Abell visited Lamu on leave he recalls spending an afternoon with Louis who seemed to have an inexhaustible supply of miniature spirits.

At one point I received a note from the Commissioner, Sir Richard Catling, who wrote on behalf of Sir Vincent Glenday, a former Provincial Commissioner Northern Frontier and later Governor of British Somaliland.  Sir Vincent had asked Louis Barreto to find for him a supply of a certain kind of chilli peppers and was wondering when he might receive them.  I was able to reply, saying that Louis had the matter in hand and that he was concerned that Sir Vincent’s request had become a police matter.

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Alec takes in the scene from the tower of the Fort

At some time before Christmas 1960, Major Ba Allen at Petley’s Inn was joined by an old friend, Col Jerry Pink, allegedly as a business partner.  Jerry, formerly of the Royal Engineers, was another of those characters who tended to drift ashore in the colonies.  Nonetheless, he set about lending a bit of class to Petley’s and it was not long before he had arranged a formal Christmas dinner for selected guests, mainly those who took refreshment at the Inn at lunchtime on Saturdays.  The place settings were elegant and one could be forgiven for concluding that Jerry had made off with the mess silver!  Proceedings started with the loyal toast and the individual whose birthday was being celebrated, was never mentioned.


Among those present, in addition to Jerry and his “business partner”, were Louis Barreto, Badi Abdullah the Lamu Customs Officer, Ken Arnold the District Officer, Ron Manders who was in charge of Lamu prison and, I think, Mister California.  The latter was a local fisherman whose real name I never knew, but who was renowned for supplying the Saturday lunchtime gatherings with 4-gallon cans of large, delicious prawns.  California would sometimes call at the police station late at night, somewhat the worse for wear, and asked if he could take a nap in one of the cells.

The 4-gallon can, known as Debi, were made of thin tinplate in which paraffin was sold.  They were put to many uses, household containers, water carriers, and were often cut, opened flat, and used as roof tiles.

After Kenya’s Independence. Colonel Jerry Pink was murdered by one of his local boyfriends.

The Portuguese fort at the centre of the old town was used as a prison.  Not long after I arrived in Lamu four convicts escaped by tying together blankets and dropping the rope down the outside walls.  They stole a car which had been parked at Mkowe on the mainland and drove to the Somalia Republic by way of Kiunga.  It all happened so quickly that they were in Somalia practically before their absence was noted.  It transpired, that from Mogadishu where they had landed as political refugees, they were flown to Khartoum and finally ended up in Moscow.  Some months later Ron Manders, the prison officer, and the District Commissioner received postcards from the escapees rejoicing in their freedom and saying how nice it was to have white girlfriends!  I believe that they attended the Patrice Lumumba Friendship University.  They were Wakamba tribesman all serving long terms of imprisonment for armed robbery.  There was later to be a sequel.

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The Portuguese Fort served as H M Prison. Note the tinder box thatched roofs in the foreground.

One morning, I was in court in starched khaki drill, prosecuting a minor case.  The police signaller slipped in and handed me a flimsy.  It appeared that the day before a member of a seismic survey team from a camp off the Kiunga road had gone missing whilst on a solitary guinea fowl shoot.  The seismic survey, run by a French company, Farosel, on a contract from Shell BP, had established a base on a disused World War II airstrip.  I neglected to change into Safari gear, gathered a Corporal and three men and went straight to Mkowe.  Having refuelled the Land Rover, we set out for the Farosel campsite.

The campsite consisted of about a dozen air-conditioned caravans with all mod cons, all run off a generator.  Supplies were flown in weekly by air, including casks of South African wine.  Hardly a hardship station.  Later, when we sat in the leisure cum dining area individuals would sometimes leap up and help themselves to a glass of vin rouge and take a couple of slices from legs of jambon naturel which will hanging from the beams.

