Our first hero has all the hallmarks of those we read of in classical literature …. fearless men, the slayers of ferocious beasts. But first to set the scene.
It starts at the end of the nineteenth century, long before the land we know today as Kenya became a political entity. The land grab for Africa by the European powers was in it's heyday. The British staked their claim in Uganda, an inland kingdom on Lake Victoria, some 530 miles from the east coast of Africa. The land in between the lake and the coast was occupied by hostile tribes and hordes of wild animals. This territory was declared a "British Protectorate", and administered by the Foreign Office with a string of posts and forts from the coast to the lake.
It is at one of these administrative centres in 1895 at Eldama Ravine the we encounter our first hero, Manuel Anton da Silva, known as Sonny da Silva. Officially, he was the district clerk, to one James Martin, the District Commissioner of the region. This James Martin deserves a place in "Ripley's Believe it Or Not"; he was illiterate, and could barely sign his own name. It was da Silva, as chief clerk, cashier, and everything else, who kept things under control.
Sonny da Silva, from Salcete, Goa, gave up his medical studies in Bombay, and sailed across the Indian Ocean to Zanzibar, most probably on an Arab dhow. To get to Eldama Ravine he would have had to walk all the way from the coast.
The railway from the Mombasa only reached Nairobi in 1897.The building of this line aroused great controversy. At one time it was labeled "the lunatic line" by those in England who opposed the large sums of money being spent to build it. A vast number of workers were brought from India to lay the tracks across the African bushland, the home of a spectacular array of wild animals over which the lions reigned supreme. It did not take long for the lions to prey on the railway workers, pouncing on them at water-courses, or at times even raiding the tents and carrying off some unfortunate person into the night. These acts were beginning to create panic in the workforce, and delay construction of the railway. To solve this problem, special task groups were organized to hunt these man-eating lions.
Sonny da Silva was a noted crack shot, and was frequently called in to join these hunting parties. However, the accounts published on the building of the railway hardly mention him. It was only in the early 1900's when Nairobi became a booming railway town that Sonny da Silva's fame as a hunter was recognized.
A celebrated photo shows him in a group with the menacing lioness he shot using a 12 bore shotgun.
The Lion Hunters
In Photo from left, Joseph da Silva, his brother, Sonny da Silva,
un-named person, and Major C.L. Ross, known as the elephant hunter.
Photo Courtesy of Mrs. Elvira Uvenhoven
When US President, Theodore Roosevelt, was planning his African hunting safari he wrote the following letter, directly to Sonny da Silva:
Letter from the White House
THE WHITE HOUSE WASHINGTON October 5, 1908 My dear Mr. da Silva Thru Mr. Saunderson I have received your letter of August 23d. I am glad you can go. I shall engage you for three months and perhaps for longer, but as to the last I can not say definitely now. I shall want you to accompany my son Kermit most of the time, as he is not used to big game and I want him to have a throloly trustworthy man with him when he goes against dangerous game. You will not have to do anything about the porters, as I have been in correspondence with Mr. McMillan and one or two gentlemen on that matter. I shall reach Mombasa by the end of April, sailing from Naples on April 5th. Sincerely yours, Signed ( Theodore Roosevelt) Mr. M.A. da Silva Nakuru British East Africa.
Courtesy of Mrs. Elvira Uvenhoven
Since he was famous, Sonny da Silva was often one of the few non-Europeans invited to social gatherings attended by British officials and their settlers, some of whom were rabid racists. A disparaging (racial) remark made by one of these characters angered our hero, who challenged the perpetrator to a shoot-out in the street. This behavior, however justified, was frowned on by the British Administration. To hush matters, Sonny da Silva was banished beyond the pale, to Uganda, where he joined the British East Africa Company. In recognotion for his services, the company gave him land in a place called Ngora. He acquired some wealth as a cotton grower and trader.He married Josephine Fernandes of Mount Abu, India, and together they raised a family of fifteen children.
He was a founder member of three famous Goan Institutes, in Mombasa, in Nairobi, and later in Kampala. However, Sonny da Silva's heart was always in Nairobi. In the early 1950's the administration allowed him to return for medical treatment to Nairobi, where he died, and is buried.
His direct descendants here in Canada, and in the UK, span four generations and number 105 persons. End
1. To Mrs. Elvira Uvenhoven of Toronto, eldest daughter of Sonny da Silva, for her help and guidance in preparing this account, and for the photo, and the letter from President Roosevelt.
2. To Lynette Noronha, grand-daughter of Sonny da Silva, for help in assembling research material, and for keeping alive the spirit of her grandfather.
Sonny da Silva's brother, Joseph, lost his life tragically when treking back from the coast with a caravan of porters. He went into the bush one evening unaccompanied to shoot game to feed the porters, and was never seen again. His gun belt was the only trace left of him on the scene. Sonny da Silva had more luck. He was once gored and tossed into the air by a rogue elephant, and survived, with a gash in one leg running from his foot to his hip!