African squatters on European land: Opportunity, followed by a squeeze

The establishment in Kenya of what Europeans liked to call the White Highlands — land reserved for occupation by themselves — cut off the land frontier that Africans relied upon to accommodate normal population growth. In time, Kikuyus were forced into participation in the colonial economy. As it turned out, they were better prepared for that than Europeans generally expected.  I’ve covered all that in previous posts, and you can find it by following the links.

Even those who lacked the skills or resources for a business career were not immediately left landless by the Europeans’ closure of the land frontier, because they were able to use European land. For many Africans, their first contact with the modern economy was the experience of working as a labourer in the White Highlands. In the early days of white settlement, such employment, for many, represented (or seemed to represent) a real opportunity.

This was true because there was initially a degree of coincidence between the interests of settlers and those of their labourers. As long as there was plenty of space and freedom on European farms, life on clan land in the African reserves did not necessarily offer any great advantages over a squatter’s existence. In some ways, in fact, life on large-scale farms was preferable. It included cash wages while offering freedom from land shortages, taxation, possibly from unwelcome family entanglements, and from the administrative restrictions that were becoming an increasingly distasteful feature of life in the reserves as the colonial administration strengthened its hold.

Meanwhile, agriculture in the White Highlands was relatively undeveloped, indeed experimental. As a careful study by the East African Royal Commission concluded,

settlers required labour and they frequently held areas of uncleared land which could be prepared for farming operations by allowing African families to practise their shifting methods of cultivation. The absence of many European farmers during the First World War, the early years of uncertainty regarding methods of farming, and doubts as to profitability, accentuated the need for labour which was cheap in cash outlay and, since there was little prospect that farms would be brought immediately into full production, the uncontrolled use of part of the farmer’s land was held out as an inducement to the African to offer his services.

At this point, therefore, the abundance of land available in the areas expropriated by Europeans was ameliorating the effect of land losses upon African society. But large-scale agriculture was developing, and, as it did, the economic advantages of the squatter system diminished. When settlers cleared new land, it became unavailable for cultivation and cattle-keeping of labourers. There were other problems as well. The Africans’ “zebu” cattle, although resistant to disease, posed the hazard of disease to the more productive grade cattle that were in many cases preferred by Europeans. And settlers who were developing their land maintained that the Africans’ practice of traditional methods of cultivation on their allotted plots brought with it the danger of soil deterioration.

The effects of these changes were not uniform, because European farms were developing at different rates. Farmers who had the capital for development tended to favour the removal of squatters, while poorer farmers continued to find that the squatter system worked to their advantage. Nevertheless, as early as 1933, the development of European agriculture had reached a point at which the future of squatters was beclouded.

Squatters became less and less welcome on European farms while the problems of finding alternative accommodation for them in increasingly crowded African reserves mounted steadily. Legislation passed in 1937 clamped down hard on them, by authorising settlers to

fix the number of cattle [a] resident labourer could keep, [making it] unlawful to keep more. A magistrate was empowered to order the removal of labourers from undeveloped farms. District Councils, which were purely European in composition, were empowered to limit the number of labourers which could be employed on a farm, limit or prohibit their keeping stock, and fix the number of days in a year labourers were required to work for their employers. (Ghai & McAuslan, 95-6)

In so far as such legislation implied removal of squatters from the White Highlands and their return to the reserves, it was more readily written than put into practice, because their land rights in the reserves were no longer assured. As early as 1932, according to M.P.K. Sorrenson, some Kikuyu squatters were already losing their land rights in the reserves.

The British government declined to allow the legislation to go into effect until land could be made available for the resettlement of squatters who would be evicted. In the end, however, the British authorities yielded; although land for settlement did not become available until 1942, the legislation was brought into effect in 1940.

In the years that followed, the authority granted under the legislation was used to impose limits on squatters’ stock and on the size of their cultivation plots, to increase their workloads, and even to get rid of some of them. To squatters, the enforcement of these regulations meant that they were gradually being reduced from the status of small farmers t0 that of landless labourers, living under conditions of steadily mounting impoverishment.

Cash wages had always been low and, as we have seen, it was the cultivation rights and the opportunity to keep substantial numbers of livestock that had provided much of the incentive to move to the highlands. In practice, squatters had derived a substantial part of their subsistence from cultivation and livestock. The limitations meant progressive reductions in their real income, even in the face of increases in the pittances that passed for their wages.

There was another aspect of the squatters’ situation that, in future, would limit their opportunities. Many — probably most — of them spent their working hours doing simple, routine tasks from which they could learn nothing about modern agriculture and animal husbandry or the marketing of produce. While many of their relatives in the reserves were gradually being introduced to modern agricultural methods on their own small farms, squatters were dividing their time between mind-stopping manual labour and whatever subsistence agriculture they were permitted to do on their own plots. As a rule, they were not given responsibility and remained mere cogs in a machinery the working of which they had no opportunity to learn. As one of them told me years later, even the squatters who milked the cows did not know where the milk went.



Christopher Leo, Land and class in Kenya. Toronto University of Toronto Press, 1984; Harare: Nehanda Publishers, 1989.

East African Royal Commission, Report. Cmd. 9475, 1955.

Y.P. Ghai and J.P.W.B. McAuslan, Public law and political change in Kenya: A study of the legal framework of government from colonial times to the present. Nairobi: Oxford University Press, 1970.

M.P.K. Sorrenson, Land reform in the Kikuyu country. Nairobi, Oxford University Press, 1967.

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