The Devonshire White Paper: Kenya’s colonial saving grace

Colonial Secretary, Victor Christian William Cavendish, 9th Duke of Devonshire. PHOTO | CORRESPONDENT
Colonial Secretary, Victor Christian William Cavendish, 9th Duke of Devonshire. PHOTO | CORRESPONDENT 

A “White Paper” is an authoritative document or guide that informs readers concisely of a complex issue and presents the issuing body’s philosophy on the matter. Its purpose is to help readers understand an issue, solve a problem or make a decision.

The Devonshire White Paper was a document written in 1923 by the Colonial Secretary, Victor Christian William Cavendish, 9th Duke of Devonshire, regarding the status of settlers (of all races) and natives in the Colony of Kenya.

The genesis of the Devonshire White Paper lies in the Legislative Council (Legco), which was established in 1907. The Legco consisted of three official members (civil servants) and three non-official members who were settlers nominated by the governor to represent white settler interests. These settlers, who were led by Lord Delamere, started to demand for elected representatives, quoting one of the foremost canons of taxation; “no taxation without representation.”

Needless to say, such demands did not include the rights of Indians or Africans. Nonetheless, the settlers’ demands bore fruit in 1916 when they were allowed to elect their representatives who sat on the unofficial (opposition) side of the Legco. In 1919, Governor Northey appointed some settlers on the Executive Council in recognition of their contribution during World War 1.

In the meantime, the Indian community was disgruntled about being sidelined while benefits were being dished out to white settlers in the political and economic arena. Many Indians were in the colony by virtue of having built the Uganda Railway. They had stayed behind after completion of the railway line in the hope of making their fortunes in the rapidly growing retail business sector. In the event, they began to demand for representation on the Legco. In response, the colonial government allocated three nominated seats (two Indian, one Arab) to sit on the unofficial side of Legco in 1911.

Some of the demands by Indians included being allowed to purchase land in the White Highlands, denied to them by the “Eldgin Pledge” of 1908, which assured Europeans that they would be the only ones who could own land in the Kenya Highlands. The Indians also pressed for relaxation of immigration rules to allow more Indians to come to Kenya, which the settlers strongly rejected, as they were already outnumbered by Indians.

Other events happening, concomitantly, in southern Africa only helped to embolden the settler community in Kenya in their quest for supremacy. The Union of South Africa came into being in 1910, giving the Boers self-government and overlooking the Africans in that country. In 1923, the white British settlers in Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) were granted self-government, again ignoring the rights of Africans.

Following suit, a delegation of white settlers was despatched to London in 1923 to meet with the Colonial Secretary to demand, amongst other things, self-government under minority rule. They also demanded that the migration of Indians to Kenya be stopped forthwith. When the Indians caught wind of this strategy, they also sent their own delegation demanding their rights outlined here earlier. In addition, the missionaries who were sympathetic to African interests sent a Dr Arthur to be an observer in the London talks.

In an unusual show of restraint and fairness, the Colonial Secretary, Lord Devonshire, dismissed the settlers demand for self-government stating in a landmark ruling:

“Primarily, Kenya is an African territory, and His Majesty’s Government think it necessary definitely to record their considered opinion that the interests of the African natives must be paramount and that if, and when, those interests and the interests of the immigrant races should conflict, the former should prevail. Obviously, the interests of the other communities, Europeans, Indians and Arabs, must be severally safeguarded. But, in the administration of Kenya, His Majesty’s Government regard themselves as exercising a trust on behalf of the African population, and they are unable to delegate or share this trust, the object of which may be defined as the protection and advancement of the native races.”

The Devonshire White Paper was a milestone for African interests as it provided proof of the British Government’s commitment to its “dual policy” towards the Africans on the one hand, and migrant races on the other. However, grand as it may have sounded, the impact of the paper was not felt immediately, but many positive changes regarding the welfare of Africans were slowly put in place.

The Phelps-Stoke commission of 1924 brought into being technical schools for Africans, like the Native Industrial Training Depot (NITD) in Kabete. African interests were represented by Dr Arthur in the Legco from 1924 eventually being represented by the first African Eliud Mathu in 1944. The Indians were denied the right to buy land in the White Highlands, but immigration was not stopped and they gained five more slots in Legco.

This paper served as a guiding light for future governors to heed the aspirations of London regarding the natives of Kenya. It saved Africans in Kenya from going down the painful route of South Africa and Rhodesia.