Descendant of British settler dynasty Thomas Cholmondeley had shot dead two black men in two years
Xan Rice in Nairobi
Thursday 7 May 2009 12.05 BST
White man accused of killing black man: even stripped of its details the murder trial was bound to cause a stir in Kenya.
But the defendant was no ordinary white man. He was the cravat-wearing only son of Kenya's best-known British settler dynasty, the Delameres, whose colonial-era exploits invited admiration, scandal and resentment and who continue to divide opinion across the racial spectrum today.
What's more, Thomas Cholmondeley – the 40-year-old Etonian and heir to the fifth Baron Delamere, who was today found guilty of the manslaugher of a poor poacher on the family estate – was no stranger to the police when he was arrested in May 2006. He had shot dead another black man on the farm just a year before.
In April 2005, Cholmondeley shot Samson Ole Sisina, a Masai game warden with the Kenya wildlife service who was conducting an undercover investigation into the illegal bushmeat trade on the Delameres' 19,000-hectare (48,000-acre) Soysambu ranch. Cholmondeley admitted shooting Ole Sisina but said he was acting in self-defence after being fired upon first. The attorney general decided to drop the case before it came to court, causing a furore.
Masai leaders – who blame the original British settlers, including the third Baron Delamere, for moving them off their land a century ago – threatened to invade the Delamere farm, situated between the well-known tourist destinations of Nakuru and Naivasha, 55 miles west of Nairobi. Media commentators wondered how the country's notoriously slow justice system had functioned so swiftly. One newspaper headline read: "Why Cholmondeley is the luckiest Kenyan in penal code history."
The luck lasted a year.
On the evening of 10 May 2006, Cholmondeley was driving around Soysambu with a white acquaintance, Carl Tundo, whose rally driving exploits had earned him the nickname Flash. According to his court testimony, Cholmondeley encountered a group of black men who had been poaching and were carrying a dead impala. He shot three of the poachers' dogs, two fatally, with his Winchester bolt-action rifle. One of the men, Robert Njoya, a 37-year-old stonemason, was hit by a bullet and died soon afterwards in hospital.
Cholmondeley called the police, who arrested him and Tundo. Though Tundo was soon released, Cholmondeley was sent to the Kamiti maximum security prison in Nairobi after telling police he had shot Njoya by accident.
To Kenyans who thought that he had got off easily for the first shooting, this seemed only fair. Among the 30,000 or so whites living permanently in Kenya there was also little sympathy. Most still live a privileged existence – a few in a manner barely unchanged from colonial days – but they stay out of politics and try not to draw undue attention to themselves.
While individual white property holdings, even the Delameres', are dwarfed by those of a few Kenyan families, including those of the country's first two presidents, Jomo Kenyatta and Daniel arap Moi, the country's vast inequalities mean that land ownership is a highly emotive issue.
Even those who defended Cholmondeley the first time – pointing out that whites living in the Rift Valley felt on edge due to increasing crime, poaching and even murders – offered few excuses this time.
"The sense here among both communities [white and black] is nail him," Michael Cunningham-Reid, a stepbrother to Cholmondeley's father, told the Guardian in 2006. "Once is forgivable, twice is inexcusable."
Considering his family were once described as the "Kennedys of Kenya" by the Spectator magazine, Cholmondeley's incarceration in Kamiti represented a huge fall from grace. Hugh Cholmondeley, the third Baron Delamere (each generation of heirs is alternately called Hugh or Thomas), had arrived in Kenya in 1903, and through his work in farming and politics is credited with doing more than any other settler to found the colony.
Legend has it that he used to ride his horse into the dining room of Nairobi's Norfolk hotel, where the bar bears the family name. He is credited with helping found the so-called Happy Valley set, where wealthy British colonial settlers passed the nights swapping partners and taking drugs.
The fourth Baron Delamere, Thomas, kept the family in the gossip press by marrying Diana Broughton. Her earlier love affair with the Earl of Errol, who was subsequently murdered, scandalised society and was turned into the book and film White Mischief.
Since Kenya's independence, Hugh Cholmondeley, the fifth baron, has led a less colourful but scarcely less comfortable life with his wife, Ann, on the Soysambu ranch, hosting tourists and producing dairy products under the Delamere name.
