USM Open Source History Text: The World at War: World History 1914-1945

African Resistance after the First World War: Kenya

The era of colonialism in Africa from 1914 to the beginning of the Second World War was marked in innumerable ways by European colonial power. By 1914, the first wave of active resistance (the attempt to preserve precolonial arrangements on the continent) had been crushed. In the aftermath of the WWI, a new type of anti‐colonial resistance would emerge that had little in common with its predecessors.

Let’s take some examples of resistance, beginning with the British East African colony of Kenya. In 1919, Kenya was under British rule. Like in Rhodesia and South Africa, Kenyan land was becoming contested between a growing white settler population and native Kenyans. Increasingly, during and after the war the settlers were gaining power within the British colonial administration, taking land, imposing taxes, and forming the basis for a segregated and racially hierarchical society, as emerged in South Africa. Included in the Kenyans’ grievances were familiar ones: the imposition of mandatory identity papers, white settlers’ claims to highland farmlands, burdensome taxation, and the rule of British‐selected chiefs, who pursued their own interests and the interests of the British rulers at the expense of the broader community.

When a militant solution to these grievances was, temporarily, ruled out, Africans turned instead to politics. In 1921, an organization formed to fight against both the colonial domination and the rule of the selected chiefs: the Young Kikuyu Association (YKA), which was led by a telephone operator named Harry Thuku. Thuku, unlike Gandhi, tried to fight on many fronts at once. As we know from the earlier chapter, Gandhi’s Satyagraha movement kept the terms of protest purposefully narrow and simple. Satyagrahis focused on one issue and never mixed one grievance with another. Thuku took on multiple injustices simultaneously. He called for strikes to protest the exploitation of African labor. He supported African farmers as they violated a colonial ban on Africans growing valuable Arabica coffee. Thuku, like Gandhi, called on Kenyans to dispose of their identity papers, thus frustrating the colonial administration’s attempt at popular control.

In what proved to be the last straw as far as the government was concerned, Thuku and others founded the East Africa Association to advocate for East African independence. The colonial government arrested Thuku. Protests broke out demanding Thuku’s release. The colonial police opened fire, killing an unknown but considerable number of Kenyans. Thuku was exiled to a rural area of north Kenya for detainment. Though Thuku himself turned to a much less anti‐colonialism perspective as time went on (many of the people he inspired in his early years as an anti‐imperialism leader began to see him as a collaborator when he condemned the Mau Mau Uprising), Thuku’s actions during the early 1920s set a powerful anti‐colonialist example. Organizations that he helped found would continue to advocate for land reform, education and health provisions and, above all, for Kenyan and East African nationalism, meaning self-determination and independence. We see with Thuku and others of this generation a new class emerge in colonial Africa, an educated and politicized class of people who were not advocating a return to precolonial arrangements but who wanted to foster a new spirit of African national identity with the aim of political independence and nationhood. The resistance tactics also changed from violence and military conflict to social and political organization. It would be in the context of Thuku's Young Kikuyu Association that the future leader of an independent Kenya, Jomo Kenyatta, would get his start in politics and resistance to colonial rule.

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