When we arrived, we found the Chef de Mission in something of a state, so emotional he could hardly describe what had happened.  It seemed that the missing man, a Monsieur Cassignol, had set out late in the afternoon of the previous day taking with him a shot gun and a few rounds hoping to bag a few guinea fowl.  Nothing had been heard from him since.  It transpired that he had been wearing nothing but a pair of shorts and gym shoes.

However, it seems that Cassingnol had a reputation as a tough character, former French military who had served in West Africa and colonial Vietnam, including the battle at Dien Bien Phu.  Where others slept in the air condition caravans, Cassignol lived in a small tent.  It was by then too late to start a search and so it was decided that I would stay the night – in a caravan.

The large area under survey had been divided off in a squared grid pattern.  Based on a map of the grid, it was decided to cast around the camp in attempt to pick up tracks.  I sent the Corporal and two men to try to locate any Boni in the area.  The Boni, an aboriginal people, were hunter gatherers and skilled trackers.

Through the first day, we cast around the campsite in ever increasing circles, but found no tracks.  Late in the afternoon, the Corporal returned with half a dozen local Boni who immediately set out to look for tracks of a single man, a European, wearing gym shoes.  Unbelievably, the Boni very quickly picked up tracks which could only be those of Cassignol, but curiously he appeared to be barefoot.

Next morning, we set out with the Boni trackers who immediately picked up the track believed to be that of Cassignol.  We followed the trail in a northerly direction for several hours until we came to an area of flattened dead grass near to the Somali border.  The Boni stopped, cast around and then said that they had lost the track.  At about that time a police air wing aircraft appeared.  I called the pilot on a VHF pack set, but he reported no sightings of anyone but our group.  I then ask him for a direct heading back to the seismic camp.  Having established the direction, I checked my compass and we set out.  I was becoming increasingly uncomfortable since my shoes had plain leather soles and afforded little grip.  Finally, I borrowed a pair of sandals from one of the constables.  These were made from old motor tyres and although they gave a good grip the edges of the straps tended to chafe.

The Boni were very curious about my compass.  It seems that they had never seen one before and when I explained that it showed the direction in which we should head back to the camp, they fell about laughing.  They instinctively moved in the right direction, possibly reading signs that I could not see, but when we stopped they ask me to point in the direction that we should go.  I don’t think that they were ever convinced of the efficacy of a Dira.

Eventually, we arrived back at the camp and as I was briefing the manager, an aircraft landed.  Monsieur Cormier had brought with him a doctor in case Cassignol required medical attention.  Whilst we sat around a table in the alfresco dining area discussing future search action, an individual entered wearing only a pair of shorts.  The manager leapt up, embraced him, and exploded into a torrent of French.  It seemed that Cassignol had rescued himself!  The doctor examined him and reported that he found nothing amiss, perhaps a little dehydrated!

It had been almost 3 days since he left to shoot guinea fowl, but true to form, Cassignol had emerged unscathed.  Although the area was replete with game of all types, it transpired that Cassignol’s only brush with them had been a pack of wild dogs.  It is held that these dogs are the most ferocious predators in East Africa, in fact, in Africa.  He had taken to a tree until the dogs lost interest and moved away.  On descending, he had concealed his shoes and shot gun in the base of a tree.  Not surprisingly, because one piece of the wilderness looked very much like any other, he had become lost.

It is said that those who ignore the lessons of history, are bound to repeat them.  One would have thought that one escape from Lamu prison would have caused preventative steps being taken.  I was incredulous when it was reported that four more convicts had escaped using exactly the same method as those who had taken off only months before.  However, this time, although they had tried to enter and start several vehicles at Mkowe, they had been obliged to leave on foot.  The fact that they were wearing prison issue boots made them easy to track on the sandy surface of the road.  It was soon apparent that they were heading for Kiunga and the Somali Republic.

I, a Corporal in two men followed the tracks to a rudimentary store beside the road.  The storekeeper reported that the four men had entered and demanded two aluminium pots, some maize meal and sundry other foodstuffs.  In the face of their threats, he was obliged to let them have what they asked for.

