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The accidental jester

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B_Cole_and_Cranworth.jpgStorytellers don't have to be reliable to be entertaining.  Great narrative voices can be widely off the mark - P.G. Wodehouse's marvelous Bertie Wooster is an example - and yet their own haplessness with facts and reality only deepens our delight in hearing what they have to say.

Lord Cranworth is an interesting example of an entertaining, unreliable narrative voice.  Unlike Bertie Wooster, who is fictional, Lord Cranworth was real.  And diverting further from Bertie Wooster, whose lack of reliability was the conscious intent of his creator, Cranworth didn't mean to be unreliable.

Cranworth has become unreliable in part because the passage of time has rendered so many of his opinions politically incorrect.  "I dislike making contact with a black race which emphatically dissents from the superiority I claim for my race and colour," he writes of Ethiopians.  (Lord Cranworth, Kenya Chronicles 178 (1939)).

But Cranworth has also become unreliable because his account of factual events diverges from other contemporaneous accounts.  Here, for example, is Cranworth's version of the events leading up to the deportation of Galbraith Cole:

Galbraith Cole was one of the earliest pioneers, a brother-in-law of Lord Delamere, and deservedly one of the most popular inhabitants both with black and white.  He had suffered repeatedly from thefts of cattle and sheep from his farm on Lake Elmenteita [sic], abutting the Masai Reserve.  One day he caught a party of Masai red-handed driving off his sheep, and, having a rifle, fired a shot to frighten the delinquents.  By an unfortunate mischance the shot struck one of the party, who subsequently died.  The Government were placed in a position of difficulty.  No local jury would, or indeed could, convict Cole of any major crime, and the tribe in question, with whom the punishment for cattle-stealing from time immemorial had been death, saw no justifiable grounds for complaint.  On the other hand, a considerable opinion at home said that in the interest of our own rule and good name an example must be made.  And again it is hard to dissent from that view.  The Governor decided that it was a case for deportation, unpopular though the course might be.
(Kenya Chronicles at 64).

His account omits several salient facts that Karen Blixen mentions about the event:

When Karen Blixen lectured at Lund University in 1938 she gave an example of Galbraith Cole's unswerving conviction, which a man of less fibre would have easily betrayed.  Like the Masai he had killed, he paid his price without question:

The Judge said to Galbraith, 'It's not, you know, that we don't understand that you shot only to stop the thieves.' 'No,' Galbraith said, 'I shot to kill.  I said that I would do so.'

'Think again, Mr. Cole,' said the judge.  'We are convinced that you only shot to stop them.'

'No, by God,' Galbraith said.  'I shot to kill.'  He was then sentenced to leave the country and, in a way, this really caused his death.
Errol Trzebinksi, Silence Will Speak 76 (1977) (quoting Donald Hannah, Isak Dinesen and Karen Blixen: the mask and the reality 35-36 (1971)).

In highlighting this disparity, I am not so much interested in which version is accurate, but in the relationship between an accurate grasp on facts and the formation of opinions that endure the test of time.  My guess is that Cranworth wasn't just unlucky that public opinion shifted away from his conviction of white superiority; rather, I hazard that a certain disposition on his part to tamper with facts supported the formation of opinions that could not survive the eventual triumph of reality.  Hence, the man could write of his early years in British East Africa:

Settlers were coming in with a steadily increasing flow.  New, beautiful and undeveloped territories were being discovered and occupied.  New crops were being tried out and new possibilities became probabilities almost monthly.  Land values improved with great rapidity and the native population became more prosperous and infinitely happier and safer.  No stigma rested at that time on the white settlers for the work that they were doing.
(Kenya Chronicles at 29 (emphasis added).)

Amusing to read now, but not very credible.

(Photo of Berkeley Cole and Lord Cranworth from Kenya Chronicles)

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