The Mombasa General Strike of 1947: How Workers Initiated the Kenyan Independence Movement
Teaching African history in a modern world history course can be problematic. Since much of Africa's place in the traditional modern world history narrative concerns the Atlantic Slave Trade, European Imperialism, and ongoing Western neo-colonialism, it can be challenging to teach Africa without implicitly presenting Africans as passive victims of history. One way to directly address and counter this potential distortion of history is through deep study and discussion of African resistance to Western imperialism, for example through the post-World War Two anti-colonial movements. The creativity, determination, and political sophistication African workers expressed in defeating the European colonial regimes illustrate the agency of ordinary people, and challenge the historical biases of Eurocentism and "great man" approaches to history. Across the African continent between 1945 and 1950, workers organized general strikes and mass demonstrations that directly initiated the movements toward independence. A general strike in Kenya, at Mombasa in 1947, illustrates this decisive historical development, and could be a useful topic for engaging students in investigating global working-class history and African anti-colonialism. The appendices to this article identify open-access digital and other resources on Kenyan labor history and anti-colonialism. They offer primary sources relating to the Mombasa Strike. They also offer a discussion of how these resources can be used in the classroom that is supported by instructional materials.
The Setting: Labor and Anti-Colonialism in Kenya
Kenya formally won its independence from Britain in 1963. Kenyans had been resisting British colonialism since at least the early 20th century, including through the Kikuyu Association (1919) and the East African Association (1921).1 Earlier in 1911, A Giriama woman from coastal Kenya, Me Katilili, had organized resistance to Britain's attempts to force peasants into a colonial labor system.2 However, the anti-colonial movement intensified after World War Two. The historiography on Kenyan anti-colonialism is rich with debates on which social group led and won this struggle for freedom. Some scholars stress the role of the askari, Kenyan World War Two veterans who, based on their experiences in the war, returned to Kenya politically educated and committed to independence. Other scholars focus on the importance of Kenyan peasants who, through the Land and Freedom Army in the 1950s (often referred to as Mau Mau), made colonialism untenable, and thus forced the British to grant independence. Still other scholars emphasize that with the "failure" of the Mau Mau Rebellion, only the African elite and educated middle class in Kenya could successfully negotiate the end of colonialism with the British.3
These debates are essential to understanding how Kenya won its independence, as all these social forces played an important role in Kenyan anti-colonialism. However, the above frameworks fail to give a full picture for understanding national liberation in Kenya, because they ignore or minimize the contributions of the Kenyan working class, the social force that was in fact decisive in initiating the independence movement.
Kenyan workers instigated independence by protesting and organizing against the colonial state before any other social movement, including Mau Mau. The evidence for this conclusion lies in the activities and organizations of the working class in Kenya in the years immediately following World War Two, illustrated in particular in the Mombasa General Strike in 1947, as well as in the later Nairobi General Strike in 1950. Through these actions, African workers in Kenya raised economic and political demands that directly addressed both class and racial inequality. During these strikes, the workers also created their own organizations, such as the African Workers Federation, and actually began building independent political power. Between 1945 and 1950, the working class movement also produced a number of important leaders of national liberation, including Cege Kibachia, Makhan Singh, Fred Kubai and Bildad Kaggia. What is essential about this movement and these organizations is that they demonstrate that national liberation, the direct struggle against British colonialism and racial inequality, was initiated by ordinary Kenyan workers.
Imperialism and Colonialism in Kenya
Kenyan anti-colonialism was a response to British imperial exploitation of African land, resources and labor. However, unlike much of Africa, the Europeans also forcibly created a settler colony in Kenya. Kenya's central highlands represented a geography and climate suitable for Europeans to attempt to recreate their economy and culture directly in East Africa. Thus Kenya witnessed both imperial expropriation and more extensive white European settlement. As part of this intensification of European colonialism that followed the Berlin Conference of 1885, the Imperial British East Africa Company gained dominance by 1888. The British government created a directly administered colonial state by 1890. The colonial state promoted the interests of British capitalism and the British state, while also furthering the privilege of a tiny but increasingly dominant European settler class.
The colonial political order and social system were designed to further imperial goals, and were fully established and enforced by the 1940s. There were 5.5 million Africans in Kenya in 1948, of which almost one in three were Kikuyu. At the same time, there were no more than 30,000 people of European descent, less than one percent of the Kenyan population.4 However, that one percent maintained controlling economic privilege and political power. As Donald Barnett and Karari Njama have noted, "The European community… constituted a kind of 'high caste', reminiscent of long defunct European aristocracies, and occupied a highly privileged position in both the political and economic life of the colony."5 Colonial whites held "a virtual monopoly of power," as they always held 27 of the 39 positions on the Kenya Legislative Council.6 This authority expressed itself in various forms of discrimination against the African population, in housing, wages, education and public services. This political rule was of course rooted in the settlers' economic dominance of Kenya. The settlers had acquired and legally maintained exclusive rights to the best land in the country, the area known as the White Highlands.7 Overall, the British policy was, in the words of Charles Eliot, colonial commissioner in the 1920s, to make Kenya "a white man's country."8
Before World War Two, the African Kenyan population largely lived in one of two ways. The majority were peasants who lived on overcrowded and deteriorating native land units called reserves. For the most part, reserves were created and developed by the Europeans after they removed the Kikuyu and other Kenyans from the prized White Highlands. Another large segment of African Kenyans lived as unskilled workers, either as "squatter" laborers on European farms, or as wage laborers in Kenya's growing cities like Nairobi and Mombasa. These urban workers were employed in manufacturing, government service, domestic service, or they were unemployed.9 Wages for African Kenyans were extremely low. On average in 1948, African workers made $73 per year, Asian workers made $741 per year, while European workers averaged $1,739 annually.10 (These statistics do not include the vastly more privileged white settlers who were landowners.) Clearly, discrimination mixed with severe economic exploitation for Africans in Kenya.