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A better road in the Lamu District

By now it was late in the afternoon, almost dusk.  We met three men, one of whom was the headman of a local village.  He reported that four strangers had entered an area of woodland near his village and could be heard talking.  The area of woodland was only a few hundred yards off the road and we approached carefully and quietly.  Locating the sound of voices, we dropped down into concealment and waited.  After a very few minutes we heard the convicts approaching and just as they emerged from the trees, one of the men with the headman stood up and yelled.  They immediately turn tail and ran off into the trees.  I fired two warning shots with a 303 rifle and shouted in Swahili that the woodland was surrounded and I ordered them to emerge.  By this time, it was dark and I decided that it was inadvisable to follow them into the trees.

I would add here that it was legal to fire on any absconding convict who had been convicted of a felony attracting more than five years imprisonment.  The four escapees were all long-term prisoners serving up to 15 years.

I decided that rather than return to Lamu, I would spend the night at the village and continue the pursuit in the morning.  The headman provided a hut and a mat where I managed to get some sleep.  The following morning, I wrote a short note describing what had happened to the Prison Officer, Ron Manders, and ask him to contact Divisional Headquarters at Kilifi and the District Commissioner Lamu alerting them to the escape.  I requested water and some supplies.  I dispatched the Corporal and one of the constables with the message.

By this time, John Simpson had departed for the UK on leave, to be replaced by a younger District Commissioner, one Bill Pollock-Morris, an amiable Scotsman.

I could not believe my luck when a mile or so on the road to Kiunga, I once again found the tracks of the convicts.  Depending upon when they departed the woodland near the village, I guessed that they could only be an hour or so in front of us.  In mid-afternoon, an administration Land Rover arrived with some much-needed water and supplies.  In addition, the DCs wife had added a half-gallon thermos containing iced lemonade.  A note confirmed that Divisional and provincial headquarters had been advised of the escape and that arrangements were being made for a section of the General Service Unit to join the pursuit.  Four Tribal Policeman who had arrived with the Land Rover had been instructed to join my party and assist with the search.

As dusk fell, we camped the night off the road and set a sentry roster.  At dawn the next day we were again able to easily see and follow the tracks of the men who were still foolhardily wearing their prison boots.  At some point during the morning we found that we were not the only ones following the escapees when a trail of lion spoor interposed itself.  At one point, we were amused to see that the lion had stopped and sat down on the sand ridge at the edge of the road – like a cat, or rather a lion.

Mid-afternoon, Inspector Tim Morgan and the GSU unit arrived with a Land Rover and five-ton truck.  After some discussion we decided not to attempt to follow the escapees in the vehicles on the premise that on hearing the engines the men would doubtless disappear into the bush.  As it was, they appeared to be happily following the road.  So, we camped the night.

Next morning, we set out again at first light leaving the vehicles with sentries at the campsite.  After only a few miles, we approached the site of one of the several World War II airfields.  Just off the road there was a small copse from which smoke was rising.  Evidently our quarry had decided on a late start.  We quietly surrounded the copse and when the cordon was in place I shouted in Swahili that they were surrounded and told them to emerge with their hands on their heads.  Barely had I finished, when a shot rang out.  One of the young GSU constables had evidently had an attack of the nerves and had pulled the trigger! At that, the escapees ran out, ducking and weaving, but were all quickly caught and handcuffed.

Extract from the Daily Nation

Force Orders

Sometimes, in late afternoon I would take the launch Kusi down the harbour and anchor off a beach on Manda Island opposite Shella where I had found masses of rock oysters.  After a swim, I would take a screwdriver and spanner and enjoy a few oysters.  I recall one Mkamba constable, Benson, who was appalled that anyone would eat such ugly objects whilst they were still alive.  After a time, amid much laughter, Benson was persuaded to try an oyster – he never looked back.

There was some talk among senior police officers in Mombasa about the possibility of fitting a swivel fishing chair to the rear of the cockpit.  This never happened, but Mister California offered to set up a fishing rig.  He installed two long flexible poles diagonally across the rear of the cockpit canopy and secured to the top of the supporting stanchions.  Heavy fishing line was secured in the cockpit and attached to the tip of the Outrigger polls with weak string.  The theory being that when trolling, a fish on the line would apply weight which would tear the line from the tip of the poll.  A good idea, but I don’t recall much success.

