History of Kenya
From HistoryWorld by Bamber Gascoigne
- Masai and Kikuyu
- German-British carve up
- British East Africa Company
- East African Protectorate
- Kenya Colony
- Mau Mau
In the time before the arrival of outsiders and the beginning of recorded history, the Masai are the dominant tribe in the region now known as Kenya. They arrive as nomadic pastoralists from the north, probably in the mid-18th century. They are not Kenya’s largest tribe (a distinction going to the Kikuyu, who live by agriculture), but the fierce reputation of the Masai warriors, engaging in frequent raids against their neighbours, gives them a power beyond their numbers.
During the 19th century the region is penetrated by Arab traders in seach of ivory and by a couple of intrepid German missionaries. But Kenya’s colonial future develops accidentally – as a result of events unfolding in Zanzibar in 1885.
On 7 August 1885 five German warships steam into the lagoon of Zanzibar and train their guns on the sultan’s palace. They have arrived with a demand from Bismarck that Sultan Barghash cede to the German emperor his mainland territories or face the consequences.
But in the age of the telegram, gunboat diplomacy is no longer a local matter. This crisis is immediately on desks in London. Britain, eager not to offend Germany, suggests a compromise. The two nations should mutually agree spheres of interest over the territory stretching inland to the Great Lakes. This plan is accepted before August is out.
The embarrassed British consul finds himself under orders from London to persuade the sultan to sign an agreement ceding the lion’s share of his mainland territory, with the details still to be decided. In September the German gunships begin their journey home. A joint Anglo-German boundary commission starts work in the interior.
By November 1886 the task is done and the result is agreed with the other main colonial power, France. The sultan is left a strip ten miles wide along the coast. Behind that a line is drawn to Mount Kilimanjaro and on to Lake Victoria at latitude 1° S. The British sphere of influence is to be to the north, the German to the south. The line remains to this day the border between Kenya and Tanzania.
As with the areas being colonized by Rhodes at this same period in southern Africa, the British government is reluctant to take active responsibility for the region of east Africa which is now its acknowledged sphere of interest. Instead it assigns to a commercial company the right to administer and develop the territory. The Imperial British East Africa Company is set up for the purpose in 1888, a year ahead of Rhodes’s British South Africa Company.
The region given into the company’s care stretches all the way from the east coast to the kingdom of Buganda, on the northwest shore of Lake Victoria.
It is evident to all that the development of this region depends on the construction of a railway from the coast to Lake Victoria, but circumstances conspire to make this task far beyond the abilities of the East Africa Company. The running sore which saps their energy and their funds is Buganda.
Being in a sense beyond Lake Victoria, Germany is able to argue that this region (the most powerful kingdom within the territory of Uganda) is not covered by the territorial agreement with Britain. Moreover the irrepressible Karl Peters now forces the issue. In 1890 he arrives at Kampala and persuades the kabaka (the king of Buganda) to sign a treaty accepting a German protectorate over his kingdom.
A possibly dangerous confrontation between the imperial powers is averted when the British prime minister, Lord Salisbury, proposes a deal which Berlin, remarkably, accepts. Salisbury offers the tiny and apparently useless island of Heligoland (in British possession since 1814) in return for German recognition of British protectorates in Zanzibar, Uganda and Equatoria (the southern province of Sudan). But Germany derives her own benefit from the deal. Heligoland subsequently proves an invaluable naval base in two world wars.
Meanwhile the East Africa Company faces further problems in Buganda, where civil war breaks out between factions led by British Protestant missionaries and their French Catholic rivals.
In January 1892 there is heavy gunfire between and among the four hills which form Kampala. On the top of one hill is the palace of the kabaka. On another the French have completed a Catholic cathedral of wooden poles and reeds. On a third the Protestants are building their church. On the fourth is the fort established for the company by Frederick Lugard, who is the only combatant with the advantage of a Maxim machine gun.
Lugard prevails. But the loss of life and destruction of property in this unseemly European squabble makes it plain that the East Africa Company is incapable of fulfilling its duties.
