Uchumi, Boer trekkers and their ‘Wild West’ plot in Roysambu

The 1933 murder of colonial maverick Henry Tarlton is one of those forgotten episodes in Kenya’s colonial history. So forgotten that when his name featured in a recent court case involving a Sh2 billion land along Thika Superhighway — which Uchumi Supermarket says it owns — nobody took note.

Of all colonial bullies – and they were many – Tarlton stood out. He not only intimidated the locals but also the whites who dared to hunt wildlife in his 4,443 acres Roysambu Estate in Nairobi’s Kasarani. He even tried to bully the colonial government and wrote various scathing attacks in the East African Standard.

The remaining vacant portion of his land can be seen between Safari Park Hotel and Thika Road Mall (TRM) and the damaged perimeter wall is the best indicator of the vicious war on the ownership of this land.

We shall come back to that later for this is not only the history of the plot that gave Nairobi’s Roysambu its name, but also a peep into what is happening when colonial land leases are about to expire.

TREKKED

Henry and his brother Leslie were part of the group of Boers who had trekked from South Africa in early 1900 hoping to escape the British domination in Transvaal and Orange Free State.

Most of these soldiers settled in Eldoret with their wagons and even today, the town has the signature Afrikaner buildings, a church and cemetery.

Looking back, Tarlton was a pioneer conservationist. And that was before he was killed while fishing in Nairobi’s River Ruaraka (Yes! It had plenty of trout fish) on November 20, 1933. The murder was blamed on a “local native” though Tarlton had stepped on many toes in the colony.

Yet, two weeks ago – the High Court in Nairobi – made a ruling that gave Uchumi Supermarket ownership of Tarlton’s former land in Kasarani – part of what was known as Roysambu Estate.

HUNTING

On this Roysambu farm, Tarlton kept different types of animals in what was Kenya’s first zoo.

He hated hunting though his brother Leslie was one of East Africa’s most prominent big-game hunters.

Actually, his brother featured prominently in the hunting safaris of former US President Theodore Roosevelt whose hunting trips in Sir Northrup McMillan’s Juja Farm — on behalf of the Smithsonian Museum, the world’s largest — were epic.

In 1909, the Smithsonian Institution had commissioned Roosevelt to collect specimens of African wildlife for the National Museum and that is how Leslie was brought into the picture.

That hunting party — which was criticised by the New York Times for butchering 512 animals — is still billed as Kenya’s biggest single hunting expedition and which not only triggered grand scale poaching but also saw many other imitators look for museum sponsorships to collect specimens.

FOUNDER

But besides earning some noble mentions in Roosevelt’s book African Game Trails: The Classic Big Game Safari, Leslie is today celebrated as the founder of the first luxury tented safari in Africa.

In 1904, together with his brother Henry and a friend Victor Newland, he had set up a company in Nairobi known as Newland, Tarlton & Co a pioneer in equipping Big Game hunting parties and which today is a known brand name in the world of exotic travel run by Donald Young Safaris.

By then, Nairobi was not even a town.

It was tin shack and the company was started in one of those early tin sheds. Leslie organised special safaris

PHILANDERING PRINCE

The most notable of those safaris was when he hosted the philandering Prince of Wales, later King  Edward VIII – a man who would later abdicate the throne in order to marry a twice-divorced American woman, 39-year-old Bessie Simpson. (Simpson later dropped the name Bessie saying that too many UK farmers had named their cows ‘Bessie’ and it now sounded too much like a cow!)

What we today know of this Tarlton family is that they had moved from Australia to South Africa in 1893 hoping his eldest son would find conducive place for his tuberculosis.

Back to the Roysambu property, Tarlton sold it in February 1930 to Captain H.V. Briscoe, a marine superintendent who used to work for the East African Railway and Harbours. The records show that by the time Briscoe bought part of this land, it had been subdivided into several portions of 200 acres and later on into 20 acres.

One of the remaining portion is the Sh2 billion land that now front Thika Superhighway and which is the only reminder of the virgin land that the Tarltons were given by James Hays Sadler, then the Commissioner for East African Protectorate – as Kenya was then known.

FORGOTTEN HISTORY

But this rich history may have escaped later owners — including Uchumi Supermarket who might not be aware that they now own a property whose colonial history has withered with time — and perhaps the forgotten nexus between Kenya and the Wild West.

After the Tarltons sold this property, it changed hands several times and ended up with a Mr Mayer Jacob Samuels who died intestate on December 12, 1974. That is how a brother of his “full-blood brother” Raphael Jacob and Meshumor Jacob, identified as a deceased’s brother of the “half-blood brother” filed for the grant of letters of administration in 1976.

A recent report prepared by the National Land Commission on this land says “since the deceased was Jewish, it is not known whether letters were granted because under the law of inheritance to the Jewish Community of Aden, only the surviving brothers can inherit the deceased’s (property).

