Swahili Culture and Trade (1st century-19th century)
On the Kenyan coast there were communities of iron traders and the Bantu subsistence farmers, hunters and fishermen whose economy was supported by agriculture, fishing, metal production and foreign trade. These communities formed the early city-states of the region and were collectively known as Azania.
In the 1st century AD, many of the city states such as Mombasa, Malindi and Zanzibar began to establish trade relations with the Arabs. This led to increasing economic growth of the Swahili states, the introduction of Islam, Arab influences on the Swahili Bantu language, cultural diffusion, and the Swahili city-states becoming part of a larger trade network. Many historians had long believed that the city-states were founded by Arab or Persian traders, but scholars now recognise that the city-states were an indigenous development that peaked around the 8th century.
The Kilwa Sultanate was a medieval sultanate centred in Kilwa in what is now Tanzania. At its height, its authority stretched the length of the Swahili coast, including Kenya. It is said to have been founded in the 10th century by Ali ibn al-Hassan Shirazi, a Persian sultan from Shiraz in southern Iran. Successive Swahili rulers built elaborate coral mosques and introduced copper coins.
The Swahili developed Mombasa into a major port city and established trade links with other nearby city-states as well as with trading centres in Persia, Arabia and even India. In the 15th century, the Portuguese traveller Duarte Barbosa claimed that “Mombasa is a place of great traffic, and has a good harbour, where there are always small boats of many kinds, and also large ships coming from Sofala, and others coming from Cambay and Melinde, and others sailing to the island of Zanzibar.”
Later in the 17th century, when the Swahili coast was conquered and came under direct rule of the Omani Arabs, the slave trade was expanded by the Omani Arabs to meet the needs of the plantations in Oman and Zanzibar. Initially, these traders came mainly from Oman, but later many came from Zanzibar (like Tippu Tip). In addition, in response to the disruption of the transatlantic slave trade by the British abolitionists, the Portuguese began to buy slaves from the Omani and Zanzibari traders.
Over the centuries, the Kenyan coast has hosted many merchants and explorers. Among the towns that line the Kenyan coast is the city of Malindi. It has been an important Swahili settlement since the 14th century and once competed with Mombasa for supremacy in the African Great Lakes region. Malindi had been traditionally considered a friendly seaport town for foreign powers: during the Ming Dynasty in 1414, the leading Chinese merchant and explorer, Zheng He, visited the East African coast during one of his last “treasure voyages”. The Malindi authorities welcomed the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama in 1498.
British Kenya (1888-1962)
Kenya’s colonial history begins with the establishment of a German protectorate over the coastal possessions of the Sultan of Zanzibar in 1885, followed by the arrival of the Imperial British East Africa Company in 1888. An incipient imperial rivalry was averted when Germany ceded its coastal possessions to Britain in 1890. This was followed by the construction of the Kenya-Uganda Railway, which ran through the country.
This was resisted by some ethnic groups – especially the Nandi led by Orkoiyot Koitalel Arap Samoei – for ten years, from 1890 to 1900, but eventually the British built the railway. The Nandi were the first ethnic group to be put in a native reserve to prevent them from interfering with the construction of the railway. In 1920, the East Africa Protectorate was turned into a colony and renamed after its highest mountain in Kenya.
During the period of railway construction, there was a significant influx of Indians who provided the bulk of the skilled labour needed for construction. Most of them and most of their descendants remained in Kenya afterwards and formed the core of several separate Indian communities, such as the Ismaili Muslim as well as the Sikh community.
During the construction of the railway through Tsavo, some of the Indian railway workers and local African workers were attacked by two lions known as Tsavo maneaters.
At the outbreak of the First World War in August 1914, the governors of British East Africa (as the protectorate was commonly called) and German East Africa agreed on an armistice to keep the young colonies away from direct hostilities. Lieutenant Colonel Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck took command of the German forces, determined to tie up as many British resources as possible. Totally detached from Germany, von Lettow conducted an efficient guerrilla war, living off the land, and capturing British goods, while remaining undefeated. He finally surrendered in Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) fourteen days after the armistice was signed in 1918.
To hunt von Lettow, the British used British Indian Army troops from India, but needed a large number of carriers to handle the massive logistics of transporting supplies far inland on foot. An aircraft carrier force was formed, which ultimately mobilised more than 400,000 Africans and contributed to their prolonged politicisation.
During the Second World War, Kenya was an important source of labour and agriculture for the United Kingdom. Kenya itself was the scene of fighting between Allied forces and Italian troops in 1940-41, when Italian troops invaded. Wajir and Malindi were also bombed.
By the end of the nineteenth century, the interior central highlands were settled by British and other European farmers who became prosperous through the cultivation of coffee and tea. (For an account of this period of change from a colonist’s perspective, see the Danish author Baroness Karen von Blixen-Finecke’s memoir Out of Africa, published in 1937). In the 1930s, some 30,000 white settlers lived in the area and gained a political voice through their contribution to the market economy.
More than a million Kikuyu people already lived in the Central Highlands, most of whom had no claims to land in the European sense but lived as migrant farmers. To protect their interests, the settlers banned coffee cultivation, introduced a hut tax, and the landless were granted less and less land in exchange for their labour. There was a massive exodus to the cities as their opportunities to make a living from the land diminished. In the 1950s, there were 80,000 white settlers in Kenya.
