Kikuyus took the hardest beating when white Kenyans went after African land, but they were not the only victims of European land grabs. In my last post, and a previous one I showed how flagrant Kenya’s colonial regime was about stealing African land, and how it introduced the policies of interpenetration and “tribal” reserves, to regularize the process.
Like the Kikuyus, the Masai — nomadic, pastoral occupants of Kenya’s Rift Valley whom we first encountered here — suffered their most significant losses during the period of interpenetration. Among the early European settlers, those who were interested in farming headed first for the green highlands of central Kenya. Those who wanted to go into ranching were most attracted to the Rift Valley because the presence of Masai herds there made it clear that the land was suitable for ranching.
Masai herders (Click on picture)
Europeans should be permitted to settle in the Rift, it was decided. In support of that decision, Sir Charles Eliot argued, “…as a matter of principle, I cannot admit that wandering tribes have a right to keep other and superior races out of large tracts merely because they have acquired the habit of straggling over far more land than they can utilise.” Sir Charles did not know it — or, more likely, did not want to know it — but “straggling” over large tracts of land is an essential feature of the nomadic life, and protects vegetation in an arid environment.
When the policy of reserves began to take precedence over that of interpenetration, European primacy in the Rift Valley became a fait accompli. Among the disunited Masai, colonial authorities were able to find leaders who were prepared to give their official assent to the fait in return for a promise of secure boundaries in the future.
The Agreement of 1904 was an arrangement for the Masai to move “away from the railway line and away from any land that may be thrown open to European settlement” and to occupy two reserves: one to the south and another in Laikipia (See map accompanying this post.) to the north. The agreement, which specified that the Masai had decided of their “own free will… that it is for our best interest to move our own people, flocks and herds into definite reservations…” was to be “enduring as long as the Masai as a race shall exist.”
In 1911, the Masai were still very much in existence, but the Agreement of 1904 was abrogated in favour of a new arrangement, in which they vacated Laikipia in return for an extension of the southern reserve. The Agreement of 1911, like the earlier one, involved an elaborate display of the Masai’s alleged voluntary acquiescence. But other reasons are not far to seek.
“A full and complete explanation of the objects and reasons of the [agreement],” the commission acknowledged, rather sheepishly, “would require mention of the fact that the Northern Reserve was to be vacated partly for European settlement…” The commission was at pains to emphasize, however, “that the paramount chief of the tribe and the representative chief and elders of the Northern Masai agreed to the move for the reason set out in the preamble of the agreement, namely that they were “satisfied that it is in the best interests of their tribe that the Masai should occupy one area.”
The question of how satisfactory, or unsatisfactory, this exchange of land was from the Masai point of view is controversial, but it is not open to dispute that the earlier loss of the fine grazing land in the Rift Valley was a Masai sacrifice to the advance of European settlement.
M.P.K. Sorrenson, Land reform in the Kikuyu country. Nairobi, Oxford University Press, 1967.
Kenya Land Commission. Report. Cmd. 4556. 1934.