Theodore Roosevelt Jr., often referred to as Teddy Roosevelt Jr., was an American politician, statesman, conservationist, naturalist, historian, and writer who served as the 26th president of the United States from 1901 to 1909.
Being one of the youngest persons to ever hold the office of president in the US, Roosevelt picked up a number of reps under his belt. He became president at the age of 42 following the death of his predecessor and was elected for the first time at age 45 in 1904.
However, little is known of the late US president’s travel exploits, one of which nearly caused an international diplomatic incident. Here is the story as narrated by WoK.
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In 1909, Roosevelt arrived at the Port of Mombasa with his crew. He was a guest of one of Kenya’s most popular white settlers, Lord William Northrup McMillan, the man for whom the McMillan Library in Nairobi is named. A deputy governor and an official government detail were sent to pick him up.
McMillan, an adventure enthusiast himself, was famed for throwing lavish and eccentric parties, filled with women and whisky. Since he had initially come to Kenya as a big game hunter before finally deciding to settle, he and Roosevelt had a lot in common, prompting the 1909 visit.
The US president and his son Kermit Roosevelt were in Nairobi for two things, to hunt and party. They spent most of their time at Norfolk Hotel if they were not out hunting. During the colonial period, the establishment was most preferred by white settlers. During these drinking sprees, Roosevelt and his son spent their nights at McMillan’s Chiromo house. He had another house in Juja but that was too far for a to-and-fro during night outs.
At the place where Khoja Mosque rests today, existed another house of worship that was built by the Ismaili people. However, their mosques differ significantly from all others built by the rest of the Muslim faithful. They lacked a minaret – a type of tower typically built into or adjacent to mosques.
While heading home from one of their drinking nights at the Norfolk, Roosevelt and his son noticed there were two lion statues on either side of the Ismaili mosque. They stopped their car and stole the lions. They placed them back at McMillan’s house on either side of the fireplace.
Meanwhile, the Ismailia community raised alarm over the stolen lion statues and the colonial government launched investigations into the matter. However, there were little to no leads on where or who might have stolen them, making it a perfect crime. For days, the story dominated the front pages of various newspapers.
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Days later, a government official who had gone to visit Roosevelt at McMillan’s Chiromo house saw the lions. Immediately, he recognised them as the ones stolen from the Ismaili Mosque and panicked. The diplomatic crisis that could have arouse if the story ever went public was unimaginable. A US president tried for stealing from a religious house in a British colony would not look good. So the government official came up with a plan to avert the possible crisis.
The lions were ferried to McMillan’s Ol Donyo Sabuk farm and buried in an unmarked grave. The search for them was futile, and they were believed to be lost.
Roosevelt later died in 1919 at the age of 60, and McMillan died in 1925 and was buried at the summit of the Ol Donyo Sabuk mountain.
In 1937, 18 years after Roosevelt had visited Kenya, workers at the Ol Donyo Sabuk farm which had since been acquired by the Nettlefold family, discovered the buried lions. Initially, they had thought the lions were stone idols from West Africa known as Ju and Ja. Later on, analysts from the Nairobi Museum positively identified them as the carvings that had been stolen from the Ismailia Mosque in 1909.
The workers who had buried the lions remained silent on the matter, and the story never found its way into public domain until Judy Aldrick wrote about it in detail in her book Northrup-The Life of William Northrup McMillan (2012).
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