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Africa During the Scramble: The Rebellion that Didn't Happen

By Gary Oswald

Maasai warriors in German East Africa, c. 1906–1918

The Maasai people of Kenya and Tanzania are a nomadic group of cattle herders in the Great Rift Valley. Traditionally, they fought primarily with throwing clubs, spears and shields and relied almost entirely on their cattle herds. They ate the meat, drank the milk daily, and even drank the blood on occasion. After emerging in force in the early 19th century and threatening Omani Mombasa in the 1850s, they were in decline by the late years of the 19th century, with more populous settled people such as the Kikuyu driving into their lands and years of brutal warfare on all fronts leading them to be overextended. The new weapons spreading out from the Arabs also played their part. As the settled Kenyan people became increasingly effective at using firearms and stone fortifications, the days of the dominance of the Maasai nomadic herders were over. Instead the Maasai were seen as little more than useful mercenaries, hired by their more powerful neighbours to raid their enemies.

But this was a slow decline where they were still a formidable force. It was the years of 1884 to 94 that were utterly disastrous for the Maasai people. Droughts reduced the amount of crops grown in the region, smallpox killed many of them and worst of all Rinderpest and cattle lung plague killed up to 90% of their cattle. As a result they starved in their tens of thousands, with estimates of nearly two thirds of the Maasai dying. The famine of the late 1890s practically emptied areas of Kenya of people, opening up what would become known as the White Highlands for British settlement. The Maasai still left attempted to endure these hard times by alternatively raiding other peoples and begging for employment with them.

But the loss of cattle was more than just a loss of food, it was a disintegration of Maasai society. Herdsmen were what they were and ownership of cattle was how they measured themselves as Maasai. The Maasai needed a breathing space, a way to earn money until their herds could regrow. And the British, recently arrived in Kenya after having bought it from the Zanzibar Sultan and hoping to build a railway to their vassals in Uganda, needed guards and mercenaries to conquer this half empty land for them. Throughout the 1890s starving Maasai refugees would take refuge and employment with the British. They would be fed and in return would raid British enemies who threatened the railroad and be given what animals the British could loot from those attacks. Most of the Maasai stayed with the British only long enough to earn their own livestock and then went back to their pastoralist lives. Those who had opted out of ever returning to their old life hung around, and survived by prostitution, trading and theft until the British inevitably lost patience and had them moved on. The problem of course is since the Maasai could only return to their lives by the gains they made from raiding, they tended to raid nearby polities whether or not the British actually wanted them to. In 1895 they even attacked a British caravan and inflicted large casualties on it. By 1901 the administration found their alliance with the Maasai deeply embarrassing, with them constantly starting new fights with people who had previously been friendly to the British. At the same time the Maasai, driven by their losses to disease and famine, broke out into civil war, the War of Mojiro, over who should rule them.

Political power in the Maasai was held primarily by councils of elders with the Laibon, religious and ritual leaders that the British called Chiefs, there to plan and prophesise but not to rule. Ambitious Laibon however could obtain their own informal political power through great deeds, Supeet and Mbatiany had managed it through their organisation of the Maasai federations during the Wars against the Iloikop during which the Maasai had destroyed their old enemy. If a Laibon proved themselves worth listening to, the Maasai would listen to them and not the elders.

Most Laibon wished to follow in their footsteps but because there was no accepted hierarchy, beyond gaining more power because more people want to follow them, they were innately insecure. If a successful Laibon didn't keep impressing his guys, another Laibon could easily steal his followers or the elders could easily discredit him.

