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June 04 - 10, 2010


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Mombasa Memoirs:
The Fannin Papers

A unique and invaluable record of the times with numerous
and fascinating descriptions of Malindi, Mombasa Old Town,
Dar es Salaam, Zanzibar and Tanga.

Friends of Fort Jesus current chairman Marlene Reid
reviews a new book by Judy Aldrick on a colourful and
long time Mombasa resident, the late Katherine Fannin

Coastweek -- Katherine Mary Trood was born on a tea estate in a remote part of India near to the Tibetan border "where our customary method of reaching the nearest station was to mount an ancient and docile lady elephant".

In the tradition of the British living overseas at that time, she was bundled back to Britain at an early age for an education in the care of maiden aunts, her parents becoming little more than a treasured photograph and the odd letter.

Educated largely in France with her brother (an enjoyable time) and the war years spent at a boarding school in Devon (not so enjoyable) followed by two years at Lausanne University and the Gloucester School of Domestic Science by which time both her parents were dead and Katherine was cast upon the world to make her living.

The author has used the little information she had about this period to set the scene for the life that was to follow as no doubt Katherine’s early years in-fluenced her greatly.

Through the machinations of her aunt she became engaged to a young doctor working in Dar es Salaam.

Coastweek -- Now back in Britain the writer Judy Aldrick had previously lived for many years in Mombasa and was well known as a long serving former chairman of the Friends of Fort Jesus

And so in 1926, young and naïve, full of hope and excitement, she embarked on the S.S. Morvada with a large number of wedding presents to join her fiancé.

The die was cast!

Getting cold feet about the looming marriage she disem-barked at Mombasa with Charles Fannin, an older married man she had met on board ship, deciding to keep her large cargo of wedding gifts; Charles later being dispatched to Dar es Salaam to explain the situation to the hapless fiancé.

This behaviour estranged her from her disapproving family.

The early chapters describe in delightful detail Katherine’s life in Mombasa and Nairobi, where she went to live and work to avert a scandal for her and Charles, until 1929 when they were married.

Accounts of adventurous trips and camping safaris make present day safaris sound extremely tame.

This is a unique and invaluable record of the times with descriptions of Malindi, Mom-basa Old Town, Dar es Salaam, Zanzibar and Tanga.

Katherine proffering the opinion that Dar es Salaam was not a patch on Mombasa which in turn could not compare to Zanzibar.

Married to Charles, and back in Mombasa she involved herself in a charity that helped destitute settlers of whom there were quite a few and helped to found an Almshouse (mostly by badgering officials and the wealthy) in Majengo, for destitute elderly Africans who since the end of the slave trade had ceased to be under the patronage of their owners and were living on the streets.

She was also instrumental in founding the K.S.P.C.A.

Among the many books she had brought with her from England was a seventeenth century Bible and prayer book and a "volume printed 120 years ago of a voyage all around Africa and into the interior of Abyssinia".

Henry Salt’s Abyssinian Travels published in 1814 "The book would soon play an ex-traordinary role in her life".

Coastweek -- The Fannin Papers - The Life And Letters Of Katherine Fannin 1902-1970. Written by Judy Aldrick and published by Old Africa magazine.

January 1936 Katherine and Charles were back in Nairobi, Charles acting Surveyor General for Kenya, where Katherine attacked life "with renewed optimism and vigour".

At one event the East African Standard reported Mrs Fannin "wore an extremely effective and brilliant dress of gleaming silver lame and was indeed inde-fatigable throughout the even-ing".

In addition to all her committee work Katherine was learning Italian, German and Spanish.

She already spoke French and Swahili.

Abyssinia (now Ethiopia) was at this time occupied by the Italians and in 1938 very little was known about what was going on there and with the threat of war in the air the British administration was anxious to find out.

At this time Katherine wanted to return to England.

A previous request to return through Abyssinia had been refused as a preposterous idea but suddenly it became possible as Katherine seemed just the right person and all the previous obstacles suddenly disappeared.

"Capable and energetic, with a talent for languages and a knowledge of surveys and maps she seemed just the right candidate for some fast footwork in the field of intelligence".

"Katherine Fannin ‘the spy’ was born".

Eighteen days driving though Italian Somaliland, Abyssinia and Eritrea on her way to England and her return trip in February 1939 (when the Italians and the British were keen to form an alliance against Germany) as an unofficial spy for the British and propaganda for the Italians, was in Katherine’s words "The adventure of a lifetime"!

Armed with an expensive cine camera she managed to photo-graph places of ‘interest’, taking stock of military installations and equipment, carrying her Henry Salt book (now claiming him as a relative) asking all the important people and officials to sign the book which acted as an aide to her memory as to who she met, where.

She dare not write anything down but could only rely on her excellent memory.

On arrival in Britain she went to her Barclays Bank, requested a typewriter and typed out all her information before presenting it to the Foreign Office.

The Italians had made a very favourable impression on her, which did not please the British officials who made snide remarks about her subjectivity to Italian flattery.

Katherine felt and no doubt voiced the opinion that the occupied lands were well organised, well managed and were being well developed and was particularly admiring of their splendid road network - some-thing even then lacking in Kenya!

