In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section White Settlers in East Africa

  • Introduction
  • Introductory Readings
  • General Overview
  • Theorizing Settler Colonialism
  • Colonial-Era Handbooks
  • Expropriation of African Land and Other Natural Resources
  • Conservation and Whiteness
  • Settler Women
  • Settler Identity, Society, and Culture
  • Health and Medical Care
  • White Critics of Settlers during the Interwar Years
  • Racialization, Color Bars, and Multiracialism
  • Sports and Social Clubs
  • Livelihoods
  • Settler Politics, Political Representation, and Activism
  • Post-independence Citizenship, Identity, and Belonging

African Studies White Settlers in East Africa
Andrew Mickleburgh
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 November 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 November 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846733-0233


In East Africa, here taken to comprise present-day Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda, the term “settler” usually describes white people with livelihoods dependent on farming and closely related activities during the colonial period. Most settlers arrived in East Africa in the short time frame from circa 1900 to 1960. Although always small in number, settlers had significant and enduring impacts. The impetus for migration came from “push” and “pull” factors, working hand-in-hand in ways that could be hard to disentangle. The three-layered racial hierarchy of white, Indian, and African, as well as white identity, was highly politically charged. Settler farmers were generally the most conservative members of the white population, which also included traders, missionaries, and government officers. Settlers included wealthy aristocratic landowners in the Kenyan “White Highlands.” However, most settlers were undercapitalized, inexperienced, and farming unsuitable land. For some, survival was heavily reliant on an external income, such as an army pension. Reconciling settler ambitions of domination and self-rule, requiring African land and cheap labor, with the trusteeship of Africans supposedly undertaken by the colonial administration, was an inherent and intractable contradiction of colonial rule. Settlers bought into and perpetuated paternalistic versions of colonial racism as enunciated through the “white man’s burden” and “civilizing mission.” The heterogeneous settler communities became even more economically and socially diversified after World War II. Despite class, gender, and a significant town-country divide, settlers were united by racial solidarity. Their leadership tended to be English. The settler culture included beliefs and behaviors to subjugate the colonized, including a brutal violence inherent in interracial relations, and a premise that Africans were children requiring settlers and the state to act in loco parentis, plus the continuation of class attributes from Europe. Settlers considered maintaining white prestige, which also sought to instill among Africans a sense of inferiority and dependence on whites, to be their best protection from numerically dominant Africans. Apart from settler criticism that missions contributed to detribalization, religion is rarely mentioned in writing by or about settlers. Aristocratic and upper-class settlers have attracted disproportionate attention, marginalizing the large majority of settlers for whom life was economically very insecure and mundane. Although African agency and resistance to colonialism generally, and white settler domination specifically, was abundant, African voices and lived experiences have also been neglected in settler writings and literature on colonialism. There are more whites in East Africa today than at any time during the colonial period. Their lives reveal continuities with the colonial period as well as changes. They maintain standards of living far above national averages. Some possess considerable landholdings and business assets. Many settlers and their descendants were eager to reinvent themselves as “White Africans” in the newly independent states. Post-independence, by far the largest number of settlers and settler descendants live in Kenya, but, throughout East Africa, they are now dwarfed by other white residents.

Introductory Readings

The sweeping, geographically diverse contributions focused on Britons abroad in Bickers 2010 (including Lonsdale 2010, cited under History of White Settlement: General) and the seminal work Kennedy 1987 are recommended starting points for any reader wishing to better their knowledge of white settlers in East Africa. Ranger 1998 is a cogent appeal for a change in historiography from a focus on unequal power relations privileging whites over submissive Africans, to understanding both, “with a fully human capacity for heroism and villainy and mediocrity” (p. 256). Notwithstanding this, Shadle 2012 presents a potent examination of the ubiquitous violence inherent in settler and colonial state relations with Africans that, even when not acknowledged, must provide a backdrop to any discussion about settlers in East Africa. Anderson 2011 explores three notorious cases involving brutal corporal punishments inflicted by settlers on Africans in Kenya, settler attitudes toward the punishment of Africans, and the Colonial Office response. De Haas and Frankema 2018 makes a constructive contribution to understanding the potential value and pitfalls of empirical studies of the impacts of colonialism, including the underappreciated importance of African agency and quotidian realities in analyses and conclusions. Mamdani 1998 argues that without fundamental changes in ways of thinking and behaving, settlers who sometimes become members of a deracialized civic space will never be part of the still ethnicized customary spaces required to be regarded as “natives.”

