Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The Meinertzhagen Mystery – The Life and Legend of a Colossal Fraud

Review of an expose by Brian Garfield, Potomac Books, Washington, DC 2007.

In this exhaustively researched tome, author Garfield provides evidence that Richard Meinertzhagen, Kenyan colonial official, hunter, East African WWI intelligence chief, soldier, Zionist, spy, ornithologist, diarist and well connected British gentlemen, was a fraud. Indeed faced with the documentation and discussion, readers will probably conclude that Meinertzhagen (MINE-ert-ZAHG’n) faked many escapades for which he became famous. However, he did so successfully; he was even Ian Flemming’s model for agent 007, James Bond. The reality is that Meinertzhagen was a scoundrel, a man who ensured that he wrote his own press and who freely borrowed the accomplishments of others. Even so, he was also an engaging and entertaining companion (he often provided shock value in either words or purported deeds). He counted many distinguished and high placed personalities who were fellow members of Britain’s ruling aristocracy as friends and acquaintances.

Let’s look back at the record. Meinertzhagen’s embellishments began in Kenya. As a colonial official and a military officer, he claimed responsibilities – being in charge of this or that fort, for example, that never existed - or heroic accomplishments that were anything but heroic. His early reputation as a fearless warrior arose from a 1905 massacre of Nandi leaders, including the Laibon. Meinertzhagen recounted that in the midst of a round of peace talks, the Kenyans treacherously attached their interlocutors, especially Meinertzhagen. In turn the colonial officers responded and killed 23 of the Nandis. This account was supported by other Europeans present. However, careful investigation by Garfield indicated that Meinertzhagen’s story covered up the brutal massacre of the Nandi delegation by maxim guns as they arrived at the appointed site - even before they sat down to talk.

As East African theater intelligence chief during World War I, Meinertzhagen constantly took credit for operations not his own. He earned some legitimate credit for forcefully criticizing the inept British generalship, especially at Tanga, but there again he claimed to have exchanged pistol fire personally with German General von Lettow-Vorbeck – an event that never happened. Later on an undercover operation, he claimed to have murdered a German officer and eaten the dead man’s still warm dinner. Time and again in his diaries – that were substantially re-written by himself in later years – Meinertzhagen makes himself look good. (Meinertzhagen’s Kenya Diary: 1902-1906 was republished in 1983.) Author Garfield shows that there is never corroborating evidence in any official documents or others’ accounts of the same time periods.

Meinertzhagen’s greatest (fictitious) accomplishment occurred later in the war. When attached in a relatively junior position to General Allenby’s force in Palestine, Meinertzhagen took sole credit for the daring drop of a haversack filled with false documents for the Turks to find. The documents were intended to (and probably did ) mislead the enemy as to the true intentions of the British forces. While some sort of ruse like this apparently did occur, it was planned and executed by others – not Meinertzhagen; yet he claimed and received credit for the exploit for years.

Although other events were more sensational – including the death of his wife under mysterious circumstances and a missed opportunity to assassinate Hitler – Meinertzhagen, who was an accomplished ornithologist, went to great lengths to steal bird specimens from museums and to falsify accounts of their range in his own scholarly articles. The upshot is that he individually undermined much of the legitimate ornithology of the early 20th century.

Why did he do all this? Of course, no one knows. Apparently he was driven to polish his image so as to gain fame and respect. Nonetheless, Meinertzhagen gradually fell out of favor. Winston Churchill disowned him early on, but the cocoon of privilege protected Meinertzhagen through out his life and he was never really called to answer for the extent of his fabrications and frauds. At the end he was just deemed to be an odd eccentric.

The unraveling of the fictions took years. In sorting through them, author Garfield proved to be as tenacious in debunking them as Meinertzhagen had been in creating them. Consequently, the book is an interesting study showing that while history ought to be based on corroborated empirical data, it often isn’t.

A Guide to the Birds of East Africa

Review of a novel by Nicholas Drayson; Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, 2008

Although it sounds like a guide book, in reality this work is a novel. It is a delightfully chatty comedy of manners replete with keen insight into Nairobians of various hues. The chief protagonist is shy, retiring Mr. Malik who engages in a contest of bird watching with boisterous, obnoxious Mr. Harry Khan for the right to ask a certain lady, Rose Mbikwa, to the annual hunt ball. As the story unfolds all is not quite as it initially seemed, the characters become more complex and overlays of plot, some with sinister implications, intrude.

Those who know Kenya will find the setting accurately described. Most institutions and places are called by their correct names, but those that aren’t are easily identified from their pseudo names. With the exception of attributing the naming of Lake Victoria to Dr. Livingstone rather than John Hanning Speke, author Nicholas Drayson’s historical asides ring true, but some are obviously invented such as the reasons why Maasai wear red. The ornithological information, of which there is a lot regarding bird species and their whereabouts also appears authentic to this amateur birdwatcher, but with doubts that one could find a flamingo on Lake Victoria. Even so it was great fun to recognize names and descriptions as the chase ensued.

Even though the birds provided a mechanism to move the plot forward, it was really the commentary – pithy observations about the times or the characters that made the story interesting. Drayson certainly had a knack for encapsulating personalities and pinning down mannerisms and dialogue in a fashion that kept the reader entertained.

There are no weighty issues in this novel, but it is entertaining (and fairly short). It will certainly appeal to those who know Kenya and especially those who have tried to sort out some of its birds.

P.S. On several occasions the novel mentions favorably a training program for guides run by the Nairobi Museum. Indeed that program has produced a number of very competent (and pleasant) local guides. On a recent trip to Kenya, Steven at Ziwani Camp and Julius at Siana Springs, aptly led us to new birds, including the rare Magpie Shrike found only in Kenya near Siana.