Earliest times

There is evidence that the forefathers of
Homo sapiens
lived in this part of East Africa 10,000-12,000 years ago. In the 1960s Louis Leakey, a Kenyan-born European, and his wife Mary, began a series of archaeological expeditions in East Africa, particularly around Lake Turkana in the north. During these excavations they traced human biological and cultural development back from about 50,000 years to 1.8 million years ago. They discovered the skull and bones of a two million-year-old fossil, which they named
Homo habilis
and who they argued was an ancestor to modern man. Since the 1970s, Richard Leakey, son of Louis and Mary Leakey, has uncovered many more clues as to the origins of humankind and how they lived, unearthing some early Stone Age tools. These findings have increased our knowledge of the beginnings of earth, and establish the Rift Valley as the Cradle of Humankind. Many of the fossils are now in the National Museum of Nairobi. Little evidence exists as to what happened between the periods 1.8 million and 250,000 years ago except that
Homo erectus
stood upright and moved further afield, spreading out over much of Kenya and Tanzania.

More recently there have been two significant discoveries. In March 2001 it emerged that a team including Richard Leakey's wife Meave had found an almost complete skull of a previously unknown creature near Lamekwi River in the north. The skull of
Kenyanthropus platyops
has a flat face, much like modern humans and has been dated at between 3.2 million and 3.5 million years old. This is about the same time as the famous 'Lucy' -
Australopithecus afarensis
- found in Ethiopia in 1974, was living and suggests that modern humans evolved from one of several closely related ape-like ancestors of that period.

A potentially more remarkable find was also announced in 2001. Fourteen fragments of a six million-year-old 'Millennium Man' were discovered in the remote Tugen Hills west of Lake Baringo. The fossils from four bodies of
Orrorin tugenensis
are among the oldest remains of ape-like ancestors ever found, about twice as old as Lucy. They appear to be more human-like than could have been imagined for a creature that lived so long ago and could be the remains of the oldest known direct ancestor of humans.

In more recent times, from 5000-3000 BC Kenya was inhabited by hunter-gatherer groups, the forefathers of the Boni, Wata and Wariangulu people.

Bantu expansion

Later still began an influx of peoples from all over Africa that lasted right up until about the 19th century. The first wave came from Ethiopia when the tall, lean Cushitic people gradually moved into Kenya over the second millennium BC settling around Lake Turkana in the north. These people practised mixed agriculture, keeping animals and planting crops. There is still evidence of irrigation systems and dams and wells built by them in the arid northern parts of Kenya. As the climate changed, getting hotter and drier, they were forced to move on to the hills above Lake Victoria.

The Eastern Cushitics, also pastoralists, moved into central Kenya around 3000 years ago. This group assimilated with other agricultural communities and spread across the land. The rest of Kenya's ancestors are said to have arrived between 500 BC and AD 500 with Bantu-speaking people arriving from West Africa and Nilotic speakers from Southern Sudan attracted by the rich grazing and plentiful farmland.

The Kenyan coast attracted people from other parts of the world as well as Africa. The first definite evidence of this is a description of Mombasa by the Greek Diogenes in AD 110 on his return to Egypt. He describes trading in cloth, tools, glass, brass, copper, iron, olives, weapons, ivory and rhinoceros horn at Mombasa. In AD 150 Ptolemy included details of this part of the coast in his Map of the World. It was to be another few centuries before the arrival of Islam on the coast and the beginning of its Golden Age.

Arab and Persian settlers developed trade routes extending across the Indian Ocean into China establishing commercial centres all along the East Africa coast. They greatly contributed to the arts and architecture of the region and built fine mosques, monuments and houses. Evidence of the prosperity of this period can be seen in the architecture in parts of Mombasa, Malindi and Lamu, and particularly in the intricate and elegant balconies outside some of the houses in the old part of Mombasa. All along this part of the coast, intermarriage between Arabs and Africans resulted in a harmonious partnership of African and Islamic influences personified in the Swahili people. This situation continued peacefully until the arrival of the Portuguese in the 16th century.

Portuguese and Arab influence

Mombasa was known to be rich in both gold and ivory, making it a tempting target for the Portuguese. Vasco da Gama, in search of a sea route to India, arrived in Mombasa in 1498. He was unsuccessful in docking there at this time, but two years later ransacked the town. For many years the Portuguese returned to plunder Mombasa until finally they occupied the city. There followed 100 years of harsh colonial rule from their principal base at Fort Jesus overlooking the entrance to the old harbour. Arab resistance to Portuguese control of the Kenyan coast was strong, but they were unable to defeat the Portuguese who managed to keep their foothold in East Africa.

The end of Portuguese control began in 1696 with a siege of Fort Jesus. The struggle lasted for nearly 2½ years when the Arabs finally managed to scale the fortress walls. By 1720, the last Portuguese garrison had left the Kenyan coast. The Arabs remained in control of the East African coast until the arrival of the British and Germans in the late 19th century. In this period the coast did not prosper as there were destructive intrigues amongst rival Arab groups and this hampered commerce and development in their African territories.