In 1894 the British government declares a protectorate over Buganda. Two years later British control is extended to cover the western kingdoms of Ankole, Toro and Bunyoro – to form, together with Buganda, the Uganda Protectorate.
Meanwhile the much larger region of Kenya has been relatively calm, even if the East Africa Company has achieved little of value there. But in taking responsibility for Uganda, the British government needs to be sure of the new protectorate’s access to the sea. So in 1895 the company’s charter is revoked (with compensation of £250,000). Kenya becomes another new responsibility of the British government, as the East Africa Protectorate.
The early years of the protectorate include several developments of significance in Kenya’s subsequent history. One is the decision to encourage settlement in Kenya’s temperate highlands by farmers of European origin (this prosperous region subsequently becomes known as the White Highlands). The intention is to provide revenue for the railway driven northwest from Mombasa to reach Kisumu on Lake Victoria in 1901.
Most of the settlers come not from Britain but from south Africa. Short of assistance on their new farms in the relatively unpopulated highlands, they make strenuous efforts to introduce the forced African labour common in many other European colonies. Not until the 1920s are such methods outlawed in Kenya.
The resentment of the indigenous population against the settlers is accentuated from 1904, when a policy is introduced of settling Africans on reserves. Meanwhile a third racial group complicates the protectorate’s racial unease.
Indentured labour from Britain’s Indian empire is brought in to construct the railway. Subsequently the existence of the railway brings Indian traders from the coast into the interior. The result is that by the 1920s there is a sizable Indian population to demand a share in the developing political life of Kenya. (By this time the name has been changed from the East Africa Protectorate to Kenya Colony, celebrating the region’s highest mountain.)
The establishment of the colony of Kenya brings in its train racial hostilities. New legislation on land tenure shamelessly favours the settlers. In many areas Africans are now formally dispossessed of their land and are confined in reservations (the Kikuyu, the largest tribe, being the main losers), while the ‘white highlands’ policy restricts the ownership of the best farming land to Europeans. These and other tensions are reflected in the developing political scene.
From 1919 the white settlers are allowed to elect members to the legislative council. The other two communities of the colony demand similar rights.
The Indians, enjoying a greater economic strength, are the more adamant. As early as 1920 they turn down the offer of two seats on the legislative council, since this is not representative of the size of their community. Tension remains high until 1927, when the Indians win the right to five seats on the council (compared to eleven reserved for the Europeans).
The Africans are almost as prompt in asserting their claims. As early as 1921 the Young Kikuyu Association (also known as the East Africa Association) is established to assert African rights and, more specifically, to recover appropriated Kikuyu land.
In 1925 the colonial government suppresses this first Kikuyu organization, but its members immediately regroup as the Kikuyu Central Association – of which, three years later, the young Jomo Kenyatta becomes general secretary and editor of the organization’s newspaper, Muigwithania (The Unifier).
During the 1930s Kenyatta campaigns energetically on a range of linked policies, including land rights, access to education, respect for traditional African customs, and the need for African representation in the legislative council. His methods are peaceful, but he warns that lack of progress on these issues will result in ‘a dangerous explosion – the one thing all sane men wish to avoid’. But there is little sign of progress until after World War II.
In 1944 the legislative council in Nairobi (the capital since 1905) becomes the first in any east African colony to include an African member – as yet just a single and lonely representative of the ethnic majority. The number doubles to two in 1946, to four in 1948 and to eight in 1951. But these are token politicians, appointed by the colonial governor from local lists.
In the early 1950s these half-hearted steps towards reform are suddenly overtaken by a much more powerful and alarming challenge to the steady pace of British colonial rule. In 1952 a militant independence movement calling itself Mau Mau makes its presence and its demands painfully clear.
In October 1952 there is a sudden outbreak of sabotage and assassination in Kenya. The perpetrators using terrorist tactics are Kikuyu, and their ritual oaths of loyalty to their secret organization reflect the customs of Jomo Kenyatta’s political group, the Kikuyu Central Association. But the meaning of their name for themselves, Mau Mau, is at the time and remains today a mystery.
