History in Kenya

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Trevor Mikelas

Although Kenya may have provided the setting for the earliest development of the human species, the ancestors of the modern nation's African population began making their appearance in the region less than 1,000 years ago, and the in-migration of some ethnic aggregations continued into the twentieth century. Culturally and linguistically heterogeneous groups of agriculturists and nomadic pastoralists settled in the physically varied environment of the country's interior, where as many as 40 distinct ethnic categories could recognized. Among these the Bantu-speaking Kikuyu emerged as the dominant group in Kenya's fertile heartland. The coastal region experienced a different history, coming under Islamic influence as early as the tenth century. Arab and Persian merchants founded towns there whose ports became part of a commercial network linked to the Middle East. Intimate contacts between the Arab and indigenous Bantu cultures on the coast produced over a long period of time the Swahili culture, in which the characteristics of both were assimilated.

The history of Kenya as a political entity began with the region's inclusion in the British sphere of influence in the late nineteenth century and the subsequent establishment of a British protectorate and colony there. The British brought together the country's diverse elements under a unified administration and bestowed on it the name Kenya after the 5,200-meter peak in the central highlands that the Kikuyu called kere nyaga, the "mountain of whiteness."

The aim of British colonialism in Kenya was to integrate the country into an imperial system and to develop its economic potential, while providing for the security of the indigenous population and improving their general well-being, as defined according to the prevailing mentality of colonial authorities. The political, economic, and social changes brought about by the British were not effected smoothly, however, nor from an African perspective were they uniformly advantageous. An early realization that the climate and fertility of the Kenya Highlands made the region ideal for European settlement encouraged the reservation there of large tracts of the country's best land for the white minority and corresponding restrictions on African and Asian land use. Social pressures engendered by these restrictions and the inability of limited African reserves to meet the land needs of an expanding population-together with growing African resentment of the inferior status accorded them-provoked unrest that contributed to the formation of political action groups, organized on the basis of ethnic affiliation, in the 1960s.

Improvement in the lot of the average African was limited until after World War II when political movements, like that among the Kikuyu led by Jomo Kenyatta, demanded a role for the black majority in Kenya's government. The determination of the European community to retain exclusive control in a "White Man's Country" and the continued denial of African rights set off a violent reaction during the Mau Mau emergency in the 1950s. The Kikuyu-led insurrection was suppressed, and the lengthy imprisonment of Kenyatta and other African leaders suspected of complicity in it caused a hiatus in organized African political activity until 1960, when the campaign for majority rule within the framework of the colonial regime succeeded in submerging ethnic differences among Africans and in winning the recognition of British authorities.

In 1961 the British government set Kenya on a course that led to majority rule and, at the end of 1963, to full independence within the Commonwealth of Nations. The next year Kenya became a republic under a unitary form of government headed by Kenyatta as its first president, and the principal political parties voluntarily merged under his leadership in the Kenya African National Union (KANU). Radical dissidents and ethnic interest groups fearful of Kikuyu domination followed Oginga Odinga out of KANU during an interlude in the late 1960s, but the rival political movement that they formed was banned in 1969, and Kenya reverted in practice to being a one-party state.

Ethnic antagonisms remained the principal stumbling block to national unity, but Kenyatta's firm, paternalistic rule nonetheless provided the country with a substantial degree of stability during the first decade and a half of Kenya's independent existence. Although the Mzee-the "Old Man," as Kenyatta was familiarly known-held tightly to the reins of power, Kenya maintained basically democratic institutions. Parliamentary debate was sharp and frequently questioned government policies, elections were vigorously contested by rival candidates, and the press was relatively free in its reporting and commentary. A program of "Kenyanization" of government and the economy was instituted, however, gradually forcing the departure of most of the country's European and Asian populations. Operated by an African entrepreneurial elite with close ties to the political elite, the Kenyan economy developed along capitalist lines, emphasizing rapid growth and modern production methods. The favorable orientation of the economy and stable political conditions inspired a confidence in the country's future that encouraged investment. Political opposition, however, focused on substantial inequities in distribution, particularly of farmland, as well as on official corruption.

