In 1905, Richard Meinertzhagen, a British soldier in Kenya acquired some sacred tribal ticks belonging to the Nandi tribe. Now, more than one hundred years on, a Kenyan Warwick University with the help of an Egyptologist have tracked the sticks down to Captain Meinertzhagen’s son’s home.
On discovering the significance of these sticks to the Nandi tribe, the son, Randle Meinertzhagen, has decided that they to return them to Kenya.
Lost sacred sticks found in Midlands
Apr 10 2006
By Rhona Ganguly
Three sacred African tribal sticks that were allegedly stolen by a British army captain more than a century ago have been tracked down to the officer’s son’s home in Shropshire.
The three staffs once belonged to the chief of the Kenyan Nandi tribe, or the Kalinjin as the tribe is now known.
During a tribal revolt that blocked the building of a Kenyan railway line in 1905, the then Captain Richard Meinertzhagen invited the rebels to a ‘peace conference’ on a hill near the capital Nairobi.
When the Nadi’s chief Koitalel went to shake hands, the captain drew a pistol and shot him dead.
The rest of his men, belonging to the King’s African Rifles, then fired machine guns and massacred the chief’s bodyguard along with the tribe’s women and children.
The tribesmen have always claimed the massacre was in cold blood although some historians claim the shootings were a result of a major African revolt, which could have led to the deaths of the British soldiers.
The captain is then claimed to have helped himself to the three sacred wooden staffs, which had been brought to the conference by the African chief.
But last week, Warwick University student Kipnyango Seroney traced them to the home of the captain’s son Randle, with the help of Kenyan Egyptologist Dr Kipkoeech Sambu.
Mr Meinertzhagen, a retired investment banker living in Shrewsbury, said he had had the sticks since his father died in 1967.
“I had no idea how significant they were but when Mr Seroney saw them he was quite astonished,” said Mr Meinertzhagen.
“He asked if they could be returned to Kenya. I said ‘Of course – Africa is where they belong’.”
He said he believed his father’s version of events, where Koitalel’s handshake was a signal for his warriors to attack and the British were only able to escape alive by taking action first.
“Who knows what the truth is after all these years?” he said. “But my father’s motto was always ‘shoot first, ask questions later’.
Dr Sambu explained the importance of the sticks, which will be flown back to Nairobi next week and will be returned to the elders of the tribe.
They will then go on display at the Kenyan National Museum in the capital as a memorial to Koitalel, who has since been revered as Kenya’s first freedom fighter.
“In Kenya, these sticks are of great significance as they are meant to imbue a ruler with divine kingly qualities. Without the sticks, the man loses his status as a demi-god.”
Dr Sambu said the straight staff symbolised the right of kingship, the club-headed one represents military power and the forked one signifies religious leadership.
Koitalel’s death is one of many colourful incidents in the life of the captain, who was later promoted to colonel and was made a CBE.
According to his autobiography, Diary of a Black Sheep, Meinertzhagen was born into a wealthy London banking family of German origin.
During the First World War, he served in India, Africa and Palestine and fought with Lawrence of Arabia.
In The Severn Pillars of Wisdom , Lawrence said: “Meinertzhagen knew no half measures.
“A silent laughing masterful man; who took as blithe a pleasure in deceiving his enemy.”
After the war, he was involved in the creation of the Palestine Mandate, which eventually led to the creation of the state of Israel.
In his later life, he won fame as an ornithologist but, 25 years after his death, the British Ornithology Union accused him of theft, deception and falsehood.
It claimed he stole stuffed birds from other collections including the British Museum, forged labels and lied about specimens. A bird named after him, the Meinertzhagen warbler, which he said had been discovered in Morocco, proved to be a fake.