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Settlers, hunters & sportsmen (1902-1919)

The Uganda railway was at last open. The era of the great explorations was left behind and it was now possible to breathe the Highlands' air travelling from Mombasa in just one day, comfortably seated and avoiding the plentiful calamities suffered by the ancient adventurers. Africa offered herself to whoever wished to start all over in the Garden of Eden. The issue was then how to attract enough settlers to generate a volume of goods to make the costly railroad profitable.

However, the Garden of Eden was not made for all. The lack of development and infrastructures in these early days meant accepting the life of a pioneer, with scarce comforts, hard work, health risks and starting from scratch. Agriculture destined for exports was envisioned as the only feasible activity in the Highlands, fertile but lacking great mineral beds or natural resources, where the internal market was still fairly undeveloped.

Settlers started to populate the country in 1902, coming mostly from Great Britain, but also from South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and Canada. In many cases they were sons of the English aristocracy in search of the romantic African dream, of live to hunt and hunt to live. Others wished to settle down, take roots and find fortune in that virgin country. Soon the first farms appeared on the lands traditionally belonging to the native people, partly unpopulated due to tribal warfare and nomad pastoralism. Land was offered at very low prices, with the only requisite of culturing 16 acres each year.

One of the most famous settlers in those early days was Hugh Choldmondley, third baron of Delamere, better known as Lord Delamere (1870-1931). Model of English aristocracy, bon vivant and adventurer, Delamere liked travelling to Somalia for lion hunting. In one of those expeditions he reached the Kenyan Highlands and had a crush on them, deciding to settle there. He bought a farm near Nakuru in 1903 and devoted himself to livestock and to the culture of European species, in which he was initially unsuccessful, spending in his Kenyan estate all the returns generated by his properties in England. As years passed by, Delamere purchased more lands, reaching a profitable situation. His passionate spirit gave him the leadership of settlers, whose association he presided from 1904 and whom he represented since the constitution of the first Legislative Council of British East Africa in 1907. Delamere left an important heritage, adapted several crops to the local conditions and boosted agricultural development in the Highlands in a decisive way. But he was also a convinced racist, an admirer of Cecil Rhodes and of the 'apartheid' system. As Elspeth Huxley narrated, his dream was to make of Kenya "the white man's country", a place similar to New Zealand. Today, his name survives at the Norfolk Hotel's bar, in Nairobi.

In 1905, the British East Africa Protectorate acquired the status of Colony. England attempted to set up a system of local administration controlled by the colonial government, but the settlers, headed by Delamere, flatly refused. The first governor had to move through swampy grounds, brutally repressing the uprisings of the natives whose lands had been invaded, but simultaneously calming down the settlers' land hunger, since the number of farmers increased steadily as Delamere's success spread among European circles. Nairobi was much like the old far west cities, wild, free and promiscuous, a place were life was risked everyday.

The initial flow of immigrants was not very intense. In 1912 the number of settlers was still some 3,000. Nonetheless, the new dwellers needed land, and Nairobi was located on the border between the land of the Maasai pastoralists and the farming grounds of the Kikuyus. Fearing the reaction from the warring Maasais, the government signed an agreement with chief Lenana in 1911, by virtue of which the Maasais accepted selling their traditional pasture lands and moving southwards to less fertile territories, the region they inhabit today.

Farms also required manpower, but natives were not accustomed to work by the day, so settlers pressed the administrators to enact laws enforcing hard labour and taxes that obliged the natives to culture the whites' lands.

From the start, settlers made their best to create a social structure based on racial discrimination. Whites dominated administration, economy, production and trade, sheltering themselves in exclusive clubs where blacks were denied access. Later on natives were confined in reserves, from where exiting required a pass approved by the colonial rulers. Europeans thrived and Africans became more and more impoverished. The unfair conditions started to breed a feeling of resentment among the Kikuyus, who resulted to be the most harmed by the colony's statu quo.

Those were the years of the first violent reactions from the Kikuyus, which were brutally repressed by the English officer Richard Meinertzhagen in command of his company of the Third Regiment of King's African Rifles, a military force created to protect the settlers. Meinertzhagen sadly stood out for his bloody actions against the Kikuyus and other local tribes. In 1905, the officer was commissioned to pacify the Nandis, who had set up a powerful guerrilla that opposed the whites' invasion since the early railway times. Meinertzhagen quickly crushed the revolt: he appointed a peace meeting with Koitalel, the Nandi chief, and murdered him without ceremony.

On the more romantic side, those were years of great white hunters that shot in the greatest and freest game reserve of the world. Names like Denys Finch-Hatton, Berkeley Cole, Frederik Selous, John Hunter, Beryl Markham, Phil Percival or Bror Blixen, belong now to the history and the legend of an Africa that does not exist any more. Figures such as Ernest Hemingway, Winston Churchill, Theodore Roosevelt or the then Prince of Wales and to-be king Edward VIII of England, had the chance to feel a beautiful, cruel, strange and unfair Garden of Eden that, good or bad, died devoured by the 20th century when it was already rolling out for decades in Europe.

In 1913, a Danish woman settled in the Highlands and purchased a farm at the foot of Ngong Hills. Her name was Karen Christence Dinesen, baroness consort Blixen-Finecke (1885-1962), and under the pen name of Isak Dinesen published perhaps the most beautiful book ever written about Africa. A sublime writer and an abominable farmer, she lived free and was more wretched than happy, failed in business and love, suffered the Nazi occupation in Denmark and died out of Africa. Her life was a perfect symbol of Africa's spell and hope.

That very year, war in Europe broke out. The adjoining colonies of England and Germany in Africa could not remain detached from this situation. British East Africa only had three companies of the Third Regiment of King's African Rifles, while Tanganyika possessed a real army, small but trained, commanded by colonel Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck (1870-1964), who met Karen Blixen when both were travelling to Mombasa in the same ship. In November 1914 England arranged a landing in Tanga, in Tanganyika's coast, commanded by general Edward Aitken. The operation failed and von Lettow managed to save the colony temporarily, but in 1916 the German empire in Africa was virtually dismantled and the allies focused on throwing them away from Tanganyika, their last African possession. Commanded by South African general Jan Christian Smuts, the allies' combined forces succeeded in conquering Tanganyika, but Lettow was never defeated. He kept hidden and practised guerrilla warfare with a small contingent of men against the vast Smut's army. He never lost a single battle and only handed over his weapons upon knowing about the German rendition in Europe. So high was his sense of honour and his chivalry in combat that, at the end of his life, when he was ruined for his opposition to Hitler, his old opponent Smuts requested for him a British military pension.

The end of the European war imposed some changes in the remote African lands. By virtue of the Versailles Treaty, signed on the 28th of June 1919, Germany handed over all its colonies, and Tanganyika fell under Bristish control. After the conflict, a British government's program designed to stimulate the settling of veterans in East Africa multiplied the number of settlers, that at the end of the great war were well over 10,000.


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Cradle of Mankind
First migrations
Swahili coast
Portuguese empire
Omani domination
Mountains of the Moon
Inland peoples
Kenya exploration
Partition of East Africa
Protectorates & Lunatic Express
Settlers, hunters & sportsmen
African nationalism
Mau-Mau & end of the Colony
Uhuru, Jamhuri, Harambee
End of a century
Moi's decline & Constitution