Arabs and Brits in Early Colonial Kenya
reviews of Sir Ali bin Salim and the Making of Mombasa and Northrup - the Life of William Northrup McMillan, both by Judy Aldrick, Old Africa Books, Nairobi, 2017 and 2012 respectively.
These two books by the same author cover different aspects of Kenya in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Both are definitive biographies of important personages in the history of Kenya, both of whom - prior to these studies - were largely neglected in histories of the era. Ms. Aldrick corrects that oversight. Through her astonishingly well researched works, readers gain insight into Kenya’s complicated origins.
First chronologically is the biography of Sir Ali bin Salim, which does not begin with him but with a history of the East African coast. Independent city states of a thousand years ago contested among themselves, came under Portuguese suzerainty in 1498 for over a hundred years, achieved self governing status again before succumbing to the Sultan of Zanzibar in the early 19th century and then the British. In the latter era, there was much intrigue. Arab families sought favor from the monarch in Zanzibar and maneuvered against him and each other. The height of power was to be appointed Liwali, i.e. the embodiment of the Sultan’s authority over a mainland district. In turn leaders of the twelve Swahili tribes of the coastal towns endeavored to manipulate and constrain their rulers. Adding to the complications were the arrivals of Europeans - missionaries, explorers, businessmen, soldiers, railway builders and imperial bureaucrats. Additionally, England and Germany competed for territory.
The book begins to jell with the introduction of Salim bin Khalfan, an Arab civil servant from the prominent Al Busaidi clan who rose to become the Liwali of Mombasa in 1884. He subsequently employed his son Ali bin Salim as his deputy. Ali bin Salim then succeeded him as Liwali in 1904 and served until 1931. The two of them presided over the fortunes of the Kenya coast for over fifty years. It was a turbulent time because the power of the Sultan waned and was replaced in erratic fashion by the British. Issues of slavery, land ownership, public works, justice, legal framework, taxes, etc. troubled the region. The Liwali’s authorities changed as well i.e. diminished, but the two Liwalis, seeing that change was inevitable - especially the abolition of slavery - did their best to ensure peaceful evolution. They were always caught between whimsical overlords, either the Sultan or British authorities, and the needs and expectations of the Arab and Swahili communities of the coast.
Sir Ali, who was a gracious, courtly gentleman was well placed to serve as the interface. Although he earned the approbation of those who saw their prosperity being curtailed, for example Swahili families who lost slaves and could no longer farm, Sir Ali gained confidence of new British rulers and the expanding merchant class of Mombasa. Under his tutelage Mombasa expanded from a cluster of houses jammed into Old Town to a real city with roads, a modern port, a railway terminus and potable water. Both Sir Ali and his father became wealthy and both became generous patrons of schools, hospitals and other community oriented institutions.
Author Aldrick’s book does justice to the two men, but it is more than a biography. It is a detailed history of the era - of the issues, of the politics, of the intrigue, of the economics and the social issues that transpired during the transition from Zanzibari rule to the Kenya Colony.
Ms. Aldrick’s second book set in the first twenty five years of the last century focuses on the life story of William Northrup McMillan. Northrup - he went by his middle name - was an American of imposing stature - 6 feet five and 300 pounds - and grandiose fortune. Scion of a box car builder from St. Louis, Missouri, Northrup never took to the family business, but he lavishly spent the funds that flowed to his coffers. He arrived in Mombasa at the turn of the century as a big game hunter. He found the Kenyan plains to be the paradise he longed for, where one could bag a lion from one’s doorstep. He purchased land just outside Nairobi for a hunting camp, then expanded it to include Ol Donyo Sabuk, the nearest mountain to Nairobi. Additionally he built a substantial house dubbed Chiromo in town around which the University of Nairobi would ultimately grow. Northrup was a generous donor to worthwhile causes and could always be counted on to write a check. After his death his wife Lucie built and named the public library in Nairobi in his honor.
Northup and his wife Lucie were great entertainers hosting Theodore Roosevelt among others. Their various residences were often sites for lavish parties and safaris. Even though Northup tried to make his farms and ventures profitable, they never were. Yet he soldiered on including some real soldiering when he enlisted in the war effort, for which he was recognized. Inevitably Northrup became involved in politics. He joined with Ewart Grogan and Lord Delamere as an advocate for settlers’ rights. He sat on the Legislative Council for many terms, where he was more a follower than an outspoken leader. Although early politics are tracked in the book, it is more a social history than a political one.
With Northrup as the centerpiece, Ms. Aldrick has produced a marvelous inside look at the settler community in the early years, before it was tainted by the Happy Valley set. She located and quotes from many diaries, letters and other documentation to shed light on what the settlers did and what they thought about each other.
Each of Ms. Aldrich’s two books stands on its own, but read sequentially they provide keen insight into two sides of the history of early Kenya.
(Disclaimer: I knew Judy and her family in Mombasa in the mid-eighties. I am pleased, but not surprised, that she went on to become a scholar and superb writer of Kenyan history. )