The common and driving factor behind the discrepancies between African and European experience in colonial Kenya derived from access to land. Since the Europeans arrived, they had administered a series of policies to divest Africans of wealth to Europeans' economic advantage. Overall, the coming of Europeans disrupted native Kenyans' self-sufficient economy into a market economy, one that served the world market and enriched settlers and Britain. This was accomplished primarily by the removal of Africans from the central Highlands. For example in 1915, the colonial government passed the Crown Lands Ordinance, which legalized the government's refusal to issue land grants to Africans11. These colonial land policies created a clear transfer of land and its accompanying wealth and status from Africans to Europeans. As Walter Rodney explained:
Interestingly, white settlers took much more land than they could use. This was done to create a landless class of Africans who would thus be forced to work as laborers on European farms, or in the manufacturing or service sectors in the cities.13
This process of African alienation or dispossession from the land was reinforced by colonial taxation policy. Essentially, by raising taxes beyond what the peasants could pay and thus forcing them off the land, the colonial government achieved two goals simultaneously. First, African land was further concentrated into the hands of settlers. Second, the settlers now had a cheap labor force to work their farms. A leading contemporary spokesman for the settlers, Lord Delamere, expressed it frankly when he said in 1913, "We consider that taxation is the only possible method of compelling the native to leave his reserve for the purpose of seeking work."14 One white settler put it even more directly concerning the Kikuyu, stating, "We have stolen his land. Now we must steal his limbs. Compulsory labor is the corollary of our occupation of the country."15
The colonial government also created systems to control this recently alienated labor force. For example, a labor registration system was created which required African workers to have written permission from settler owners or bosses for all their movements. "The kipande or labor registration system… obliged Africans, on pain of imprisonment, to obtain the signatures of their employers when they wished to seek other work or return to the reserves."16
The Formation of the Kenyan Working Class
This land alienation led directly to the creation of a working class in Kenya. According to Sharon Stichter, three major colonial policies transformed Africans in Kenya into workers: land alienation, taxation and administrative coercion.17 Colonial land alienation forced Africans off their land and into a working class. Similar in effect to the 18th century Enclosure Act in Britain, land alienation pressured some Africans into agricultural laborers as "squatters" on European farms.18 Many others were pushed into cities, where they became factory workers, railroad workers, domestics, service workers, and dockworkers.
As discussed above, British colonial policies were geared toward separating Africans from their land to the benefit of European settlers. This was accomplished through a number of land ordinances. These legal acts created the Kenyan working class in two ways. By expropriating Africans' land, it left them property-less and in need of employment. In addition, by demanding that colonial taxes be paid in cash, Africans were forced into seeking wage-labor. The end result was an increasingly large and socially significant working class that existed in both the countryside as agricultural laborers and squatters, and also in the cities as service and industrial workers.19 These colonial policies were greatly aided by intimidation carried out by the colonial government against the African population.20 Compulsory Registration Schemes and forced labor contracts imposed by the colonial state made it difficult for Africans to avoid administrative pressure to work for wages, even when economic need did not drive them into the working class.21 Compulsory labor was additionally supported by penal sanctions, with any "violations" defined as crimes and punishable by fines and imprisonment.22
This Kenyan labor force developed over the course of the 20th century within a colonial structure in which racial and economic division generally coincided. The colonial labor system in Kenya was certainly defined by racism, as there were no European manual laborers and very few African skilled workers. This racial hierarchy created and maintained economic inequality. There were dramatically different pay rates between ethnicities for the same job. Among railway workers, for instance, Africans made on average 50 percent of the wages of Indians, who in turn made 50 percent of what European railway workers made.23
There was a gradual proletarianization in Kenya after World War One. Before the First World War, African wage labor was available in Kenya only part of the year. Most Africans could still make a living as farmers or squatters, and therefore needed only brief labor stints to collect enough cash for colonial taxes. At this time, migrant labor was common. Africans would move back and forth between the reserves, European farms and urban areas as economic needs demanded.24 After World War One, the flow of British and Western capital into Kenya increased. This development increased demand for labor and in turn African migration to the cities.25 Urban employers encouraged a larger reserve of labor in the cities beyond the actual demand, as a means to keep wages down. Africans never passively accepted this however. Squatter and casual labor became methods of resisting complete integration into the colonial labor system.26
World War Two was decisive in the creation of the Kenyan working class, as there was a population and labor shift from rural Kenya to the cities. The British war effort required increased agricultural and industrial production, which led directly to higher demands for labor. Stichter has explained that, "During World War Two there was a shift from the 'classical colonial pattern' of part-time participation in the labor force to year round wage earning for urban employers."27 From 1920 to 1940, African wage laborers increased from just over 100,000 workers to almost 200,000. Both Mombasa and Nairobi showed a dramatic increase in the size of the working class. By 1947, over 40 percent of the private non-agricultural workforce was employed just in Nairobi and Mombasa. The shift from rural labor to urban is best illustrated by the change in the ratio between agricultural and non-agricultural employees in Kenya. In 1936 the ratio was 60–40 in favor of rural laborers. By 1944, it was 60–40 in favor of urban workers.28 Another result of this shift was that women came to be more common among urban domestic and service workers.29 The impact of these developments was not just the creation of urban laborers, but the beginnings of a politically active working class. As Stichter has noted, "Hence by this time  in urban areas, we are justified in speaking of an emerging social aggregate, a small but gradually crystalizing 'working class'; with some continuity of membership over time. This development was a precondition for the emergence of the first African collective labor organization."30
Mombasa in 1947 illustrated the changes in labor in Kenya, and the corresponding creation of the working class. The city was essential to the colonial economy, as all exports from Uganda and Kenya went out through the port of Mombasa. This rising export trade greatly increased the demand for labor in Mombasa, especially port and dock workers.31 Mombasa became a diverse and vibrant city. Half the population was Kikuyu, Luo, Baluhya and Kamla, while the other half were migrants from the upcountry.32 The Mombasa labor force was largely organized as casual labor, at least until the end of the Second World War. Casual labor was a sort of urban version of rural migrant labor. Africans would work part-time or seasonally, only as economic needs required. Ongoing connections and identity with rural peasants allowed Africans to resist full proletarianization for a time. The British wanted to eliminate this form of labor, and replace it with a more stable workforce integrated into the colonial order. Although by 1947 the majority of workers in Mombasa and Nairobi had become full-time laborers, it is possible these traditions of casual labor and squatting were partially responsible for the independence the workers displayed in the years after the war.33
A word should be said about agricultural laborers, sometimes referred to as squatters. As colonial authorities alienated Africans from their lands, one African response was to "squat" on European lands. In the earlier 20th century, European settlers, because they had acquired more land from Africans than they could develop, permitted some Africans to farm or graze animals on some of their land in return for labor. Some Africans accepted this relationship because it allowed them some independence, as well as a means to avoid proletarianization.34 However this "compromise" did not last. Throughout the 20th century, Europeans brought more and more African land into agricultural production for the world market. This process was accelerated by imperial demands during the First and Second World Wars, when Kenya became an increasingly important source of food and other resources for the British armed forces. As a result, European settlers had an increasing interest to remove remaining Africans from the land. The colonial government obliged with a series of Resident Native Laborers Ordinances, in 1918, 1924, 1925 and 1937, which "dealt a deathblow to the squatter communities."35 These ordinances transformed responsibility for squatter laborers from the central colonial government to settler-controlled local District Councils.36 This essentially allowed European settlers to more quickly push squatters off their land. Some of these dispossessed agricultural laborers then had no choice but to migrate to the cities to find wage labor in the growing urban working class.