As an aging Kenyatta became more withdrawn from the everyday conduct of government, decisionmaking was deferred more and more to members of the inner circle of advisers and officials who surrounded him. Rival personalities and factions within KANU maneuvered for position in anticipation of the end of the Kenyatta era. When the Mzee died in office in August 1978, he was succeeded by his vice president and heir apparent, Daniel arap Moi, in an orderly transition of power.

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The Peopling of the Interior

People of three distinct language groups-Bantu, Cushitic, and Nilotic-are found in present-day Kenya. The interior of the country, extending from the nyika (Swahili for wilderness-applied to the climatically hostile area forming a barrier behind the coast) to Lake Victoria, is populated by intermingled groups of Bantu-speaking and Nilotic peoples, whose ancestors migrated to Kenya after the beginning of the second millennium A.D. The early Cushitic people who inhabited western Kenya and parts of the highlands area were absorbed or driven out during these movements. Elements of the present Cushitic-speaking population, which occupies the northern and northeastern parts of the country, began arriving sometime before the sixteenth century. Somali clans eventually ranged over most of northeastern Kenya. A particularly large influx of Oromo (Galla) people, moving out of Ethiopia, started toward the end of the nineteenth century and continued through the early decades of the twentieth (see fig. 2).

In their oral histories, the Kikuyu, the nation's largest ethnic group, claim that their ancestors came originally from northeast of Mount Kenya in a migration that was probably under way in the fifteenth century. Archaeological discoveries in central Kenya, related to the presumed Bantu-speaking people who entered southern Kenya during the first millennium, indicate that these people preceded the Kikuyu in the region. Linguistic studies further suggest that they may have been the ancestors of several later Bantu groups in the area, including the Kikuyu.

During the three to four centuries after their migration began, the proto-Kikuyu moved slowly southwestward, splitting into new groups that by the late nineteenth century occupied a broad area in the central part of the highlands. In the course of their movement they absorbed other groups already in place. Such ethnic elements included the short-statured Gumba and the Athi (also Okiek or Nderobo), both hunting and gathering peoples.

The Gumba, believed to have been Cushitic speakers, were primarily hunters in the open grasslands. Oral traditions state that they were skilled at iron working and pottery making, a knowledge of which they imparted to the Kikuyu. The two ethnic groups seem to have lived in a symbiotic relationship, exchanging meat and skins for agricultural products, and considerable assimilation of the Gumba by Kikuyu groups occurred. The expansion of the Kikuyu, however, resulted in friction and eventually war, as land used for hunting was cleared for cultivation. Little is known about the fate of the Gumba after hostilities with the Kikuyu in the mid-nineteenth century.

The Athi were forest dwellers who seem to have had a relationship with the Kikuyu similar to that of the Gumba. They were only partly assimilated by the Kikuyu, however, and groups of them still survive, mainly in Rift Valley Province. The Athi are important in Kikuyu history; it was they who, according to tradition, sold the heartland region of Kabete to the Kikuyu in exchange for cattle.

The Bantu communities that eventually merged to form the Kamba appear to have been in the area of Mount Kilimanjaro about the fifteenth century, and they probably reached the Mbooni Hills, their ethnic heartland in present-day Machakos District, in the latter half of the seventeenth century. Initially hunters and gatherers, they turned to agriculture because of the fertility of the new territory. Population growth led to their expansion to areas less suitable for cultivation, including Kitui to the east, where they returned to hunting and readopted their earlier pastoralism.

Kamba hunting groups discovered the value of ivory as a trade item, beginning the systematic exploitation of elephants and eventually forming two-way trade caravans to the coast. From the late eighteenth century their trade increased greatly, and activities were eventually extended over a wide area stretching north to the Tana River, south into present-day Tanzania, and west to the forests of Mount Kenya and Kikuyu country.

