Kenya History

There are over 40 ethnic groups in Kenya, most of which arrived from other parts of Africa over the last millennia. Of the larger groups, the Turkana, Maasai and Samburu settled in Kenya towards the end of the 17th century. They joined the existing Kikuyu people who are still today the largest of Kenya’s peoples.

The Portuguese were the first Europeans to arrive in Kenya in 1498. They dominated the region until the sultans of Oman crossed the Indian Ocean by dhow and took over control in 1729. Arabian settlements grew quickly at Mombasa and Malindi and trade flourished - mainly in slaves and ivory. Persian, Indian, Indonesian and Chinese traders followed, and the intermingling of Arabs and others with Africans formed the Swahili (Arabic for coastal) culture and language, now the mother tongue for the whole of East Africa. Incidentally, the word for tea, chai, is the same in Swahili and Chinese.

In the 1800s, Kenya saw an influx of explorers and Christian missionaries, followed by European settlers. The Mombasa to Uganda railway line was constructed at the end of the 19th century. Nairobi grew from a trading post and railway station into a large city. By 1895, the British had established a protectorate and called it Kenya, after the 5 200m peak in the central highlands that the Kikuyu call kere nyaga - the ‘mountain of whiteness’.

Kenya’s status changed to a colony in 1920, when it was home to a large and prosperous British community. Most of the Highlands region was owned by British farmers. This was the era of the Lord Delameres, Karen Blixens, ‘Happy Valley’ set and gin and tonics.

Protests by Kenyans against the country’s fertile land being allocated to the Europeans gained momentum, particularly amongst the Kikuyu who wanted their land back. The Maasai lost more land than the Kikuyu, but Kikuyu traditional life places a high value on land ownership. The violent Mau Mau rebellion in the 1950s, conducted by a secret society of mostly Kikuyu, initiated a campaign of terror on highland farms between 1952 and 1956. Many Europeans were killed or fled the country, but there were also thousands of African casualties: people punished for supporting the colonial government. These protests eventually led to independence in 1963. Kenya remained part of the British Commonwealth, and much of the land reverted back to Kenyan ownership.

Jomo Kenyatta became Kenya’s first president, and served until his death in 1978. He was succeeded by Daniel Arap Moi, whose government over the years, has been accused of corruption and human rights abuses. Despite this, Moi was re-elected five times before being beaten at the polls in 2002 by Mwai Kibaki - only the third president of the country.

Kenya was, for a time, viewed as an African success story, but the last decade has brought with it difficult economic and political challenges, along with violent protests and corruption. The influx of refugees from Somalia, Sudan and Ethiopia has also placed a heavy burden on the government. And the country has been an unfortunate terrorist target for issues outside Kenya. The U.S. Embassy bombing in 1998 killed hundreds of innocent Kenyans. But since the new administration began its term in 2002, things are steadily improving. On a visit to Kenya you will probably see the prolific notices asking the public to report policemen who ask for bribes!

Read more up on our featured Kenya destinations, parks and reserves or adventure activities, or simply browse our Kenya overland tours.