Sunday, July 25, 2010

Kenya's colonial history...and some worrying signs

The aspiring historian in me can't resist giving some context for the 4 August referendum on Kenya's constitution...

Kenya was colonised by the British in the late nineteenth century, though as with so many other African colonies, it wasn't the British government which did the colonising, but rather a private company (in this case the British East African Company). It was only later that Kenya became a colony, but it was one (unlike Uganda for example) with a comparatively large settler population. Land alienation began with the process of colonisation, but intensified after the First and Second World Wars, when instead of rewarding the tens of thousands of Kenyans who served the British Empire, soldiers from Britain were invited to settle in Kenya. They were given newly-alienated land, which engendered much ill-feeling, particularly in the highlands, where a 'squatter' population grew restive in the face of continued injustice.

This all broke into open violence in the shape of the Mau Mau uprising, during which saw acts of violence on both sides as the government sought to crush the uprising. It was the colonial government, however, which perfected and institutionalised the horrible forms of brutality that were directed against Kenyans at-large in the colony, but more particularly the 1-2 million Kenyans who were imprisoned in the concentration camp system known as the Pipeline (read Caroline Elkins' book, Imperial Gulag, for a literally gut-wrenching account of this system, based both on hitherto unstudied records and [admittedly-problematic] interviews).

The government ultimately prevailed, but the British realised that their days in Kenya were numbered. Independence in 1963, however, only haltingly addressed the issue of land redistribution, and it is this partially-answered question that lies at the heart of the referendum on the draft constitution, with many who have questionably amassed vast tracts of land since independence worrying that some of this land could be repossessed by the state and redistributed. Tabitha Kanogo's monograph, The Squatter Roots of Mau Mau, provides a detailed investigation of the land issue for those interested.


In other news on the referendum, some 'No' campaigners have begun suggesting that the result of the referendum will be illegitimate, which makes one hope that this isn't a calculated strategy to excuse some planned action for 5 August, since at the moment, they look likely to lose by a substantial margin.


  1. Very interesting! I didn't know that company's were the ones most responsible for colonizing in Africa. I'm guessing they were there for some natural resources... if so, what kind if you don't mind me asking? Don't know much about Kenya.

  2. The role of chartered companies is big throughout colonial history. The Dutch East India Company colonised the Cape in South Africa, and the British South African Company expanded from South Africa in search of gold and diamonds, founded Rhodesia, abd helped to engineer the South African war of 1899. King Leopold colonised the Congo using a company as a front.
    In Kenya the IBEAC was after land, control of waterways and the like. It was basically a way for the British government (which was anxious about keeping other colonial powers out) to devolve the responsibility of governance. These companies became effectively states within states.
    Other resources/enterprise that were big were cotton in east and central Africa, railroad building, slavery, ivory, rubber etc.