How Sotik massacre, Koitalel killing opened area to white settlers


A picture of Nandi community legendary leader Koitalel Arap Samoei and his killer Col Richard Meinertzhangen. FILE PHOTO | NMG

There is a popular narrative among those who are fond of romanticising history that Sotik District was created as a European buffer zone to keep apart four warring groups, the Kipsigis, Kisii, Maasai, and Luo.

They argue that it was believed the coming of Europeans, and the establishment of commercial farming would prove of benefit as a “civilising” influence.

Originally not part of the White Highlands, Sotik District was a Y-shaped strip of land about 50 miles and in some places not more than three miles wide, carved out of the Native Reserve.

The rolling landscape of tea plantations in today’s Kericho and Bomet counties conceal a dark past of ethnic cleansing, massacres, land grabbing, and modern-day slavery.

Sotik was Abugusii and Maasai territory before 1800 but, under a treaty promulgated by Menya arap Kisiara, the Maasai were pushed to Trans-Mara, and in the 1830s the arrival of the three sons of arap Turgat from Nandi, led to a forceful and violent eviction of the Abagusii from the reaches of Bureti (Kapkatet), Keroka which means “look at home” in Kipsigis dialect.

During the second half of the 19th Century, the Kipsigis country appears to have suffered periods of famine, epidemics, and drought.

In such situations, Kipsigis turned to the Abagusii for food, which was exchanged for livestock, or other trade items such as bows and arrows. In more severe cases of need, the Kipsigis sold their children in exchange for wimbi flour and, probably sheep and goats.

In their present homeland, the Kipsigis had lived in symbiotic relationship with their neighbours though there were frequent altercations. In times of peace, the Kipsigis engaged in thriving trade with the Abagusii, Luo, Maasai, and their kinsmen the Nandi.

Due to their love for cattle, however, they frequently raided all their neighbouring communities for cattle, except the Nandi. This resulted in repeated conflicts and wars with their neighbours. Raids and counter-raids between the Kipsigis and their neighbours were the order of the day at the advent of colonial rule.

Following the arrival of the British, the Kipsigis rallied alongside the Nandis to fight against the building of the Kenya-Uganda Railway.

Koitalei Arap Samoei is one of Kenya’s greatest leaders in the history of our struggle for independence from British colonial rule.

Born in 1860, Koitalel succeeded his father as the supreme leader of the Nandi people at the age of 25, proving to be a courageous and prophetic leader. He led an 11-year resistance against the British from 1894.

Seeing the long-drawn-out resistance of the Nandi led by Koitalel, the notorious Colonel Richard Meinertzhagen, vowed to break the impasse. In the middle of 1905, a punitive raid led by Major Pope Hennessy massacred 1,850 men, women, and children who were rounded up and fired upon indiscriminately with a Maxim gun and other weapons.

The massacre was ostensibly in retaliation against the refusal by the Sotik people to heed an ultimatum by the British government to return cattle stolen from the Maasai.

Some months later on 19 October 1905, Colonel Meinertzhagen tricked Koitalel into what was effectively an ambush and shot him at point-blank range, killing him on the spot and the rest of his entourage.

With Koitalel dead, the Nandi resistance was neutralised, and the British proceeded to terrorise the Kipsigis and Nandi, evicting them from their land and sending them to areas that were unfit for human habitation.

In a report appearing in the London Gazette of 13 March 1908, Lieutenant Edgar G. Harrison is quoted as saying, “The expedition resulted in the pacification of the country, a fertile and valuable district of the Protectorate, and the safeguarding of our friendly tribes from future molestation.”

The Sotik massacre and the assassination of Koitalel were directly linked to the setting aside of Sotik for European settlement and the colonial system of forced labour, punitive taxes for Africans, economic, and racial segregation. It is disingenuous to argue that it was a buffer zone to keep warring African tribes apart.

The philosophy of the British colonial administration is aptly summarised in this excerpt from the National Archives, Kew Gardens, London:

“It was a Roman Catholic missionary who explained to his native converts that there was no doubt as to their equal with white men in heaven, but that the white man was at least 1,000 years ahead of them in civilisation, and that made a difference on earth.

We cannot ignore that or expect a Kenyan settler to do so either. By all means, let us work towards the ultimate elimination of that difference, but in the process let us not be tempted to wander from the high road of facts into the by ways of unreality.” ACC Parkinson, 5.3.1930.