Overall, colonial land and taxation policies, governmental coercion, and British imperial demands tied to the World Wars had pressured many Africans into an urban working class by 1945. African attempts to avoid or minimize the negative impact of these developments, such as squatting and casual labor, had been undermined by the same forces by the end of the war. However, as the Mombasa strike would soon illustrate, this new working class would utilize other means to resist colonialism and assert their independent interests.
Causes of the Mombasa General Strike
There were both deep and immediate causes behind the Mombasa General Strike in 1947. The living conditions of workers had deteriorated significantly in the decade before the strike. Chege Kibachia, who was to become a leader of the strike, stressed the increasing general poverty of African workers as the primary cause.37 Kibachia wrote a letter to the Mombasa Times in January 1947 explaining that, "… Cultural and material well being of the African is dwindling day by day while the career of the capitalist is crowned with success at the cost of African sweat. Racial discrimination is at the bottom of the whole affair."38
A more immediate cause of the strike was the Second World War, because the war had put people in motion. Mombasa's population doubled between 1939 and 1941, increasing from 55,068 to 100,450. The African population in Mombasa also virtually doubled, going from 30,194 to around 56,000.39 The war meant a higher demand for labor in the port of Mombasa. The docks drew Africans searching for higher wages or trying to escape civil conscription in the reserves.40 In the 1944 Medical Officer Annual Report, the colonial government paternalistically recorded that, "… a substantial and probably increasing number of virtually detribalized natives live permanently in the town and appear to have severed all links with the reserves."41
The war did not only move Africans to cities like Mombasa and Nairobi. It also made them more fully engaged in urban social networks. One result of this was that Africans began to develop additional methods of working class resistance. The best example of this is the 1939 Mombasa Strike. Arriving in the city and working on the docks, African workers found terrible conditions — poor housing and sanitation, along with prevalent malnutrition and disease. This situation was at least partially the result of the port employers' practice of encouraging larger reserves of labor to come to Mombasa than was necessary for the available work, as a means to keep wages down. This practice was also tied to companies promoting ethnic competition among Kenya's diverse workforce, an illustration of Britain's policy of divide and rule. The 1939 strike started when the port employers tried to reduce wages. The three-day strike of the dockworkers succeeded in preventing the wage reduction, and also served the Mombasa workers as preparation for what was to come in 1947.42
Causes of the 1947 strike can further be seen in the grievances and demands the workers put forward at the inception of the work stoppage. In a letter to the East Africa Standard on January 18, 1947, Kibachia explained:
In these demands is evident the mix of class and anti-racist goals that defined the workers' movement of 1945–1950, and was at the core of the early national liberation movement.
The Mombasa Strike Unfolds
The Mombasa General Strike began on January 13, 1947, and lasted until January 25, 1947. It was begun by around 15,000 workers, initially from the port and docks. It was also actively joined by taxi drivers as well as municipal, factory and service workers. Makhan Singh, a union organizer who had just arrived in Kenya from India, argued the strike was a success because it won significant wage increases for workers. More importantly it created, "an awakening for the rights of workers and a national consciousness."44
At a mass meeting on Sunday, January 12, Mombasa dockworkers, with significant support from railway workers, voted for the strike. This mass meeting was held at the Mombasa soccer stadium. It would become known as Kiwanja cha Maskini, the Field of the Poor. It would be the center of both the strike and the burgeoning independent power of the working class.45 Workers had voted for the strike over the objections of African officials from the legal unions that had been registered with the colonial government. The strike began the next day, "and quickly spread to virtually all Africans including… the sugar works on Ramisis on the mainland."46 Support for the strike was widespread, and the impact was immediate. The initial 15,000 workers who participated represented about 75 percent of Mombasa's workforce.47 The East African Standard reported that, "There is practically a complete stoppage of all activities on the island which depends on African workers. The strike spread yesterday to include the Public Works Department and sections of the Post Office."48 The staff at one European hotel also stopped working. One hotel worker told his employer, "I don't know why we have gone on strike, but it is for the black people."49 This quote is telling because it reveals that the strike from its inception expressed both class-based economic concerns as well as nationalist aspirations.
