Rediscovering Beauttah

by Macharia Munene

One of the thrills of history is the discovery of forgotten stories about places and the people who helped to make them. One such place is Maragua town in Murang’a County where a poorly kept tomb of James Beauttah, pioneer anti-colonialist who saw the beginning and ending of colonialism in Kenya. The tomb, now surrounded by buildings in the middle of the town, is a reminder of how forgetful the humans are. The town was originally Beauttah’s property which was hived off to create public residences. His home, whether in Maragwa or Murang’a, has not thought of honouring this champion of anti-colonialism and the Mau Mau War. He is, however, not alone in being forgotten.

Beauttah is symbolic of a worrying trend that promotes and glorifies local and national amnesia on history. There is danger, Pope Francis warns in his ‘Fratelli Tutti’ Encyclical, in forgetting history and denying traditions because it leads to ‘cultural colonialism’ and ultimate loss of identity and independence. Unfortunately in post-colonial Kenya, at least three ministers for education thought they were bright when making disparaging remarks about the virtual uselessness of history. In the process, they encouraged loss of historical memory and identity, cultural and national, by producing potential policy makers with little attachment to the realities on the Kenyan ground or the national interests. How Kenya came to be where it is and what it is became ‘hidden’ in the concocted national amnesia. History became ‘hidden’ and so were the makers of the Kenyan history, Beauttah among them.

Born in Ngamua, Mukurweini area of Nyeri in 1889 as Ruhara, he died at age 96 in 1985 and his funeral had the trappings of state attended by Vice-President Mwai Kibaki and top Kenya government officers from Murang’a. Although his cracked tombstone claims he was born in 1871, his passport, issued in October 1963 to enable him to travel to the Soviet Union says he was born in 1889. He spent two months in India as an honoured guest of state in India’s 1947 independence ceremony. He remains ‘hidden’ when compared to Jomo Kenyatta, his younger political contemporary.

Beauttah and Kenyatta had very similar beginnings, losing parents as youth, caring for younger brothers, and being absorbed in the new white establishment. In many ways, Beauttah outlived Kenyatta in terms of dates of birth and death. He was more militant against colonialism and initially opened political doors for Kenyatta. They later differed on the direction the country should take before the Mau Mau War and, especially, in post-colonial times relating to land policies and the treatment of ‘frredom fighters’. To pre-Mau Mau colonial Governor Philip Mitchel, however, Kenyatta and Beauttah, as well as Peter Koinange and Fred Kubai, were simply ‘demagogues and rogues’ out to destabilise the colony.

After imperial conquerors killed his mother in 1903, young Ruhara reportedly vowed to devote his time to fighting imperialism. He had ended up in Fort Hall where he took interest in learning to read and write so much that he impressed the DC at Fort Hall who then thought of sponsoring Ruhura to England for additional education. Ruhara then accompanied the departing DC to Mombasa but on seeing the expansive ocean and the big ship to take them away, he refused to go to the unknown. He instead learned post matters, landed a job as telegram operator, and entered blood brotherhood with a coastal friend. He married Winnie Kivenyo, a Duruma woman, in 1914, the year the Great War or World War I broke out. His telephonist job could not allow him to join the Kings African Rifles, KAR.

He became politically active after the Great War, used his position to advance African concerns, and helped to found political movements. From the coast, he settled in Maragua and built a big mzungu like house. When he wanted to buy shares in mzungu only company, Ruhara changed his name to Beauttah and the name became official. After the 1922 Harry Thuku commotions, Beauttah joined other activists to the Kikuyu Central Association, KCA, at Muriranjas and Kahuhia. KCA became a major anti-colonial force partly because Beauttah, besides his high literacy, used his postal office connections to obtain and relay relevant information and to recruit political players from the coast to the lake. He was top strategist, earning the wrath of colonial chiefs. KCA turned to him when it decided to send a delegate to England but he declined the opportunity possibly for two reasons. First, he probably had a lingering ocean-phobia and therefore no desire to disappear into the unknown big ocean, having declined the chance in his teens. Second, he had a good paying job and a young family of wife and four children to look after. He then suggested his friend, Johnstone Kamau, a man of high taste. Although Kamau also had family, he was more adventurous and had no ocean-phobia.