Maasai warriors confronting a spotted hyena,

The two most powerful Laibon in the 1890s were Olonana and Senteu and the War of Mojiro essentially started because both sought to remove the other so that their own legend would grow. Once the two sides were picked, there were also tribal and political markers between the followers of the two men, Senteu tended to attract the more anti European fire breathers which often meant those who lived in German territory, but at the core it was a personal conflict. Britain, as allies of the Maasai, were asked to pick a side and they picked Olonana, largely because they were looking for reliable men who could reign in the Maasai and Olonana lied to them about his influence. The British seemed to think he was a paramount chief who was facing rebels and could reunite everyone if given support. That wasn't true, the Maasai were far more decentralised and un-hierarchal as a group. But the British made it true by throwing their support behind him and expecting him to act as the main ruler. This support helped Olonana stay in the fight against Senteu, despite having less followers, but it also made him dependent on the British and tied him to this hierarchical system without the flexibility and loose leadership the Maasai were used to. If the British were going to fight Senteu for Olonana, they wanted him to be able to stop his men from raiding Kikuyu towns that had agreed fealty to the UK. And as British influence grew, that meant that Maasai raiding targets diminished. Olonana attempted to work around this by raiding targets outside Kenya, in particular targets within German East Africa where Senteu had his base of power, but the British weren't thrilled by that either. They'd originally written it off as attacks on rebels who the Germans were fighting but in 1901, after numerous complaints from Germany about British allies raiding their lands, they asked Olonana to stop that too. The problem was if all Olonana did was tell his people not to raid and so regain their herds, he wasn't being a good Laibon and so his authority was being eroded. Traditionally if the Maasai didn't want to listen to a Laibon they just didn't. Senteu on the other hand, had other problems, the Germans hated the Maasai, who allied with the Arusha to raid German settlements and had chosen the Chagga as their allied people in that region. Senteu was thus caught between two enemies, within Tanzania, the Chagga and the Germans fought him constantly, but if he was to cross into Kenya, he'd be pursued by Olonana and his British allies.

Though Olonana himself only had some British Allies. British East Africa was divided into three areas and, while the Maasai had traditionally raided all three, the colonial leadership of each had different priorities.

There was the Uganda Protectorate, where a lot of people had still survived the famines and epidemics of the 1890s and so the focus was on taxing and ruling through those people with the Bugandan protestant elite collecting hut tax for the British. White settlement in that area didn't become a thing until the 1910s, when the British fell out with the Bugandans over hut taxes and stopped listening to them.

There was the Kenya protectorate which was a thin strip of the modern Kenyan coast, which included Mombasa and the other port cities which had been part of the Omani Sultanate. This was theoretically still part of Zanzibar until 1963, which was still theoretically independent and only a protectorate of the UK, though in practice by 1914 Zanzibar was run as a colony and the Kenyan Protectorate was administrated with the rest of British East Africa. This land however still had literate urban populations as a legacy of being major cities in the Omani Empire and the British relied on Arab and Indian middlemen to govern them. And then you had the East Africa protectorate, which would be renamed the Kenya Colony in 1920, which was the land between Buganda and Mombassa, where most of modern day Kenya is. This was land which the British had conquered without having to really deal with any established states like they had in Uganda and the Kenyan coast. This was where the famine had depopulated huge areas of land and left native resistance to British rule pretty much non-existent. It was this area that was opened up for settlement for Brits, Boers, Arabs, Indians and Jews (the Uganda scheme of a new Israel which the British offered to the Zionist council of 1903 was supposed to be in this area) on the false basis that it was empty, though in fact African populations would bounce back a lot quicker than the British would expect.

The British leaders of the East Africa protectorate liked Olonana. They viewed a hostile Maasai host as the only plausible threat to their position and so were happy to deal with someone who was happy to deal with them. But the British leaders of the Uganda Protectorate, who already had better armed and more numerous African allies, hated Olonana, whose men raided their taxed huts and openly worked against him by supporting rival Laibon to weaken his power.

Maasai woman in traditional clothing and jewellery. photo by William Warby and shared under the CC BY 2.0 licence

In 1902 Senteu surrendered to the British and Olonana had no more internal threats and no more legitimate targets. He no longer needed his alliance with the British. Nor did the surviving Maasai need that alliance, their herds had grown back enough to support their reduced numbers and they now were self-sufficient again, not needing to work to earn the chance of gaining more cows. Olonana himself would be increasingly ignored in favour of the elders and other Laibon as his single rule was seen primarily as a temporary method for the crisis that could now be abandoned. He died in 1911, respected but no longer obeyed. He would mark a turning point in the power of the Laibons, but would never form a dynasty of recognised overlords of all the Maasai.

But the British had reached a position of their power in the country where they no longer needed the Maasai either. They began moving against their former allies introducing taxes, disarming them in British cities and requiring them to show passes when moving around the country. A new colony police was recruited to enforce these laws which was mostly composed of Kikuyu, who were more reliable, and numerous enough that they no longer needed Maasai allies to put down rebellions.

