In April 60 years ago, Peter Poole, a white settler in colonial Kenya, employed a cook known as Kamawe Musunge. He liked the new cook’s skills. Because of that he asked Kamawe to get another good Kenyan cook to double as a guard. The cook brought his cousin known as Peter Musunge.
But there is something the white man didn’t know about his cook. Kamawe never liked dogs. One early morning as the cook was going about his duties the master’s dog came running towards him. He stopped it by throwing stones at it. The boss saw him do it. He reached for his pistol and shot the cook dead.
The killer, Peter Poole, was arrested, prosecuted and sentenced to death. He appealed at the highest court but lost.
He was hanged by the rope. Prison Superintendent J. A. Mkinney and Nairobi Medical Officer, Dr D.H. Mackay confirmed him dead on examining his body past the trapdoor.
Many world media outlets reported the story. Time magazine of August 29, 1960, wrote: “Precisely at 8 o’clock one week last night, the slight, heavily shackled 28-year-old English Engineer Peter Poole dropped through the hangman’s trapdoor in Nairobi Prison”. A British newspaper reckoned that at last “all men have been proved equal at the end of the rope.”
Poole was a discharged British army officer who made fun and great excitement in killing Africans during the Mau Mau freedom war.
To him, the only good African was a dead one, and he needed little provocation to pull the trigger and lengthen the list of “niggers” he had put six foot under.
On leaving the army, he opened an electric shop on what is today Moi Avenue. Before he killed his cook, he once had shot an African police officer over a small argument, and boasted that his only regret was the black policeman survived the bullet wounds. Another time, he drew a pistol and threatened to shoot dead an Asian dukawalla who’d refused to give him discount on a torch he wanted to purchase.
Poole had reason to want to kill as many Africans as his murderous appetite allowed. He knew he could always get away with it. Before him — and up to now — no white man had ever been found guilty of killing a black person in Kenya and hanged for it.
Killing Africans was sort of a favourite sport by the whites. Some of the notorious cases included the shooting of 21 unarmed Africans outside the Norfolk Hotel in 1922. Before and after the mass killing, it was a common feature for a white settler having an evening drink at the terraces of the Norfolk or the Stanley Hotel to draw his rifle and aim at an African passing by in the distance.
Such a settler would be wildly cheered and offered a drink by colleagues, especially if his shot was so “perfect” that it killed the African at the first aim!
A former British information officer in Central Kenya, Alastair Matheson, would many years later tell me that one night while visiting a white colleague in Embu, the latter took him behind the hotel building to show him the corpse of an African he’d just shot dead. “Why did you do it?’ Matheson asked in surprise.
“I just saw him passing from the window of my room and felt like testing how accurate I can be with a gun. And bang, I got him down with the first shot!”
In another famous case, a white settler in Nakuru murdered an African by suffocating him after locking up the victim in a cupboard for a whole night.
Asked by the trial magistrate why he did it, he replied that while flogging the servant, he’d kept shouting in Kiswahili: “Nataka kufa” which the settler took to mean “I want to die”, instead of “I am about to die”, which was the servant’s way of asking for mercy.
The settler told the court that since the servant had “expressed” a wish to die and flogging couldn’t kill him, he decided to lock him in the cupboard for the night and let him die there! Amazingly, the court set free the unremorseful killer with only a warning never to repeat it again!
Peter Poole’s luck in getting away with murder abruptly ended that morning 60 years ago when he shot dead his cook. To his utter surprise and that of the white settler community in Kenya, he was arraigned in court and charged with murder. But up to that point, he and his ilk thought it was business as usual and that after going through the motions, and tempers cooled, he would quietly be set free to go back home and wait for the next opportunity to kill a “bloody African”.
He was wrong. The white jury returned a verdict of guilty as charged. The trial judge agreed and passed a death sentence.
The story made world headlines and aroused great fury in white settlers and among the racists in Britain and everywhere else in the world. Why on earth hang a white “merely” for killing an African! How?
Poole’s lawyers appealed against the sentence, but the colonial Supreme Court in Nairobi upheld judgment by the lower court on December 10, 1959.
Peter Poole would have to die for his crime.
Unbelieving, his parents and settlers in Kenya collected 25,000 signatures — a very huge figure those days — and petitioned the colonial Governor of Kenya to pardon him.
The Governor said his hands were tied and declined. The petition was forwarded to the Queen of England. Her Majesty, too, was in no mood to forgive the crime. August 18, 1960, was set as the date for Poole with the hangman.
It is while in prison waiting to be hanged that the “great” Poole got humbled and came to acknowledge the existence of God and sought repentance. Before that, he believed he was “god” by himself with powers to kill at will.
The about-turn came through his guard and cousin to the cook he had killed. Musunge was a staunch believer and member of the congregation at what was then called Nairobi Evangelistic Centre, which is today Christ is the Answer (Citam) church on Valley Road.
Poole knew his servant to be a devout member of the church and one day while visiting him in prison, he asked Musunge to ask his pastor, a Canadian known as Rev Richard Bombay, to come and pray for him. The preacher agreed and went to meet Poole.
In a church memoir available at Citam church, Rev Bombay says he started by taking Poole through the story of Jesus Christ, crucifixion, resurrection, and forgiveness of sins through repentance. According to the pastor, he avoided discussing Poole’s crime and left him to judge himself, feel remorseful which he wasn’t up to at that point, and seek forgiveness.
After weeks of visits by Rev Bombay, Poole confessed his faith in Jesus Christ, accepted his sins, and together with the pastor he prayed for forgiveness. Subsequently, Rev Bombay made arrangements for Poole to be baptised. A bathtub was ferried to Nairobi Prison (now Industrial Area Prison) for Poole to be baptised through immersion.
His parents and all his servants came to witness the ceremony and where he sought forgiveness from his servants for all the ill treatment he had done.
With all petitions for mercy rejected, he sent for Rev Bombay and made a last confession: “Now I know for sure I will be hanged. But it hasn’t changed my faith. I have not lost what God has given me in here (pointing at his heart). If what you have told me about eternal life and heaven is true, it doesn’t matter very much what happens to my body, does it?”
On the day he was executed, the Rev Bombay came for the last prayer minutes before the noose was put on Poole’s neck.
Together they recited the words of Psalms 23: “The Lord is my Shepherd … … though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death … you’re with me …”
And off went the trapdoor, and Poole dropped down the valley of death. Wherever he went, I hope he saw his cook Kamawe Musunge in the other world.