The stiffest resistance to European encroachment on African land in Kenya came from the Nandi on the Mau plateau west of the Rift Valley. In the 1890s, and in the first part of the Twentieth Century, they harassed European caravans and railway workers, forcing some early settlers to retreat. The defeat of the Nandi, therefore, was regarded as a prerequisite for European settlement in the western highlands.
In 1905, the defeat was accomplished, and the peace settlement of that year provided for the removal of part of the Nandi people from areas adjacent to the railway. After their removal, some 3200 square kilometres of “evacuated Nandi country” was made available for European settlement. The Nandi were left with a reserve of about 1800 square kilometres.
Despite the fact that the reserve boundaries had been defined, they were changed in the next few years. The Kenya Land Commission claimed that the changes were made “after the agreement of… Nandi chiefs had been obtained” and that they resulted in a net gain of some 180 square kilometres to the Nandi. M.P.K. Sorrenson, whom we previously encountered here, found evidence to show that there was strong dissatisfaction among the Nandi over the changes.
But there was more to come. In 1912, the colonial authorities began to alienate land within the Nandi reserve for European settlers. “For some reason which is not fully explained,” the Kenya Land Commission noted, the colonial authorities “overlooked” the fact that the land was in the Nandi reserve and alienated some 155 square kilometres in the Kaimosi and Kipkarren area. The Kenya Land Commission placed its stamp of approval on this arrangement, maintaining it was in the best interest of all concerned.
In 1905, the year the colonial authorities were at war with the Nandi, another successful campaign was being waged directly to the south against people who today are called the Kipsigis. During the next few years, some 520 square kilometres of Kipsigis grazing land in an area known as Sotik were alienated to Europeans.
In 1933 , the Kenya Land Commission approved the alienations, but expressed sympathy for the Kipsigis, who, it was noted, “have an excellent war record and merit generous treatment.” In compensation for the Kipsigis claim to Sotik, the commission recommended that the colonial authorities refrain from alienating Chepalungu, an area of about 390 square kilometres that local Europeans had wanted as an addition to the White Highlands.
The idea of refraining from one alienation in order to compensate for another was perhaps the most novel concept the commission invented in its feeble defence of African land rights, but it stands as a succinct characterization of the climate of thought prevailing at the time. The historical and legal claims of Africans to their land meant little in the face of European economic and military power.
The commission had been given the task, among other things, of considering the needs of the native population, and a reading of the report leaves the impression that the commissioners were making some effort to resist settler pressures. But those efforts did not have much effect. Africans were in a subject position and were left no choice but to accept what was offered and relinquish what was taken.
They did not forget their grievances, however, and eventually their lost land became a central preoccupation of Kenya politics, contributing first to the Land Freedom Army’s guerrilla war against colonial oppression and then to the nationalist ascendence that led to Kenya’s independence. In the end it took the land settlement at independence to settle the land claims the Kenya Land Commission’s recommendations had supposedly settled three decades earlier.
This post, like others about Kenya’s colonial history, was originally published in my book, Land and Class in Kenya (Toronto, 1984, and Harare, 1989). Other sources are:
M.P.K. Sorrenson, Land reform in the Kikuyu country. Nairobi, Oxford University Press, 1967.
Kenya Land Commission. Report. Cmd. 4556. 1934.