How Kenya almost became the New Zion (Israel)

Written by | Quick Reads

Lost within the Kenyan story are proposals that would have redefined history. Three of those plans stand out: the establishment of a freed slave settlement, a Jewish settlement in the Mau Plateau, and a responsible government under a white settler minority.

The first Christian missionaries in Kenya lived and worked at the coast. While making the journey inland, they pressured the Sultan of Zanzibar to ban slave trade. Such a ban would mean that there were freed slaves with nowhere to call home, an issue missionaries saw as an opportunity to spread Christianity. They envisioned a Liberia-style system where freed slaves would build new lives in missionary-run colonies.

The idea of coastal region as a good location for a freed slave settlement can be traced to Ludwig Krapf. In his diary entry after the death of his wife and their newborn child only two months after arriving at the Kenyan coast, Krapf suggests three ideas for extending missionary work in Kenya. The first is a chain of missionary stations, the second a colony for freed slaves and third the training and ordaining of a black clergy.

On the second idea Krapf states, “Mombaz (Mombasa) and its environs would be the best site (for a freed slave settlement).”

Slave trade was officially banned at the coast in 1873. That same year, the CMS missionaries established a freed slave colony at Frere Town in Kisauni. It was quickly followed by other similarly short-lived settlements run by different missionary groups. The missionaries closed most of them due to conflict with Arab slave owners and accusations of racially motivated high-handedness. Before long, the government followed the church and imposed new laws.

Another proposal that followed this one was to have a Zionist settlement established in Kenya. In total, there were about seven major plans to establish a Jewish settlement between the end of ancient Israel and the formation of the modern state. It is the third of these plans to which this piece refers. Thomas Herzl, widely regarded as the father of modern Zionism, sought a temporary refuge for Jews escaping persecution in Russia. He first turned to the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire and Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany in 1898, and finally to Britain. The only offer he got from Joseph Chamberlain, then the British Colonial Secretary, was a proposal for an autonomous Jewish Settlement in Uganda.

Mooted in 1903, the plan was to relocate Theodore Herzl’s Zionist group to about 5, 000 square miles of the Mau Plateau. At the Sixth Zionist Congress (1903), Herzl sold the British Uganda Program as a temporary step towards the ultimate aim of Zionism, an autonomous entity where ancient Israel once stood. The plan would become known as The Uganda Scheme.

The proposal nearly led to an ideological split in the Zionist Movement. The Russian delegation stormed out of the meeting before the vote; they considered the program an unnecessary detour from their common goal. However, the Congress voted for consideration of the plan and the assignment of a three-man delegation to scout the proposed area.

In their report two years later, the explorers voiced concerns about the presence of lions and other wild animals in the plateau. They also noted that the Maasai, then rightly considered the region’s fiercest warriors, used part of the Plateau as grazing fields.

Despite the official rejection at the Seventh Zionist Congress (1905), several Jewish families did immigrate to Kenya. There were about 20 families in Nairobi when the first synagogue was built in 1913. The number increased almost tenfold after the Holocaust but never led to the kind of Zionist settlement that Chamberlain and Herzl had envisioned.


The third plan was more of the logical progression of the colonization and settlement process. Throughout the colonial era, and especially after World War II, the settler community sought more control in government. These efforts were in preparation for a final push to establishing a Rhodesia-style white minority government.

Although most of the clamor for a white minority government appears post-World War II, its history goes as far back as even before 1914. By the time the settlers were first given representation in the LegCo in 1914, Lord Delamere was already using his powerful connections to demand for a greater say for the settlers in the political process.

The Indian community in Kenya, bolstered by support from the Indian Government, demanded a common roll based on income and property qualifications and not race. The white settlers vehemently resisted the demands. They instead favored a system where all other races were subordinate to a white minority. Unlike the colonial government, a minority settler community would not have had to worry about home support.

The paramountcy given to native interests by the Devonshire White Paper (1923) dashed any hopes of the Kenya colony ever becoming another Cape Colony or Southern Rhodesia. Still, the avarice for political monopoly by the settlers in the political process precipitated the Mau Mau uprising. The armed struggle dealt a final deathblow to any hopes of a white minority government and set in motion the process of independence.

Owaahh, 2015.


Last modified: November 7, 2017