Another time, accompanied by Jim Cade (who had been the signals technician at Kisumu) we anchored off a Manda beach at the harbour entrance for a little fishing.  Jim took to the water with fins, mask and snorkel and set out with a harpoon gun.  Whilst he was swimming a few hundred yards away I threw a tin into the water and fired a few shots with my revolver.  Shortly after that, Jim surfaced and said that it was incredible the number of fish who instantly swam toward the sound of the bullet hitting the water.  A new fishing lure?

Not quite a continuous stream, but I had many visitors from upcountry who were attracted by Lamu’s reputation as a desirable place to visit.  On one occasion, I took the launch to Mkowe late one evening to pick up a police friend, his wife and two young sons.  The tide was out, but I was able to take Kusi and secure alongside the wharf.  I stepped out onto the stone steps, and woke up a few minutes later flat on my back in the mud!  The only damage was a small tear on my right ear which was bleeding.  My visitors arrived about a half an hour later amid much concern.  There was no lasting damage, but another lesson learned.

At one point during my time at Lamu I received a signal from Mombasa indicating that an aircraft would pick me up, fly me to Nairobi, for an interview with superintendent Bernard Ruck of special Branch. I sent a signal to Provincial Headquarters in Mombasa stating that I had no wish to transfer to Special Branch. The reply said simply “proceed as instructed”. I saw Bernard Ruck who, as I suspected, offered me a position in Special Branch. I declined the offer and had an unexpected weekend in Nairobi.

As if designed by a malign entity, occasionally I would receive an encoded signal usually at about noon on Saturday just as I was thinking of going to Petley’s Inn for the lunchtime prawns. On decoding the message it would ask me to confirm by return that it had been received and understood. The coding system was simple, using a key word which was changed monthly I was able to reach Petley’s before they finished the prawns and the beer.

In late 1961 a general election was scheduled to take place.  Possibly for the first time, African political parties were taking part.  There were two main parties, the Kenya African National Union (KANU) the Kenyatta party and the Kenya African Peoples Union (KAPU) led by Ronald Ngala, a coastal Giriama tribesman.  I received information that KANU planned a political meeting at Pate on the northernmost island of the Lamu Archipelago.  Because KANU had no following in the Coast province it was decided that I should go to Pate to monitor the meeting.

I cannot now recall the name of the KANU candidate, but he had with him perhaps a couple of dozen supporters.  At Pate I found the group, almost all upcountry Africans had convened a meeting in the centre of the village.  There were speeches in Swahili accompanied by a lot of singing and dancing.  The meeting was orderly, but there appeared to be very little support for the party.  I noticed one man in the group holding a Simi, a traditional weapon having an elongated double edged blade, in effect, a sword.  Possessing a weapon at a public meeting constituted an offence.  At the end of the meeting, I arrested the individual and return to Lamu.

The swordsman was bailed after a date had been set for a hearing.  On the day before court, a large party of KANU members arrived, accompanied by Rustam Hira a well-known Mombasa lawyer.

In court, Rustam Hira, in full legal regalia, argued at length that a Simi was a traditional agricultural implement.  He knew, I knew, and the District Commissioner acting as a first-class Magistrate, knew, that a Simi was a weapon.  Rustam Hira compared it to the ubiquitous and well-known agricultural implement, the Panga which, incidentally, was also frequently used as a weapon.

The court fined the Simi carrier 100 shillings and the Simi forfeited.  The DC later told me that a fine of 100 shillings or less, carried no right of appeal.

My time at Lamu came to an end when I was drafted to a six-week CID course in Nairobi.  On completing the course, I was posted to Crime Branch at Mombasa Central Police Station where I served until a few months later I left for home leave in the UK.

The Commissioner’s quest for little red chillies:







Copyright: G J Wright