At its peak in the mid-nineteenth century, Kamba trade was the mainstay of the prosperity of the coastal port of Mombasa, but other groups were by then beginning to contest their monopoly. Feuds among the Kamba clans also began to affect trading operations, as did efforts by peoples in the Kenya Highlands to exclude the Kamba from their territory-in part because the Kamba had turned to raiding for slaves. Depletion of elephants by the late nineteenth century had created a new problem, forcing Kamba hunters to go hundreds of miles for ivory. Moreover, a general state of unrest, which endangered caravan traffic, existed in the nyika, and caravans traveling safer routes farther south secured much of the interior trade. Kamba trade continued at a much reduced rate until competition from the Uganda railroad, which ran through their territory carrying goods between Mombasa and Kisumu, finally brought an end to well over a century of aggressive Kamba commercial activities.

Bantu-speaking peoples had begun arriving in the Lake Victoria region of western Kenya by about the eleventh century. Sometime during the next few centuries, separate agricultural groups that later came to constitute the Luhya occupied the lakeshore. During the sixteenth century the pastoral Nilotic Luo pushed into the area north of Winam Bay from present-day Uganda, displacing the Luhya eastward. Settled agricultural practices appear to have been adopted by at least some Luo, but by the middle of the next century others were on the move southward along the shore of the lake, conquering new territory as they went. There they came against the Bantu Kisii (Gusii), who were also expanding into this part of Kenya. Territorial adjustments between these three peoples, as well as with Nilotic groups on their eastern fringes, often involved warfare and continued until the imposition of British control early in the twentieth century effectively brought an end to the forcible occupation of land by rival ethnic groups.

The time of entry and dispersion of the ancestors of various other Nilotic peoples in modern Kenya is uncertain. The first groups must have begun their in-migration-from the general area of southwestern Ethiopia-in the early centuries of the second millennium, for the ancestors of the Kalenjin peoples, among them the Nandi, appear to have reached the Mount Elgon region before 1500. By the early seventeenth century Maasai pastoralists were pushing southward through the Rift Valley and are known from oral records to have been at the southern end of the Kenya section of the rift in the eighteenth century, becoming the dominant force in southwestern Kenya. Although weakened by internal warfare, the Maasai were so feared by neighboring groups that few dared challenge their control of the southern valley, plains areas, and surrounding plateaus. Among the latest major Nilotic arrivals were the Turkana pastoralists, who entered northwestern Kenya in the eighteenth century.

The Kenya Coast

The coast of East Africa was mentioned in Greek accounts written in the first and second centuries A.D., listing items of trade from the region that included ivory, tortoiseshell, and spices. Although archaeological evidence of sites dating from before the thirteenth century is lacking, references in medieval Arab documents indicate that Muslim traders had set up an outpost on Pate Island in the Lamu Archipelago some 500 years earlier and that other settlements founded along the coast by Arab and Persian (Shirazi) merchants probably date from the tenth and eleventh centuries. These towns, stretching from the Benadir Coast in Somalia to Sofala in Mozambique, became links in an extensive commercial network connecting East Africa with Southwest Asia and the Indies. Gold brought to the coast from the fields around Great Zimbabwe was shipped from Kilwa in present-day Tanzania, the most important of the Arab colonies. Those farther up the coast at Mombasa, Malindi, Lamu, and Pate in present-day Kenya exported slaves and ivory that had been exchanged by Africans from the interior for salt, cloth, beads, and metal goods. A trading expedition from China is recorded as having reached Malindi about 1417. Although the sultan of Kilwa exercised a loose hegemony over them, the larger Arab towns gradually developed as autonomous sultanates, competing fiercely for a larger share of the region's commerce. The fortunes of the sultanates rose and fell but, by the end of the fifteenth century, Malindi had established itself as the most prosperous trading center on the Kenyan coast, surpassing its rival, Mombasa.

Migration of Arab families to East Africa continued, particularly from the Hadramaut in southern Arabia. Over time a distinctive Islamic culture resulted in the coastal region from intermarriage between indigenous Bantu-speaking Africans and Arab settlers. Physical and cultural integration were accompanied by the development of the Swahili (from the Arabic for "coastal") language, which came to serve as the lingua franca of the East African littoral as well as the mother tongue of the mixed population.

