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A Complex Polity

Anne-Marie Peatrik

Appendix A. Evaluation of written sources: Accounts from early travelers and colonial archives

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1Apart from a handful of studies from professional researchers presented throughout these chapters, two types of written sources were used: accounts from early travelers and colonial archives. Given the considerable task of reconstituting the old Meru Tigania-Igembe polity, and the particularly farfetched explanations that exist regarding the history of these people, it is absolutely indispensable to present the context of these print sources, or they would be unusable. This is one of the basic rules of historiography and ethnography.

  • 1  “We intended to follow the Mackenzie River to its source, which at that time, was supposed to be L (...)

2Arab-Swahili traders barely ventured into these regions, whose populations could rapidly mobilize an impressive number of warriors and, what is more, did not practice slavery (due to age sets), and explorers came quite late to show an interest in the regions stretching from Mount Kenya to the Ethiopian border. Upon return from his Austro-Hungarian expedition (1886-1888)—in which Teleki and von Höhnel managed to reach, bypassing Mount Kenya to the west, the mysterious lake “Zamburu” that they named Lake Rudolf (present-day Lake Turkana)—von Höhnel was invited by a young American, W. A. Chanler, to team up for an expedition that would trace a new route, to the east of Mount Kenya. They would travel up the already explored Tana River (Gedge 1892), to one of its tributaries, the Mackenzie (or Rojewero) that was thought to spring from another mysterious lake, Lake Lorian. It was also believed that in this region there roamed a tribe that kept donkeys and camels, the Rendille1. With the support of the Rendille, the expedition could travel further north to Lake Rudolf, then head east along the Abyssinian plateau to the Juba river, and from there head back south to the port of Kismayu. Their plans were never seen through, and the 1892-1894 expedition joined the ranks of all the other failed endeavors. Chanler and von Höhnel never reached beyond the Ewaso Nyiro; one of its waterfalls still carries the name Chanler’s Falls. Lake Lorian turned out to be merely a gigantic swamp into which the Ewaso Nyiro emptied. They did indeed cross paths with the Rendille, who gave up not a single one of their many camels. The donkeys the travelers had had so much trouble procuring died one by one, victims to the tsetse fly. Last but not least, von Höhnel was gravely injured by a rhinoceros, and had to be carried by stretcher to the mission in Kibwezi where he was able to be treated. Chanler, now accompanied by his valet only, insisted for a time on pursuing the expedition, but his porters thought otherwise and deserted him. Thus forced to retreat, Chanler discovered in Mombasa and Zanzibar that the British authorities, the new “protectors” of the coastal principality, considered him persona non grata since his porters had accused him of abuse. The British were all the more sensitive to the porters’ claims as they had begun dealing with the controversial debate surrounding the end of slavery, so they must have viewed not too kindly this American travelling through regions they had already targeted to use for their purposes.

Ill. 2 — The oldest map of the Nyambene Hills and Eastern side of Mount Kenya after surveys by Ludwig von Höhnel in 1892-1893

Ill. 2 — The oldest map of the Nyambene Hills and Eastern side of Mount Kenya after surveys by Ludwig von Höhnel in 1892-1893

In Chanler (1896: inside back cover).

3One explorer’s loss can at times be an ethnographer’s gain. The quest for caravan supplies and load donkeys as well as the accident that befell von Höhnel forced Chanler to stay much longer than intended in the Nyambene Hills region, between December 1892 and January 1894. These verdant highlands were the last hills where supplies could be found before venturing into the arid regions stretching downhill to the north. The young American became the forced observer of populations up until then unknown, and provided the first descriptions, mainly of the Embe [Igembe], the Wamsara [Muthaara] and Janjy [Kianjai] (two Tigania sections), and the Daitcho [Thaichû]. His accounts published in 1896 were less popular than other works of the genre, and they were never republished. Experts in the populations of northern Kenya deem the author little trustworthy, and it is true that Chanler only passed through these arid regions. P. Spencer (1973: 155) describes Chanler as a poor observer, and M. Brown (1989: 127) follows suit by pointing out inconsistencies between the author’s letters and his accounts. Von Höhnel, on the other hand, was a geographer unanimously appreciated for the accuracy of his topographical surveys and the soberness and precision of his descriptions. Yet, as far as is known, he never wrote the report expected from this expedition (Höhnel 1938: 21). Perhaps he thought it less important to carry out, given the work Chanler had already undertaken that accompanied a superb map Von Höhnel had drawn. Accounts of Chanler’s skirmishes with his porters, and his justifications, can be found throughout the work, along with stories of hunting and the respective merits of this or that rifle. The regions they crossed were packed with game and the spoils from their hunting fed the expedition. Chanler returned with numerous observations, too, and he seems to have noted them with all the more care as his expedition was cut short. His account, read later, corroborates our data at certain points, and all in all the author is a much less unreliable witness than his reputation would have it. Chanler claimed to have spoken Swahili and was not unaware of the pitfalls in relying on interpreters (ibid.: 22, 322). In the high hills, he hired a guide named Motio who spoke Swahili (ibid.: 105-106). Chanler explains that he could not ascertain whether Motio was from the Nyambene or a Kamba residing in the region—a rather insightful hesitation, since, due to a form of kinship (ûciarwa), the Kamba have the right to live among the Igembe and the Tigania. Chanler provides information on a variety of subjects: the populations encountered, the “Zanzibari” and the Kamba caravans, the goods exchanged. Chanler observes that “the Embe [the Igembe] speak a language similar to Kikuyu, but that they do not understand each other,” a very astute observation. He notes several characteristics of the territorial organization of the Igembe (ibid.: 245), observing that the men are divided into three main sets (elders, warriors, and young adults), and poses a key question regarding their social organization (based on an accurate observation followed by a misguided comment): “It is only by means of the rankest superstition that the old men are able to maintain their supremacy over the hot-blooded youths” (ibid.: 247). Summing up his remarks, he adds: “The manner in which the lands are held, and the absolute absence of anything tending to establish the supremacy of one individual above his fellow, together with the general looseness of the government, all go to show the weaknesses and advantages attendant upon a purely socialistic state” (ibid.: 257), a conclusion the reader shall not fail to discern as pertinent to certain debates ongoing at the time, and, incidentally, that expresses for the first time the abiding misunderstanding of these societies (“… the general looseness of the government”). Chanler’s account is the oldest print source on the precolonial Tigania-Igembe, and as such it is invaluable, as long as one sifts the valuable observations from the inaccuracies and malicious opinions pervading his commentary (see illustrations at the end of this book).

