Colonial Rule in Kenya

British Rule in Kenya

Native Response to Colonial Rule in Kenya

Locals in a Detention Camp in Central Kenya. Image by The Independent

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.


4th King’s African Rifles near Gilgil in the Rift Valley, 1956. Image Courtesy

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”.