Aidan Hartley Aidan Hartley

A long-forgotten tale of sorcery and a severed head

The case of Dicky Powys was more infamous in its day than the Happy Valley murder of Lord Erroll

The coroner decided that Dicky’s pony had shied from a lion, throwing the rider who broke his neck [ephotocorp / Alamy Stock Photo]

Laikipia Plateau, Kenya

Our local chief Panta wore a government-issue khaki uniform with epaulettes, beret and swagger stick. On a pleasant stroll to our farm springs, he observed how plenty of blood had been spilled over this water. We sat on the glassy-smooth black rocks around the water pools and the chief retold for me a story more infamous in its day than the Happy Valley tale of Lord Erroll’s murder, but now completely forgotten.

Welshman Dicky Powys, from a family of authors and philosophers and cousin of our ranching neighbour Gilfrid, arrived in Kenya in 1931 to farm. Young Dicky learned the local Maasai vernacular fluently and got on with everybody. His employer had rented pasture in Laikipia around our springs for a vast flock of sheep and Dicky pitched camp here. One dawn he set off on his white pony to scout for fresh grazing. Hours later the horse returned riderless. Dicky’s campmates went looking for him and two days later they found vultures and signs of a commotion in the dust. On one side was a blood-spattered hat, ripped shirt, khaki trousers bloodied and covered with animal hairs. Scattered around were ribs, arms and a severed left foot still in its boot — but no skull.

‘It’s 2021. What were you expecting?’

Then as now, lions were common and Dicky had recently shot two of them. The coroner decided Dicky’s pony had shied from a lion, throwing the rider who broke his neck. Scavengers had devoured the remains. Weeks later a Samburu named Kiberenge appeared at the local police station claiming Dicky had been murdered and that he knew where the victim’s skull was lodged in a tree. The British said he was lying and sentenced him to five months’ hard labour. Then a skull did turn up, with a gold filling in one tooth just like Dicky had.

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