  • 2  During his expedition, Neumann encountered, not far from Daichû, a German traveller named G. Kolb, (...)

4Subsequent testimonies are available, from two other travelers, ivory hunters by trade. A. H. Neumann, an Englishman from a modest background who learned Kiswahili while employed at the British Imperial East African Company in Mombasa, sought to make his fortune bringing back ivory from the regions north of Mount Kenya, which for this very same reason was being increasingly crossed by Kamba and Zanzibari caravans. In Mombasa he held conversations with one von Höhnel, a convalescent on his way to Europe. At the end of 1893, Neumann left the coast to head inland, and crossed paths with a disheartened Chanler and his valet, who were heading back. Neumann set up a base camp at Daichû, not far from Chanler’s old camp, and travelled the region between the Nyambene Hills and Mount Kenya, but spent most of his time with the Ndorobo north of the Ewaso Nyiro. He managed to reach Lake Rudolf and the Omo Valley, thus achieving in part the goal set out by Chanler and von Höhnel. He travelled with scant means and spent days living among the populations he met, to the extent that he even took up with two Ndorobo spouses. He was an attentive observer of the animal species he discovered, and was not averse to hunting and identifying butterflies. After spending over two years collecting ivory, Neumann returned to England and wrote Elephant Hunting in East Equatorial Africa (1898)2. He does not hold back any detail from his hunts; readers must have craved this type of literature, as his book was a great success. The text contains brief yet precise information about places he travelled to and populations he encountered. His text is a source that complements and corroborates Chanler’s writings, especially pages 29-52 dedicated to the Jambeni Range [Nyambene Hills].

5A. Arkell-Hardwick (1903) is the last author whose work contains additional information on the precolonial Tigania-Igembe. He was a young Englishman who had fought in South Africa and was seeking adventure, so he accompanied an ivory chaser, also British, in an expedition around Mount Kenya and towards the Ewaso Nyiro in 1899-1900. As always, the Nyambene Hills were the supply base to which the expedition returned frequently. At a certain point there occurs a shift in the tone of the account. Despite pervading clichés, the author does not fail to use the humor in some awkward cross-cultural moments to his literary advantage. He then goes on to describe a situation rendered tense from draught and a smallpox epidemic. Populations migrated and the hostility of the warriors increased. People seemed torn between the desire to battle the newcomers and loot their caravans, and fear of retaliation and apprehension of conquest. Basically, these three travel accounts gave the readers, most importantly the military and colonial administrators, an accurate albeit cursory depiction of the region and its populations.

  • 3  It is worth remembering that the decision to conquer and administrate these regions was a result o (...)
  • 4  Based on the case of the Turkana, J. Lamphear (1992) sketched out a comparative analysis to grasp (...)

6In the years that followed, the colonial conquest properly-speaking spread out from south of Mount Kenya3. In 1906, the resistance put up by the Embu, a group located south of the Meru, was broken by the King African Rifles (Mwaniki 1973: 42-50), whose advance was halted just enough time for news of the massacre to spread to populations settled farthest north. In 1908, almost without a battle4, E. B. Horne (referred to by my informants as “Little one always going”) established the so-called post of the Meru, a contraction and variant of the place called Mwiriga Umwerû, “White territorial section”, on the front northeast of Mount Kenya. A District, also Meru, was established that included the populations on the north-east face of Mount Kenya as well as those from the Nyambene Hills, of which Horne remained the District Commissioner until 1917.

