The Nairobi Incident

Written by | Features

Where Imenti House stands today, bounded by Kenyatta and Moi Avenues, and Tom Mboya and Cabral Streets, once stood the courthouses of the Protectorate. It is outside that building, on a cold March 15th morning in 1907 that the following events take place.

The man called Captain Ewart Grogan etched his name into the history of Nairobi, and by extension, Kenya, in the first decade of the 20th Century. Remembered as the hopeless romantic who left his career choice to the mercy of a coin toss, Grogan made the arduous, ill-advised Cape to Cairo trip to win over the stepfather of the woman he loved. So for Gertrude’s (in who’s honor he built Gertrude Children’s Hospital), Grogan embarked on a two-year odyssey. While traveling through Malawi, at a small village stop called Chiromo, which means the joining of the streams, he lost some of his luggage. He would later move to Nairobi, to a point on the west side where two rivers met and christen it Chiromo.

Grogan was the 14th child of William Grogan, the Irish Surveyor General of the Duchy of Lancasters 21 children. After the coin toss landed on his seeking a life of adventure, Grogan first landed in Southern Africa at the sunset of the 19th Century and made a name for himself as an able military man. Misfortune then followed.

One night, a drunken Grogan got into a bar fight with a Portuguese officer in Beira, Mozambique. The bar brawl ended in the death of the Portuguese man. Grogan was quickly and quietly shipped off to Zanzibar, where he made his way inland, into what is now Kenya. Ever the entrepreneur, Grogan set out to tame the wild around Nairobi. Nairobi was just a small shanty town then, and the settler thought the best thing for the city was to move towards Chiromo.

Grogan also became the President of the Colonists Association, and an ardent defender of the settler community. The settler community wanted more leeway to do whatever it wanted in the protectorate, while the British government struggled to instill law and order.

One night, in March 1907, Grogan’s sister and her friend got home from the Nairobi Club with what would present itself as the perfect opportunity to stick it to the colonial government.?Grogan’s sister, Mrs. Hunter, and her friend Miss McDonnel had been riding in a rickshaw (then called a gharri) pulled by three Gikuyu men. It is unclear what exactly happened, but Mrs. Hunter would later report to Grogan that the servants had given the ladies a rather bumpy ride and been rude about it. The man the Kikuyu had nicknamed Bwana Chui, saw a chance to earn political mileage. With the support of a friend called SC Fichat, Grogan hatched a rather sadistic plan. He would flog the three servants in public.

The servants, ignorant of what kind of brutality was in the offing, made their way to work as usual the next morning. Grogan caught them and tied their hands behind their back before locking them in a shed. He then got a few other of his servants and set out down Government Road, what is now known as Moi Avenue.?From as early as 8 am, his friend Fichat had been walking through the small town, spreading the word that Grogan was about to flog three servants for disrespecting white women. Scores of settlers flocked the streets, all headed down towards the town magistrates courtyard. Outside, they surrounded Grogan and the three men who now sat on the soggy ground, frightened. It was 9:55am, and hell was just about to break lose.

Grogan stood in the middle of the circle, with the three Kikuyu men at his feet. First, he made an impassioned speech, skirting the supposed crime that had triggered his outrage. He spoke of supposed lethargy of the government in protecting the colonists, and how they needed to take back control.

Logan, the town magistrate, was attracted outside by the commotion. Standing at the door to the court, he identified Grogan as the leader and addressed him. He asked him what he intended to do.

I am going to beat these boys.

What for?

Because I want to.

But what for?

Because they insulted my sister and another lady. I want no interference; there is no indecency in this.

This isn’t right procedure, Captain Grogan. You should instead take them before proper authorities and lay a charge.

I am tired of being made a fool of and this matter I dare not trust to the authorities.

Seeing it would be impossible to convince Grogan, Logan turned to the crowd. He pleaded with them to follow the law. His impassioned plea only triggered a call for him to leave. There is no proof such a case had ever been reported and ignored, so it is more likely the first part of Grogan’s answer was the truth. He was doing it because he wanted to.

By that time, a cop called George Smith had made it from the police station to the scene. He made his way to the center of the circle and placed a hand on Grogan. Almost on cue, the crowd separated the two and slowly nudged Smith out of the circle. After Smith had been pushed out, Grogan turned to the crowd again. He spoke to them, thrice, appealing for non-interference.

“Will you promise me that when I have done with these natives you will not touch or do anything to them?”

With the crowd in agreement, he asked for a translator. A man called Mr. Cowlie stepped forward. Through him, Grogan told the three frightened and subdued men why he was going to flog them. What he said exactly was never recorded but it is likely he alluded to the offence without being clear about the severity. He capped it with a loaded message that white men would not stand any impertinence to their women-folk.

Grogan then turned to one of the men and flogged him. He told the court later that he had whipped the man 25 times before someone else, presumably Russell Bowker, grabbed the kiboko and began beating the second man. Gray then followed Bowker and thrashed the third wailing man. As the three men lay on the ground writhing in pain, the crowd of majorly white men cheered in the background. Once the flogging was done, the crowd quickly dispersed, leaving Grogan to send the three men home. Two could still walk, but one was badly hurt.?He was hospitalized, presumably at the Native Hospital (now Kenyatta Hospital) for a considerable period. Some historical accounts suggest the badly hurt man later died.