On the second day of the strike the colonial District Commissioner spoke to the workers assembled at the soccer stadium. He would not discuss the strikers' grievances and declared that the strike was illegal. The workers "received his words in silence," and continued the strike.50 This reaction typified the independence of the workers at Mombasa from both the colonial government and the established African union and political leaderships. Although an important organization, the African Workers Federation (AWF), would emerge from the strike, it seems ordinary workers themselves initiated the action. The dockworkers were supported by African taxi drivers, "who had walked off the job, drove carloads of union organizers about the city to persuade or if need be to force the workers to join the strike."51 The workers did indeed deal with strikebreakers through intimidation, although there were no deaths or serious injuries.52 The East African Standard noted that, "On Saturday [January 18, 1947] an assembly of about 6,000 Africans was found near the Sikina Mosque. In the center of the crowd were 15 Africans whose heads had been shaved in fantastic shapes. It is alleged that this had been done because they had continued to work."53 Overall, there was broad support for the strike among the African population of Mombasa.
In many ways the Mombasa General Strike was defined by ordinary workers' independent efforts and organization. The strike was not called or organized by an established trade union, and was instead the creation of the workers themselves. Although the AWF emerged from the strike and came to play a decisive role, the day-to-day running of the strike was significantly controlled and organized through the daily mass meetings at the soccer stadium.54 At least 10,000 workers came back to the soccer stadium on the second day of the strike, and began organizing to resolve problems and pressing concerns. Supporting links with nearby farmers provided food each day to feed strikers and their families. Tribunals were established to try and punish strikebreakers. "Each day, workers assembled in Kiwanja cha Maskini. Later testimony described an open, democratic atmosphere. A witness said he 'never saw anyone telling people what to do. Anyone could speak…' People cooked together in the field, while others went to their homes to use their rural resources so that others could hold out for longer in the city."55 In fact both supporters and opponents of the strike were struck by what can reasonably be seen as the beginnings of an independent workers' power. Chege Kibachia, who emerged early in the strike as a leader of the new AWF, stated, "We had a 'new government,' we had 'People's Courts,' and we had all town burglars acting as policemen."56 Even the European Mombasa Port Manager said the entire city of Mombasa had "a very alien look about it" and that the strike amounted to "a New Government."57
The Mombasa General Strike also had an impact beyond the city. Even the Colonial authorities recognized the broad appeal of the Mombasa fight. "The Mombasa strike… had its minor repercussions in the district, strikes taking place on both ferries and at Vipinge and Kikifi estates."58 "Minor" is something of an understatement. A general strike developed in Kisumu, where African workers, including government employees, as well as marine, service and municipal workers came out on strike for several days. This strike in turn led to a short strike in the Nyanza Province. In addition, farm workers in Timuru and coffee pickers in Chania and Ndarugu also held brief strikes.59
The Uplands Annual Report explained that the coffee pickers' strike was "organized by women only and the roads were picketed."60 Women played an essential role in the strikes in Mombasa and later in Nairobi, both in food distribution and providing other daily supplies. Perhaps more importantly, women often organized the daily protests and demonstrations.61 But women were not just supporters of male workers. They were also workers themselves, and independent political activists. Women had in fact been the leaders of much of the resistance to colonialism among agricultural workers. One of the most striking examples of this was the "Revolt of the Women" of 1947 –1948, when the colonial government attempted to compel female agricultural laborers to dig terraces on settler farms in the name of "soil conservation." The workers refused and organized a strike for higher wages, which, according to the colonial Corfield Report, meant that, "by the end of August all communal labour was virtually at a standstill."62 Overall, what is important to recognize in the Mombasa Strike is that this diverse and independent movement of workers, because it made direct connections between class and nationalist issues, can be understood as the inception of the post-war, on-the-ground independence movement in Kenya.
Certainly the colonial authorities and the European settlers understood the wider implications of this situation. Their reaction to the strike was to attempt to break it decisively. In some ways they had the aid of the established African nationalists in pursuing the defeat of the workers. The colonial government declared the strike illegal and responded with military force to suppress the workers. Anthony Clayton and Donald Savage have argued that, "The government concentrated on trying to break the strike. On the fourth day a detachment from HMS Fal marched through the streets, and seven lorryloads of the 4th King's African Rifles in battledress with steel helmets and with rifles and bayonets fixed, circled the city."63 These military forces were not just for show or threat, however. The East African Standard reported that, "Police, equipped with batons and tear gas grenades, frequently had to break up crowds."64 Almost 500 strikers were arrested in the first few days of the strike.65 The government was able to keep the port open and partially maintain essential services with what it termed "voluntary labor," as some Europeans and Asians were prepared to "scab."66 But as the strike went on, Arab workers abandoned working as replacements. As the East African Standard reported, "European and Indian labor has been employed to maintain some of the services… but Arab labor has in large measure stopped work."67 Frederick Cooper has labeled the government repression as vigorous, intended to destroy independent unionism that could potentially threaten the colonial order.68 In addition, British colonialism's resistance to the Mombasa strike was aided by the responses of the established African nationalists. The lone African representative on the Kenyan Legislative Council, E.W. Mathu, publically refused to support the strike, calling it illegal.69 Jomo Kenyatta, head of the Kenya African Union (KAU) and eventual first president of independent Kenya, denounced the strike.70 Nationalist opposition to the autonomous working class movement was rooted in the nationalists' commitment to private property and their view that independent African nations should remain in the capitalist world economy after the end of colonialism. The workers' challenges to private property and their implicit collectivism/socialism represented a threat to the nationalists' program. Kenyatta later made this explicit as President of Kenya, explaining that, "We consider that nationalization will not serve the course of African socialism. I believe it must now be clear to everyone that my government activity wishes to encourage more and more investment from other countries."71
Mathu's role in ending the strike was particularly decisive. On January 24, 1947, with the general strike still holding twelve days after it started, Mathu met with the striking workers at the soccer stadium. He promised an investigation into the workers' grievances and improvements in their working conditions within three months if the workers ended their strike. Despite Mathu's opposition to the strike from the beginning, he held political weight. As the long-standing and only African representative in the government, he may have been seen by some Africans as their only voice in the colonial order. It may also be significant that he had been AWF leader Kibachia's teacher. The result was that on the 24th the majority of the workers agreed to return to work, which they did the next day on January 25, 1947, ending the general strike.