Maasai Raiders were now tracked down and apprehended and while the British has always met Olonana wherever he happened to be to discuss business, Maasai leaders after him were simply summoned to Nairobi to pay fines for the damages they had caused. Britain no longer had to tolerate nomadic allies when they wanted settled down tax paying citizens instead.

In 1904 Maasai reserves were introduced to keep them off the land reserved for white settlement and over the next decade, at the demand of the settlers who resented the large areas of land reserved for nomads compared to the much smaller amount of land needed for settled Kikuyu villages, those reserves were repeatedly shrunk. The Maasai were removed from their old grazing grounds in forced migrations in 1904/05 and 1911/12 to less desirable land, which was either arid or fly infected. In 1913 a number of Maasai leaders took the British to court over this on the basis that a treaty they had signed in 1904 had guaranteed they would maintain some of their original land. They wished to either maintain control over that land or for them to receive compensation in cash. They received neither, the court dismissed them entirely on the basis that essentially the Kenyan court had no jurisdiction over British government actions and so the British could do whatever they wanted.

This was a brutal blow to the Maasai, they'd been reduced to the periphery of the Colony, robbed off their best land and pushed largely outside its economy. But they submitted to these humiliations without any large scale violence, the popular Maasai rebellion the British had once so feared simply never happened. To an extent part of this was increasing collaboration from Maasai elites who had genuinely got rich through the British system, where hierarchal rule with the families of Laibon having greater privileges had been established by the British desire to talk to fewer people but a large part of it was simply that the Maasai knew they would lose if they tried and so they were mostly pragmatic about it.

There were three uprisings against the British in 1918, 1922 and 1935 but all were small-scale and easily defeated with little loss of life. They came from a minority of the warrior class that felt itself increasingly threatened and marginalised within a society that wanted to destroy its way of life. The 1918 rebellion was about education of Maasai children in schools, the 1922 rebellion was about the end to the Maasai warrior system and the 1935 rebellion was about asking them to do menial work on the roads.

In all three the warriors, while defeated militarily, did achieve something. The 1918 attacks were enough to convince the schools to limit the amount of children they would take in, the 1922 rebels earned a stay of execution for their class and the 1935 attacks ended any attempts to recruit them for menial work, despite forced labour being a large part of how Kenya was run. Having driven the Maasai into the worst land in Kenya and forced them to pay tax, the colonial government wasn't that keen on changing their society. They'd got what they needed in terms of money and land and so weren't willing to provoke them further with any other changes.

The surprising thing about all this is there never was a proper Maasai-British War. The Maasai did attack British settlements in the very early days and Britain did fight Senteu for Olonana but the first real time the Maasai and British clashed was in the 1950s during the bloody Mau-Mau Rebellion, when native Kenyan people of all cultures fought a full on war for independence. Had the Rinderpest epizootic and resulting famines not been so devastating this likely would have very different, with the British encountering much more organised military resistance to their conquest and perhaps as a result the Maasai would occupy a more prominent role in the British imagination, the way the Zulu do.

But instead the Maasai, suffering from an appalling natural disaster when the British arrived, just faded away without a fight, not even rising up en mass in 1913 when the British half expected them to do so, given their unfair treatment. This means there's no real obvious point of divergence, where an independent Maasai host could have merged, but also there's no major colonial atrocity to avoid. The Masaai were treat badly by colonial rule and their position diminished, but being willing to accept taxes and land loss meant they also preserved a lot more of their pre colonial culture and norms during the colonial era than a lot of Africans did. To this day Masaai herdsmen still have similar social structures to that which emerged during Olonana's day, with cattle still forming the basis of their society and the families of Laibon having multiples wives as a privilege. Their activities are still restricted by the Kenyan and Tanzanian governments, in Kenya they are only able to take cattle onto the game parks during night for instance so as not to spook tourists and in Tanzania they have been forcibly driven out of some of their land all together, meaning many have left pastoral work, but the Masaai are a lot closer to their pre colonial lifestyle than most Africans and as such have maintained more of an ethnic identity.


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Gary Oswald is the editor of the 'Grapeshot and Guillotines' and 'Emerald Isles' Anthologies.

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