Justifying the colonization of Kenya: European attitudes and African reality

In order to understand what happened after Europeans took over the country we now call Kenya, we have to know something about both the attitudes of the invaders and the reality of African life.

Elspeth Huxley, a writer who was popular with residents of what used to be called Kenya’s White Highlands, has done those of us who want to understand what happened the favour of speaking plainly in her defence of colonialism. She argued that colonization was founded, among other things, on

…an inherent conviction that civilization in itself was good. In [the early days of European settlement], when abstract morality had a concrete meaning, there was a Right and a Wrong, people did not doubt that it was better to be civilized than savage… There could be no question therefore, but that the white man was paramount, and must remain so until the native became — if he ever did — the intellectual equal of the European. (Huxley [see below], pp. 80-1)

There is no question that European technology was far ahead of African, but what is a savage? Someone who doesn’t think, doesn’t organize, doesn’t pursue complex objectives systematically? If any of that was what Huxley was thinking, someone should have explained African entrepreneurship to her.

For anyone who would like to know more about traditional Kikuyu life, or for Kenyans who are interested in knowing more about what their grandparents and great-grandparents were up to, you need to know what Peter Marris and Anthony Somerset learned about Kikuyu entrepreurship.

Marris and Somerset interviewed old men in what used to be known as Mahiga Location, Nyeri District, to learn how Kikuyu traders from Mahiga exploited the commercial opportunities offered by pre-colonial society. Their halcyon days were were those of the trade with the Masai people of Kenya’s Rift Valley, when Kikuyu entrepreneurs were among the wealthiest and most respected people in their communities.


Source: Wikipedia entry, “Counties of Kenya”.

The Mahiga traders led caravans numbering from 30 to 200 over Nyandarua — later known to Europeans as the Aberdares Mountains — to trade the various products of Kikuyuland for the livestock of the pastoral Masai. (Today, Nyandarua, together with a high plateau west of the mountains, is known as Nyandarua County, #6 on the map. I lived and worked there in the early ’70s and remember it fondly.)

A leader of a caravan had to be fluent in the Masai language and he needed to maintain contacts among the Masai that would protect him and his caravan from attack. In organizing a trading expedition the caravan leader first had to make arrangements with his Masai contacts, setting a time and a place for his caravan’s safe conduct. Next he would set about assembling the goods that he would sell on the expedition. According to Marris and Somerset (see below, pp. 33-4),

Millet flour would come from his own farm, and honey from his hives, but for the other goods he might have to travel widely over Kikuyuland. Ochre, for instance, was cheaper in Chinga, ten miles to the south; the best gourds grew in Murang’a, 20 miles south; tobacco and snuff were available locally, but the Masai valued higher the tobacco from Ndia and Embu, 30 or 40 miles to the east; a Mahiga blacksmith would forge spearheads and knives, but the ingots had to be obtained from Murang’a, where iron ore was mined and smelted.

To acquire all these goods, the trader had to drive livestock for exchange. He travelled with porters, but unless he had an experienced assistant, he supervised his own purchasing, since quality was important. Gourds, for instance, had to be of the right shape and colour; young Masai women much preferred the straight, unblemished gourds and curved or blotched gourds would only sell to older women at a discount.

When the entrepreneur had assembled his goods, he would set off with his caravan on the hazardous journey over the mountains to keep his appointment with his Masai contacts. He would trade his goods for livestock, which, in pre-colonial Kikuyu society, was the basic component of a wealthy man’s fortune.

The Masai trade ended after the arrival of Europeans, but Kikuyu entrepreneurship survived the social and economic transformation that came with colonization. A decade after independence, when I lived in Kenya for a couple of years, it was not unusual to hear Europeans railing at the many perceived shortcomings of Africans, but I noticed that, in such rants, the hottest anger was often reserved for Kikuyus.

I suspect that one reason for the anger was the keenness of Kikuyu entrepreneurship, which no doubt sometimes left Europeans at the short end of business transactions, and emphatically contradicted their assertions of African inferiority.


Peter Marris and Anthony Somerset, African businessmen: A study of entrepreneurship and development in Kenya. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1971.

Elspeth Huxley, White man’s country: Lord Delamere and the making of Kenya. Two vols. London: Chatto and Windus, 1935.

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