In England, Kamau travelled widely in Europe, hobnobbed with colonial officials, wrote some books, acted in a feature film, plunged into Pan Africanist agitations, became Jomo Kenyatta, was at Manchester in 1945 to represent KCA and East Africa, and returned through Mombasa in 1946 where Beauttah received and briefed him. Kenyatta found an intensifying political atmosphere in which his old KCA comrades had kept the fire burning with increased underground militancy. New oaths of reinforcing loyalty circulated among top leadership before being spread to the lower levels.

In that growing militant environment, vetting and possible ‘cleansing’ of leaders took place and Beauttah had to undergo some ‘cleansing’. Before taking a new binding oath of unity, he had to show loyalty by marrying a Kikuyu wife, in addition to Winnie Kivenyo. With that cleansing, he was then allowed to be in the thick of those agitations and was chairman of the ‘Action Group’ that planned to remove prominent colonial collaborators from the earth. To outgoing Governor Philip Mitchel, KAU was ‘a political racket run by … demagogues and rogues’ who included Jomo Kenyattta, Peter Koinange, Fred Kubai, and James Beauttah. The colonial government then arrested and imprisoned Beauttah for organising anti-government activities, months before the October 1952 Declaration of the State of Emergency. He was released in 1961.

At independence, Beauttah was nationally and internationally an honoured man, invited to the Soviet Union, but he was not necessarily happy. While in jail, his health became an issue of concern in the LegCo, following the February 1961 general election in which KANU defeated KADU. Since KANU had refused to form interim government without the release of political prisoners, KADU leader Ronald Ngala became Leader of Government and Minister for Education. The question arose about the fate of prominent prisoners Jomo Kenyatta, Jesse Kariuki, Bildad Kaggia, and James Beauttah and more so Beauttah’s health. Ngala claimed that Beauttah was in good health. In addition, while in prison, the colonial DO had expropriated, and became attached to, Beauttah’s Maragua house only for Beauttah to demand it back. Kenyatta offered the DO alternative settlement in order to live Beauttah alone but the DO committed suicide. Beauttah continued to receive delegations of freedom fighters in his Maragwa house.

Mau Mau veterans tended to be unhappy with what was happening. General Karari Njama, for instance, noted that his school and class mates at Alliance High School, once they rose to high post-colonial offices, generally wanted little to do with him. Beauttah had similar experience of being neglected by pre-Mau Mau comrades once they attained high post-colonial office. He was disappointed that his Pre-Mau Mau anti-colonial friends, Kenyatta and Mbiyu Koinange tended to ignore him. A KANU candidate for Kigumo in the May 1963 pre-independence election, Beauttah was not amused that they overlooked him and preferred Kariuki Njiiri, son of anti-Mau Mau chief Njiiri wa Karanja. In that campaign, KANU operatives reportedly accused Beauttah of being KADU and pro-colonialist. Beauttah lamented: “We had done more than they ever had, fought and gone to jail while they were studying in UK and America. And they pushed us out, we who put them where they were.”

He continued to grumble, wrote letters about grievances, and then slid into the calmness of his Maragua house. He received many visitors who included Oginga Odinga, Achieng Oneko, and Bildard Kaggia. Beauttah, like Kaggia, did not amass land but he instead grumbled about the failure of government to look after the Mau Mau fighters. Occasionally, Kenyatta would stop by the roadside in Maragua while on his other errands, the two would have a brief chat, the Kenyatta motorcade would then zoom off, and Beauttah would return to his house. Kenyatta reportedly advised Beauttah, as a friend, to tone down his grumblings. He did and slid into the ‘hidden history’ that the neglected tomb near his big Maragua house symbolises.

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Bernard David Njuguna August 23, 2021 - 7:47 pm

Very educative piece.

Ngotho August 24, 2021 - 7:44 pm

Great history
Very insighting

Momo August 24, 2021 - 8:52 pm

Excellent narrative; makes me wonder where Beauttahs descendants are today and why the neglected tombstone.


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