Upon their arrest, however, Grogan, Fichat, Bowker, Gray, and Low were charged with illegal assembly and not murder or even the more obvious crime of assault. The colonial government, aware of the social politics, had to charge them with something. It also initially wanted to move the trial to Mombasa. The selection of the courtyard of the Nairobi court had been a deliberate attempt to show the settlers did not recognize established authority. To restore the authority of the court, it was crucial to hold the trials in the very rooms the men had disrespected.

The case Crown versus Grogan, Bowker, Burn, Low, Fichat, Gray, Bennett and Walter Dun (1907) centered around the events that had led to the illegal gathering. The men in the dock were unapologetic about their actions. Bowker told the court that “As it has always been the first principle with me to flog a nigger on sight who insults a white woman I felt it my bounded duty to take the step I did and that in a public place as a warning to the natives.” Grogan reaffirmed his defiance while Fichat claimed a Kenyan had insulted a female member of his family four months prior.

For the unnamed servants, their supposed crime was that they had insulted white women. In early colonial Kenya, this charge elicited fears of the Black Peril, a rampant fear of black men having sexual relations with white women. Many people in the crowd, working with very little detail, wrongly believed that they had either raped or tried to rape the women.?

There is little consensus on exactly what happened. One account, forwarded by Grogan’s nephew, suggests that the three rickshaw drivers had been drinking. They had raced the rickshaw and toyed with their passengers, apparently playing with it like a seesaw and laughing at their freaked out passengers. Another suggests that the passengers had leaned back in the rickshaw during an uphill climb, making the load heavier for the drivers. Displeased, they had stopped the rickshaw and asked their passengers to lean forward but due to a break in communication, the ladies didn’t. The resulting seesaw was the result of that.

Whatever the offense had been, it seemed Grogan and the settler community milked it to show their defiance of the colonial government. It was the first decade of settlement, and the government already had a hard time keeping the settlers in check. Grogan was jailed for one month and fined Rs. 500. Bowker and Gray were detained for 14 days and fined Rs. 250 while Fichat was only jailed for 14 days. Low, a newspaper man and the editor of The Star, was jailed for seven days. The sentences were for illegal assembly; the assault charge never came up. Where to jail the men then became a bone of contention. Two years before, a murder case against a newcomer had triggered outrage after he was held in a Mombasa jail for a whole year. The colonial government bargained with the settlers and agreed to have Grogan and his compatriots jailed at a building on Nairobi Hill, presumably Grogan’s Chiromo House.


In the previous murder case, a newly arrived immigrant called Max Wehner shot and killed a man he had hired as a guide to his hotel in Nakuru. When the body of the unnamed guide was found the next morning, he had two bullet wounds and his head was battered in.?Investigations showed Wehner had been jailed for murder in South America and had served time in South Africa for various crimes. The serial offender demanded a trial by jury for the murder case. The jury of five white men returned a verdict that he had indeed killed the Kenyan man but could not be held responsible because he was drunk at the time. The exact wording of their finding would later become a key point in the appeals. Chief Justice Hamilton, presiding over the trial, sentenced Wehner to death and his friend to a term of penal servitude. He must have known that his judgment would trigger a furor among the settlers.

Any case against a white man, especially where the supposed offence was against a black Kenyan, triggered unity among the settler community. Wehner was new in Kenya, and had hardly had time to make any friends. The case against him though, and the death sentence, won him many friends. Settlers then met in Nairobi to find loopholes in the case, including the fact that the first African witness had not been sworn in, and that the jury was sworn in after the first two Kenyan witnesses had given their testimony. The case went before the Court of Appeal in Zanzibar where the death sentence was commuted to penal servitude for life.

Undeterred, the settlers set up a defense fund to appeal to the Privy Council. The African Standard, the leading Kenyan newspaper at the time, joined in the campaign to raise a defense fund. In early 1906, the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council overturned the convictions based on serious procedural errors. The two men were released and sent on their way to India.

There were two other cases before Grogan’s that brought the relationship between the settlers and the government to new lows. One was a case against two men called McCormick and McLeish in 1905 for shooting black Kenyans, killing elephants, and kidnapping Kenyan girls. In July the same year, a white farmer was tried for shooting and wounding a Kenyan. He claimed they had been creating a disturbance near his house while his wife was giving birth. What irked the settlers more was not the resulting six months imprisonment but the fact that he had been handcuffed and escorted to Nairobi by a black Kenyan policeman.

After Wehner, the next time a white settler would be convicted of causing harm to a Kenyan was in 1920. A brutal farmer called Hawkins had flogged several of his workers, including a pregnant woman. One of the victims died as a result of the injuries and Hawkins was jailed for only two years. It would be another four decades before the trapdoor opened for a white man, Peter Poole, and the noose tightened around his neck for killing a man called Kamawe Musungi. Grogan and his comrades got away with assault, as did many other settlers whose parternalistic attitudes towards Kenyans was shown in their brutality. Flogging was integrated into the penal code, primarily as a method of punishment for black Kenyans.


For a Full Transcript of ‘The Flogging of Natives, see this archive.

Featured Image from Nigel Pavitt’s 2008 book ‘Kenya: A Country in the Making 1880-1940.’ Image shows Government Road (now Moi Avenue) in the early 1900s.

Owaahh, 2015.

One Story is Good,

till Another is Told.


Last modified: March 22, 2016