Thomas, or Tom to his friends, was born in 1968 and is their only son. After attending the Royal Agricultural College in Cirencester, he returned to Kenya to work on Soysambu ranch. A keen outdoorsman, he was gored by a buffalo while walking to a paragliding launch site in the Masai Mara in 1997. He has two children, Hugh and Henry, with wife Sally, from whom he split after the first shooting. From the beginning of the trial in September 2006, Cholmondeley's parents maintained a constant presence in the courtroom, alongside Sally Dudmesh, his current partner, and a revolving cast of other white friends.
Susan Njoya, the widow of the man he killed, was regularly in court, often seated just a row or two away.
Cholmondeley, a tall man who was always smartly dressed, remained impassive throughout. In his testimony last year he denied shooting Njoya and suggested that Tundo might have fired the fatal shot. During his court appearance Tundo strongly denied having a weapon at the scene.
As the case dragged on and it appeared that shoddy police work might make it difficult to link the bullet that struck Njoya to a specific weapon, other events in the country, especially the post-election violence and subsequent political wranglings, pushed the trial into the background.
May 8, 2009
White mischief Cholmondeley gets its comeuppance
By Cahal Milmo, Chief Reporter
For more than a century, the name of Cholmondeley has gone unchallenged as one of the most powerful in Kenya, epitomising the white settlers' colonial lifestyle of privilege and earthly excess.
But to audible gasps of astonishment in Nairobi's High Court yesterday, the family's standing among its one-time colonial subjects was changed for ever when Tom Cholmondeley – great-grandson of Lord Delamere, one of the first British colonists of Kenya's fertile highlands – was found guilty of the manslaughter of a poacher on his ranch.
The Eton-educated divorcé betrayed no emotion as Judge Muga Apondi threw out his defence that the fatal shot may have been fired by a friend. He warned Cholmondeley that he could face life imprisonment for killing Robert Njoya, a 37-year-old stonemason, in 2006.
In Kenya, the long-running case has encapsulated the country's colonial legacy and simmering resentment at the large landholdings still controlled by some of its 30,000 white citizens.
Cholmondeley, a dapper, besuited figure, who will become the 6th Lord Delamere and has spent the last three years in Nairobi's notorious Kamiti Prison, became a focus for bitter complaints of racial inequality in 2005 when he was cleared of killing an undercover Masai bush ranger, Samson Ole Sisina.
This time, Judge Apondi threw out a murder charge against Cholmondeley because there had been no "malice aforethought" in his actions, but said he was in no doubt that the landowner had fired the shot which killed Mr Njoya with his bolt-action Winchester rifle.
The court heard that Cholmondeley had come across the poacher, who was carrying a dead impala, after dark on his 55,000-acre Soysambu ranch, in the Rift Valley 55 miles west of Nairobi. He shot at his three dogs, killing two of them.
The judge said he had some sympathy with Cholmondeley's claim to have acted in self-defence but dismissed as an "afterthought" the farmer's claim that the fatal shot was fired by Carl Tundo, a white friend accompanying him on the night, whose exploits as a rally driver earned him the nickname "Flash".
The verdict overturns an earlier not-guilty finding by a lay assessment panel, the Kenyan equivalent of a jury, which is intended to advise the presiding judge. Fred Ojiambo, the lawyer representing Cholmondeley said after the verdict: "I am shocked, amazed and dumbstruck. This is not acceptable. We will appeal."
The squalid cells of Kamiti, built by the British to house 1,400 inmates but which currently hold 3,600 prisoners, are a far cry from the luxury of Cholmondeley's upbringing in Eton and on the lands awarded to Lord Delamere by Kenya's British rulers following his arrival in 1903. Hugh Cholmondeley, the 3rd Baron Delamere, became a figurehead for the colonial occupation after being granted a swathe of Kenya's highlands and devoting himself to developing the country's farming economy. At the same time, he became synonymous with the culture of excess cultivated in the lake-studded region known as Happy Valley for its riotous parties, wife-swapping sessions and drug taking. This lifestyle inspired the book and film, White Mischief, based on the story of Tom Cholmondeley's step-grandmother Diana, whose lover was murdered and her first husband accused of the killing.
Economic problems have led to a growing sense of insecurity in the Rift Valley, with many landowners arming themselves against violent robbers and poaching gangs. Cholmondeley will be sentenced at a later date. Speaking outside the court, the widow of his victim, Sarah, a mother of four, said: "The court's decision, in my opinion, is not that bad. Life has been hard without a husband and a father for my children."