The colonial government reacts rapidly, declaring a state of emergency and arresting Jomo Kenyatta. Charged with planning the Mau Mau uprising, he is sentenced in March 1953 to seven years’ imprisonment. But his absence in British custody does nothing to lessen the campaign of terror.
The loss of European life is relatively slight (about 100 people). The main victims of Mau Mau violence are other Kikuyu who refuse to support the cause and are killed as collaborators. These number perhaps 2000. Among the Mau Mau themselves as many as 11,000 die in encounters with British forces or in British prison camps, during a guerilla war that lasts four years and is marked by atrocities on both sides.
The worst of the violence is over by 1956, though the state of emergency is not lifted until 1960. By this time the only effective response to the Mau Mau rebellion is under way. A conference in London in 1960 gives Africans the majority of seats in the legislative council. Kenya’s first African parties are formed to take part in the developing political process.
Jomo Kenyatta is still in detention in 1960, but his colleagues elect him president of their newly formed political party KANU (Kenya African National Union). He is released by the British in 1961. In London in 1962 he leads Kenya’s delegation in the negotiations for independence. The new nation is to include the coastal strip which until this time has been leased from the sultan of Zanzibar.
In elections in May 1963 KANU wins the majority of the seats. Independence is achieved in December 1963, with Kenyatta as prime minister. A year later, under a new constitution, Kenya becomes a republic (soon to be a one-party republic, when opposition leaders agree to end party faction and cooperate with KANU). In 1964 Kenyatta is elected president.
To many in the white community it seems a terrifying prospect that almost unfettered power is now in the hands of a politician widely held responsible for Kikuyu violence in the Mau Mau period (not to mention his having spent two years at Moscow University during the 1930s).
But Kenyatta confounds his critics. He rules even-handedly in relation to the African, Asian and European communities. He carefully involves ministers from tribes other than the Kikuyu in his administration. And he develops a successful free-market economy open to foreign investment. When he dies, in 1978, Kenya ranks high among African countries both in terms of political stability and economic growth.
Kenyatta is succeeded peacefully from within the ranks of KANU by his deputy, Daniel arap Moi (not himself a Kikuyu, but from one of the smaller Kalenjin tribes). Moi continues Kenyatta’s pro-western policies and his one-party rule, with little tolerance of any form of opposition. But in the early 1990s, as in most other African countries, there is strong pressure for multiparty elections.
These are held in December 1992. Moi is elected president and KANU wins the majority of seats in the national assembly, victory in both cases being eased by the fragmented nature of the opposition (and, according to Commonwealth observers, by electoral malpractice).
The 1990s prove a difficult time. Kenya flounders economically, there are ominous outbreaks of ethnic conflict between Kalenjin and Kikuyu, and the nation’s troubles are compounded by evidence of widespread corruption. In 1997, with little sign of Moi taking effective measures to curb these abuses, the IMF suspends its promised programme of loans.
At the same time the international community presses unsuccessfully for constitutional reform to give opposition parties a fair chance against KANU. Elections in December 1997 confirm Moi in the presidency and KANU as the ruling party.
Bamber Gascoigne is an author and broadcaster. He has published three novels, but his best-known books are histories and reference works on broad themes: World Theatre, The Great Moghuls, Treasures and Dynasties of China, The Christians, How to Identify Prints, and Encyclopedia of Britain. On television, he has been the author and presenter of several historical documentary series: The Christians, Victorian Values, Man and Music, and The Great Moghuls. He was also for twenty-five years the presenter of a weekly quiz show for students, University Challenge. Since 1994, he has been writing a digital history of the world for the internet. It went online in 2001 as www.historyworld.net and in 2002 won the New Statesman New Media award for the best educational website. His text, of about one and a half million words, forms the core around which the site is growing. He and his wife Christina (an artist and potter) have lived in Richmond, a suburb of London, since 1967.
This article is reprinted here for educational purposes, with the permission of the author who retains copyright to this work. Many thanks to Bamber Gascoigne for allowing us to reproduce this essay, which was originally published on his HistoryWorld website.