The sweet deals that had settlers trooping into Kenya

A woman picks coffee in the ‘white highlands’ during the colonial period in the 1950s. [File, Standard]

It was Sir Charles Eliot, as Commissioner-General for the East Africa Protectorate, who dreamed of making the future East African nation a ‘white man’s country’. In doing so, he had to entice as many Britons as possible to settle in the future colony for his ideals to be realised.

But colonising Kenya was not going to be easy. There was no love lost between the British government and the population following the debacle of the Uganda Railway construction that had been labelled the ‘Lunatic Express’ in derision. They needed enticements to make a living in a patch of land few knew very little about.

However, the British administrators found ready allies from South Africa. Apparently, a number of British soldiers had become unsettled by the Boer War in South Africa and could make do with new adventures. In fact, Eliot made a visit to South Africa to try and convince the settler community of the prospects that lay in East Africa. All he needed were individuals who could raise £300 as starting capital.

According to the book, Red Strangers: The White Tribe of Kenya by Christine Nicholls, South African financiers organised teams to prospect for mineral wealth in East Africa with disappointing results.

Except for large, empty swathes of land, “East Africa had nothing,” wrote Nicholls. But the British trudged on with more campaigns in South Africa, interviewing 10-20 prospective settlers a day between September 1903 to March 1904.

For those who fell for the bait, the British negotiated a 20 per cent fare reduction and more baggage allowance on shipping lines operating on the Indian Ocean. By the end of 1903, scores of settlers were convinced to move up to East Africa and try their luck in farming.

But there was a problem, one that would plague Kenya for decades. The Lands and Survey Department set up in April 1903 could not cope with the influx of settlers, and, owing to the thinly equipped office, only a very portion of land in Kenya had been mapped. It was left to the incoming settlers to ‘adjudicate’ the land.

It was very simple: just pick a block of land, sketch out any landmarks one could fancy such as rivers or trees in as far off as your eyes could see. Then take the sketches to the small survey office and have thousands of acres registered. And thus set off the land injustices that still plague Kenya to this day.

“It was a rough and ready, rickety system,” wrote Nicholls. Such indiscriminate land allocations were painful to the Kikuyu and Maasai as the whites settled in the most productive lands that came to be known as the ‘White Highlands’.

Beginning 1904, the Maasai signed treaties they hardly understood, surrendering much of their land in the Rift Valley. The endless ‘land clashes’ in Kenya have a genesis in such unfair land distribution with subsequent governments struggling to fight off the injustices to no avail.