Preferred Citation: Fadiman, Jeffrey A. When We Began, There Were Witchmen: An Oral History from Mount Kenya. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1993 1993.

Chapter V Capitulation Traditions: The Coming of England

Creating Colonialism: The Blanket Chiefdoms

By May 1908, Horne's entourage was firmly encamped at Mwitari's (homestead), a site about nine miles from the present area of Meru Town.[14] The Miutini incident had made him aware of his military limitations, however, and he decided to construct a more defensible permanent camp.

Spokesmen from several of the local Kiamas recommended a ridge of partially uncultivated land near the Kazita River, just below the forest fringe. From Horne's perspective it had several advantages. The ridge was high, sharply defined, and thus easily defended. It lay near a permanent water source and was also open to cooling winds. Known earlier as Kaithe, it was then called Mutindwa's (place), after its war leader, and today forms the core of the modern Meru township.

The Meru elders, however, saw other advantages in the proposed site. It was exposed, thus potentially open to attack from lowland raiders, such as the plains Maasai. More important, it was partially covered by a sacred forest grove, "sacred" in that it was reserved for habitation by spirits of the Meru dead. These groves, it will be recalled, were


found throughout Meru. For generations no living person had entered them, lest their presence incur supernatural wrath. Now, it seemed only fitting to direct an unwanted alien conqueror into an area where he could be dealt with, either by ancestral spirits or warlike Maasai.

Horne shrugged off the warnings of his interpreters and began work, forcing Imenti warriors to clear the forested and cultivated sections with equal thoroughness and a fine disregard for either ancestral anger or previous property rights. The next step was to erect two Canadian-style log cabins, built in the manner he had learned as a lumberjack.[15] These became his house and office. Thereafter, a line of grass and thatch huts was constructed, set in a permanent square in traditional British military style. Local warriors were then set to digging a six-foot trench, again in a square, around the complete encampment. Finally, water from the neighboring river was diverted into the square by means of trenches, and the headquarters was complete.

Throughout the building period Imenti elders had waited eagerly for the first signs of ancestral retribution to strike the intruders, in the form of catastrophic illness. They were initially quite encouraged when Horne consistently refused his interpreters' pleas to placate the supernatural by sacrificing goats. However, calamity failed to strike in any form, a failure that deeply shook the elders' faith in their traditions and cast many into apathetic despair.

Meanwhile, with their base complete, the invaders turned their attention to the construction of roads. That action brought them directly into conflict with the traditions of warriorhood. Horne's desire to create communication and supply routes back to his own administrative center can be understood, especially in view of his exposed military position. In full agreement the colonial administration had called for the simultaneous construction of a roadbed ten feet wide, to run from Embu through each of the Meru regions, pass through Horne's encampment, and extend thirty miles beyond into Tigania. Eventually, it would extend northward to include the Nyambeni Mountains (Igembe) and east around Mount Kenya into Gikuyu. The "simultaneous" element was to occur through the coercion of every African community along the route to undertake its construction.

In some regions the work was little more than the clearing of paths through the bush. In others, and particularly those of Meru, the road was required to traverse the same steep gorges and swift-flowing rivers that had so influenced traditional military development for generations. Nor were there European tools available to facilitate the job. Axes,


shovels, and iron-tipped hoes were still in the future. Trees and thorn-bush could only be cleared with bush knives made of local iron, and rocks dislodged with wooden digging sticks.

Nor were the Meru eager for the task. The warriors were outraged at the orders to "dig," traditionally a woman's task. Their spokesmen appealed to Horne, explaining this facet of their customs and offering their services in clearing bush but leaving the actual road construction to women.

Tradition states that Kangangi was absolute in his refusal. Locked firmly into his European perspective, he came from a world in which men dug, women languished, and idleness was sin. Accordingly, he objected initially that Meru women lacked the strength for the work at hand. Thereafter, he pointed out the young men's current idleness and their need for "useful" labor. Once again, when customs clashed it was African warriorhood that suffered.

In fact, men and women participated equally in the road building. Newly appointed chiefs were made responsible for recruiting labor from each area. Their orders were enforced by other appointees, usually war leaders of secondary status. These acted as overseers and enforcers, thereby escaping the need to dig themselves. Every young adult had to be present. Absenteeism was eliminated by requiring workers to sleep at their work site. Each evening rough shelters were put up beside the half-formed roadbed, where men and women alike stayed in place until dawn.

At sunrise the work itself was in fact divided by sex, but according to British conceptions. Men dug, heaving at the packed earth and buried rock. Women carried dirt to the roadsides, using their hands to fill traditional woven baskets. The work was particularly exhausting when the roadbed had to be forced up (or down) the precipitous Meru gorges, through streams still raging from the recent rains, or over giant boulders that needed heating until they split and could be cleared away. Slackness or resistance was punished with the whip, with warriors being whipped before their women in flagrant disregard of military custom.

