Colonial Rule in Kenya


British Colonial Rule in Kenya, 1884-1963

Freedom Monument at Uhuru Gardens in Nairobi.  Photo Courtesy
Freedom Monument at Uhuru Gardens in Nairobi. Image Courtesy

Before the Beginning of Colonial Rule

The British had first arrived in Kenya in the early 1600’s in company with the Dutch and French to challenge the dominance of the Portuguese at the Coast Region of Kenya, then a thriving trading hub.  At the time, their interest were mercantile not imperial, and seeking only to benefit from lucrative trade that Portugal was exclusively enjoying.  Following the fall of Portuguese rule in East Africa, first in 1698 and again in 1729 after their brief reoccupation of the coast, the British kept a low-key presence at the Coast Region of Kenya, which became the base for her early explorers, traders and missionaries who were desirous of exploring the hinterland of Kenya.  It was under the reign of Seyyid Said, the gifted Omani Sultan who presided over the Coast Region of Kenya from 1804-1856, that many of the early missionaries including Johann Kraph would gain permission and protection to access the hinterland, and to establish Churches. 

“Colonialism” had not been popular before 1880’s, with European economists describing it as unnecessary burden on the home government, in favour of free trade, yet, the nation of Europe (Germany, France, Spain, Netherlands, Italy, Belgium and Portugal) had reserved their place at the starting block, now well conversant with Africa since the Trans-Atlantic Trade.  In the second half of the 19th Century, the situation changed suddenly, and the nations of Europe began the scramble for Africa.  Following the Berlin Conference, England and France would end up claiming about 25% of Africa.  “England as a result of her policy had secured the most profitable parts of Africa.  The only portions that yielded return on investment, made by colonies, are the regions controlled by England in Niger and South Africa”. The nations of Europe were seeking new outlets for trade and possible areas to resettle their population and grow thriving colonies.


The Partitioning of Africa by the Nations of Europe.  Photo Courtesy
The Partitioning of Africa by the Nations of Europe. Image Courtesy

Towards the Scramble for Africa

Prior to the Berlin Conference (November, 1884 to February, 1885) setting the scene that brought out the principles of the spheres of influence and of effective occupation, the nations of Europe were undergoing a peculiar metamorphosis.  On the one hand, Bismark and the rise of Germany, in 1870, that resulted in the complete unification of Germany, had also fanned hostility between France and Germany with the French losing the areas of Alsace and Lorraine that were rich in coal and iron.  The British occupation of Egypt, in 1882, after suppressing the Egyptians at the battle of Tel-el-Kabir, in an encounter that France would regret absconding, despite a joint intervention with the British in Egypt to resolve the debt crisis there, had left a bitter taste with the French, and who in turn headed to West Africa and the Congo.  On the other hand, King Leopold’s activities in the Congo, in 1876, curving out for himself a vast personal empire, had spurred outrage by the French who were now busy intensifying trading activities here in company with the Portuguese who, of course, had been here for longer.  For the newcomers in Africa like Belgium, Italy and Germany, colonies provided them with a sense of pride and identity in the spring of rising nationalism in Europe.  Hitherto, Berlin Conference was convened to resolve these territorial disputes.

British Occupation of East Africa    

“It has been the policy of Great Britain to allow here merchants to establish commercial relations with the natives by opening trade stations, but not until the trade becomes profitable and private enterprises established the value of the trade does she raise her flag, to claim the areas as British possessions and exercise governmental control by companies chartered by the Government – the East Indian Empire, British South African Company and the British East African Company being outgrowths of trading stations.  Among the privileges given to these companies were to establish banking, roads, telegraphs, to make and maintain the railroads, license and carry out mining, settle, cultivate and improve the land, and develop peace and order.” – Gardiner G. Hubbard, 1896.

Off the blocks, Germany and Britain were embroiled in a bitter struggle to take over and control East Africa, an area with much more temperate climate, access to the Indian Ocean, fertile soils and some mining resources. Both nations were confident in their sway to assist the natives better organize their resources and procure the benefits of modern life.  For both, it would be a race to convince the Sultan Bargash bin Said of Zanzibar with adequate reasons to consign his office to the potential usefulness of either partnership.  In September 1884, Sir Henry Hamilton Johnstone, a British explorer simply known as Harry Johnstone, with the Sultan’s permission, signed treaties with the chiefs in the Kilimanjaro area.  He did this on behalf on the British commercial groups which intended to trade there and construct a railroad.  The British had a slight advantage of doing this now, narrowing down on their prior presence doing trade at the Coast.  “In the same year, Carl Peters, a German explorer, also signed treaties with the chiefs of Usaga, Uzigua, Ukami and Nguru without consulting the Sultan.  The Sultan protested without much success”.  In instead, Karl Peters returned to Germany with a report recognizing these areas as under Germany’s influence.  To resolve the differences and avoid further escalation, a commission to set things straight with the Sultan was ordered in 1886, leading to the Anglo-German Agreement.

