Home > Place > Kenya

Kenya is a country in East Africa with a population of 44 million people and the largest economy of the region. The early inhabitants were mostly migrants from other regions of Africa, particularly from West Africa and North-east Africa. The coastal regions of Kenya were subject to influences from Arabia, Europe and Asia, mostly as a result of trade.[i] European colonisation of Africa included British occupation of parts of East Africa, including Kenya from 1888-1962, which resulted in the violent oppression of indigenous ethnic groups and the reallocation of their land to European settlers. The 1950’s saw the dawn of a rebellion against British rule Although this uprising was unsuccessful, it propelled the nation on a path to independence. Although Kenya flourished in the decades after independence, it still faces a number of domestic and regional problems.

Early History

Prior to the arrival of Arab settlers, the area in East Africa known today as Kenya was predominately populated by farmers and herders, many of who had migrated from nearby regions. The small indigenous population of bush people was swelled by these migrants, who constitute the ancestors of Kenya’s dominant communities today, namely the Bantu, Eastern Cushites and Nilotes.[ii] Although no historical records exist, their migration has been reconstructed by archaeologists, linguists and historians, who have been able to track the movement of people through other means. This includes the analysis of the Bantu language on pottery fragments found throughout East Africa.[iii] The steady influx of African settlers searching for economic opportunities brought with them new technologies and skills, as well as new customs and beliefs. This helped to create a varied and diffuse culture throughout Kenya.


The arrival and settlement of Arabs along the coast of East Africa was a key period in the shaping of modern Kenya. Arab traders frequented the coastal commercial posts for the trade in slaves, spices, ivory and other merchandise.[iv] By around 800 CE these small communities had developed into large cities, dependent on trade and with a culture derived from both the original inhabitants and the Arab settlers. As the towns and cities along the coast acted as a focus for products exported from the African interior and the ideas imported by foreign settlers, the coastal region became a link between these two cultures. Swahili, a language derived from Bantu, but with much Arabic influence, developed as the main language in these coastal areas. Islamic religious practices became increasingly prevalent, linking them with the wider Muslim community, although some customary traditions remained to connect them to local African communities.[v] The presence of merchants and immigrants from Persia and Asia also contributed to the development of a unique culture along coastal areas, which survives to the present day.

Portuguese and Omani Arab Presence

In 1498, the arrival of the Portuguese explorer Vasco de Gama in Mombasa posed a challenge to the Arab domination of the East African coast. The Portuguese, after initially being driven off by Arab resistance, eventually captured the coastal regions and held them as a colonial asset for the following two centuries. In 1698, Omani forces expelled the Portuguese and brought most of the East African Coast under the control of the Sultan of Oman. This control remained largely unchanged until 1840, when Said bin Sultan Al-Said transferred the capital of the Sultanate to Stone Town in Zanzibar. Upon his death, Oman and Zanzibar were divided between his sons, Thuwaini bin Said and and Majid bin Said, and the latter became the Sultan of Zanzibar, controlling most of what is now known as the Kenyan coast. In the late 19th century control of this region was gradually transferred to the British Empire, aside from a small coastal strip that remained in the possession of the Sultan of Zanzibar until Kenyan independence in 1963. The intervention of the British Empire was ostensibly to combat the Arab slave trade of which Zanzibar had become a central part.

British colonisation

The large-scale involvement of Britain in Kenya was part of the scramble for Africa, a period of aggressive European imperial expansion that began at the end of the 19th century and lasted until the start of the First World War. Driven by a desire for imperial prestige and resources, European nations rushed to colonise as much African territory as possible. Agreements over the regions claimed by the Europeans were negotiated in the 1884-5 Berlin Conference, and the British were granted control over much of the East African coast, forming the British East Africa Protectorate in 1895 and eventually naming the area as an official colony in 1905.[vi] From around 1890 the British began to move inland, hoping to gain access to the fertile highlands and provide greater security for Uganda, which had also been claimed as a British colony. In order to facilitate this, a railway line from Mombasa to Kisumu was built using Indian workers, and British forces were sent to suppress the ethnic groups living in the central highlands. These groups included the Maasai, a Nilote people, and the Kikuyu and Kamba, both Bantu-speaking groups.[vii] Whilst the Maasai largely avoided military confrontation with the British, the Kamba and particularly the Kikuyu were targeted by colonial forces and local collaborators.[viii] This campaign of ‘pacification’, combined with famine and disease that swept the region during this period, resulted in significant loss of life and property amongst the indigenous people. Furthermore, an influx of European settlers a few years later in 1903 precipitated a policy of land reallocation that allowed the expropriation of fertile land belonging to Africans. This process essentially transformed the indigenous people into an agricultural proletariat , either driven from their own land and moved to reserves controlled by the British, or forced to labour for those settlers who had claimed the area. This period of colonial oppression and land reallocation left a lasting impression on those it targeted. The Kikuyu in particular were left harbouring deep grievances that would resurface half a century later during the Mau Mau rebellion.[ix]

