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.