Terms of the Anglo-German Agreement, 1886

  1. The Sultan of Zanzibar was given a 16 kms coastal strip and the offshore islands of Pate, Mafia, Pemba, Zanzibar and Lamu.
  2. Germany got the territory between River Umba in the north and River Ruvuma in the south.  The coastline of Witu was also considered to be under Germany’s sphere of influence. 
  3. Britain got the territory north of River Umba to River Juba in the north.

The rule about the western boundary and Uganda was simple: it was left open to whichever power got there first.  Subsequently, Imperial British East Africa Company (formed by William Mackinnon in 1887) and Germany East Africa Company (formed by Carl Peters in 1887) were mooted and entrusted by their home governments with the work of administering their respective territories.  What ensued next was nothing short of expected, as both Britain and Germany sought to take over Uganda.  At the same time, Italy had now joined the colonial race and was disputing with the British East Africa Company (IBEA) over ports controlled by the Sultan – Kismayu, Merka, Mogadishu and Warsheikh – in the northern coast. At this point, the IBEA Co. had an upper hand in the affairs of East Africa, now claiming authority over an area of about 300 kms inland and favoured by the Sultan.  Britain had previously handed over Lamu to the Sultan who had in turn relinquished it back to them.  Likewise, the British had handed over the northern ports back to the Sultan, with same outcome.  Classic British diplomacy at its best, and a show of shrewd political ethos by the IBEA.  Not to be bedazzled, the Germans convened a second diplomatic negotiations meeting in 1890 that would be the 2nd Anglo-German Agreement, or Heligoland Treaty.

Terms of the Anglo-German Agreement, 1890

  1. Uganda was recognized by Germany as an area within British influence.
  2. Germany relinquished her claim over Witu, and also accepted the Islands of Zanzibar and Pemba as under British sphere of influence.
  3. Germany agreed to own a strip on Lake Tanganyika acquired from the British and the coastal region of Tanganyika from the Sultan for a fee.
  4. The western boundary was also defined.

Although the long term impact and process of developing their colonies was strenuous for both, Germany’s policy of less-is-more would turn out to be a high value decision in establishing colonial rule.  The action came thick and fast, with some of the immediate challenges including the large capital outlay required to develop the colonies, scarcity of natural resources, non-existent lines of communication in the hinterland, no telecommunication and lack of navigable rivers.  Then, there were the insurmountable odds like the cultural barriers, tropical diseases, acclimatization and the resistance from the natives.

The IBEA Co’s plan had sparked controversy and drawn heated discussion back home, with some saying it evoked dystopian notions of capital outflow based on unrealistic projections.  So much so, that the IBEA Co. was forced to surrender its charter to the government in 1894 and Uganda was declared a protectorate in the same year – with the British Consul General in Zanzibar now assigned to administer it.  In 1895, the British Government declared the territory that was to become Kenya as the East African Protectorate.  “It was their wish that they do everything within their means to make the territory economically effective”.


Statue Of William Mackinnon, Campbeltown Scotland.  Photo Courtesy of J.M. Briscoe
Statue Of William Mackinnon, Campbeltown Scotland. Image Courtesy

Native Response to Colonial Rule

Henceforth, operations were run from Britain and the officials used the posts which had been established by the IBEA Co.  In the beginning, when the British were still getting their footing around the colony and settling manpower, they had preferred signing of treaties to establish their colonial rule.  “This method was used where the natives were peaceful and readily accepted protection and payment of taxes, for example, the Maasai agreements of 1904 and 1911″.  This approach wasn’t achieving half the goals in double the time, so Britain needed to figure out how to start making effective progress.  In any case, most of the communities resisted the British.  So, they decided to try and boost progress by pushing their way into a much older method of convincing: military conquest or use of force.  It is perhaps less of surprise, then, that with no other power other than that of military might, the British made considerable gains in suppressing the natives in their rapid result strategy, and alleviated any form of resistance.

At ground zero, the Coast Region of Kenya, the Swahili under the Mazrui Arabs had maintained a strong system of governance and were unwilling to give up their independence without a fight, often mounting guerilla attacks to resist the British, and declining all treaties proposed.  In return, the British moderate approach was hewn to a firmer stratagem, on-boarding the Balustan regiment from Northern India to send a clear message.  By 1900, the British were in full control of most of the towns at the Coast.  A little further inland, in Taita, the natives had put up a spirited resistance in 1892 and in 1897, but this too proved to be no match for the loftier British artillery and by 1902 Taita was well under British rule.  This scenario would replay itself in the sparsely populated River Tana Delta, with the same outcome, albeit a much faster one.  The peripheral area between Coast and the Central Highland required a much softer approach, for this was Maasailand, guarded by the fierce Maasai whose presence here is widely cited to have saved the region from widespread slave trade.  The Maasai, now controlling a vast territory in the southern plains of Kenya, also controlled movement of trade caravans to the hinterland. “It was expected that the Maasai would put up a stiff resistance against the Brits.  As it turned out, however, that was never the case.  They collaborated, and dealt with the Brits diplomatically”.

