White mischief Cholmondeley gets its comeuppance

For more than a century, the name of Cholmondeley has gone unchallenged as one of the most powerful in Kenya, epitomising the white settlers' colonial lifestyle of privilege and earthly excess.

But to audible gasps of astonishment in Nairobi's High Court yesterday, the family's standing among its one-time colonial subjects was changed for ever when Tom Cholmondeley – great-grandson of Lord Delamere, one of the first British colonists of Kenya's fertile highlands – was found guilty of the manslaughter of a poacher on his ranch.

The Eton-educated divorcé betrayed no emotion as Judge Muga Apondi threw out his defence that the fatal shot may have been fired by a friend. He warned Cholmondeley that he could face life imprisonment for killing Robert Njoya, a 37-year-old stonemason, in 2006.

In Kenya, the long-running case has encapsulated the country's colonial legacy and simmering resentment at the large landholdings still controlled by some of its 30,000 white citizens.

Cholmondeley, a dapper, besuited figure, who will become the 6th Lord Delamere and has spent the last three years in Nairobi's notorious Kamiti Prison, became a focus for bitter complaints of racial inequality in 2005 when he was cleared of killing an undercover Masai bush ranger, Samson Ole Sisina.

This time, Judge Apondi threw out a murder charge against Cholmondeley because there had been no "malice aforethought" in his actions, but said he was in no doubt that the landowner had fired the shot which killed Mr Njoya with his bolt-action Winchester rifle.

The court heard that Cholmondeley had come across the poacher, who was carrying a dead impala, after dark on his 55,000-acre Soysambu ranch, in the Rift Valley 55 miles west of Nairobi. He shot at his three dogs, killing two of them.

The judge said he had some sympathy with Cholmondeley's claim to have acted in self-defence but dismissed as an "afterthought" the farmer's claim that the fatal shot was fired by Carl Tundo, a white friend accompanying him on the night, whose exploits as a rally driver earned him the nickname "Flash".

The verdict overturns an earlier not-guilty finding by a lay assessment panel, the Kenyan equivalent of a jury, which is intended to advise the presiding judge. Fred Ojiambo, the lawyer representing Cholmondeley said after the verdict: "I am shocked, amazed and dumbstruck. This is not acceptable. We will appeal."

The squalid cells of Kamiti, built by the British to house 1,400 inmates but which currently hold 3,600 prisoners, are a far cry from the luxury of Cholmondeley's upbringing in Eton and on the lands awarded to Lord Delamere by Kenya's British rulers following his arrival in 1903. Hugh Cholmondeley, the 3rd Baron Delamere, became a figurehead for the colonial occupation after being granted a swathe of Kenya's highlands and devoting himself to developing the country's farming economy. At the same time, he became synonymous with the culture of excess cultivated in the lake-studded region known as Happy Valley for its riotous parties, wife-swapping sessions and drug taking. This lifestyle inspired the book and film, White Mischief, based on the story of Tom Cholmondeley's step-grandmother Diana, whose lover was murdered and her first husband accused of the killing.

Economic problems have led to a growing sense of insecurity in the Rift Valley, with many landowners arming themselves against violent robbers and poaching gangs. Cholmondeley will be sentenced at a later date. Speaking outside the court, the widow of his victim, Sarah, a mother of four, said: "The court's decision, in my opinion, is not that bad. Life has been hard without a husband and a father for my children."

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