The Colonial period

The British influence in Kenya began quite casually in 1823 following negotiations between Captain Owen, a British Officer, and the Mazruis who ruled the island of Mombasa. The Mazruis asked for British protection from attack by other Omani interests in the area. Owen granted British protection in return for the Mazruis abolishing slavery. He sent to London and India for ratification of the treaty, posted his first officer together with an interpreter, four sailors and four marines and thus began the British occupation of Kenya. At this time, interest in Kenya was limited to the coast and then only as part of an evangelical desire to eliminate slavery. However, 50 years later attitudes towards the country changed.

In 1887 the Imperial British East Africa Company (IBEAC) founded its headquarters in Mombasa with the purpose of developing trade. From here it sent small groups of officials into the interior to negotiate with local tribesmen. One such officer Frederick Lugard made alliances with the Kikuyu en route to Uganda.

The final stage in British domination over Kenya was the development of the railway. The IBEAC and Lugard believed a railway was essential to keep its posts in the interior of Kenya supplied with essential goods, and also believed it was necessary in order to protect Britain's position in Uganda. Despite much opposition in London, the railway was built, commencing in 1901, at an eventual cost of £5 million (US$7.3 million).

Nairobi was created at the centre of operations as a convenient stopping point between Mombasa and Lake Victoria where a water supply was available. Despite problems, the railway reached Nairobi in 1899 and Port Florence (Kisumu) in 1901, and was the catalyst for British settlers moving into Kenya as well as for African resistance to the loss of their lands.

From 1895 to 1910 the government encouraged white settlers to cultivate land in the Central Highlands of the country around the railway, particularly the fertile Western Highlands. It was regarded as imperative to attract white settlers to increase trade and thus increase the usefulness of the railway. The Masai bitterly opposed being moved from their land but years of war combined with the effects of cholera, smallpox, rinderpest and famine had considerably weakened their resistance. The Masai were moved into two reserves on either side of the railway, but soon had to move out of the one to the north as the white settlers pressed for more land. Kikuyu land was also occupied by white settlers as they moved to occupy the highlands around the western side of Mount Kenya.

By 1915 there were 21,400 sq km set aside for about 1000 settlers. This number was increased after the Second World War with the Soldier Settlement Scheme. Initially the settlers grew crops and raised animals, basing their livelihood on wheat, wool, dairy and meat, but by 1914 it was clear that these had little potential as export goods so they changed to maize and coffee. Perhaps the most famous of the early settlers was Lord Delamere. He was important in early experimental agriculture and it was through his mistakes that many lessons were learnt about agriculture in the tropics. He tried out different wheat varieties until he developed one that was resistant to wheat rust. The 1920s saw the rapid expansion of settler agriculture - in particular coffee, sisal and maize - and the prices for these commodities rose, increasing settlers' optimism about their future.

However, when the prices plummeted in the Depression of the 1930s the weaknesses of the settler agriculture scheme were revealed. By 1930 over 50% by value of settler export was accounted for by coffee alone, making them very vulnerable when prices fell. Many settlers were heavily mortgaged and could not service their debts. About 20% of white farmers gave up their farms, while others left farming temporarily. Cultivated land on settler farms fell from 2690 sq km in 1930 to 2030 sq km in 1936.

About one-third of the colonial government's revenue was from duties on settlers' production and goods imported by the settlers. Therefore the government was also seriously affected by the fall in prices. In earlier years the government had shown its commitment to white agriculture by investment in infrastructure (for example railways and ports) and, because of its dependence on custom duties, it felt it could not simply abandon the settlers. Many of the settlers were saved by the colonial government who pumped about £1 million (US$1.46 million) into white agriculture with subsidies and rebates on exports and loans, and the formation of a Land Bank.

Following the Depression and the Second World War the numbers of settlers increased sharply so that by the 1950s the white population had reached about 80,000. As well as dairy farming, the main crops they grew were coffee, tea and maize. However, discontent among the African population over the loss of their traditional land to the settlers was growing. In order to increase the pool of African labour for white settler development (most Africans were unwilling to work for the Europeans voluntarily) taxes and other levies were imposed. Furthermore, Africans were prevented from growing coffee, the most lucrative crop, on the grounds that there was a risk of coffee berry disease with lots of small producers. Thus many Africans were forced to become farm labourers or to migrate to the towns in search of work to pay the taxes. By the 1940s the European farmers had prospered in cash-crop production.

As the number of Europeans moving into the country increased, so too did African resistance to the loss of their land and there was organized African political activity against the Europeans as early as 1922. The large number of Africans, particularly Kikuyu, moving into the growing capital Nairobi formed a political community supported by sections of the influential Asian community. This led to the formation of the East African Association, the first pan-Kenyan nationalist movement led by Harry Thuku. His arrest and the subsequent riots were the first challenge to the settlers and the colonial regime.

