Last Updated 28 Jan 2021

Scramble for Kenya

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Imperialism is defined as one country’s domination of the political, economic, and social life of another country. In Africa in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, imperialism was present and growing. The main countries involved in the imperialism in Africa were the French, German, and Britain. All of these countries were in a constant struggle to become the most powerful, to have the most riches, and control over high abundances of the natural resources in Africa. One region in particular being that of present day Kenya was desirable to the British.

Although Britain’s reason’s to imperialize Kenya were selfish and harmful, in the long run Britain helped Kenya progress. On a quest to find natural resources in Kenya the Portuguese were among the first European settlers along the coast of Kenya. Up until the 19th century, very little was known about Kenya’s land beyond the coast until the arrival of the British who came and colonized Kenya. Kenya was under the control of British between the 19th century and mid 20th century. In the early 1800s, European powers began rushing to get a hold of unclaimed territories within areas of interest in Africa.

Zanzibar and the interior of Eastern Africa caught the attention of both Germany and Britain. To avoid conflict, in 1886, Germany and Britain signed a treaty in which they agreed upon what lands they would pursue. Germany would take the coast of present day Tanzania and Britain had access to the area where Kenya and Uganda lie. 1 Britain was also interested in other areas in Southern Africa; however, the British were hesitant in accepting full responsibility for the region they had access to.

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The result was Britain allowing a commercial company, the Imperial British East Africa Company (IBEAC), the right to administer and develop the eastern territory. The IBEAC was responsible for the land stretching from the eastern coast of Africa to Uganda all the way to the northwestern part to Lake Victoria. 2 The British settlers were particularly attracted to Kenya's fertile highlands. Britain’s main interest in Kenya was not to control the local people, but to build a railway that would connect Uganda and Zanzibar, to the Indian Ocean.

The railway was important for strategic and economic reasons. It was to be the main link that would connect Lake Victoria and Uganda. Uganda became a source of interest since the source of the Nile river was thought to be there. The construction of the railway led to immigration of people from India who were imported to work on the railway. In order to maintain control over the Kenyans, the British limited their education to practical skills for working on farms. The colonial government forced Kenyans to work. In 1901, the British imposed tax payments in every area that they controlled.

In order to make room for the incoming British, indigenous agricultural peoples such as the Kikuyu and the Kampa were removed form their land and relocated. No longer allowed to farm on their own land, many Kenyans were forced to work for Europeans growing cash-crops. Wages for these workers were very low. Laws were also put in place by the colonial government that allowed employees to be fine or imprisoned if employers were not pleased with their work. It was these crimes, among other abuses, which gave rise to independence movements in Kenya which eventually liberated the country from the British.

Discrimination, imposition of taxes, forced labor, and confiscated land caused friction between Kenyans and the colonial government. 4 The friction led to eventual resistance by Kenyans against the British rule. Rebellious groups were formed one of them being the Mau Mau. The Mau Mau was a rebellion group formed to oppose British rule from 1890 until 1960. They worked on plans to force the British to leave. The loss of European life is very little. The main victims of Mau Mau violence are other Kikuyu who refuse to support the cause.

Among the Mau Mau themselves as many as 11,000 died in encounters with British forces. In 1929 one of the nationalist leaders, Jomo Kenyatta, was sent to England to negotiate on behalf of the Kikuyu community by presenting their concerns to the British government. In October 1952, there was a sudden outbreak of sabotage and assassination in Kenya. Kikuyu terrorists and their ritual oaths of loyalty to their secret organization reflect the customs of Jomo Kenyatta's political group, the Kikuyu Central Association. The colonial government reacted immediately, declaring a state of emergency and arresting Jomo Kenyatta.

Kenyatta was charged for planning the Mau Mau uprising, he was sentenced in March 1953 to seven years' imprisonment. Jomo Kenyatta was still in detention as of 1960, but his colleagues elected him president of their newly formed political party, the Kenya African National Union. Kenyatta is finally released by the British in 1961. 5 In elections in May 1963, Kenya African National Union won the majority of the seats. Independence of Kenya was achieved in December 1963, with Kenyatta as prime minister. A year later, under a new constitution, Kenya becomes a republic. In 1964, Kenyatta was elected president.

British imperialism changed Kenyan society in a number of ways. Large numbers of new peoples from different cultures took up residence in Kenya bringing in new ideas, missionaries brought about changes in religion, and land and labor practices changed. In addition to spreading their religion, missionaries also influenced and changed Kenyan culture in other ways. They established European style churches, schools, and hospitals which would have an ongoing impact upon the Kenyan people7. he cultural changes Kenya has undergone during the British imperialism has helped Kenya progress as a whole.

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