Kenya: History Strikes Back At the British Empire


Johannesburg — Bullets and scrambles for Africa have been replaced by love and blame. And in all of it, the African has once again ceded territory

EARLY last year, two books on Kenya cast a shadow on a growing debate about the virtues -- or lack thereof -- of the British empire.

David Anderson's Histories of the Hanged and Caroline Elkins's Britain's Gulag, both focused on, to quote one reviewer, "Britain's dirty little war" in '50s colonial Kenya, the brutal British campaign against the Mau Mau insurgency.

The books were received with shock and horror on the Left and sceptical noises on the Right. It soon descended into a numbers game -- was it 20000 dead or 200000? Isn't one atrocity one too many? -- with reviewers competing over the superlatives of horror.

Does this debate on "empire" and other colonial embarrassments actually have a point, beyond inducing a festival of hand-wringing?

A generation ago African historians were insisting that there is such a thing as African history, they themselves having been taught that African history started with colonialism. Today, we are ironically being written back into history by the same Western academy that once told us we did not have it in the first place. Indeed, the debate on "empire" is really a contest over intellectual and moral territory.

Where imperialism once physically possessed territory, the debate over ownership and distribution of guilt -- white guilt -- is the theatre in which a kind of moral imperialism is played; bullets and scrambles for Africa have been replaced by love and blame. And in all of it, the African has once again ceded territory, not because chiefs placed thumbprints on contracts they did not understand but because of another kind of voicelessness: the silence within the African academy.

All the same, the renewed interest in past atrocities places the Western academic in the uncomfortable position of having to play the activist.

A few years ago, Philip Gourevitch, author of We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families, a moving account of the Rwandan genocide, was asked to appear as a witness at the international tribunal in Arusha. He declined.

Two years ago in Nairobi, Masai activists began campaigning for the return of lands they claimed had been stolen by the British. One of the triggers for this was a doctoral thesis by an Oxford historian, Lotte Hughes. Hughes had been researching the forcible eviction of the Masai by the British from their best grazing lands. Her thesis had been circulated among a small band of Masai activists.

In 1904 and 1911 the Masai had been swindled and coerced into signing two agreements, known as the Anglo-Masai Agreements. In 2004, the centenary year of the first "agreement", the Masai launched a campaign agi-

tating for the return of their lands. They launched a series of demonstrations in August that year in which they accused the Kenyan and British governments of participating in a swindle whose repercussions were being felt in Masai society to this day. The demonstrations were brutally put down by the Kenyan government. The Kenyan government refused to give the Masai an audience, as did the British.

If, as the Masai were demanding, an open discussion was had on the agreements, the entire private-property-rights regime would begin to look like robbery on a grand scale.

One hundred years of settlement in what were formerly Masai territories would be called into question. To prevent this, the government publicly stated the Masai had no hard historical evidence to back their claims.

Now, Hughes' book Moving the Maasai: A Colonial Misadventure is out, and the Masai activists plan to sue the British government with evidence based on her findings.

Hughes' book tells the story of the most significant event in 20th-century Masai history: the forcible dispossession of Masai territories by the colonial government to make way for British settlement.

Hughes has meticulously pieced together an account of the evictions and the court cases from a range of official and unofficial sources. Beyond the traditional archival records she has used, she also interviewed Masai survivors of the second move, and managed to retrieve some of the correspondence of Norman Leys, a colonial doctor in colonial Kenya who harshly criticised the Masai moves.

Why, among Britain's East African "properties", did Kenya become the focus of land speculation and real-estate deals?

In 1895, the British government took over the failed Imperial British East Africa Company and established a Protectorate over present-day Kenya. The first order of business was to build a railway connecting the East African coast to the headwaters of the Nile in Uganda.

Driven by prevailing imperial anxieties -- the raging Scramble for Africa -- the railway idea bore the fevered logic of a Foreign Office mandarin after a beer-sodden lunch: whoever controlled the Nile's headwaters controlled Egypt and therefore the Suez Canal and therefore India.

The Uganda railway was completed in 1901. Not only was it a messy idea, it was also ridiculously over budget. A howl sounded from the House of Commons in London. Someone had to pay. The Foreign Office in Whitehall turned to the Protectorate's administrators in Nairobi. The Nairobi administrators cast an appraising eye over Masailand. And both came around to the idea of white settlement as a final solution. Kenya would become a "White Man's Country".

The Foreign Office had long insisted on the paramountcy of native rights in areas "under British protection". It was, in fact, at the heart of the very idea of Protectorate -- the superior notion that it was ultimately a good thing for "inferior races" to come under British protection.

Words became the currency of conquest; it was logic chasing meaning, justifying dispossession. More farce than conquest, its architects turned words on their head and, if even that were not possible, created institutions for the words.

Tribes were "discovered" or invented. "Chiefs" were created where they did not exist. "Treaties" to transfer land into British hands were made retroactively and "signed" by said chiefs, instructed to place an inky thumb-print on a piece of paper.

"Borders" were created on paper and physically demarcated only years later.

When tested, colonial "justice" exposed the absurdity of it all. The Masai court ruling of 1913, which Hughes abbreviates in her book, is a classic example. The Masai had gone to court challenging the 1911 agreement that led to their eviction from the northern reserve. The case proper was never heard. Instead, a three-judge Bench sitting in Mombasa ruled it had no right to rule.

Hughes, in her thesis, notes: "The Maasai Agreements were ruled to be not agreements but treaties which were Acts of State. They could not therefore be challenged in a local court. It was impossible for the appellants to seek to enforce the provisions of a treaty..."

"No one," declared Justice Morris Carter while making the judgment, "[can] force the Crown to take territory it does not want to take."

Moving the Maasai is about conquest by the pen. However, when Hughes makes the argument that the Masai were placed at a severe disadvantage by their illiteracy, she misses the point. They never stood a chance. The record merely conferred respectability on an enterprise that would otherwise have been uncomfortably naked. There never was any doubt about the outcome of the 1913 court case.

Over the years, the Masai have lodged several appeals for the return of their lands. The most significant were lodged in 1932 at the Kenya Land Commission (headed by Carter, the same judge who had ruled against them in 1913). During the independence negotiations at Lancaster House, the Masai made another appeal for the return of the same lands. At that time, the British said they had a "moral obligation" to the Masai but had relinquished it to the incoming independence government.

In between, more dispossession had taken place: large areas of Masailand were excised and turned into national parks, game reserves and mineral prospecting areas, for which the Masai received little or no compensation.

Now, 100 years on as Masai activists prepare to sue again, there is talk that the case may be "out of time". The word games never stop.

•Kantai is a writer based in Nairobi. Shortlisted for the Caine Prize for African Literature in 2004. He is working on a non-fiction investigative book on the eviction of settlers in the Mau Forest complex in Kenya

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