In consequence it was Meru warriorhood that began to die as the road emerged within the forests. The transformation of war leaders into chiefs and enforcers and of their rank and file into manual laborers did far more to kill the military ethic than mere surrender without battle. For the first time in their history warriors of an entire generation were forced to take a role reserved for women, working as equals beside them and sharing identical punishment. For the first time men could no


longer take pride in their warrior role. Instead, as redefined by conquest, it had become a source of shame. Nor did war leaders escape the transformation. By serving the conqueror to the point of enforcing his conquest on their comrades, they escaped the humiliation of "women's" labor. But in so doing, they too lost all pride in their warrior identity. In the words of a former comrade: "they were no longer our [Meru] Agambe [spokesmen] but his. They were no longer men of Meru but simply Kamuchunku. . .little whites."[16]

Having established both a defensible headquarters and adequate lines of communication, Horne turned to the creation of a "native" administration. His task was considerably lightened by a British decision to divide the Meru-speaking regions into two administrative districts. Between 1908 and 1933 the peoples of Mwimbi, Muthambi, Cuka, and Tharaka were ruled from Embu, with direct control stemming from a subheadquarters in Cuka.[17] The northern regions, including Igoji, Miutini, Imenti, Tigania, and Igembe were labeled "Meru District" and placed directly under Horne. With two other Europeans to assist him, Horne turned to the task of forming an administration.

His initial assumption of authority had been backed only by the single company of the King's African Rifles and such non-Meru as had accompanied him on his march. Horne's first step, therefore, had been to supplement his force of aliens with warriors drawn from among the conquered groups themselves. This was done initially by requiring each blanket chief to select two warriors to serve as "blanket askari" (police) on his initial march.[18]

Those chosen were selected personally by Horne from the potential candidates sent forward by the chiefs. Occasionally, those selected were reluctant to go. More often, they sought out the position, seeing it as a means to adventure, military action, and future praise. Kangangi always looked for men of outstanding size and physical vigor. As these criteria became widely known, warriors began to present themselves at his camp for selection. At least once, as Horne told the story, a huge war leader, well over six feet, was so anxious to be taken that he appeared before Horne with a "prisoner" under one arm and a sheep under the other.[19]

The blanket askari were permitted to retain their traditional shields and spears, thereby subordinating them to the "gun askari" who provided the core of Horne's force. Nonetheless, they proved of enormous value to him, forming his first breach in the wall of Meru resistance. Their initial task was to construct a traditional military war hut


adjacent to Horne's headquarters. There, guaranteed an unceasing supply of meat from their white "commander," they lived more or less according to warrior tradition, feasting, singing, and honing their fighting skills while waiting for his call to war.

After 1908, Horne's few initial appointees were supplemented by the systematic selection of two chiefs for each area. Essentially, the war hut was selected as the basic unit of administration. Before the British conquest each mountain ridge was guarded by its band of warriors, who lived together in a single gaaru , a huge hut that served as a military barracks. Each barracks was governed by a selected council of senior warriors who in turn were subject to the authority of the elders' council that contained men of their fathers' generation. Horne, upon learning something of this system, reacted initially by trying to restructure it in British terms, appointing a single "chief" for each age-set and labeling them "chief elder" and "chief warrior," respectively.

The system proved unwieldy and unworkable. The chief warrior, for instance, soon discovered he had no duties other than to assemble his entire warrior contingent for labor at the white man's command. In consequence the post became unpopular and then impossible to fill.

The position of chief elder also created problems, both for the Meru and their solitary conqueror. From Horne's perspective the sheer number of appointees required must have been staggering. Early sources suggest the creation of at least ninety-one "chiefdoms" of two chiefs apiece. Of these, thirty retained their initial status, but the other sixty-one were gradually reduced to being led by "headmen."[20] Nonetheless, the complexity of the problem remained.

In theory Horne made every effort to select leaders he felt would fit perfectly into the existing Meru administrative system. In fact, his selection was conducted strictly along European lines, thereby confusing and subsequently dividing Meru society. Like other Europeans of that era, Horne chose native leaders for what he termed "administrative vigor" and commanding physical presence. These requirements excluded men of small stature, great age, or physical infirmity, regardless of their experience, wisdom, or status within the Meru community.

In consequence Horne's criteria led to the exclusive selection of senior warriors, men in their late twenties, and an occasional family head of middle age. The concept initially horrified those chosen, since subordination to the authority of elders had formed the core of Meru communal thought. Horne, however, was apparently unable to comprehend the concepts of leadership implied in the Meru term "Ugambe"


("spokesmanship"), for these would have suggested the need to choose leaders of great age, known for their wisdom. What he needed, moreover, were not interpreters of tradition, but enforcers of his commands. Once more an African concept of social order was forced to give way as "kids began to lead the goats" (the young began to lead the old), a reversal that not only cost the elders their authority but also the respect in which they formerly were held.

Chapter V Capitulation Traditions: The Coming of England

Preferred Citation: Fadiman, Jeffrey A. When We Began, There Were Witchmen: An Oral History from Mount Kenya. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1993 1993.