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History, British Colonization

In 1886 and 1890 Britain reached agreements with Germany that delineated a boundary between British territory in Kenya and German territory in Tanganyika (part of present-day Tanzania) to the south. The Imperial British East Africa Company was chartered in 1888 to administer Kenya, but the company soon found itself losing large amounts of money through its vain attempts to extend control over the interior. In 1895 the British government formally took over the territory, which was renamed the East Africa Protectorate. Its western neighbor was Britain’s Uganda Protectorate, and the border between the two lay just west of the site that would become, in the late 1890s, the new city of Nairobi.

Although the boundaries of the British protectorate were set, the British actually controlled little more than the Kenyan coast at the beginning of the 20th century. The British conquest of the Kenyan interior was gradual and incremental, taking second place to Britain’s construction of a railway connecting Mombasa with Lake Victoria. The railway was completed in 1901. In 1902 Britain decided to merge Uganda’s Eastern Province with the East Africa Protectorate; thus the Lake Victoria basin and the western highlands became part of Kenya. By 1908 the British administration had brought the southern half of present-day Kenya under its control. Northern Kenya, then inhabited largely by nomadic peoples, did not come under British authority until well after World War I (1914-1918).

In their colonial conquest, the British followed a policy of divide and conquer, allying with some African groups against others. The Masai, who had suffered a series of 19th-century civil wars over water and grazing rights and had lost much of their livestock to disease and drought, were one group with whom the British allied in order to impose their rule. To aid colonial administration, the British divided Kenya’s Bantu-, Nilotic-, and Cushitic-speaking peoples into ethnic classifications based on linguistic variations and locality. Thus, specific ethnic subgroups, called “tribes,” were created in a form that had not existed previously. The ethnic groups were assigned to live in separate areas of the colony. Within each subgroup, colonial administrators designated one “chief,” who became responsible for collecting taxes levied by the colonial state.

To help make the new railway profitable, the colonial government encouraged the settlement of European farmers in Kenya. After 1902 white Europeans (mostly from Britain and South Africa) took up residence in the highlands. Land for European settlement meant the loss of land for some of Kenya’s peoples, most notably the highland-dwelling Kikuyu. Many of the Kikuyu who lost land were forced to move onto European farms and estates as squatters and laborers, or to seek employment in urban areas such as Nairobi. By the time World War I ended in 1918, European settlers, desiring inexpensive farm labor, had convinced the colonial government to adopt measures that essentially forced Africans to work the farms. These included new, higher taxes on Africans, who, lacking money, were obligated to work the settlers’ farms in order to pay them. By this time, the settlers had achieved considerable political influence in the territory, which was changed to a colony and renamed Kenya in 1920. The colony of Kenya was administered by a British governor, who was advised by an elected Legislative Council. Black Africans were not allowed to vote and were denied representation in the council until the mid-1940s, when a small number of blacks were nominated to the council. The colony’s small Asian and Arab populations were given several seats in the council in the 1920s.

 

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