The fraud that was the East Africa Protectorate

Frederick Lugard
Frederick Lugard. He was keenly aware of the problems inherent in these treaties and sought to set a higher bar for himself and also distance himself from the rest. FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

At the onset of European colonialism in East Africa, The Imperial British East Africa Company (IBEA) and its predecessor sent agents to negotiate treaties with Africans, and these were used to assume political and administrative control.

There was no pattern as to the locations where they were gotten, neither was there any uniformity with regard to the content.

With the exception of one, about 84 treaties related to East Africa were presented and approved by the British Government.

The IBEA was given a Royal Charter in 1888, and pursuant to the charter, sought to conclude treaties with Africans living in the supposed British sphere of influence.

According to Frederick Lugard, the company was “quite keen about this” and earnestly sought to have as many chiefs as possible sign them from day one.

It is interesting to note, however, that the very first treaty related to Kenya was signed between H H Johnston and the “chiefs of Taveta” in September of 1884, long before the IBEA was formed.

It is also unique because it was probably done at the initiative of Johnstone alone. This one became important in the negotiations of what later became the Kenya-Tanzania boundary.

After the treaties had been signed, they were afterwards registered at the British Consulate in Zanzibar. At a later date when the company collapsed, they were mailed over to the British Foreign Office.

Prior to 1887, the previous treaties were signed with various tribes and peoples along the coast.

Therefore, they were in Arabic, though an English translation was sent along for registration at Zanzibar attached to the original.

With very few exceptions, the substance of the treaties was minimal and also virtually identical; they began with the Africans giving up sovereignty: “The whole country is voluntarily placed under the rule and government of the said Association [BEAA], and I/we will hoist the flag of His Highness the Sultan of Zanzibar …” Towards the end, the African signers agreed to place their “peoples under the protection of the British East African Association”.

Handwritten documents

At the advent of the IBEA, the phraseology changed and the length increased a bit, but they were still essentially simple documents running far less than a single page.

One important development here was that the company apparently provided standard blank copies which its agents took to the field.

All that remained was for the signatories to sign and print their names in the appropriate fields.

Since most of the African signers could not read or write, an “X” usually sufficed for their signature. Curiously, a number of the treaties bear no marks whatsoever from the African parties.

Despite the availability of draft treaties, the IBEA was open to treaties which were custom-tailored to a particular set of circumstances.

Examples of these were those negotiated by Frederick Lugard. Another example was treaty number 93 with “Magogo, Chief of Wataita of Ndomi”.

This handwritten agreement was negotiated by George Wilson in 1894 during road construction and covered the purchase of land for a company station and other matters specific to the location.

The exception to most of these 84 treaties were those signed by Kabaka Mwanga.

A number of these were signed over a period of a few years as his relationship with the British evolved.

Most of these are quite long, and one example should suffice to highlight the differentiating factors.

This is the treaty dated December 26, 1890 and negotiated by Frederick Lugard. It was a four-page, handwritten document which discussed a variety of different matters in detail.

Here, there are far fewer broad sweeping statements like what is found in other treaties. The reasons for this are obvious; Mwanga was less awed by Whites.

He was also used to bargaining with Europeans and clearly had a number of them assisting his case.

These came from the large missionary community who had been residing near Mengo for more than a decade.

While Mwanga may have been functionally illiterate, he had advisors and assistants who were more than capable of reading and understanding the minutiae contained in the treaty.

The topics addressed in the document were also quite familiar to him by then.

Blood-brotherhood ceremony

The method used in gathering these treaties appears to have been fairly random and varied, depending on the circumstances.

For the most part, the British agents were simply tasked with finding appropriate people with whom treaties could be signed and it was up to them to get it done one way or the other.

As an example, J R W Pigott started from Malindi, travelled up the Tana River in 1889 and in the course of determining the extent and navigability of the river, returned with a number of treaties.

A short time later, Carl Peters would follow Pigott’s footsteps and trash as many signs of the IBEA’s presence as he could.