Results of the Mombasa Strike
In the weeks after the strike ended, the government formed the Thacker Tribunal to, perhaps, follow up on Mathu's promises. It is more likely the government made this concession because it felt the pressure of the short strikes that continued throughout coastal Kenya in the weeks after the Mombasa strike. In addition, the newly formed AWF remained active and vocal in expressing the workers' interests and concerns. At the end of March 1947, the Thacker Tribunal made its proposals to address the issues raised by the strike. The Tribunal called for a 20 to 40 percent increase in wages for some workers, along with some funds to be committed by employers to housing allowances, paid holidays and paid overtime. The Thacker Tribunal also endorsed higher minimum wages for workers with at least five years' service to the same company. The Tribunal additionally suggested that some unemployed workers be removed from Mombasa, and then relocated to less populated areas of Kenya. The government and representatives of the Mombasa area employers agreed to these recommendations.72
By this time the AWF had built a rudimentary organization, holding weekly meetings in Mombasa and also in Nairobi.73 It had become known as Chama cha Maskini, the Union of the Poor.74 Colin Leys has stressed how strongly the AWF was linked to the workers, as, "Unlike the leaders of the KAU, the leaders of the AWF were relatively uneducated men, close to the ordinary workers."75 The AWF immediately rejected the Thacker settlement and threatened a second strike. Kibachia, in a mass meeting in late March, called for a boycott of the award. He opposed government plans to remove unemployed people from Mombasa, as this would only be applied to Africans.76 The AWF additionally continued to advocate for its politics even after the strike had ended. At a number of meetings in March and April, the AWF organized protests with banners saying "Away with the Colour Bar" and "Equal Pay for Equal Work."77 These points are noteworthy because they once again illustrate how class and racial concerns were both bound up in the Mombasa Strike.
Over a series of mass meetings in April 1947, 80 percent of the Mombasa strikers agreed with the AWF's stance and rejected the Thacker award. One meeting of workers in Majengo passed a resolution that stated, "That representation on the Tribunal was not impartial and the Africans involved in the strike were represented by a minority before the Tribunal. Moreover, the award which was confined to certain classes and sections of workers, is not impartial, and, therefore, inconsistent with democratic approach to the question of labor."78 Expressing the mass of workers' commitment to maintaining class solidarity, the AWF was direct in its rejection of the award. It dismissed the Thacker recommendations because the wage increase did not include casual workers, workers in small businesses and taxi drivers, all of whom had walked out in support of the strike.79
The colonial government, fearing this ongoing worker perseverance and solidarity, did an end run. The government took charge by convincing employers to put the Thacker wage raises directly into the workers' checks. In this way, the government avoided any need to have the workers formally accept the Thacker award. Now, the only way the workers could continue to resist and reject this fait accompli was to engage a new strike. The AWF actually proposed a second strike, to run from June to September, to press for a better award and to maintain the workers' solidarity and independent organization. With financial pressures mounting on the workers from months of conflict, and AWF-organized mass meetings down to around 500 people, the workers did not start a second strike. The AWF accepted the Thacker Tribunal award in June of 1947, with the addition of a cost of living allowance.80
However a number of European companies, threatened by the AWF's insistence on continuing and expanding the workers' struggle, called on the government to suppress the AWF.81 The government sensed the AWF's weakness at this point, and seized the opportunity to repress the workers' independent organization. Kibachia was arrested and deported to western Kenya on August 22, 1947, along with 18 other leaders of the AWF.82 Just for good measure, the government also arrested Makhan Singh, an Indian communist who would play a decisive role in preparing the Nairobi General Strike in 1950, even though he had been in Kenya for only five days. Cooper has concluded that, "The British recognized not just a nationalist threat [in the Mombasa strike], but a clear class threat that could undercut neo-colonial plans as well."83
The KAU did not defend the workers against the colonial repression. Kenyatta did not publically oppose the arrest of Kibachia and the other AWF leaders. Even though Nairobi "seethed" over Kibachia's arrest, Kenyatta denounced any sympathy strikes or meetings in support of the arrested AWF leaders as illegal. He further advised workers to bring future grievances to individual employers.84
Despite the end of the strike, African workers in Mombasa had built a movement that started national liberation. In the post-war period, the inadequate wage structure, unemployment and racism were all major factors in uniting the workers on both economic and racial issues. The AWF directly promoted class and ethnic unity among Kenyan workers through its anti-corporatist, one-big-union approach.85 The war had in fact already started this process, as the influx of rural people into the factories and docks of Mombasa had led to greater ethnic diversification. The labor organization and political activity that followed among the workers caused ethnic distinctions among them to lessen.86 The Mombasa Strike became a vehicle for workers to begin overcoming their ethnic differences through recognizing, and organizing in response to, their common grievances.