The Portuguese Presence

The navigator Vasco da Gama called at Mombasa and Malindi on his voyage to India in 1498, initiating 200 years of Portuguese influence along the East African coast. The sultanate of Malindi quickly established friendly relations with the newcomers and opened its port to their trade. Its rival, Mombasa, reacted with hostility to the Portuguese intrusion, however, and in 1505 the town was sacked by Francisco de Almeida, who commanded an expeditionary force that had occupied Kilwa and Sofala earlier that same year. When Mombasa became the center of Arab resistance in East Africa, the Portuguese carried out a second destructive attack on the town in 1529 with the assistance of Malindi, compelling its sultan to recognize the overlordship of the Portuguese crown and pay an annual tribute.

Portuguese control in the region, exercised at a distance by the governor of Goa through allies such as the sultan of Malindi, remained tenuous during most of the sixteenth century. Resentment against foreign influence continued to fester, until in 1589 Mombasa renounced Portuguese suzerainty and accepted the protection of the Turkish corsair Mirale Bey and his fleet. A strong Portuguese flotilla, dispatched from Goa, captured the Turkish vessels and left Mombasa to be looted by the Zimba, a marauding band of African warriors who two years before had destroyed Kilwa. When the Zimba next turned against Malindi, however, they were defeated by the intervention of warriors from the neighboring Segeju tribe. The sultan of Malindi then employed the Segeju in taking Mombasa, moving his court there in 1592 and inviting his Portuguese friends to install a garrison.

In order to strengthen their hold on that stretch of the East African coast, the Portuguese began construction of a massive defense works, Fort Jesus, at the entrance to Mombasa harbor in 1593. For close to four decades thereafter Portuguese dominance was unchallenged until, in 1631, they temporarily lost both the town and the fort to a disaffected Arab sultan. Although these were recaptured eight years later, the Portuguese were soon challenged by the growing power of the imam of Oman (southeastern Arabia) for control of the northern coast. (The imam derived his political authority from his office as religious leader.) In 1660 Mombasa was seized by Omani forces, although the Portuguese held Fort Jesus until 1699 when it fell after an epic three-year siege. An attempt by the Portuguese to regain the fort in 1728 failed. Not until the start of British antislaving activities in East Africa early in the next century was European influence reasserted in the region.

Throughout their 200 years on the Kenyan coast, the Portuguese showed no interest in colonization. The chief concern of the handful of Portuguese in the coastal towns was trade, and the two centuries of their presence left no permanent marks other than a few words bequeathed to the Swahili language and such monuments as Fort Jesus. Indirectly, however, as elsewhere in East Africa, Portuguese influence had a far-reaching impact through the introduction of major food crops from the New World, in particular, maize, cassava, and potatoes. These became staples in much of the region and contributed to the growth of its population.

The Omani Hegemony

After the capture of Fort Jesus and the subsequent expulsion of the Portuguese from Zanzibar, the imam of Oman was able to claim suzerainty over the entire coast of East Africa. His authority there was largely nominal, however, and actual control lay in the hands of the Arab families who ruled the coastal towns. The strongest of these families was the Mazrui, who in 1727 had come to power in Mombasa.

In 1741 the incumbent imam was overthrown in Oman and replaced by Said al Busaidi, who also took the secular title of sayyid (lord) and established a dynasty. The Mazrui took advantage of the change of rulers in Oman and renounced their allegiance to the imam, establishing at Mombasa an independent shaykhdom that eventually dominated much of the coast from Pate in the north to Pemba Island.

In 1806 a strong figure of the Busaidi line, Said bin Sultan, became sayyid in Oman and set about to reassert Omani authority in East Africa. His rise to power coincided, however, with British efforts to curb the slave trade and combat piracy in the Persian Gulf, which caused Britain to exercise a dominating influence over the actions of Said and his successors throughout the rest of the nineteenth century. In 1823, for example, British representatives persuaded Said to consent to an agreement restricting his involvement in the slave trade to his own possessions. The treaty had little impact on the existing slave trade inasmuch as the main movement of slaves in the region ran through territory claimed by Oman or in its coastal waters, but it was intended rather to prevent the expansion of the trade to new markets. Of larger significance at the time was the treaty's recognition of Omani sovereignty from the Benadir Coast southward to Portuguese Mozambique.

