Nairobi in 1959 was a large, modern city. In spite of the dusky hue of the great majority of its inhabitants, the British influence was evident at every turn. Some of its suburbs could have been moved there after being uprooted intact from Central London, apart from the fact that all the domestic staff were Africans and all the shopkeepers were Indian. In 1959 it was the capital city of one of the largest and most prosperous British colonies, Kenya, which with Tanganyika and Zanzibar formed a loosely-knit East African Federation.
Much of the prosperity stemmed from a thriving agriculture developed by white settlers, some locally born others immigrants from Britain. There was also a sprinkling of Afrikaners, whose ancestors had left South Africa on the Great Trek in the 1830s to escape increasing British influence. Some had driven their ox-drawn wagons far to the North until they finally came to rest in the lush pastures of the Kenyan highlands, where their descendants remained and preserved their cultural heritage as well as the ownership of their land. The efficiency and profitability of this agriculture owed much to the plentiful supply of cheap African labour, just as the comfort and social life of the landowners owed much to their numerous domestic servants.
In addition to agriculture, there was some industry and commerce. Some was British-owned, but the majority of small businesses - and some larger ones - belonged to individuals or families originating in the Indian sub-continent. Most artisans and craftsmen were also Indian. These had originated from labourers imported from India for the construction of a railway line through Tanganyika and Kenya to Mombasa, a port on the Indian Ocean through which imports and exports were channelled. The descendants of these labourers had risen by diligence and commercial acumen to their present high status in the community.
The majority of the indigenous African population engaged in subsistence agriculture in rural areas reserved for them, occupied the more menial jobs, or drifted to the capital to swell the ranks of impoverished squatters who lived from hand to mouth or crime to crime. From this poor and illiterate mass a few - usually the product of Christian missionary schools and scholarships to British secondary or tertiary education - were emerging to play a part in Government Service, politics or trade unionism.
Some of these had a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. Others were eager to subvert it.
In addition to those who had risen by their own abilities, serious efforts were being made by Government to train suitable Africans for positions of greater responsibility. In the Kenya Police, for example, an accelerated promotion scheme had been introduced. The object was to take African applicants with sufficient basic education to profit from it, and to give them an intensive six-month course at the Police Training School at Kiganjo. The course, a kind of combination of a British Army Officer Cadet Training Unit and the Metropolitan Police Training School in Hendon, England, was designed to produce individuals who could be gazetted as Assistant Superintendents of Police and given command of a Police sub-division. Although the scheme was only in its infancy, there were signs that it could, in some cases at least, be successful. One of the products of the first course, a young Kikuyu formerly a corporal, found himself at the end of the course in command of a sub-division with an Afrikaner Chief Inspector as his second-in-command. The experiment was observed with interest, with many onlookers prophesying inevitable disaster. In the event, after a period of mutual suspicion, the two settled down to an effective working relationship on a professional basis. No doubt both had to overcome a degree of prejudice to do so. The most marked change was on the part of the African, who before taking up his new command had expressed the opinion that he would now show his white colleagues how a sub-division should be run. Six months later he was heard to say "Thank God for Butty! He prevented me from making a complete fool of myself".
The colony was still in an official State of Emergency introduced as a result of the Mau Mau 'rebellion'. This was a poorly conceived, badly led, disorganised and ineffective attempt by some members of one tribe, the Wa Kikuyu, to throw out the white colonisers now firmly ensconced in their traditional tribal lands. Doomed to failure from the start, it had been characterised by the ignorance, superstition, brutality and incompetence of those participating. Armed with machetes and the occasional stolen or home-made firearm, they had terrorised their fellow-tribesmen into supporting them, ruthlessly suppressing opposition by wholesale killings. They had also mounted attacks on isolated European settlers, some of whom were murdered with extreme savagery. It must be said that measures taken against them were also sometimes of a savage nature. Prominent in the counter-terrorist role were the Kenya Police Reserve, whose members were drawn largely from the white settler population who had suffered the most from Mau Mau depredations. They were not inclined to look kindly on those responsible, or the tribe to which they belonged and who supported them. They could count on whole-hearted support from members of tribes traditionally enemies of the Kikuyu, who were happy enough to be able to pay off old scores.