Alleged 'atrocities' she refused to believe.

No doubt she was kept well away from any place where she might have witnessed them with one exception when she witnessed a savage beating.

The chapters covering these travels include a well researched history of the political situation prevailing in Abyssinia.

That there are no written reports by Katherine probably detracts from it a little but with the author’s excellent reconstruction of the report Katherine made to the Foreign Office and other documents, this a fascinating account of an amazing venture.

Chapter 11 is an excellent account of the Abyssinian campaign, which was a "resounding success".

Armies had travelled along the routes she had taken with the assistance of her maps and photographs subduing the Italians as they went putting an end to Italian East Africa.

The campaign while being somewhat of a "minor sideshow" may have led to Hitler changing his plans to invade Britain, having lost his Italian allies, and turning his attention to North Africa and the Balkans.

Charles was posted to Ghana in 1940-41 where Katherine’s information on Abyssinia proved useful to the Gold Coast Regiment who also took part in the Abyssinia Campaign.

Katherine meanwhile carried on her spying career in Accra, listening to conversations overheard while having her hair done, reporting back to the British authorities, her hair dresser being a French Swiss and an indiscreet Vichy sympathiser!

Charles’ two year tour in Ghana ended in 1941 and he had to return to England but due to war conditions there was no provision for Katherine’s passage home.

She could either wait patiently for him to return or follow him when possible.

This did not suit Katherine and she decided to try to fly to Cairo to find war work as this was the centre for all the Allied operations in the Middle East.

The sophistication of Cairo was a welcome change from Accra and Katherine with her quali-fications first got a job in the Secret Telegrams room and then a post as P.A. to Sir Arthur Rucker KCMG CB CBE, Chief Official of the Office of the Minister of State Cairo and Secretary of the Middle Eastern War Council. A grandi-ose position for the naïve girl who had arrived in Mombasa less than 20 years previously.

She stayed in Cairo until 1943 when Sir Arthur was recalled to England and Katherine, no longer needed in Cairo, travelled to Trinidad to join her husband.

When Charles retired at 55, the Fannins returned to Kenya and Katherine now began to indulge her love of cats and "exercised her passion for outspoken journalism and large scale entertaining".

Katherine, always an ardent 'colonialist', soon became very disillusioned about the way in which the British Empire was being decolonised.

Her opinion was that the British from the partition of India onwards created situations detrimental to all, "leaving a great deal of bitterness and disillusionment".

She was particularly vocal on what should be done in Ethiopia and Somalia, strongly advocating a return to Italian rule which she considered had been exemplary, writing letters to the Times to express her views.

Needless to say her voice was not heard.

The year 1950 saw many changes in Mombasa where much development was going on and "early worries were expressed over parking and traffic congestion".

Tourism was just beginning with many up-country people es-caping the insecurity of the 'Mau Mau' emergency.

Katherine served on the Mombasa Municipal Council but realised that settler control was coming to an end.

She was Coast correspondent of the Kenya Weekly News keeping readers abreast of Coastal events for several years but Christmas 1954 - when she took a holiday in India to find her father’s grave - she was replaced by Edward Rodwell, something for which she never quite forgave him.

No doubt her views on Settlers, whom she supported, were becoming embarrassing to a paper which was obliged to resign itself to a new Kenya.

Charles Fannin died in 1960 leaving Katherine bereft and financially strapped, becoming more eccentric with cats now numbering over 70.

In the chapter "Other writings, Eccentricities and Cats" we get a clearer picture of Katharine’s character, her personal writings and more about Charles.

The penultimate chapter outlines the politics and inde-pendence years, Katherine’s involvement, her opinions and criticisms.

The early years of Kenyan Independence proved disastrous for her, bringing her heartbreak and financial ruin.

She managed to do some work for the Economist Development Unit, gathering information from local traders where her natural flair for getting information served her well, revealing the clue as to her success as a spy.

Her faithful servant, Hamisi died in 1969 after nearly 40 years with her and the rot truly set in.

She had no money, lived in filthy conditions in a small, almost derelict house in Kisauni, and had about 50 cats to feed.

She could be seen, a dirty ragged figure who nobody wanted to know, scavenging along the roadside trying to find them food.

As her health failed one of her few friends took her to Mombasa Hospital and from there she went to live in Sunset Lodge, a home for the elderly run by the Salvation Army.

From there she was later taken to Nairobi in a catatonic state, finally dying in November Hospital in 1970, cared for by the very charity which she had helped establish back in 1929.

The sad end to an outstanding life!

Judy Aldrick has done a wonderful job in recreating the life of Katherine Fannin with sensitivity, portraying her character in all its nuances from the naïve girl to the raving eccentric living in abject poverty with her 50 cats, abandoned by most people, her husband and the faithful Hamisi dead.

Katherine had known many people but made few close friends.

The detailed end notes are an excellent complement and bibliography to the text.

It is an excellent record of all the painstaking research done to make this book what it is, an accolade to Katherine Fannin, a woman born before her time, largely unappreciated, finally raised from oblivion thanks to Judy Aldrick and Old Africa Magazine.




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