The deceased had a brother and therefore an heir who can inherit the property.”

NO TRANSFER

But it appears no transfer took place since in 1985, the commissioner of lands James Raymond Njenga sought to compulsorily acquire this portion measuring 16 acres “for public purpose”.

It was supposed to be used by the military to set up a Kenya Army School – but the military found it unsuitable since it was near residential areas.

But in one of his protest letters to the Commissioner of Lands, Mr Meshumor complained the gazette notice was issued without the courtesy of informing him and that he did not believe the land was being taken for public purpose. By this time, the land grabbing spree had started in Nairobi.

An inquiry on the acquisition was done in February 1986 and Meshumor asked for Sh25 million as compensation.

The chief government valuer put the land at Sh3.5 million which Meshumor rejected and went to court. The court enhanced the value to Sh25 million and the government appealed this offer.

UNSUITABLE

Interestingly, the case has never progressed beyond there and after ten years, in February 1997, the Court of Appeal stood over the matter for the parties to negotiate out of court. 

But was somebody trying to force Meshumor take an offer? We don’t know, yet.

What we know is that in a letter dated January 26, 1987 the Permanent secretary in the Department of Defence (DoD) wrote to the Commissioner of Lands saying that a DoD team carried a ground visit and found it unsuitable for the intended purpose unless the surrounding four properties were acquired too.

Two months later, Major General Jackson Munyao wrote to the Commissioner of Lands asking him to disregard the letter that sought the land in Roysambu and await until they make further contacts on the issue.

No contacts were made and no payments were done to Meshumor, according to the National Land Commission document “due to financial hardship”.

LEASE

Legally, if the military didn’t require that land, it should have reverted back to the owner. But it didn’t. It now appears that there was a catch after all.

The land LR 5875/2 had a 99-year lease and it was set to expire in 2003 and revert back to the government.

When NLC’s deputy director for investigations, Antipas Nyanjwa tried to dig about the ownership of plot LR 5875/2 in April 2015, he found some interesting findings:  “Current search at the registry shows that no records exist on it in the systems…I endeavoured to get the correspondence file in the records office but they have failed to trace the file and our assumption is that it has been stolen, hidden or maliciously destroyed.”

Meshumor had in 1985 tried to have the lease extended and realtors Tysons Habenga had written to the Commissioner of Lands requesting for an extension.

It is only when his lawyers, Robson, Harris and Company tried to get an extension that Miss Akinyi Valerie Onyango wrote back saying that the Commissioner had declined.

REVERTED BACK

“Technically, the land then reverted back to the government and by extension of the new constitution 2010 to the County government of Nairobi,” said the NLC report.

Two weeks ago, the High Court determined that Uchumi Supermarket is the beneficial owner of this land, through their wholly-owned Kasarani Mall Limited.

But there is more to it than meets the eye.

A company by the name Solio Constructions Company – and we still don’t know who owned it – managed to get this plot and had a title registered in May 1992 after the DoD said it was not interested.

Solio had gone ahead to charge the property to Barclays Bank on October 1993 something that has intrigued the NLC. “How could it have been charged to the Bank before the title was registered, stamp duty paid and signed?” asks the NLC report.

TWO TITLES

Solio got a second title for the same property and this was registered in January 2001 which means that this property now had two titles — even before the original lease had expired.

The conclusion by NLC was that these titles were “outright forgery” and that Uchumi “became stakeholders through this fraudulent transfer.”

When the matter came before Lady Justice Lucy Gacheru, the Director of Public Prosecution told the court that Kasarani Mall held a genuine title and that there was “no evidence of any collusion or conspiracy between the company and land officials during the allocation of the land to Solio Construction…”

“The Plaintiff (Uchumi) was a willing buyer who bought the suit land from a willing seller whom the Director of Public Prosecution has concluded was validly issued with the

VALID TITLE

Therefore this court finds that the Plaintiff’s title to the suit property is valid,” said Justice Gacheru.

And with that, Uchumi has ended up with a Sh2 billion land – which they intend to sell (by the way) in order to offset the many debts they owe.

And this is where things get murky.

In 2004, when Uchumi was struggling to return from the dead, it decided to sell this plot and invited interested bidders. A Nairobi company, Sidhi Investments, emerged the highest bidder with a price of Sh186 million.

But the government placed a caveat on the land after there was fear that the directors were involved in asset stripping.

COMPEL

As a result, Sidhi went to court to compel Uchumi to take its cheque deposit and the court ruled there was a genuine contract between the two. That was in October 2007 and there has been push to have the matter settled out of court.

For several years, the only evidence of the tussle over ownership is the now-you-see-it now-you-don’t stone perimeter on the plot.

Some squatters have also been claiming the same and the fate of Meshumor in all these is not known.

It is like a Wild West movie and the saga is not yet over.

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