The British Empire Library

Kenya - The Land and the People

edited by Sir John Johnson

Courtesy of OSPA

David Lovatt Smith (Past resident having association with Kenya since 1950)
Following on from his Colony to Nation, Sir John Johnson in this latest book brings together anecdotal reminiscences of a number of Kenya’s Provincial Administrators who served between the years 1950 to Independence in 1963.

As with Colony to Nation, this is a pleasing book to read, made more special because it records a collection of the life and work of District Commissioners and District Officers who were at the ‘coal face’, so to speak, of colonial rule. It is therefore of the utmost importance both to future generations of Kenyans and to historians generally, as well as an interesting read for those who knew Kenya and some of the people mentioned. This collection of narratives provides as accurate a record of the life and work of these dedicated men as it is possible to find. They should also help to combat the disgraceful distortions recently published by some revisionist historians whose aim is simply to denigrate the colonial period, particularly the British Empire.

Anyone reading the contribution of, say, Ian St G Lindsay (pp 201 to 207), could not fail to applaud the work he put in, for example, to ensure the General Election of 1961, particularly the registration of voters, went off without a hitch. Neither could one fail to be impressed by the testimony of so many contributors as they describe the principle of keeping the peace within and between the tribes by finding out who were the traditional leaders, and then elevating them to positions of authority within their districts to work alongside their European officers. Thus, the tried and proven method of local government was understood by all, and continued successfully as, for example. Tommy Thompson points out (p 125) with regard to the Fort Hall Kikuyu. So much better than the pseudo western-style elections which took place after Independence, where the one who had the most money to pay voters became the leader of that community, usurping the hitherto successful authority of the traditional leaders and, at the same time, providing the trigger for the endless corruption which continues apace to the present day.

There are 45 different accounts in the book, some are little more than a page and others are several pages. I was sorry they were not longer. Difficult to pick out the best, but I enjoyed John Williams’ description of his time in Elgon Nyanza District of Nyanza Province, particularly his ten day safari to the Elgoni people of Mt Elgon, of whom I had never heard. His last paragraph was typical of other contributor’s sentiments: "Could we have done more as a colonial administration? We achieved a lot and time was not on our side before we had to hand over completely. However, the picture that remains in my mind is one of happy, smiling faces on the whole whenever 1 went round my division; one can only hope they are as happy now." Rather a vain hope, I fear.

Clive Smith on p 33 sums up the crucial axis upon which colonial rule revolved: "The trinity of administrative priority in the form of law and order maintenance, the administration of justice and the collection of taxes was sacrosanct.'' Later he deplores the rush to train up those who were destined to take over the administration of their areas in time for Independence. This is a theme that runs through many of the contributions. They highlight the error of far too short a time given for the preparation and training of their incoming African counterparts to whom the colonial DOs and DCs had to hand over. Bob Otter’s observation on the matter is typical: "Many however, ...regret the overhasty and rushed withdrawal of their support in the transition [to Independence], a view expressed to me more than ten years later by my Kenyan successor."

Several contributors emphasise their determination to teach the necessity for an impartial justice system that was so alien to the African before colonial rule. In the same vein, other contributors tell of their frustration at trying to introduce better, more modern farming methods. John Johnson, however, writes of the successful introduction of tea in the Embu District and records: 'The colonial administration started this march to prosperity; the energetic Kikuyu carried it forward in an agrarian revolution.'

Crucially, the accounts given show decisively that Britain can be justly proud of the work carried out by these men in the field who worked so closely with the indigenous people, evidence for which is the success with which they brought them and the country to such a peaceful Independence.

Minor quibbles about the book are the absence of photographs to enhance the collection and a difficult book to handle physically. Perhaps the paper could have been a less heavy material so that the binding could cope better and allow the pages to remain open. The great value of the book, however, is the bringing together of so many important records for posterity.

British Empire Book
Sir John Johnson
The Editor
Sir John Johnson


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