How a sinking ship brought war and misery to Kenya

African soldiers firing artillery during the First World War. [File, Standard]

When a British passenger ship carrying 1,400 passengers sank near Hebrides, Scotland, the cries of the drowning women and children reached Nairobi.

The incident involving the German soldiers on September 4, 1939, had far-reaching consequences for some villagers who had possibly never seen a ship.

When the Kenya Colony governor, Robert Brook Popham, summoned the Legislative Council for a session in Nairobi, later that morning, he was burning with desire to fight for a just cause.

"The first real news of war from England was received this morning that a British passenger steamship, the SS Athenia carrying 1,400 people had been torpedoed 200 miles west of Hebrides. If any further proof were needed of the righteousness of our cause here it is and if any further stimulus were necessary for our determination to see this war through to the end, at whatever cost, we have it now." And with this proclamation of war, more than four million Kenyans unwittingly became fodder for German forces in the scattered battlefields in Asia and Africa.

The members of the LegCo hurriedly passed legislation that suspended some civilian rights and gave the military sweeping powers. The Compulsory Service bill sought to mobilise the best manpower for the best advantage.

This meant that the law provided compulsory military service, personal service and management of businesses whose owners had been forcefully conscripted into the military.

The law provided that British subjects of European descent were placed under Kenya Defence where they could be called upon to offer personal service or serve in the military. "With the regulations, it is possible to call upon British subjects or British protected persons between ages 18 and 50 for military service within and outside the colony."

The law gave district commissioners powers to issue notices for persons selected to serve in the military. Those who defied such notices were liable for penalties that extended to prison sentences of up to five years. This is how thousands of Africans found themselves in the army forcefully recruited by the government. Thousands were killed in faraway lands.

In the event a business owner was called upon to join the army and could not find a suitable person to run the company in his absence, the government went around scouting for managers. The appointee was to run the enterprise as if he had been granted power of attorney.

This recruitment would later breed militant Africans who took up arms against a government they had fought for.