Likewise, when Frederick Lugard started for Uganda in 1890 and gathered a number of treaties in the course of his travels, it appears he alone (not his superiors) chose where treaties were made.

One of these was with Waiyaki in Kikuyuland, and it seems to have been greatly facilitated by Lugard’s Somali assistant Dualla Idris.

Dualla had visited the area only a few years before with Samuel Teleki and endeared himself to the local people.

The exact procedure followed in making out these treaties varied depending on the agent himself and the prevailing circumstances.

Frederick Lugard left a brief description of his method and this must have been fairly similar to what others used.

When he was sufficiently comfortable with a certain notable person and that person was likewise open to enter into a treaty, the pair went through a blood-brotherhood ceremony.

Variations of this ritual appear to have been common at the time and it was used by many other Europeans who were desirous of friendship with Africans.

The rest of the proceedings are described by Lugardin his book, The Rise of Our East African Empire.

These treaties have come in for heavy and justified criticism. Even during the period of signing, their weaknesses were plainly evident.

One obvious problem was the plain fact that the IBEA Company could not have been able to offer the protection required of it in these treaties.

Damning accusation

The company was newly formed and had little wherewithal in terms of manpower and other resources to offer real protection to various tribes far in the interior from any enemies.

Frederick Lugard appreciated this fact and consciously avoided this language in the treaties he negotiated.

On this topic, he stated: “I do not believe in the printed treaty forms of the Company by which a man gives all his land and rights of rule to the Company in exchange for their government and protection.”

Lugard proceeded to call the treaties “an utter fraud” because “no man, if he understood, would sign it, and to say that a savage chief has been told that he cedes all rights to the Company in exchange for nothing is an obvious untruth”.

Coming from an employee of the company, and a senior one at that, it was, and still is, a damning accusation.

A second criticism on these treaties is the question on the degree of authority exercised by the African signers.

With few exceptions, the power exercised by the so-called chiefs was nominal at best and frequently non-existent.

A third and different criticism of the treaties had to do with the African signers’ level of understanding the content of the documents.

The concept of willingly handing over political and administrative authority in perpetuity was beyond their experience.

Other issues of concern were the technical demerits that should have automatically disqualified some of the treaties.

In one grievous example of the errors these treaties had, Henry Morton Stanley emerged from western Uganda in 1889 clutching six treaties.


Among these were a number that have long been identified as possible frauds. One is treaty number 56, supposedly agreed upon between Stanley and the people of “Mazamboni, Katto, and Kalenge”.

These people had signed over to Stanley “the Sovereign Right and Right of Government over our country for ever in consideration of value received and for the protection he has accorded us and our neighbours against Kabbarega and his Warasura”.

One glaring fact is the total absence of any mark or sign from the Africans who were supposed to be the opposite side of the agreement. The only signatories were Stanley and his European officers.

How could a bilateral agreement be taken as valid and complete when it only bore the signatures from one side?

The treaty is not dated and instead says it was concluded “in this moon (May 1888)”.

Furthermore, the dates given in Stanley’s published account of the expedition are totally at variance with this and other treaties.

As John M Gray has noted, another odd thing about this treaty and the whole bunch Stanley brought out of western Uganda is that he mentioned them only on one page out of his 1,000-page book on the expedition.

There are many other weaknesses on the treaties which will not be discussed much further here.

Frederick Lugard was keenly aware of the problems inherent in these treaties and he sought to set a higher bar for himself and also distance himself from the rest.

“I know that all or most ‘treaties’ made in Africa will not bear so close an investigation; I am concerned only with those in which I had a hand,” he said.

Even the IBEA Company seemed to see the potential problems with these treaties.

This is implied in McDermott’s comments that this treaty system “of acquiring territorial domain” was introduced into East Africa by Carl Peters, and that official German recognition of the same gave it legitimacy.

He went on to say that “it is obvious that in the hands of unscrupulous agents, the method is liable to grave abuses”.

By bringing up Carl Peter’s name, McDermott was using the German’s name as a scape-goat.

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