Seeking socially acceptable descriptions for land theft in Kenya

As European settlement spread through Kenya’s highlands early in the 20th Century, considerable amounts of African land were included in what became known as the White Highlands. In later years, defenders found a variety of justifications for these alienations of land.

Some land, it was said, was unoccupied or so sparsely occupied as to be virtually unoccupied. Some was taken by right of conquest. Some areas, it was maintained, were buffer zones between hostile “tribes” and European settlement was merely a means of bringing peace to the land. In other cases, mistakes were allegedly made and later on some minimal compensation was offered.

I’ve never understood how the term “tribe” has survived into the 21st Century as a supposedly acceptable usage. Its meaning is indistinguishable from the meaning of the phrase “ethnic group” (or perhaps “small ethnic group”) except that it is never used to describe white people. In other words — with whatever apologies may be due to my colleagues who are anthropologists — it looks like a racist usage to me.

For the most part, such justifications were for public consumption, to satisfy the Colonial Office in London and the British public. Among themselves, Kenya’s European settlers did not seriously question their right to alienate any African land that seemed to them to be under-utilized. (The fact that they themselves were occupying far greater acreages than they would be able to use in the foreseeable future did not figure in their reasoning.)

Their belief in the superiority of European civilization and the European economy served to justify, to themselves at least, the primacy of their rights over those of Africans. Elspeth Huxley, referred to in a previous post, summarized the position crisply: “The idea that the interests of… untutored tribesmen… should be exalted over those of the educated European would have seemed… fantastic.”

The settlers not only took their primacy for granted, but also seemed to lack any concern for minimizing the harmful effects of European settlement on Africans. On the contrary, it was the effect of the African presence upon Europeans that was viewed with alarm. Many settlers feared that what one referred to as “the foolish negrophilist sentimentality” of British authorities would lead to undue restrictions on European expansion.

Sir Charles Eliot, commissioner of the East African Protectorate until 1904, was an early and vigorous advocate of European settlement. In response to complaints that Europeans were moving into “thickly cultivated” African areas, he warned a subordinate “to be careful not to deprive intending [European] settlers of any right they may be entitled to under existing regulations.”

On another occasion, a Kenya official declared testily: “… if the Highlands are to remain a White man’s country a very firm stand must be taken against allowing any of the existing [African] reserves to be extended.” The spirit of European expansion in Kenya was a self-confident belief in a personal and cultural superiority that could justify almost anything — and that leaves me breathless to this day.


I first published this post, and others on Kenya history, in a book, (Land and Class in Kenya [Toronto: University of Toronto, 1984; Harare, Zimbabwe: Nehanda Publishers, 1989]) decades ago. I republish it now in the hope that we will all be humbled by an awareness of the supercilious arrogance we are capable of when we allow ourselves to be seduced by the idea that we are superior to others.

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