Princess Elizabeth with her husband Prince Philip was on holiday at the Treetop Hotel in Kenya in 1952 when her father, King George VI, passed away in his sleep. The young princess cut short her trip and immediately returned home to ascend the throne. In 1953 she was crowned Queen Elizabeth II at Westminster Abbey. As British hunter and conservationist Jim Corbett (who accompanied the royal couple) put it, she went up a tree in Africa as a princess and came down as a queen.
Mau Mau Uprising (1952-1959)
From October 1952 to December 1959, Kenya was in a state of emergency due to the Mau Mau uprising against British rule. The governor called for and received British and African troops, including the King’s African Rifles. The British began counter-insurgency operations. In May 1953, General Sir George Erskine took command as Commander-in-Chief of the colony’s forces, with the personal support of Winston Churchill.
Following the capture of Warlord Itote ( also known as General China) on 15th January 1954 and his subsequent interrogation, a deeper knowledge of the Mau Mau structure of command was established. The Anvil operation began on 24 April 1954, after several weeks of planning carried out by the Army under the approval from the War Council. The operation effectively placed Nairobi under military siege. Nairobi residents were searched and Mau Mau supporters were taken to internment camps. The Home Guard formed the core of the government’s strategy as it was composed of loyal Africans rather than foreign forces such as the British Army and the King’s African Rifles. By the end of the state of emergency, the Home Guard had killed 4,686 Mau Mau, which was 42% of the total insurgents. The capture of Dedan Kimathi on 21 October 1956 in Nyeris marked the final defeat of the Mau Mau and essentially ended the military offensive. During this period, there were significant governmental changes in land tenure. The most important of these was the Swynnerton Plan, which was used both to reward the loyalists and to punish the Mau Mau.
Independent Kenya (1963)
The first direct elections for indigenous Kenyans to the Legislative Council took place in 1957. In spite of the desire of the British to transfer their power to a more “moderate” indigenous rival, the government was formed by Jomo Kenyatta’s Kenya African National Union (KANU). The Colony of Kenya and the Protectorate of Kenya each ended on 12 December 1963 with the granting of independence to the whole of Kenya. The British ceded sovereignty over the colony of Kenya.The Sultan of Zanzibar agreed that at the same time as the colony of Kenya became independent, he would also relinquish sovereignty over the Protectorate of Kenya, so that the whole of Kenya would be a sovereign, independent state. In this way, Kenya became an independent state under the Kenya Independence Act 1963 of the United Kingdom. On 12th December 1964, after exactly 12 months, the country became a republic under the name “Republic of Kenya”.
At the same time, the Kenyan army was fighting the Shifta War against ethnic Somali rebels who inhabited the Northern Frontier District and wanted to join their relatives in the Somali Republic in the north. A ceasefire was finally reached with the signing of the Arusha Memorandum in October 1967, but relative uncertainty prevailed until 1969. To prevent further invasions, Kenya signed a defence pact with Ethiopia in 1969, which is still in force today.
The Republic of Kenya was officially proclaimed on 12th December 1964 with Jomo Kenyatta inaugurated as the country’s 1st President.
Era Moi (1978-2002)
In 1978, following Kenyatta’s death, Daniel arap Moi became president. Daniel arap Moi retained the presidency as he had no opposing candidates in the 1979, 1983 (snap elections) and 1988 elections, all held under the one-party constitution. The 1983 elections were held a year earlier and were a direct result of a failed military coup attempt on 2 August 1982.
The failed coup was masterminded by a low-ranking air force soldier, Private Hezekiah Ochuka, and carried out mainly by air force soldiers. The coup was quickly put down by troops under the command of Chief of General Staff Mahamoud Mohamed, an experienced Somali military man. These included the General Service Unit (GSU) – a paramilitary wing of the police – and later the regular police.
After the Garissa massacre of 1980, Kenyan troops perpetrated the Wagalla massacre of thousands of civilians in Wajir County in 1984. An official investigation into the atrocities was later ordered in 2011.
The 1988 election saw the introduction of the mlolongo (queuing) system, whereby voters were expected to line up behind their favoured candidates instead of voting by secret ballot. This was considered to be the culmination of a highly non-democratic regime and led to a widespread demand for constitutional changes. Several controversial clauses, including one that allowed only one political party, were amended in the following years. In democratic multi-party elections in 1992 and 1997, Daniel arap Moi was re-elected.
In 2002, Moi was constitutionally disqualified from running and Mwai Kibaki, who ran for the opposition National Rainbow Coalition (NARC), was elected president. Anderson (2003) reports that the elections were judged free and fair by local and international observers and seemed to mark a turning point in Kenya’s democratic development.
Kenyans have rejected plans for the replacement of the 1963 independence constitution with a new one in 2005.
In mid-2011, two consecutive rainy periods led to the worst drought in East Africa in 60 years. The northwestern Turkana region was particularly affected and schools were closed as a result. According to reports, the crisis was over by early 2012 thanks to coordinated relief efforts. Subsequently, aid agencies shifted their focus to reconstruction activities such as digging irrigation canals and distributing plant seeds.