Benjamin Eastwood, a Pioneer Railway Official

Benjamin Eastwood, a Pioneer Railway Official

They were eccentrics and drunkards, adventurers and sober engineers – people who were recruited to run the brand new railway snaking from Mombasa to Lake Victoria before the start of the twentieth century. One such character was Benjamin Eastwood, born in Weymouth on 19 March 1863 and educated at Fleetwood. He arrived in East Africa in 1897, as a trained accountant. Two years later he had been promoted to the post of Chief Accountant of the Uganda Railway. He was variously described by his colleagues: ‘makes no pretence of being a gentleman’, ‘a good accountant but a bad mannered man’, ‘a quiet, unassuming man’. When thirteen personal complaints were made against him, he dealt with them with these remarks: ‘This I deny in toto,’ ‘This is most ridiculous,’ and ‘This is wholly untrue.’ One complaint he did concede – when accused of not providing merit bonuses he said, ‘I really cannot see how meritorious work can be expected of men, most of whom have been picked up locally and know nothing of accounts work.’ He was always tough, dismissing two clerks as ‘useless’ and another as ‘drunk and incompetent.’ Eastwood was one of eight officials named by the Railway Strike Committee as treating their subordinates with ‘extreme discourtesy and tyranny.’

But he was much in demand as an efficient organiser – he became a member of the Governor’s Council, the War Council, the Nairobi Municipal Council and the School Board; he was chairman of the Local Priority Committee, Secretary and Treasurer of Mombasa and Nairobi Clubs, honorary Treasurer and Steward of the East African Turf Club and Editor of the East Africa Quarterly.He was fond of racing and ran a totaliser during Race Week with his colleague Black Barnes. He and Black Barnes also amused the race-goers with amateur dramatic performances generally taking the form of pantomime with topical scenes and songs.

Benjamin Eastwood, Chief Accountant of the Uganda Railway

Like many officials of the time, Eastwood indulged in big game shooting. In 1902 he killed the last elephant to be shot within six miles of Nairobi. It was on a trip to Laikipia that he suffered an accident that was to cost him his right arm. It was an incident that gave rise to the myth that he had amputated his own arm with a penknife. Eastwood told the truth about what happened to a friend: ‘There were seven rhinos in a cluster. Two came rushing in my direction and at 40 yards I fired and dropped one. The other rhino turned round and walked slowly towards me, grazing. The man I had with me became frightened, and after creeping for some distance through the grass, jumped to his feet and ran. This aroused the beast, for it lifted its head and looked after the man, giving me the chance I wanted. I put a solid bullet in the centre of its chest, about 12 inches up; it took two or three short quick steps and went down heavily, head-first, its body slewing round as it fell. It made one futile effort to rise, but did not succeed in even lifting its head, and then lay motionless. I put in a second shot to make sure, but might as well have fired at a rock, as it did not move in any way. There seemed to be not the slightest breath of life left in it; so I walked up, wondering what its horns measured, and how I could get it skinned and reach camp before dark. All these conjectures were rudely knocked on the head. When less than 20 yards away the huge beast gave a roll and got on to its feet. My rifle was up at once, and I put a bullet into the shoulder; but before I could get in a second shot the brute was charging straight. I commenced to run but the first step I took I tripped and fell, and before I could regain my feet it was on top of me. It hit me first with its nose, dropped with both knees on me, then, drawing back for the blow, threw me clean over its back, the horn entering the back of my left thigh, and I saw the animal well underneath me as I was flying through the air. It threw me a second time, but I cannot recollect that throw clearly: and then came on a third time. I was lying on my right side when the great black snout was pushed against me. Then I found myself upon my feet – how, I do not know – and staggered off. As I went an inky darkness came upon me. After going perhaps 40 or 50 yards, expecting every moment to be charged again, I felt that I might as well lie down and let the beast finish its work without further trouble; so I lay down.’

Not till late in the afternoon did Eastwood’s men find him, and it was nearly midnight before they carried him the 15 miles into camp. The camp was a 12 hours’ march to Baringo and the nearest doctor was 136 miles away – at Fort Ternan. Eastman was carried to Baringo in a litter on the second morning; but it was not till the eighth day after the accident that the doctor arrived. Dr Falkener found the wound gangrenous and had to amputate the arm above the right elbow. He stayed with Eastwood for a month and the patient miraculously survived due to his ministrations. Six weeks later he was back at work. The accident to the right-handed Eastwood did not thereafter seem to inhibit his swift handling of totaliser cash and tickets.

What became of Eastwood? He retired in 1918 after 21 years’ service to the railway and lived on his pension in England for another 25 years, until he died in Bristol on 12 October 1943.

Much of this information was derived from Peter Ayre’s database which I am editing. It is hoped to put the database on the web later this year.

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