  • 5  In so doing he encouraged A. H. Prins (1953) to undertake the first comparative study of East Afri (...)

7Integrated into the Kikuyu Land Unit established in 1938, Meru District was administrated methodically; not only was it strategically important in its control of the northern regions, it also had an abundant population and great production potential. The administrative archives, continuous to 1960, are a written source of a very particular kind as they are an instrument of colonial power. Essentially made up of annual reports by the District Commissioners, the information contained on the administered populations must be used with caution: the administrators recorded only that which they were able, or wanted, to understand and transmit to their superiors. Once they are cross-checked with testimonies by the populations in question, however, the archives become a rich source of information. The two sources match, contradict, and complement each other in turn. This curious mishmash is indicative of a unique pact in the 1940s between the colonial authority and the populations; its principal agent was District Commissioner H. E. Lambert. Lambert was also the author of one of the only studies published on these populations. Following an increase in interest sparked by the Mau Mau uprising, in 1956 his Kikuyu Social and Political Institutions was published, a work containing part of the data collected during his duty at various posts throughout the Kikuyu Land Unit. The publication provides valuable information on the social organization of the populations and, most notably, on the various forms of age and generation-set systems. Lambert was so fascinated by this last issue that he dedicated an enormous manuscript (Lambert 1945) to it, a few chapters of which provided material for his book in 1956. The unpublished chapters are a curious mix of data from very diverse sources, and speculations that reveal the author’s desire to find a general theory behind the age sets5; they also confirm why neither the publisher (the International African Institute) nor Lambert’s proofreader Lucy Mair thought it wise to publish them. They contain groundbreaking insights, though delivered maladroitly, as well as ethnography. It is also instructive to crosscheck the writings of Lambert the ethnographer with those of Lambert the civil servant. It reveals disparities between the sources, not so much in what is stated but in what is omitted—due either to forgetfulness or to a desire to hush things up. Lambert, also called Bwana Rambati and nicknamed Mutethia (“He who helps”), was an active advocate in the development of neo-traditions, and an adept at what would later be called applied anthropology.

8A special mention must be made of the data collected in Tigania, Igembe and Imenti during the 1970s by three students of the University of Nairobi’s Department of History, J. T. S. Kamunchulu, B. M. I. Kangoi and J. I. Kinyua, for their BA dissertation. Their references are included in the bibliography, in the list of archives and non-printed sources. The data collected by B.M.I. Kangoi (1972) was especially useful as he was able to interview old men from the Kiramunya set who were “warriors” before and at the time of the colonial conquest. The quality of his method and the data he collected is indicative of the high intellectual standards at the University of Nairobi during those years.


1  “We intended to follow the Mackenzie River to its source, which at that time, was supposed to be Lake Lorian. We also hope to fall in with the Rendille, as Lieutenant von Höhnel had heard at Kismayu that they often pastured their flocks and herds in the neighbourhood of this lake” (Chanler 1896: 73).

2  During his expedition, Neumann encountered, not far from Daichû, a German traveller named G. Kolb, who had only a few porters remaining; he joined Neumann for a while (op. cit.: 124, 132-133). Kolb took a superb photograph of Ndaminuki, an important man from Muthaara whom the elders still remember, and who quickly understood the advantages offered in the position of intermediary. The photo, which features in Neumann’s work, is reproduced in the illustrations at the end of this book. Kolb also published an article about his travels (Kolb 1896), but in Arkell-Hardwick (1903: 5) we learn that on his way back from another expedition, Kolb was killed by a couple of rhinoceroses north of Muthaara. (Explorers, beware the rhinoceros…)

3  It is worth remembering that the decision to conquer and administrate these regions was a result of the building of a railway line connecting Mombasa, on the Indian Ocean coast, to Uganda. Built from 1895 to 1900, it was a contemporary of the Djibouti-Addis Ababa railway line. The need to make this costly investment profitable led to a search for cargo and thus development, and quite rapidly the arrival of colonists whose numbers increased following the Great War. More broadly, the expansion aimed to fortify British positions in regions that controlled the route to India (Mungeam 1966).

4  Based on the case of the Turkana, J. Lamphear (1992) sketched out a comparative analysis to grasp the reasons behind each population’s choice of either resistance or resignation in response to the advance of the colonial conquest of what would later become Kenya.

5  In so doing he encouraged A. H. Prins (1953) to undertake the first comparative study of East African age sets by examining a Bantu system (that of the Kikuyu) against a Nilotic system (the Kipsigis) and a Cushitic system (that of the Galla, the old name for the Oromo).

Table des illustrations

Titre Ill. 2 — The oldest map of the Nyambene Hills and Eastern side of Mount Kenya after surveys by Ludwig von Höhnel in 1892-1893
Crédits In Chanler (1896: inside back cover).
Fichier image/jpeg, 154k

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