What is essential to stress in the Mombasa Strike is the development of an independent, organized working class spearheaded by the efforts and ideas of ordinary workers themselves. As already noted, the strike was largely spontaneous. The AWF itself was created through a general meeting of the workers only once the strike had started, largely to address the organizational and practical issues that arose immediately. The strike and the organization spread initially by word of mouth rather than any elaborate, pre-existing organization.87 Maina Macharia explained that, "It was workers who formed the Federation. It was formed within the strike…"88 The strike and the AWF received no support from established union leaderships or the KAU.89 Far from crippling the workers' efforts, the rejection by the middle class nationalists fostered the independence of the workers. Workers at a meeting in January 1947 in Mombasa accepted that Kenyatta and the KAU had abandoned them. However, they commonly expressed the idea that workers must "look to their own class" for help.90 Even the British recognized the independence of the Mombasa movement. One colonial official at the Mombasa Hearings held in January 1947 attested to the spontaneity of the strike, complaining that, "It is a very confused strike. There have been no demands, there is no union."91 In fact the independence and creativity of the working class were best illustrated in how the strike led Mombasa workers to begin organizing and running daily life in the city. As Bruce Berman and John Lonsdale have explained, "The mass of Mombasa… created another kind of unionism. This emerged during the strike, more an exercise in direct city democracy than an instrument of wage bargaining."92
The Mombasa General Strike in African History
The Mombasa Strike was not an isolated development. Just a few years later, in 1950 in Nairobi, a second general strike developed that was even more radical in its commitment to independent workers' political power and implicit challenges to the colonial state. Historian David Hyde, building on the scholarship of David Troup, has suggested that the Nairobi General Strike actually established a situation of "dual power" where the Kenyan working class had begun to create its own independent government, potentially in direct conflict with the British colonial state.93
The Mombasa Strike was additionally part of a continent-wide strike wave of African workers. Mass and even general strikes occurred frequently between 1945 and 1950 in South Africa, Nigeria, Senegal, Egypt, Ghana, and Sudan. A miners' strike in South Africa in April 1946, for example, involved 74,000 workers. In Lagos, Nigeria in 1945, 33,000 printing, public works, railway, marine and municipal workers organized a general strike that lasted 45 days. One of the most important workers' actions in the post-war labor upsurge was the 1947–1948 Railway Strike in French West Africa. The core strikers numbered 20,000 rail workers, who came from Senegal, Mali and Guinea.94
All of these workers' struggles throughout Africa closely paralleled the experiences and revolutionary potential of Mombasa. As in Mombasa, the workers across Africa built spontaneous movements that were broadly supported by African communities, and independent of established colonial, union and nationalist leaderships. Ordinary workers, more radical than the moderate leaderships in their opposition to inequality and privilege, typically drove these movements. Equally important, all of the struggles deeply connected class-based economic demands with the political aspirations of anti-colonialism and national liberation. For instance the 1947 general strike of 46,000 workers in Ghana arguably led directly to the Accra Riots, which are seen as the turning point in Ghana's gaining of independence.95 These movements also revealed of course the common opposition of the European colonial order. More telling though, was the equally common and consistent opposition of the nationalists to these independent working class struggles. For instance, the mass railway strike in French West Africa was strongly criticized by Felix Houphouet-Boigny, a founder of the Reassemblement Democratique Africain who would become the first president of independent Ivory Coast.96
The main point to draw is that national liberation from European colonialism, not just in Kenya but across Africa, was initiated by the working class. However, initiating is not winning. National liberation throughout Africa was eventually won under the leadership of the nationalists, for example Kenyatta and the Kenya African National Union (KANU, the new name of the KAU after 1960). But the nationalists did not find a way to lead African nations out of the trap of continuing Western neo-colonialism, and the on-going poverty and repression that have accompanied it. (For example in Kenya today, 42.7 percent of the population is living in or near poverty, while 43 percent of the population lacks access to clean water.97) In fact, the African nationalist parties were often politically complicit in the maintenance of neo-colonialism after independence. One illustration of this is KANU's land reform program in the mid-1960s that "redistributed" 1.8 million acres of Kenyan land, with 60 percent going to Europeans, and only around one-third going to Africans.98
Workers across Africa certainly demonstrated remarkable militancy, independence, solidarity and political leadership in the strikes that occurred simultaneously between 1945 and 1950. But questions remain as to whether the workers could have constructed a different kind of national liberation. Could the working class have built a Pan-African leadership in 1945, as a socialist alternative to middle class nationalism? Can the working class build a Pan-African leadership today, as a socialist alternative to neo-colonialism?
Appendix One: Sources on the Mombasa General Strike of 1947
The documents listed below represent a variety of sources on the Mombasa Strike and the working class in Kenya, as well as materials on colonialism and anti-colonialism in Africa more generally.
Mombasa Annual Report, 1947; Published for the Great Britain
Digo Annual Report,
1947; Published for the Great Britain Colonial Office
The East African Standard, Kenyan Newspaper, Standard Group Limited
Hearings on the Mombasa Strike
Resource Collection: Africa
How Europe Underdeveloped Africa by Walter
Legacy of Walter Rodney
Strikes in Kenya by Makhan Singh
General Strike, 1947
General Strike, 1950 by David Hyde
Strike Wave across Africa
Legacy of Makhan Singh
Kenya's Pioneering Trade Unionists
Politics and the Railway Strike in French West Africa by
in 10 Minutes: The Scramble for Africa
Black Man's Land, White Man's Country (part one)
Black Man's Land, White Man's Country (part two)
Black Man's Land, White Man's Country (part three)
States of Independence — The [Modern] Scramble for Africa
The River Between by Ngugi wa Thiong'o
Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o: 'Resistance is the best way of keeping alive'
God's Bits of Wood by Ousmane Sembene
Ousmane Sembene: The
Life of a Revolutionary Artist
Appendix Two: Using the Mombasa Documents with Students
One of the issues with having students work with these Mombasa documents is the underrepresentation of non-elite views. The attached primary sources are generally, even officially, representative of colonial perspectives. Students can certainly gain a deeper understanding of Kenyan independence by examining the views and preoccupations of the European colonizers: their arguments for legitimizing their rule, their strategies for responding to the mass movements, and so on.
Still, exploring the perspectives of the ordinary workers of the Mombasa Strike is at least equally important, but finding sources that directly express their concerns, goals and ideas can be challenging. One approach I have tried to address this is to have students read the "official" documents for a second point-of-view, an alternative, (more) inferred viewpoint that can offer some insights into the workers' perspectives.
For example, I have students read the Mombasa Annual Report and then discuss in small groups, instructing them to identify and textually demonstrate both an "official" point-of-view and an alternative point-of-view. (There is an organizer at the end of this appendix that may be useful for students working with these documents.)
Students generally identify the "official" perspective of the report as that of the Colonial government. Most pick this up from the title of the document, but they also find it in the negative vocabulary used for the strike and the strikers, such as "disturbance," "extremists," and "hooligans" (p1). Students also debate whether the improvements recommended by the Thacker Tribunal (p2) represented a humanitarian response by the Colonial government, or an attempt to derail the burgeoning independence movement.