By 1824 Said's forces had ousted the Mazrui from the Lamu Archipelago and were poised to attack their stronghold at Mombasa. When the townspeople petitioned the captain of a British naval vessel to guarantee their security, the officer proclaimed a protectorate over Mombasa, considering it an opportunity to stop slaving through the port, although he lacked authorization for such an action. The British government repudiated the arrangement made in its name, as did the Mazrui, who claimed the town. Mombasa fell to the Omani in 1828, although Mazrui held out against them in Fort Jesus for another nine years.

In 1840 Said moved his court from Oman to Zanzibar, where he assumed the title of sultan, but British influence followed him there. Zanzibar was the main entrepot for the slave trade along the East African coast, prompting the British to impose another treaty on Said in 1845 that limited the trading to the coastal area from Kilwa to Lamu. The trade in the unrestricted area continued to flourish, however. Reports of the horrors of the slave trade made by British naval officers and by European travelers shocked the British public and brought support for the permanent stationing of an antislaving patrol in the western Indian Ocean. British pressure was also increased on the sultan to agree to a further restriction of the trade. Gradually, concessions were made, and in 1873 the reigning sultan, Barghash, agreed to stop the sale of slaves and all slave shipments between ports in his domain. Movement of slaves continued overland behind the coast, but in 1877 the sultan ordered this halted as well. The entry of slave caravans from the interior to the coastal area was also prohibited. To enforce these decrees an armed force led by a British officer was recruited. The measures were far from popular, and in Kenya in 1880 Swahili slave traders at Mombasa attacked a British missionary-operated center for freed slaves, which the traders associated with the sultan's ban on slaving. Discontent over slaving restrictions continued on the Kenyan coast until the end of the century.

Zanzibar became a center of legitimate trade as Said developed the clove industry on the island and actively encouraged trade from the interior. Kenya was largely bypassed-the main interior trade routes ran south of it-but Mombasa was reported to have been prosperous at mid-century, largely because of the ivory and other items collected in quantity by Kamba traders in the interior and directed to the port town. In the following decades elephants in the Kamba and other areas were hunted out, and caravan operations were also disrupted by tribal warfare. The decline in trade that resulted (and the rise of Zanzibar as a commercial center) brought an exodus of merchants and artisans from Mombasa that, together with British antislaving operations, reduced the town to comparatively minor importance. Mombasa did not recover from the decline until the early 1900s, after it had become the starting point for the construction of the railroad to Uganda.

European activities on the mainland were confined largely to missionary work and exploration from the 1840s to near the end of the century, although a few trading concessions conducted limited operations at a number of coastal points. In Kenya the first Christian mission was established in 1846 near Mombasa by Johann Krapf and Johann Rebmann, Swiss serving with the Anglican Church Missionary Society (CMS). In 1862 Krapf, then associated with the Methodist Missionary Society, founded another mission also in the vicinity of Mombasa. Both missions conducted schools that were the first such Western institutions in Kenya.

Efforts to extend mission activities to the interior were frustrated by the local hostilities that kept large areas unsettled. On the coast, after the banning of the slave trade in 1873, the CMS established a settlement for freed slaves at Frere Town outside Mombasa. But little else could be done because the indigenous Muslim population was strongly opposed to the teaching of Christianity and otherwise resentful of the missionaries, whom they considered leaders of the antislavery movement. In the years that followed, however, mission stations for freed slaves were also established by Roman Catholic and Scottish Presbyterian missionaries. Most of the Europeans-estimated to number 300 in the region by 1885-were involved in missionary work.

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History of Kenya

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in 1963 kenya became independent.


Imperial War Museum sound archive #30268. 


  Key words: Kenya/Mau Mau/terrorism/freedom fighters/colonial rule/Mt Kenya White Highlands/Mt Kenya Crown Forest .


The Imperial War Museum recently recorded my recollections of 18 months in the Mt Kenya forest back in 1955/56 as a 17-year-old fighting the Mau Mau gangs above Nanyuki, Meru and Embu.  I had been farming at around 8,900 feet on the edge of that forest when the request came from the Kenya authorities to report more..

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