The colonial process instigated by the British was interrupted by the advent of the First World War. The conflict in Europe affected Kenya, with many people from the local population drafted to assist British troops in overcoming German resistance in Tanzania. Official British estimates claim that almost 24 000 Africans from the region died during this campaign, although others argue that the toll was much higher.[x] Kenyans were also impacted upon by the Crown Lands Ordinance of 1915, an order that swept away most remaining native land rights and rendered the indigenous people into landless squatters, a situation aggravated by the influx of European ex-soldiers after the conclusion of the war in 1918.[xi] Kenya’s role in the Second World War had a similar effect. 47 000 African Kenyans volunteered to fight in the British war effort, which proved decisive in defeating the Italian forces in Ethiopia, and many other Kenyans aided the campaign by raising crops for the British.[xii] Despite the assistance provided by the indigenous Kenyan people, the British made few concessions to the popular demands for land justice and representation.

The continued mistreatment of Kenyans by colonial oppressors stirred Kenyans to form a movement calling for greater political recognition of African rights. The first significant organisation that pursued this aim was the East African Association (EAA), which was formed in 1921 by Harry Thuka and, among others, Jomo Kenyatta – the future President of an independent Kenya. The EAA was intended to be an organisation inclusive of all ethnic groups, although its members were predominantly Kikuyu, and as its name suggests, it was hoped that the EAA could represent all the people of East Africa, rather than just those in Kenya.[xiii] The colonial administration opposed the organisation from its inception, and Thuka was arrested in 1922 and the EAA banned. A similar organisation, the Kenyan African Union (KAU), was formed in 1942. This organisation focused predominately on demanding land access from White settlers and quickly gained membership, including Kenyatta, who was appointed its leader in 1947. These organisations were instrumental in politicising the disenfranchised Kenyan people, and the KAU played a key role during the Mau Mau uprising just a few years later.

Mau Mau Uprising

The Mau Mau rebellion against British colonial rule, although militarily unsuccessful, was a defining episode in the Kenyan struggle for independence. Colonial domination of Kenya had existed for centuries, pursued by both the Portuguese and Omani Arabs before the British arrived, but the gradual push for decolonisation that occurred throughout Africa during the 20th century gave confidence to the movement to call for an independent Kenya. The origins of the Mau Mau uprising began with a general discontentment with the conditions imposed by the British colonial regime. Hundreds of thousands of Kenyans lived in poor conditions in the slums around Nairobi, with few opportunities for employment, little chance of social or legal justice, and suffering from the effects of economic inflation raising the price of basic commodities.[xiv] In comparison, most of the White Europeans and many of the Indians who had settled in Nairobi enjoyed a conspicuous level of wealth, and frequently treated indigenous Africans with disrespect.[xv] A similar situation arose in rural areas, where the fertile land was overwhelmingly owned by Europeans. This state of affairs exacerbated pre-existing grievances stemming from earlier British actions in subjugating the local population and reallocating their valuable land to European settlers.

