The history of Kenya dates as early as 2000 BC when a patchwork of ethnic groups, each with their own culture and language, settled in the country. They came from every corner of Africa – Turkanas from Ethiopia; Kikuyu, Akamba and Meru from West Africa; and the Masai, Luo and Samburu from the southern part of Sudan.
However, archeological findings suggest that humanoids roamed here more than 20 million years ago. One of the most famous and complete hominid skeletons ever discovered is the 1.6 million year old Homo erectus known as the Turkana Boy, which is on display at the Nairobi National Museum.
Kenya is thus fondly referred to as the cradle of humanity or the cradle of mankind from which descendents moved out to populate the world.
By around the 8th century Arabs, Indians, Persians and even Chinese were arriving on the Kenyan coast to trade skins, ivory, gold and spices. The Swahili language, a mixture of Bantu and Arabic then developed as a lingua franca for trade between the different peoples.
Arab dominance on the coast was eclipsed by the arrival of the Portuguese in 1498. The Portuguese built Fort Jesus in 1593, which today is one of Mombasa's top tourist attractions. They gave way to Islamic control under the Imam of Oman in 1698 after a 33-month siege.
By 1730 all the Portuguese had left the East African coast for Mozambique, where they ruled territories, ports and settlements until 1975.
The colonial history of Kenya dates from the Berlin Conference of 1885 when East Africa was first divided into territories of influence by the European powers. The British Government founded the East African Protectorate in 1895 and soon after, opened the fertile highlands to white settlers. Even before it was officially declared a British colony in 1920.
The settlers were allowed a voice in government, while the Africans and the Asians were banned from direct political participation until 1944. During this period some 32,000 Indians were brought into Kenya to work on building the Kenya-Uganda railway line. Many stayed after it was completed, as did most of the Indian traders and small businessmen.
In 1942, Kenya embarked on its long hard road to National Sovereignty, as the Mau Mau Movement was founded, comprising of members of the Kikuyu, Embu, Meru and Kamba tribes.
In 1953, Jomo Kenyatta was charged with directing the Mau Mau and sentenced to 7 years imprisonment. Another freedom fighter Dedan Kimathi was arrested in 1956 for his role in the Mau Mau rebellion as one of the leaders. Dedan Kimathi was subsequently hanged by the colonialists.
From October 1952 to December 1959, Kenya was put under a state of emergency because of the Mau Mau rebellion against British colonial rule. Thousands of Kenyans were incarcerated in detention camps.
By 1956, the death toll stood at more than 13,500 Africans (guerrillas, civilians and troops) and about 100 Europeans.
In 1959 Jomo Kenyatta was released from prison, but put under house arrest. In August 1961 Kenyatta was freed and became president of KANU (Kenya African National Union) in October.
In 1960 the British government officially announced their plan to transfer power to a democratically elected African government.
Continue reading the history of Kenya after independence.
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Kenya > Kenya History > History of Kenya from Pre-colonial Period to Today