What draws me to these pages is the wild courage of people trying to do something in Africa

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Sixty years ago, Elspeth Huxley (much later the biographer of Peter Scott) wrote a wonderful book on Kenya. I took to reading it in 1988 at breakfast there, on a terrace under a thatched roof. My black waiter looked at it: "Damn cheek!", he said. The book was called, White Man's Country.

The two volumes, subtitled, "Lord Delamere and the Making of Kenya", are beautiful and serious. The descriptions of the scenery and wildlife which met the first whites in Kenya are fine, highly-coloured, but unpurple, writing. But it's the analysis which has grabbed me all over again. Nearly every bit of it is a poke in the eye for the anti-colonial, lefty, view of the Empire. Not that it shows colonialism was a wholly virtuous adventure. But one realises that there was heroism as well as greed at work.

For instance, Huxley demonstrates that when the whites came to Kenya, they found a place which was mostly empty (they filled the gaps with Asians, and worried about what they had done). They went to lengths to identify the land used by various tribes, and made as sure as possible that white settlers went to places which were more or less useless to the natives. And some of the tribes even welcomed the whites.

It is fascinating to see arguments about Africa going round and round the same track. Delamere was among the first to note, in 1904, that since the Masai despised eating game, they might be given, as reserves, those parts of the country which were rich in it. The idea was that Masai cattle-herding and the preservation of Africa's wildlife should go hoof in hoof. This was the policy adopted, though, in time, the tribes were kept out of some reserves on the grounds, so far as I can see, that their cattle upset the ecological balance.

Actually, Delamere at first opposed the idea of special reserves for natives. He thought that this would make it harder for them to mix with whites, and to lose their habit of inter-tribal strife. He wrote that they would be condemned to live in "zoological gardens". But, if it had to happen, better that the reserves be well chosen. Modern conservationists are struggling to re-integrate game and cattle, in a policy which echoes his thinking.

Trying to make a white sort of agriculture work in Africa has always been very problematic, and Huxley writes with great clarity about some of the diseases the old continent could throw in the way of improvement schemes. But Delamere was an obsessive, undaunted by mounting debt and failure after failure.

He was also a bit mad. He once bought hundreds of oranges in order to attack the windows of a local hotel (which he had only just bought). He shot out all the lights (newly installed) on one of Nairobi's few thoroughfares. All that is very Happy Valley, Out of Africa and White Mischief, and fun in a bizarre way. What draws me to these pages is the wild courage of people trying to do something in Africa.

We mock or even disapprove of the adventurers. The difficulty is that white science brought rising populations to Africa, and it is, frankly, a version of white farming which will have to feed them. The pioneers did not see that when they brought fat cattle and the plough to Kenya, but it remains true even after black rule, which came at least a century before any pioneer could have imagined it possible.

Elspeth Huxley says that when the book was published, the Fabians attacked it. I wonder if, now, the Hampstead liberal might be more prepared to see the importance of what the pioneers were trying? Probably not until a generation of black African historians reads White Man's Country and decides that there is something in it, after all.

In any case, I can't imagine a better place with which to begin such a rethink.

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