The Mau Mau was a loose grouping of predominantly Kikuyu Kenyans, who had been reduced to the status of squatters on their own land. Unhappy with their poor political progress in pursuing rights for Africans while under continuing pressure from the government and European settlers, they decided to engage in armed resistance against British rule. One of the key figures in the Mau Mau movement was Dedan Kimathi, a former member of the KAU. In 1952 Mau Mau supporters began a campaign of violence against both Europeans and the Africans who co-operated with them. The British responded by ordering police to indiscriminately detain hundreds of KikuyuThis action heightened tensions and increased popular support for the Mau Mau. The government responded by declaring a State of Emergency and sending troops to fight the uprising.[xvi] This action was considered tantamount to a declaration of war, and pushed even more disaffected Africans to the Mau Mau cause, many of who fled to the forests to organise guerrilla attacks against the British.[xvii] The response of the colonial government was fierce Utilising thousands of British troops a nationwide campaign was initiated with the purposes of crushing the threat posed by the Mau Mau. Undertaking a policy of deporting Kikuyu to the reserves, many thousands of Africans were detained and transported away from their homes, whilst others were re-housed in villages under British control. Concentration camps were used to process the Kikuyu suspected of Mau Mau involvement, and abuse and torture were commonplace. Simultaneously, British and loyalist forces moved through the forests, killing anyone suspected of Mau Mau involvement.

British soldiers hold villagers at gunpoint whilst their homes are searched for evidence of cooperation with the Mau Mau Image source

Finally, in 1956 Kimathi was captured, effectively ending Mau Mau resistance.[xviii] Kimathi was put on trial and hanged a year later. The military operations against the rebels resulted in many deaths. The official government figure was 11 503, although due to the nature of the fighting it can be presumed to be significantly higher.[xix] In comparison, the Mau Mau was estimated to be responsible for fewer than a hundred white deaths during the period of the uprising.[xx]

Despite the military defeat of the Mau Mau, their formation was a clear indication of the extent of popular support for independence within Kenya. This, coupled with Britain’s reluctance to continue pursuing colonial ambitions, placed the idea of an independent Kenya firmly on the agenda.


In 1960 the British government held a conference in London to discuss the constitutional future of Kenya, and for the first time officially recognised the inevitability of independence under African majority rule.[xxi] The first Kenyan general election with the participation of African parties was held in 1961, with one of the major issues being the release of Jomo Kenyatta, who had been detained in 1952 on the basis of his alleged involvement with the Mau Mau. The Kenyan African National Party (KANU), the successor to the KAU, won a majority of the vote, but refused to form a government until Kenyatta was free. As a result, the country was governed by a coalition established between the Kenyan African Democratic Union (KADU) and the White-led New Kenya Party for a year.[xxii] When Kenyatta was released in 1962, he joined KANU and triumphed in the 1963 elections. He was sworn in as prime minister and declared Kenya to be finally free of British rule. A year later Kenya became a republic, with Kenyatta as the president, and KADU voluntarily dissolved to allow the creation of a strong one-party state.[xxiii] Kenyatta assumed a conciliatory tone towards the European settlers and forbade any retaliation for past acts, whilst also offering an amnesty for crimes committed by Mau Mau fighters during the State of Emergency.[xxiv]

Jomo Kenyatta celebrates Kenyan independence at a ceremony attended by the Duke of Edinburgh Image source

Kenyatta remained President for the rest of his life, and his government managed to maintain a reasonable level of political stability and economic prosperity for Kenya. Whilst generally very popular amongst Kenyans, Kenyatta’s rule was characterised by an extremely strong hold on power, which was often used to the benefit of his family and close allies, and there were repeated accusations of his ruthlessness in maintaining this wealth and power.[xxv] Nevertheless, the national mourning after his death in 1978 demonstrated how closely the country associated him with the success of Kenya following independence.[xxvi]

Recent Developments

After Kenyatta’s death the Presidency was assumed by Daniel arap Moi. Moi’s presidency continued the themes of stability and growth, however, his autocratic approach to government made him unpopular with many. The use of political repression and corruption to maintain power caused much opposition, including a coup attempt in 1982. Kenya’s foreign supporters were happy to overlook these issues, given the country’s rejection of communist influence throughout the Cold War, but with the collapse of the USSR in 1991 the West became enthusiastic for a more representative democracy in Kenya. This foreign pressure, combined with domestic opposition to the one-party system, resulted in multi-party democratic elections in 1992 and again in 1997, with Moi securing a majority vote in both. Multi-party politics have been present in Kenya since. In 2007 the general election was marred by widespread political and ethnic violence that left over a thousand dead. The situation was temporarily resolved by a power sharing agreement in government between two key parties. In 2010, current Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta – son of Jomo Kenyatta – was accused by the International Criminal Court with inciting and funding some of this electoral violence. In 2014 he was summoned to the court, becoming the first sitting head of state to appear there, but the charges were withdrawn a few months later, citing lack of evidence.[xxvii] One of the most pressing issues facing Kenya in recent years has been terrorism, predominantly carried out by the Islamist group Al-Shabab, which operates from Somalia. The Westgate mall shooting in Nairobi in 2013 claimed the lives of 67 people. In the ensuing years there have been a number of similar attacks by Al-Shabab across Kenya, including several particularly deadly incidents in the Northern county of Mandera. In April 2015, gunmen aligned with Al-Shabab targeted Garissa University, killing 148.[xxviii]