Identifying, or creating, a second point-of-view can be more challenging. Students often assume the striking workers represent a potential alternative point-of-view, but finding textual evidence for this is more difficult. It is usually necessary to give students an example of reinterpreting the text to illustrate the workers' viewpoint. One example of this is the Colonial government's discussion of the workers holding "illegal courts" (p3), implying criminal behavior. But from the workers' point-of-view, this same text could be used to illustrate their growing confidence and political independence. Examples like this can sometimes guide students to begin reinterpreting the documents to consider an alternative point-of-view. Some inferences students have made along these lines include seeing a growth in Africans' commitment to anti-colonialism in the statement that African unrest "… became less economic and more political…" (p2), and seeing workers' assertion of their independent power in the statement that the African Workers Federation "… took it upon themselves to interfere in the proper working of law and order…" (p2).
This approach is not without its potential distortions. Identifying point-of-view always involves interpretation and inference, as well as the influence of the reader's, including the teacher's, assumptions and biases. This can be even more problematic with an interpretation that involves much more "stretching" of the text, reading into the documents ideas or perspectives that not everyone will agree are actually "there." However I have found that, as long as students are made conscious of the more speculative nature of this approach, it may lead to a more critical encounter with the documents, as well as provide an opportunity to consider and discuss non-elite perspectives.
Appendix Three: Primary Sources from the Mombasa Strike
Mombasa Annual Report, 1947; Published for the Great Britain Colonial Office (Kenya National Archives)
Digo Annual Report, 1947; Published for the Great Britain Colonial Office (Kenya National Archives)
Mike Blanker teaches history at New Britain High School and, on occasion, at the University of Saint Joseph in Connecticut. (email@example.com)
1 Wunyabari Maloba, Mau Mau and Kenya (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993), 46.
2 Maina wa Kinyatti, History of Resistance in Kenya: 1884–2002 (Maina wa Kinyatti, USA,
2010), pp. 3–7.
3 For a sample of the historiography on Kenyan Independence, see: O.J.E. Shiroya, Kenya and World War Two: African Soldiers in the European War (Nairobi: Kenya Literature Bureau, 1985); David Killingray, Fighting for Britain: African Soldiers in the Second World War (Woodbridge, Suffolk, UK: James Currey, 2010); Wunyabari Maloba, Mau Mau and Kenya (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 1993); Tabitha Kanogo, Squatters and the Roots of Mau Mau (London: James Currey, 1987); Frank Furedi, The Mau Mau War in Perspective (London: James Currey, 1989); B.A. Ogot, "The Decisive Years: 1956–1963", in Decolonization and Independence in Kenya: 1940–1993, edited by Ogot, B.A. and W.R. Ochieng (Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 1995); Daniel Branch, Defeating Mau Mau, Creating Kenya (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009).
4 Donald Barnett and Karari Njama, Mau Mau from Within (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1966), 24.
5 Ibid., 24.
6 Ibid., 24.
7 Ibid., 25.
8 Maloba, Mau Mau and Kenya, 25.
9 Ibid., 27.
10 Ibid., 27.
11 Ibid., 33.
12 Walter Rodney, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa (Washington, DC: Howard University Press, 1982), 154.
13 Barnett and Njama, Mau Mau, 32.
14 Ibid., 32.
15 Rodney, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, 165.
16 Barnett and Njama, Mau Mau, 33.
17 Sharon Stichter, "Trade Unionism in Kenya, 1947 – 1952: The Militant Phase," in African Labor History, edited by C.W. Gutkind, Robin Cohen and Jeans Copans, 155–174 (London: Sage Publications, 1978).
18 For a fuller discussion of agricultural labor, peasants and squatters in Kenyan anti-colonialism see: Tabitha Kanogo, Squatters and the Roots of Mau Mau (London: James Currey, 1987).
19 Zarina Patel, The Mombasa General Strike of 1947, (Place of publication not identified. Publisher not identified. Paper in Northwest University Library, 1977); Frederick Cooper, On the African Waterfront: Urban Disorder and the Transformation of Work in Colonial Mombasa, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987), 2. Sharon Stichter, "The Formation of a Working Class in Kenya," in The Development of an African Working Class, edited by Richard Sandbrook and Robin Cohen, 21–48 (London: Longman, 1975), 24.
20 Stichter, Formation, 24.
21 Ibid., 24.
22 Makhan Singh, History of Kenya's Trade Union Movement to 1952 (Nairobi: East African Publishing House, 1969), 5.
23 Stichter, "Formation", 36.
24 Stichter, "Trade Unionism", 27.
25 Patel, Mombasa, 2, 6.
26 Cooper, African Waterfront, 8.
27 Stichter, "Formation", 35.
28 Ibid., 34–35.
29 Kirk Arden Hoppe, "Gender in African History," in Africa: Colonial Africa, 1885–1939, Toyin Falola (editor), (Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press, 2002), 228.
30 Ibid., 35.
31 Cooper, African Waterfront, 2.
32 Stichter, "Formation," 37.
33 Cooper, African Waterfront, 2.
34 Kanogo, Squatters and the Roots of Mau Mau, 1.
35 Ibid., 4.
36 Ibid., 4.
37 Singh, Kenya's Trade Union Movement, 148.
38 Patel, Mombasa, 20.
39 Ibid., 11.
40 Ibid., 14.
41 Ibid., 10.
42 Ibid., 8–9.
43 Kenya National Archives, East African Standard (EAS), January 18, 1947. Microfilm at Syracuse University, Bird Library, Syracuse, New York; East African Standard, 1/1/1947–1/31/1947; Microfilm number 1627, Reel numbers 001 – 279. For guide to specific topics, see: David Easterbrook and Kenneth Lohrentz, Africana Microfilms at the E.S. Bird Library, Syracuse University: An Annotated Guide (Syracuse, New York: Eastern African Studies Program, Syracuse University, 1974).
