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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Europeans and the Kikuyu to 1910: a study of resistance, collaboration and conquest Toulson, Thomas


The thesis deals with the Kikuyu tribes of East Africa, their early history, ethnography and relationships with Europeans to 1910. Kikuyu society is described as in flux resulting from its migration to a new habitat from Shungwaya. Peripheral areas of the habitat were stressed by the proximity of the Masai, Arab and Swahili traders, European explorers, armed traders, officials of the Imperial British East Africa Company and latterly officers, civil and military, of the Protectorate Administration. Masai proximity forced the Kikuyu into a defensive posture and conditioned their attitudes with respect to the intrusion of others. Evidence presented suggests that Kikuyu were initially hospitable to coastal traders. By the l8T0's, however, Kikuyu were reluctant to allow free passage of Arab and Swahili caravans. Hostility had been engendered by Arab and Swahili propensities for raiding Kikuyu mashamba for food and departing the area without making restitution. European attitudes toward the Kikuyu were influenced by rumours of Kikuyu ferocity deliberately spread by coastal and Wakamba traders. Early explorers were prepared to "fight every inch of the way" across the Kikuyu habitat. European apprehension coupled with Kikuyu suspicion featured prominently in the early contact period. These attitudes and the occasional violent clashes were conditioning factors in the subsequent, more extensive, relationships between Kikuyu and Europeans. Kikuyu ethnography is examined and reveals tribal society as being acephalous and egalitarian. Power resided in the hands of elders who assumed authority after successfully negotiating a scale of ascendancy incorporated in the rites du passage. Provision was made within the system for young men to rise to positions of eminence and to be hurried along the road to seniority. Known as athamaki, they were in no sense chiefs. Because military affairs played a large part in Kikuyu life—the threat of the Masai, the behaviour of Arab and Swahili traders, the intrusions of European travellers, armed traders, IBEA Co. men and the Protectorate Administration— athamaki of military ability swiftly rose to prominence. Lugard's attempts to establish the Imperial British East Africa Company are dealt with at some length. Company failure to establish itself successfully in Kikuyuland is iseen as being due to manifold factors; under financing, poor communications, lack of control over African levies, poor leadership and recognition by the Kikuyu of the Company's intention to settle the area permanently. Hostility against the Company was greatly exacerbated by the use of Masai and Kikuyu armed levies for raiding, and the death of Waiyaki, a Kikuyu athamaki of local eminence. 1895 saw the end of Company hegemony and its replacement by imperial authority. The effects on the Kikuyu tribes by armed traders are analyzed. John Boyes, described by himself as "King of the WaKikuyu", Gibbons and others, are seen as dacoits who affected to some considerable degree the attitudes and disposition of Kikuyu with whom they came into contact. As with the Company, divide and rule tactics were practised and armed traders allied themselves with athamaki collaborators against other Kikuyu opposed to the European presence. Though the armed traders profoundly disturbed the Kikuyu between 1895 and 1900, the Protectorate Administration was powerless to prevent their activities. Conquest of the Kikuyu tribes was two-phased. The first phase (1895-1902) is referred to as a "holding" exercise. During the period•obvious preparations were made to tighten the administrative net on Kikuyuland. The armed traders were arrested and deported. Masai were beginning to be contained in areas away from Kikuyuland. Roads began to radiate north into the Kikuyu interior from the new administrative centre of Nairobi. Ukamba Province was split and Kikuyuland became Kenia Province. The critical problem of the Mombasa-Lake Victoria railway traversing the Kikuyu habitat was solved. The Protectorate Administration possessed an elite cadre of Kikuyu collaborators on whom they relied to render aid in the subjugation of other Kikuyu. A re-organization of military forces was taking place and by 1902 the Protectorate Administration was in a strong position to make a concerted effort to dislodge and defeat the remaining pockets of Kikuyu opposition. The second phase of the Kikuyu conquest is seen as a "military" exercise: it lasted roughly eight years (1902-1910). Subjugation of the Kikuyu, founded on a policy of mounting strong punitive expeditions, was barbaric and excesses were common. "Overkill" was substituted for the traditional military tactic of skirmishing. "On the spot" decision-making was more the rule than the exception. Contrary to the expressed intention of senior officials, punitive expeditions, led by junior military officers and supported by consenting junior civil officers, inflicted large numbers of casualties,' burnt huts, destroyed crops, and crippled the Kikuyu economy by confiscating thousands of cattle and goats. Both junior officers and Commissioner Eliot himself falsified casualty figures; thus giving London a wrong impression of events. By 1910, after sustained military action, Kikuyu resistance was eliminated. The thesis concludes that Kikuyu athamaki rose to prominence in the military atmosphere of the colonial enterprise. As collaborators athamaki became the prime agents of change in the transitory process from tribalism to colonial administration. They heralded a powerful and sustained disruption of tribal society and speeded the processes of change. The imperial order, ever watchful for means to achieve its objectives at minimum expense, used athamaki for its unique purposes. Conversely, athamaki used the Protectorate Administration to realize their own ambitions. Alliances between athamaki and Europeans were reciprocal in both construction and purpose. There existed a dual realization that one element could not proceed without the concurrence or aid of the other. Some initiatives thus remained in Kikuyu hands within the colonial order. Collaborating athamaki became junior partners in the colonial enterprise—and prospered accordingly. European penetration radically- affected Kikuyu society. Stressed by the intrusions of Arabs, Swahili and Masai and the effects of migration, Kikuyu society was further influenced by the European presence. The European impact opened up serious rifts in Kikuyu society, disturbed traditional rankings of dominance and hierarchy, and sharpened already existing cracks in the tribal socio-political firmament. Kikuyu resistance was weakened by the use of athamaki and finally smashed by superior military forces. The thesis concludes with the suggestion that Professor T.O. Ranger's hypothesis on connexions between primary resistance movements and modern mass nationalism, may, in the Kikuyu case, have some basis in truth.

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