Throughout the 19th Century, the Maasai’s sphere influence had spread far and wide, to as far as Uasin Gishu, Lake Victoria and south into Tanzania.  Howbeit, prolonged drought, rinderpest attacks and wrangling between its factions (the pastoralist Purko led by Laibon Supet and the agriculturalist Uasin Gishu Kwavi who were almost wiped out by the Purko between 1850 and 1870) had all led to the Maasai decline in the late 1890’s.  Even more worrying for the Maasai, their arch-rivals, Kalenjin-Nandi, were on the rise, gaining territory and centralizing their power base.  Closer to home, the Maasai’s broken spirits were still reeling from the shock of the 1895 Kedong Massacre. As it goes, Maasai warriors had attacked a caravan of the Agikuyu that was returning from Eldama Ravine and in the ensuing fracas they had killed about 650 Agikuyu and Swahili porters.  It elicited the response of a settler trader, Andrew Dick, who in company with two French travellers had gunned 100 Maasai warrior.  To make things even worse, a British official named Gilkinson had led a further assault on the Maasai.  The events had spooked the Maasai beyond their wildest imagination of defeat, and forced the hand of Laibon Lenana to seek help from the British.  In the short-term, the relationship appeared to benefit both.  In the Maasai Agreement of 1904, two reserved were setup, at Laikipia and Ngong, and Maasai promised to have the rights of this land in perpetuity.  They were also rewarded with cattle from communities they helped to pacify including the Agikuyu, Nandi and Luo.  In the long-run, the Maasai would end up losing 75% of their land and isolated to a small fraction of the area in the Ngong Reserve, in the 1911 land agreement.


Artist Impression of Laibon Mbatian.  Photo Courtesy of Fandom
Artist Impression of Laibon Mbatian. Image Courtesy of Fandom

“Following Supet’s death, Mbatian, one of his sons, reigned as Laibon between 1866 and 1890.  But from about 1875, the pastoral groups began to fight each other in a Purko split of warring factions.  Each group supplied a different son of Mbatian as the Laibon.  This succession dispute weakened the Maasai even further, and Lenana seemed to losing the battle to his brother Sendeyo.  It was for this reason that Lenana appealed to the British for help.  With the latter’s assistance, Lenana defeated his brother Sendeyo, driving him southwards to Tanzania.  After all said and done, Lenana became the undisputed Laibon”.


In the Central Highlands of Kenya, popular as Kikuyuland – or the land loosely demarcated by Ngong Hills, Mount Kilimambogo, Aberdare Ranges and Mount Kenya, the British would encounter their stiffest resistance and one that lingered on until the independence of Kenya.  And although the responses were diametrically-opposed between collaboration and resistance, the latter carried the day, for the agriculturally-oriented Agikuyu could not fathom out the reason for losing the fertile lands they much depended on.  The punitive expeditions of 1892 (to dispose Waiyaki wa Hinga and his troops), 1902 (againist the Muruka section of the Agikuyu) and 1904 (in Iriani of Muranga) set the tone for a bitter relationship that would hardly improve during colonial rule.  In equal measure, the Ameru, Aembu and Tharaka resisted strongly, but they were quick to learn from the example of the Agikuyu, and the Aembu in particular fearing loss of land inevitable accepted British rules briskly.  In Ukambani, the locals had vehemently opposed the establishment, in 1889, of the Fort of Machakos and the disruption of the long-standing trade with the people at the coast.  Also, the disregard for Akamba customs and traditions was further cause of strife.  The British would not have any of it, and send two separate expeditions comprised of British, Maasai and Kikuyu warriors to ravage and devastate their resistance.

In North Rift Region, the Nandi Tribe would put on a spectacular episode of resistance, and the longest of any resistance in Kenya.  Aware of the impending threat, and having gone through half a decade of prosperity, they had a focused will to defend their land to their death.  Since time immemorial, the Nandi had resented any unwelcome visitors to their territory, a fact the wayfaring Maasai had bitterly learnt.  Despite the modest populace, the Nandi fought valiantly to save their independence.  Kimnyore, their spiritual leader, or the Orkoiyot, had crafted a short epithet about the white man to ready his people for the dog days ahead.  In it, he had described the British as “evil men, due to their complexion and strange clothes”, and before his death in 1890, had warned his people “that a big snake belching smoke and fire would bring the white men to take control of Nandiland.”  It was not long before the bold, unflinching and hostile troops arrived in Nandi, to a stoked, uncompromising and defiant Nandi Community. 