[i] Gatheru, R. M. (2005). Kenya: From Colonisation to Independence, 1888-1970. Jefferson: McFarland & Company, p.12.

[ii] Ochieng, W. R. (1990). Themes in Kenyan History. Nairobi: Heinemann Kenya Limited, p.2.

[iii] Bostoen, K. Pots, Words and the Bantu Problem: On Lexical Reconstruction and Early African History . The Journal of African History , 48, 173-199 (p.173)

[iv] Gatheru, R. M. (2005). Kenya: From Colonisation to Independence, 1888-1970. Jefferson: McFarland & Company, p.15.

[v] Spear, Thomas. "Swahili History Reconsidered." The International Journal of African Historical Studies, 2000: 257-290 (p.277).

[vi] Tignor, R. L. (1976). The Colonial Transformation of Kenya. Princeton: Princeton University Press, p.18.

[vii] Ibid,

[viii] Ibid, p.15.

[ix] Ibid, p.32.

[x] Gatheru, R. M. (2005). Kenya: From Colonisation to Independence, 1888-1970. Jefferson: McFarland & Company, p.39.

[xi] Ibid, pp.36-37.

[xii] Ibid, pp.119-120.

[xiii] Ibid, p.42.

[xiv] Edgerton, R. E. (1991). Mau Mau: An African Crucible. New York: Ballantine Books, pp.36-37.

[xv] Ibid, p.36.

[xvi] Furedi, F. (1989). The Mau Mau War in Perspective. London: James Currey Ltd, p.116.

[xvii] Ibid, p.120.

[xviii] Edgerton, R. E. (1991). Mau Mau: An African Crucible. New York: Ballantine Books, p.104.

[xix] Ibid, p.107.

[xx] Ibid, p.107.

[xxi] Gatheru, R. M. (2005). Kenya: From Colonisation to Independence, 1888-1970. Jefferson: McFarland & Company, p.168.

[xxii] Ibid, p.170.

[xxiii] Ibid, p.190.

[xxiv] Edgerton, R. E. (1991). Mau Mau: An African Crucible. New York: Ballantine Books, p.220

[xxv] Ibid, pp.230-32.

[xxvi] Ibid, p.232.

[xxvii] BBC News (2014) ‘ICC drops Uhuru Kenyatta charges for Kenya ethnic violence’, available at

[xxviii] BBC News (2015) ‘Kenya attack: 147 dead in Garissa University assault’, available at

• Bostoen, K. Pots, Words and the Bantu Problem: On Lexical Reconstruction and Early African History .The Journal of African History , 48, 173-199.
•  Edgerton, R. E. (1991). Mau Mau: An African Crucible. New York: Ballantine Books.
• Furedi, F. (1989). The Mau Mau War in Perspective. London: James Currey Ltd.
• Gatheru, R. M. (2005). Kenya: From Colonisation to Independence, 1888-1970. Jefferson: McFarland & Company.
• Ochieng, W. R. (1990). Themes in Kenyan History. Nairobi: Heinemann Kenya Limited.
• Sabar-Friedman, G. (1995). The Mau Mau Myth: Kenyan Political Discourse in Search of Democracy. Cahiers d'Études Africaines , 35, 101-131.
• Spear, T. (2000). Swahili History Reconsidered. The International Journal of African Historical Studies , 257-290.
• Tignor, R. L. (1976). The Colonial Transformation of Kenya. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
•  BBC News (2014) ‘ICC drops Uhuru Kenyatta charges for Kenya ethnic violence’, available at
• BBC News (2015) ‘Kenya attack: 147 dead in Garissa University assault’, available at

Last updated : 27-Nov-2017

This article was produced for South African History Online on 25-Jul-2016