In a previous post, I catalogued some of the lame excuses Europeans in Kenya offered for their seizures of African land. A Swahili saying offers a more realistic take on what happened: Wazungu walikuja, wakaona ardhi yenye mafuta, wakaichukua. (“Europeans came, saw fertile land, and helped themselves.”) Kikuyus, who, like European settlers, were generally capable farmers and often keen entrepreneurs, spent the period of colonial rule (from the late 19th Century until 1963) locked in an intense, sometimes violent and competitive relationship with Europeans.
Located on the eastern side of the Aberdares Mountains between Nairobi and Mount Kenya, Kikuyu country was an early target of European settlement, and an ongoing source of trouble for the colonial project, in part because European settlement took place under the influence of a policy that Sir Charles Eliot, commissioner of the East African Protectorate until 1904 (introduced in a previous post), called “interpenetration,” whereby European holdings were allowed to be interspersed among existing African areas instead of being restricted, as they later were, to blocks of land reserved entirely for themselves.
Eliot, who saw European settlement as a civilizing mission to the indigenous population, felt that interpenetration, by bringing Europeans and Africans close together, would hasten the process of civilization. Interpenetration had another consequence, which was perhaps not entirely unanticipated. It put Europeans in close proximity to some of the finest farmland in Kenya, making it readily available for takeovers.
A rash of land seizures followed. To be sure, as I point out in Land and class in Kenya (p. 37), since Europeans and Africans had different understandings regarding proper ways of acquiring land, distributing it, and acquiring rights to use it, it is possible that some of what Africans understood as seizures might have been understood by Europeans as legitimate acquisitions.
As Africans and Europeans got to know each other better, however, the likelihood of such misunderstandings grew less. A regular procedure — administered by the colonial authorities — developed for the alienation of Kikuyu land. Settlers were required to pay the previous owners two rupees per acre for cultivated land in the presence of a local official. M.P.K. Sorrenson (p. 180) describes how Kikuyu rightholders thus became squatters on their own land.
Once Kikuyu had been paid compensation for their occupiers’ rights, they lost all claim to the land and could be moved at the will of the [European] settler concerned. The settler could then obtain title… In fact, many of the Kikuyu who received compensation for land were encouraged to stay to provide labour… the Kikuyu thus became… mere squatters.
Between 1903 and 1906, according to Sorrenson, some 25,000 hectares of Kikuyu territory were alienated in the Kiambu-Limuru area in the vicinity of Nairobi. Years later the Kenya Land Commission acknowledged that, in Kiambu District, something less than 4,000 rupees had been paid to some 8,000 Kikuyus at the rate of two rupees per acre to compensate them for their rights of occupation. Another 3,000 Kikuyus had received no compensation for the rights they had lost.
The shift from a policy of interpenetration to creation of “tribal” reserves made African land less readily accessible to individual Europeans, but it failed to provide full protection. Establishment of reserve boundaries remained a colonial responsibility, and colonial authorities often proved highly susceptible to settler pressure.
Even after they had been established, boundaries were not necessarily sacrosanct, as Sorrenson points out. The boundaries of the Kikuyu reserve were published in 1912, he notes, but “In January 1913 a block of land between the Amboni and Chania rivers… was cut out of the reserve and surveyed for settlement. The land was said to be almost entirely unoccupied. The government wanted Europeans to occupy it to prevent Kikuyus from doing so.”
All of this is hardly likely to be the whole story of European seizure of Kikuyu land, but it offers a sample of the frequency, extent and flagrancy of the land alienations. However, it was not just Kikuyus who had to watch as their family’s land got sucked into the colonial land acquisition process, as we will see in a subsequent post.
M.P.K. Sorrenson, Land reform in the Kikuyu country. Nairobi, Oxford University Press, 1967.
Christopher Leo, Land and class in Kenya. Harare, Zimbabwe; Nehanda Publishers, 1989.