Eventually, the Uganda Railway reached Nandi country in 1899, to a ferocious welcome, with the Nandi natives continually attacking railway workers, looting its stations and vandalizing the line itself.  In 1900, three expeditions were sent against them, using Maasai and Baganda auxiliaries to reinforce Swahili and Indian soldiers.  All failed dismally, made worse by the fact that building of the railway continued and settlers began to trickle into the fertile lands.  It took the treachery of Captain Meinertzhagen, a British officer in Nandi, to punch a hole in Nandi’s heart. He had summoned the current Orkoiyot Koitalel arap Samoei for peace talks.  Instead, he shot the Orkoiyot at point blank along with most of his advisors, which had the desired effect of staggered the Nandi.  Even before they came to terms with the deceit, an invasion in November 1905, consisting of 1,500 soldiers, largely Indian, Swahili and Somali broke their strength of will.  In 1906, many British forts were built around Nandi to reinforce colonial rule.

Western Kenya literally got a textbook treatment of punitive action from a well-seasoned British machinery making it quick conquest.  In regions such as Gusii Highlands, Lake Victoria catchment, and South Nyanza, where the natives had been forewarned by leaders as early as 1890’s, cautioning them against fighting or resisting the British rule, pacification was quick with small expedition of about 100 troops.  The British in exchange imposed the ultimate analogies of domination on them – the payment of hut tax, conscription into labour for European farms, road construction and building of mission stations.  In Luo country, the settlements of Seme, Gem, Asembo, Uyoma, Sakwa, Ugenya which were sparsely populated and not in close contact were all easily captured.  Some communities in Western Kenya opting for peace, most notably of the Wanga or Abawanga collaborated with British, with no resistance. In return, Mumia, their Nabongo King, was declared a paramount chief in 1909.     

Surprisingly, the Turkana of Northern Kenya sustained one of the longest resistance stand-off, from 1880 to 1924, with the colonial government leaving their country much as it had looked before their arrival.  Although the British hailed its conquest of Trukana as a victory against the pastoralist Turkana, in reality, the conquest was more a book exercise over the discontent policies.  A fierce tribe who had managed to eke out a living in the inhospitable arid plains where most people could not survive, the Turkana were never receptive to any newcomers let alone new rules.  Life here before the advent of colonial rule was an endless back and forth raiding cycle with neighbors, each to replenish their livestock.  War and death was commonplace, and even the 1880’s massacre by Count Teleki and his party who gunned down more than 300 resisting Turkana did not seem to faze them in any way.  Although the Turkana were eventually subdued, owing to the superior firepower of the British, which saw them lose much of their livestock and many warriors, the status quo was at best a stale-mate for the newcomers found it difficult to survive in the harsh terrain. British officials working in Turkana were not expected to do more than a year’s service.



Having established their power over the indigenous people, the British now embarked on administration.  They established a central and local government for effective administration. Later, they established the Local Native Councils.  


Formation of the Central Government

Having observed the preliminaries of pacification and establishing colonial rule across Kenya, the colonial government was put into operation, with the British Government represented in Kenya by a Governor, and at the top of the line was the Colonial Secretary based in London.  The Governor in Kenya was supported by an Advisory Council from which emerged the Executive Council responsible for effecting colonial policies.  In 1907, a Legislative Council was launched, with powers to make laws for the colony.  Additionally, Kenya was divided up into 8 provinces (Coast, Eastern, North Eastern, Western, Nyanza, Rift Valley, Nairobi and Central) each headed by a Provincial Commissioner.  As well, the provinces were sub-divided into districts, each headed by a District Commissioner aided by District Officers who headed the smaller divisions within each district. The divisions were sub-divided into locations headed by Africa chiefs under whom were the headmen.  The Local Authority Ordinance of 1912, which was enacted in 1924, mooted the establishment of the Local Native Councils in each district, Local Authorities in the white highlands and Municipal Councils in urban areas.

Objectives of the Local Native Councils

  1. Encourage and develop a sense of responsibility and duty towards the state among the African leaders.
  2. Provide a forum through which the old, the young and educated Africans could express themselves but restrict them to district level.
  3. Provide a means through which the government could understand the African and be able to contain them.

Establishment of African District Councils

“By 1948, nominated members were a majority in all the councils.  It was these councils that provided political a means through which Africans could air their grievances.  The African District Ordinance of 1950 authorized the Governor to create and dissolve any Native Council.  The African District Councils consisted of the District Commissioner and an African (native) member appointed by the Provincial Commissioner.  These councils were to provide and maintain social amenities such as water, cattle dips, roads, bridges, public health, education, markets and promote agriculture at local level.  The African District Councils remained as the local authorities in the rural areas until 1963 when they were combined with those in the European farming areas to form County Councils”.