Counter-measures in the shape of precautions at outlying farmhouses and a vastly increased Police and Army presence soon curtailed the activities of the Mau Mau, and they were slowly but surely hunted down. By 1960 they were already beaten. A few remaining fugitives were living like animals in the forests, but no longer constituted a serious threat to European holdings.
Nevertheless, Emergency Regulations remained in force, and quite large numbers of people detained under them remained in various camps. Jomo Kenyatta, the leader of the only serious attempt at a political party, the Kenya African National Union, remained in exile in the desolate North of the country, to which he had been banished to keep him out of mischief. Having been labelled by the Governor "a leader to darkness and death", it was almost inevitable that he would later become the first President of an independent Kenya. However, at that time such an outcome, although not without precedent, did not appear possible for at least ten years.
There was an administrative infrastructure which had grown up over the years, and which while primitive in some respects provided a basis for evolution. A vital part of this was the Kenya Police, a large force which had been augmented and modernised as a result of the Emergency. It was now a modern and quite sophisticated force, with its own specialist branches and a well-equipped Air Wing, providing useful rapid transport over the large areas covered by the Colony.
The centre of agricultural, commercial, tourist and political activity in the Colony was the Central Province, otherwise known as the 'White Highlands'. The Province contained the Kikuyu heartlands, had been the scene of most of the Mau Mau activity earlier in the Emergency, and was the only area in the country in which any serious threat might be expected to mar a situation in which law and order had been effectively restored and was being maintained.
Within reach of the Central Government in Nairobi, it centred on the thriving town of Nyeri. Nyeri was home to two hotels. The White Rhino was the equivalent of the local public house to the inhabitants, and was much frequented by members of the Kenya Police. The other hotel, the Outspan, was a more up-market operation catering for a tourist trade drawn by scenery (including snow-capped Mount Kenya not far distant) and the African fauna. Its main claim to fame was the existence of subsidiary premises known as 'Treetops'. This establishment was built in a nearby forest, and from its verandas it was possible at night to sit comfortably, glass in hand, and observe the floodlit game encouraged to parade beneath by bribes of food or salt. The then Princess Elizabeth had been staying in it when she received the news that, on the death of her father, she had become Queen of England.
There were other areas in which tourism was a booming and increasing industry. Entering through the up-to-date facility of Nairobi Airport, visitors from overseas had a wide choice. They could choose a trip into Tanganyika where they could climb Africa's highest mountain, Kilimanjaro. Alternatively, between Nairobi and the coast there were vast stretches of flat and fertile grasslands, home to every variety of game, big and small. On the Kenyan coast in the little town of Malindi, there was a good hotel, the Blue Marlin. This was beginning to attract visitors prepared to make the rough drive from Mombasa or further afield, and sportsmen drawn by the game fishing obtainable offshore.
By 1960 it was clear that Independence for Kenya was not only on the cards but was going to happen sooner than expected. Jomo Kenyatta was released from detention, and political activity intensified. His Kenya African National Union party was a clear favourite, and elections confirmed this. The die was cast and the day was set. 1963 would see the last of European rule in the former Colony, and the start of a new era of self-government by Africans.
Anybody hoping for radical changes was going to be disappointed. Those fearing them were soon re-assured. It seemed that Jomo Kenyatta and his Kenya African National Union had no intention of making or permitting radical changes, particularly to established, functioning and profitable institutions. The 'White Highlands' would continue to function much as before. Some who had seriously considered leaving now changed their minds. There would not be any great hurry to replace Europeans with Africans, and any who wished to continue to serve would be welcome to do so. This led to much soul searching on the part of British officers with long service in Kenya who had grown to love the place, but who had doubts about serving in a state run by African politicians. In the event, most opted to leave. However, a minority elected to continue to serve. Of these most left within two years, but a few soldiered on for five, ten or even fifteen years before retiring to homes they had established in the country.
Nevertheless, an era had come to an end. European domination had been replaced by African self-government. The future lay in African hands, and it remained to be seen what would result.