British Empire Article

Courtesy of OSPA

by Duncan McCormack (Senior Cartographer, Survey of Kenya, 1958-1963)
Mapping Kenya
Government Road, Nairobi
When I arrived at Survey of Kenya in early 1958 I was pleasantly surprised to find an agency well set up and able to provide a full topographic mapping service from aerial survey through photogrammetry, cartography, photo-processing and lithography. In its modern FHQ at Ruaraka, Survey of Kenya also had a technical Training Wing and a large African Lands Division devoted to mapping consolidated plots of fragmented African rural land under the Swynnerton Plan. Also, a special cartographic group were working on the new Atlas of Kenya.

The Director, Administration, most surveyors, the plan registry, cadastral services, city and township mapping and liaison with the adjacent Lands Department were still housed in the old HQ colonial-style buildings in what was then Government Road, where I spent my first six months initiating a new 1:250,000 scale cadastral series. One day a column of siafu, safari ants, rose through the cracked flooring and crossed the drawing office floor as a solid brown mass before disappearing down another crack. The aged electrical system provided a sharp tingle every time a desk lamp was touched. Through my window I looked along Kingsway with its Italian grocery, regularly visited by white-clad nuns who emerged with laden kikapu to feed the hungry waifs they had rescued from Nairobi streets. My Pakistani staff daily introduced me to a wide variety of delicious koftas, pakorhas, and samosas, ("come on, sir, you try that thing"). I was far away from the rather staid Kiwi environment and loving every minute of it.

Mapping Kenya
89th Field Survey Squadron
At FHQ the principal task of topographic mapping had, some years earlier, been beefed up in response to greater needs by the police, the military and government agencies during the Mau Mau Emergency. The 89th Field Survey Squadron, R.E., carried out topographic fieldwork in remote areas, provided our printing presses and also ran the large map and paper store. There were also a number of DOS (Directorate of Overseas Surveys) surveyors attached, engaged in essential baseline and triangulation surveys needed to establish an accurate geodetic network and in control surveys for aerial photography.

In late 1958 when I was posted out to FHQ there were still very large slotted-template laydowns to establish control and rectify the scale errors of the aerial photographs, a technology soon to be superseded. The 1:50,000 scale, SK 11 or Y731 topographic series covered the more settled areas of the Highlands, Rift Valiey and Coastal region with over 250 sheets printed, by that time, in five colours. The 1:100,000 Y633 series, covering sparsely-populated areas such as the Northern Frontier District, were basically tactical maps showing motorable terrain, roads and tracks and had form-line contours. By then about half the 186 sheets were printed. The 1:250,000, Y503 series, which I began in late 1958, were derived from the 1:100,000 Y633 series. Designed for land operations, they proved very popular with the Police Air Wing.

Mapping Kenya
Astro Fix
The large Atlas of Kenya, with 47 colour plates, was first issued in late 1959. It immediately sold out and I was tasked with producing a Second Edition. A remarkable feature was its complete design, compilation, drawing, printing and binding within Survey of Kenya without the overview of a committee of academics, as is the norm.

The SK 13 and 14 1:2,500 and 1:5,000 Nairobi and Environs topocadastral series, totalling 136 sheets in five colours, showed cadastral boundaries overprinting topography, revealing some glaring suburban land encroachments. Many other townships were also covered. There were cadastral maps of Nairobi and Environs at 1:25,000 and Settled Areas at 1:50,000, plus other municipalities at 1:10,000 scale. Aerial photographs were also available for purchase.

A large range of special maps, at scales of 1:1,000,000 to 1:4,000,000, included mean annual rainfall and rainfall probability maps, hunting block maps, a folding safari map, administrative boundaries, the Nairobi Area, Nairobi Royal National Park and Mt Kenya maps. There were some 'oneoffs' such as Famine Relief maps to aid in combatting the severe early '60s drought.

Mapping Kenya
Map of NW Kenya
Production of such a large array of topographical, cadastral, township and miscelianeous maps, plus a large Atlas, required complex planning, massive expenditure and great dedication by all those involved. This huge effort reflected great credit on the colonial administration's foresight and resolve. Maps are essential in any country's development and must be accurate and of good quality. Achieving this, using the pre-digitai technologies of the day, required a large staff and the combined efforts of a number of disciplines: the aircrew who flew the vast areas of accurate, overlapping aerial photography; the land surveyors who provided baseline measurement and primary triangulation essential for an accurate geodetic framework, also ground control surveys; the photogrammetrists who plotted the map detail to scale; the cartographers who compiled and produced the final fair drawings; the experts who fieldchecked for detail accuracy and incorporated accurate nomenclature; the lithographers who processed and printed the maps and, lastly, the map librarians who saw that the latest editions quickly reached the hands of those who relied on them.

Survey of Kenya's training of local recruits of all races in these complex and exacting technologies also reflected the vision displayed by the colonial government. I must admit, in coming from the New Zealand Lands & Survey Department, I had not expected to find African cartographers capable of the most complex mapping work with minimal supervision. Their cartographic standards were up with the best and their work ethic certainly superior. In the late '50s I imagined I had a long and enjoyable career ahead in Kenya.

From its earliest days Survey of Kenya had to surmount huge difficulties in distance, hostiie environments, slender resources and sometimes danger to establish a viable cadastral system on which title could be issued and a reliable geodetic framework on which topographic mapping could be carried out. There were also five international boundaries to be surveyed and demarcated and internal administrative boundaries which had to be legally defined. On this note, one of my interesting tasks nearing Independence was the defining of proposed regional boundaries. In mid-1963 the Director and I went into lock-up mode to define and legally describe these post-Independence regional boundaries only to have them scrapped after all our exacting work was completed. I sometimes wonder whether regionalism would have benefited or complicated Kenya's subsequent development.

In late 1963 I left for home and today have lasting memories that those were the most challenging, interesting and rewarding of my forty years in cartography.

Kenya Map
Y503 Index Map of Kenya
Colony Profile
89th Field Survey Squadron, R.E. in Kenya
Originally Published
OSPA Journal 109: April 2015


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