44 Zarina Patel, Unquiet: The Life and Times of Makhan Singh (Nairobi: Zand Graphics, 2006), 108.
45 Cooper, African Waterfront, 79, 81.
46 Anthony Clayton and Donald Savage, Government and Labor in Kenya, 1895–1963 (London: Frank Cass, 1974), 277.
47 Frederick Cooper, Decolonization and African Society: The Labor Question in French and British Africa (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 234.
48 Kenya National Archives, EAS, January 15, 1947.
49 Kenya National Archives, EAS, January 18, 1947.
50 Cooper, African Waterfront, 81.
51 Clayton and Savage, Government and Labor, 277.
52 Cooper, African Waterfront, 82–83.
53 Kenya National Archives, EAS, January 20, 1947.
54 Cooper, African Waterfront, 79. Cooper, Decolonization, 234.
55 Cooper, African Waterfront, 81–82.
56 Cooper, Decolonization, 235.
57 Cooper, African Waterfront, 83.
58 Kenya National Archives, Kilifi Annual Report (AR) 1947. Microfilm at Syracuse University, Bird Library, Syracuse, New York; Annual Reports, 1947; Microfilm number 4723, Reel numbers 001–088, 125–127, 133–134. For index to specific topics, see: Robert Gregory, Robert Maxon and Leon Spencer, Kenya National Archives Guide (Syracuse, New York: Program of East African Studies, Syracuse University, 1969).
59 Singh, Kenya's Trade Unions, 146.
60 Kenya National Archives, Uplands Annual Report (AR) 1947.
61 Patel, Singh, 234. David Hyde, "The Nairobi General Strike: From Protest to Insurgency." in The Urban Experience in Eastern Africa c. 1750–2000, edited by Andrew Burton (Nairobi: The British Institute in East Africa, 2002), 244.
62 Cora Ann Presley, "The Mau Mau Rebellion, Kikuyu Women and Social Change," Canadian Journal of African Studies (Ottawa: Canadian Association of African Studies, 1988, pp. 502–527), 507. Hoppe, "Gender in African History," 235.
63 Clayton and Savage, Government and Labor, 277.
64 Kenya National Archives, EAS, January 20, 1947.
65 Clayton and Savage, Government and Labor, 277.
66 Ibid., 277–278.
67 Kenya National Archives, EAS, January 16, 1947.
68 Cooper, African Waterfront, 87.
69 Singh, Kenya's Trade Unions, 142.
70 Cooper, Decolonization, 238.
71 Alice Hoffenberg Amsden, International Firms and Labor in Kenya: 1945–1970 (London: Frank Cass, 1971), xi.
72 Swarthmore College. Global Nonviolent Action Database. "15,000 Workers Strike, Win Wage Increases in Mombasa." http://nvdatabase.swarthmore.edu/content/15000-workers-strike-win-wage-increases-mombasa-kenya-colony-january-1947. Accessed December, 10, 2016.
74 Cooper, African Waterfront, 84.
75 Colin Leys, Underdevelopment in Kenya: The Political Economy of Neocolonialism (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1975), 49.
76 Ibid., 99.
77 Clayton and Savage, Government and Labor, 281.
78 Kenya National Archives, EAS, April 4, 1947.
79 Patel, Mombasa, 19.
80 Cooper, African Waterfront, 104.
81 Ibid., 104.
82 Cooper, Decolonization, 238.
83 Cooper, African Waterfront, 87.
84 Cooper, African Waterfront, 107. Cooper, Decolonization 238. Bruce Berman and John Lonsdale, Unhappy Valley: Conflict in Kenya and Africa (London: James Currey, 1992), 424–425.
85 Cooper, African Waterfront, 19.
86 Ibid., 22, 30.
87 Ibid., 18.
88 Hyde, "Nairobi General Strike", 238.
89 Clayton and Savage, Government and Labor, 16.
90 Berman and Lonsdale, Unhappy Valley,
91 United Kingdom Parliament. Mombasa Hearings. "Kenya. General Strike. Mombasa. 1947." http://hansard.millbanksystems.com/commons/1947/jan/22/kenya-general-strike-mombasa. Accessed December 10, 2016.
92 Berman and Lonsdale, Unhappy Valley, 416.
93 Hyde, "Nairobi General Strike", 249. David Troup, Economic and Social Origins of Mau Mau (London: James Currey,
94 For a sample of the historiography on the working class movements across Africa between 1945 and 1950, see: Peter Alexander, Workers, War and the Origins of Apartheid: Labour and Politics in South Africa, 1939–1948 (Oxford: James Currey, 2000); Joel Beinin and Zachary Lockman, Workers on the Nile: Nationalism, Communism, Islam, and the Egyptian Working Class, 1882–1954 (Cairo: American University Press in Cairo, 1998); Robin Cohen, Labour and Politics in Nigeria, 1945–1971 (London: Heinemann, 1974); Jeff Crisp, The Story of an African Working Class: Ghanaian Miners' Struggles, 1870 –1980 (London: Zed Books, 1984); James Jones, Industrial Labor in the Colonial World: Workers of the Chemin de Fer Dakar-Niger, 1881–1963 (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2002); Jean Suret-Canale, "The French West African Railway Workers' Strike, 1947–1948," in African Labor History, edited by C.W. Gutkind, Robin Cohen and Jeans Copans, 155–174. (London: Sage Publications, 1978); Ahmad Alawad Sikainga, City of Steel and Fire: A Social History of Atbara, Sudan's Railway Town, 1906–1984 (Oxford: James Currey, 2002); Elizabeth Schmidt, Mobilizing the Masses: Gender, Ethnicity, and Class in the Nationalist Movement in Guinea, 1939–1958 (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2005).
95 Cooper, Decolonization, 248.
96 Ibid., 245.
97 Selim Jahan (lead author), Human Development Report 2016: Human Development for Everyone (New York: United Nations Development Programme, 2016) 218; United Nations, Kenya National Human Development Report 2009 (Paris: UNESCO, 2009), 5.
98 Gary Wasserman, Politics of Decolonization: Kenya, Europeans and the Land Issue, 1960–1965 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009) and Christopher Leo, Land and Class in Kenya (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1984).
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