Jomo Kenyatta
, an influential Kikuyu, led a campaign to bring Kikuyu land grievances to British notice. In 1932 he gave evidence to the Carter Land Commission in London which had been set up to adjudicate on land interests in Kenya, but without success. During the war years, all African political associations were banned and there was no voice for the interests of black Kenyans. At the end of the war, thousands of returning African soldiers began to demand rights, and discontent grew. Kenyatta had remained abroad travelling in Europe and the Soviet Union and returned in 1946 as a formidable statesman. In 1944 an African nationalist organization, the
Kenya African Union
) was formed to press for African access to settler occupied land. The KAU was primarily supported by the Kikuyu. In 1947 Kenyatta became president of KAU and was widely supported as the one man who could unite Kenya's various political and ethnic factions.

Mau Mau era

At the same time as the KAU were looking for political change, a Kikuyu group, Mau Mau, began a campaign of violence. In the early 1950s the Mau Mau began terrorist activities, and several white settlers were killed as well as thousands of Africans thought to have collaborated with the colonial government.

The British authorities declared a state of emergency in 1952 in the face of the Mau Mau campaign and the Kikuyu were herded into 'protected villages' surrounded by barbed wire. People were forbidden to leave during the hours of darkness. From 1952 to 1956 the terrorist campaign waged against the colonial authority resulted in the deaths of 13,000 Africans and 32 European civilians. Over 20,000 Kikuyu were placed in detention camps before the Mau Mau finally were defeated. The British imprisoned Kenyatta in 1953 for seven years for alleged involvement in Mau Mau activities, and banned the KAU, though it is debatable as to whether Kenyatta had any influence over Mau Mau activities.

The cost of suppressing the Mau Mau, the force of the East African case, and world opinion, convinced the British government that preparation for Independence was the wisest course. The settlers were effectively abandoned, and were left with the prospect of making their own way under a majority-rule government. A number did sell up and leave, but many, encouraged by Kenyatta, stayed on to become Kenyan citizens.

The state of emergency was lifted in January 1960 and a transitional constitution was drafted allowing for the existence of political parties and ensuring Africans were in the majority in the Legislative Council. African members of the council subsequently formed the
Kenya African National Union
) with James Gichuru, a former president of KAU, as its acting head, and
Tom Mboya
Oginga Odinga
, two prominent Luos, part of the leadership. KANU won the majority of seats in the Legislative Council but refused to form an administration until the release of Kenyatta.

In 1961 Kenyatta became the president of KANU. KANU won a decisive victory in the 1963 elections, and Kenyatta became prime minister as Kenya gained internal self-government. Kenya became fully independent later that year, the country was declared a republic, and Kenyatta became president. Kenya retained strong links with the UK, particularly in the form of military assistance and financial loans to compensate European settlers for their land, some of which was redistributed among the African landless.


The two parties that had contested the 1963 elections with KANU were persuaded to join KANU and Kenya became a single-party state. In 1966 Odinga left KANU and formed a new party, the Kenya People's Union, with strong Luo support. Tom Mboya, was assassinated by a Kikuyu in 1969. There followed a series of riots in the west of the country by Luos, and Odinga was placed in detention where he remained for the next 15 months. At the next general election in 1969 only KANU members were allowed to contest seats, and two-thirds of the previous national assembly lost their seats.

The East African Community (EAC) comprising Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda, which ran many services in common such as the railways, the airline, post and telecommunications, began to come under strain. Kenya had pursued economic policies which relied on a strong private sector; Tanzania had adopted a socialist strategy after 1967; Uganda had collapsed into anarchy and turmoil under Amin. In 1977, Kenya unilaterally pulled out of the EAC, and in response Tanzania closed its borders with Kenya.

Kenyatta was able to increase Kenya's prosperity and stability through reassuring the settlers that they would have a future in the country and that they had an important role in its success at the same time as delivering his people limited land reform. Under Kenyatta's presidency, Kenya became one of the more successful newly independent countries.


Kenyatta died in 1978 to be succeeded by Daniel arap Moi, his vice president. Moi began by relaxing some of the political repression of the latter years of Kenyatta's presidency. However, he was badly shaken by a coup attempt in 1982 that was only crushed after several days of mayhem, and a more repressive period was ushered in. Relations between Kenya and its neighbours began to improve in the 1980s and the three countries reached agreement on the distribution of assets and liabilities of the EAC by 1983. At this time the border between Kenya and Tanzania was reopened. In 1992 political parties (other than KANU) were allowed. Moi and KANU were returned (albeit without a majority of the popular vote) in the multiparty elections late in 1992. In the 1997 presidential elections Moi was again victorious, with an increased share of the vote. In the elections for the National Assembly KANU achieved a slender overall majority with 107 seats out of 210.

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