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Eliot's Telegram "Did You Get My Message?" By Daniel Karanja
The year was 1903 and the Commissioner of British East Africa (present-day Kenya) who was called Charles Eliot resided mainly at Mombasa. His immediate boss was Lord Lansdowne, then the British Foreign Secretary. Between them, they communicated through letters and when a message was urgent, this was done through telegrams. Fortunately for us, the originals for much of this communication are still accessible from the National Archives at London.
On May 25th, 1903, Charles Eliot sent an urgent telegram to his Lansdowne asking for instructions about three South Africans called Flemmer, Bowker and Chamberlain who had approached him and asked for a land grant. The acreage they wanted was 650,000 acres, an extremely large area by any measure and the current land regulations did not account for these kinds of requests. Eliot also wanted any background information on the applicants. For whatever reason, the Foreign Secretary did not reply to this telegram. Lansdowne later insisted that his office never received the telegram plain and simple. On September 30th, Eliot sent two follow-up letters referring to the telegram of May 25th and again asked for directives on the land request. He also inferred that as Lord Lansdowne did not reply to the previous telegram, he (Eliot) was inclined to proceed with the land offer. The initial written application from Flemmer, Chamberlain and Bowker was enclosed in the letters.
The Foreign Secretary replied on October 15th and explained that for the time being, he was turning down the request from the three South Africans. The reasons he gave had to do with ongoing negotiations for a similar large land lease (500 square miles) and the current proposal to setup a Jewish homeland in what is today’s western Kenya. The story about these two events is interesting but out of scope, however it is worth mentioning that the 500 square mile request came from a company called the East Africa Syndicate whose representatives had approached the Foreign Office directly. At this point the Foreign Secretary assumed the matter was closed and the land grant to the South Africans would not move forward.
At some point, Lord Lansdowne learnt of Chamberlain’s boasting in South Africa of a large land offer in Kenya. So on February 23rd 1904, he sent a telegram to Eliot inquiring as to whether any land had been offered to Chamberlain and his associates. Eliot replied three days later confirming that indeed, he (Charles Eliot) had granted the land lease to the South Africans. At this point, Lansdowne sent a brief reply on February 27th saying that he did not approve of the land grant. This was followed up by a longer letter in which Lansdowne repeated his disapproval of the land grant and the reasons why.
This is when the storm broke. Eliot felt slighted that Lansdowne had solicited and received advice from junior officials. He wrote on March 4th 1904; “Should your Lordship prefer to be guided by the advice of my sub-ordinates … I have the honour to tender my resignation.” On the very following day, he further explained that since his original telegram from May 1903 had gone unanswered, he had assumed that the British Government was not opposed to the land grant. He wrote; “the fault rests with your Lordships Office, for when they [Flemmer, Bowker & Chamberlain] first appeared last May I telegraphed home asking for information about them. This telegram was ignored, and not even answered by despatch.” In Eliot’s view, he had now already given his word to the South Africans and would not go back on it; “Sooner than let this be done … I will resign the Government service.”
When things heated up and the dispute became public, Lansdowne asserted that he never received that telegram from May 25th 1903. But Eliot would not take that for an answer, he went to the telegraph company and asked for the telegraphic recorder as evidence that the telegram was indeed sent. In a telegram dated March 11th, 1904, he would point out to his boss the fact that the recorder did exist and proved beyond doubt that the telegram had been sent. In the end, Eliot did resign and in the process requested an official inquiry into the entire matter. A number of strongly worded letters were also exchanged between the two. Any reader will sense the bitterness and personal dislike in the letters despite the cover of formal phraseology.
The significance of this is twofold. Firstly, the East African Syndicate sent prospectors all over Kenya and it was in this process that the commercial viability of mining trona from Lake Magadi was discovered. This enterprise still lives on today in the name of the Magadi Soda Company. Secondly, Charles Eliot was one of the most pro-settler Commissioners Kenya had and he worked hard to encourage this movement.
By Daniel Karanja
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