The Anglo-Ethiopian Society

Book Review - The Fannin Papers

Judy Aldrick

Reviewer - Richard Snailham


Mrs Katharine Fannin was a remarkable woman. In 1925, when it was difficult for British women to find husbands after the carnage of World War One, she became engaged at 23 to John Buchanan, a young doctor working in Tanganyika Territory. During the sea journey out to Africa she had second thoughts about him, but ran into a farmer called Charles Fannin, headed for Kenya. Twelve years her senior and separated from his wife, he heard her story and proposed marriage to her when his divorce came through.

So Katharine, short, plump and plain, but confident, fearless, intelligent, bubbly and a gifted linguist, had ditched one man and bagged another. She bided her time in Nairobi and later married him.

Her interest to our Society members lies in the fact that she made two memorable journeys overland in 1938 and 1939 across Italian East Africa.

An uncle had died, she wanted to return to Britain to sort out his will and reckoned the quickest way was via Mogadishu, Massawa, and Suez. Because of the Italian invasion of Abyssinia this had been for some time an impractical route but in 1938 an Anglo-Italian non-aggression pact had been signed and King Victor Emmanuel recognised as Emperor of Ethiopia (as the country now came to be called). When the Governor of Kenya heard of her travel plans he told the intelligence people who saw an opportunity to recruit her as an unofficial, unpaid spy. The Italian consul in Nairobi, primed by the Governor, viewed her journey across Ethiopia in another light - as a potential source of good propaganda for its new colonial rulers. The Italian Viceroy in Ethiopia, the Duke of Aosta, was an anglophile and duly laid on a warm welcome for her. Equipped with a fur coat and a silver lamé dress she attended a great number of glittering functions on her way north in 1938 and back again southwards in 1939. An acute observer, she made few notes, wrote no letters but on her return to Kenya produced photographs, a cinefilm and three reports about military dispositions, airports, roads and bridges, and the leading Italian personnel, which proved invaluable to the intelligence staff and of great use in the subsequent liberation of Ethiopia in 1941.

Almost a third of Mrs Fannin's papers are devoted to her Ethiopia work, but the rest - of her life in Kenya, mainly in Mombasa - before and after the death of her husband Charles is a fascinating evocation of colonial life, much to be recommended.

The Fannin Papers book cover

The Fannin Papers
Judy Aldrick
Old Africa Books Kenya, 2010
ISBN 9789966720429
Paperback 216 pages; 206 x 145mm
colour and b&w photographs
Price $20.00

First Published in News File Winter 2012

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