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A Brief History of: Kenya

Rosie Brent-Turner
Kenya’s ancient Great Rift Valley

Welcome to the second part of our new blog series, in which we’re exploring the fascinating history of our host destination, Kenya.

Did you know it’s widely believed that human life as we know it began in Kenya, after archaeologists discovered ancient human tools dating from around 3.3 million BC? Or that the language of Swahili arose from interactions between Arabian traders and the Bantu-speaking inhabitants of Kenya’s east coast? Read on for more!

The birthplace of humanity

Kenya has been inhabited for millions of years. In fact, in 1984 the bones of one of our early human ancestors were discovered in Kenya’s Turkana Basin. The skeleton was dated to 1.5 million years ago and is now known as ‘Turkana Boy’. As recently as 2011, 3.2 million year old stone tools were also discovered near Lake Turkana – the oldest stone tools found anywhere in the world!

Tribal groups have lived in Kenya for thousands of years. It’s thought that Cushitic speaking people migrated to modern-day Kenya from northern Africa in 2000 BC, with Bantu tribes also settling in the area in 500 BC. However, this all changed with the arrival of traders from Arabia and Persia on the Kenyan coast in the 1st century AD.

An era of trade

As trade of gold and ivory along Kenya’s coast flourished, Arabian and Persian traders began settling in strategically important coastal cities such as Mombasa (Kenya’s oldest city!). Over the centuries, they developed trading stations which facilitated contact with India, Persia and the Arab world. Swahili developed as a lingua franca, or common language, between these traders and Kenya’s Bantu-speaking inland inhabitants. In fact, the oldest Swahili texts in existence date from this period and are written in a script based on Arabic letters.

This influx of traders into the so-called city states along Kenya’s coast led to a diverse and varied culture with Arabic, Persian, Indian, Malaysian and Chinese influences.

Portuguese, Omani and British rulers

Further change was on the horizon, however, with the arrival of the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama in Mombasa in April 1498. The following month, da Gama successfully landed in India, allowing the Portuguese to secure trading routes between Europe and Asia. Kenya’s coastal region was used by the Portuguese as an important stop-off point along this route, and a naval base and trading post was set up in Mombasa, leading to the decline of Arabian dominance along the coast.

By the early 1700s, after centuries of attacks on Portuguese fortresses, Omani forces successfully expelled the Portuguese from Kenya. In 1824, the Omani sultan moved his capital to Zanzibar (see part one of our blog series!) and the Arabs set up long-distance trade routes into the interior of Africa. Under Omani rule, clove and spice plantations were set up and a large slave market was established in Zanzibar, with slaves sourced from across Africa, vastly increasing the Sultan’s wealth.

The remains of Fort Jesus in Mombasa, built by the Portuguese to protect their trading post

However, Omani influence in Kenya was checked by the seizure of key ports by Germany and Britain in the 1880s, and in 1895 the British government set up the East Africa Protectorate. In 1920, the protector became an official crown colony. Kenya’s Rift Valley area and the surrounding Highlands – the most fertile farming lands – were reserved for European settlers who set up large coffee farms, leading to simmering racial tensions between the colonisers and the colonised.

Labourers from India were also brought to Kenya by the British to construct a new railway line across the country, leading to a large, settled Indian population and increasing racial tensions between the European colonisers, different tribal groups, and Indian labourers. Between 1920 and 1963, many Kenyans were also formally dispossessed of their land and confined to reservations, further adding insult to injury.

These racial tensions were also reflected in the political system. In 1919, European settlers were allowed to elect members to The Legislative Council of Kenya – a right denied to Kenyans and Indians. In response, the Kikuyu Central Association was established in 1921 to promote the rights of Kenyans and recover stolen land. In 1928, a young Jomo Kenyatta – the future President of Kenya – became the General Secretary of the Association.

Over the following years, Kenyatta campaigned on a range of issues including access to education, land rights, respect for traditional African customs and representation in formal political institutions. In response, the British began allowing African members to be appointed to the Legislative Council. However, this was largely seen as a token gesture, and it was not until the early 1950s that a serious challenge to British rule emerged with the formation of the Mau Mau.

The Mau Mau Uprising

In October 1952, an armed, militant group rose up against the European settlers and British rulers and demanded independence and political representation. The British abruptly declared a state of emergency and Jomo Kenyatta was arrested and sentenced to seven years in prison. The uprising lasted for four years and resulted in the deaths of 11,000 Mau Mau and 100 Europeans.

Although the violence had largely finished by 1956, the state of emergency remained until 1960, and the uprising ultimately laid the path for Kenyan independence from British rule. At a conference in London in 1960, Kenyans were finally given the majority of seats in the Legislative Council and Kenya’s first African political parties were formed.

Independence

Jomo Kenyatta was released from prison in 1961, and the following year he led the negotiations for Kenya’s independence as the leader of the newly formed Kenya Africa National Union. In elections held in May 1963, Kenyatta’s party won the majority of seats and independence was officially declared the same year. The following year, Kenya was declared a republic and Kenyatta was elected President.

To this day, Kenyans celebrate Jamhuri Day on 12th December each year. Jamhuri is the Swahili word for “republic” and the national holiday marks the date when Kenya became a republic on 12 December 1964, 18 months after gaining independence from the British.

You can learn more about the fascinating destination of Kenya, and the communities where we work, here.