  • Anderson, David M. “Punishment, Race and ‘The Raw Native’: Settler Society and Kenya’s Flogging Scandals, 1895–1930.” Journal of Southern African Studies 37.3 (September 2011): 479–497.

    DOI: 10.1080/03057070.2011.602887

    Describes how settlers who inflicted brutal corporal punishment upon “raw natives” defended their violence as necessary because of the “primitive nature” of Africans, and a judiciary that was lenient toward these settlers. Examines three of the notorious flogging cases that led to pressure from the Colonial Office to rewrite Kenya’s Penal Codes. However, Anderson suggests that reforms were part-and-parcel of attempts to reduce settler influence, rather than to protect African welfare, and that dispensing justice and punishment remained highly racialized.

  • Bickers, Robert, ed. Settlers and Expatriates: Britons over the Seas. Oxford History of the British Empire Companion Series. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.

    Highlights the simultaneous commonalities and enormous diversity between and within overseas nominally British communities. Opens and closes with challenging conceptual and historiographical discussions. Nine country case studies drawn from Africa, Asia, and South America interrogate ways that migrant Britons traversed identities and experiences in diverse, frequently locally specific, ways. Includes much about decolonization and its aftermath, including a very informative chapter focused on the return of settlers to Britain.

  • De Haas, Michiel, and Ewout Frankema. “Gender, Ethnicity and Unequal Opportunity in Colonial Uganda: European Influences, African Realities and the Pitfalls of Parish Register Data.” Economic History Review 71.1 (2018): 1–30.

    DOI: 10.1111/ehr/12618

    A rich, empirical study centered on the link between colonial rule and gendered educational and employment opportunities. Concludes that biases in the selection and interpretation of data can lead to overly optimistic accounts of European influences on African life, that these influences were not just diffusive but divisive, and that empirical studies must incorporate the initiatives of Africans and impacts of African agency.

  • Kennedy, D. Islands of White: Settler Society and Culture in Kenya and Southern Rhodesia, 1890–1939. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1987.

    Wide-ranging, incisive discussion that includes settlers’ conscious and unconscious desires for white racial solidarity, the myth of classlessness, the importance of prestige, attitudes to “poor whites,” the roles of clubs in inculcating desired norms, and extraordinary behavioral responses to anxieties regarding health. Kennedy also notes the tension arising from settlers’ dependence on African labor, requiring interactions in the economic sphere alongside simultaneous rigid lines of separation in the social sphere. The appendices include useful empirical data.

  • Mamdani, Mahmood. When does a Settler Become a Native? Reflections on the Colonial Roots of Citizenship in Equatorial and South Africa. Cape Town, South Africa: University of Cape Town, 1998.

    Mamdani’s inaugural lecture as A. C. Jordan Professor of African Studies, University of Cape Town, 13 May 1998. A much-cited analysis of the mutual dependence of the categories “settler” and “native” by an eminent Ugandan scholar. Mamdani argues for a single citizenship transcending civic and ethnic citizenship that is much more than reconciliation, achieving “an overall metamorphosis whereby erstwhile colonizers and colonized are politically reborn as equal members of a single political community” (p. 8).

  • Ranger, Terence. “Europeans in Black Africa.” Journal of World History 9.2 (Fall 1998): 255–268.

    DOI: 10.1353/jwh.2005.0109

    Suggests the extant studies of colonial and postcolonial history were distorted by a myopic focus on unequal power relations favoring dominant whites over submissive Africans. Calls for history to explore times and places where whites were conspicuously not powerful, or let down the colonial side by willingly submitting to African power, living among and accepting Africans as human beings.

  • Shadle, Brett. “Settlers, Africans, and Inter-personal Violence in Kenya, ca. 1900–1920s.” International Journal of African Historical Studies 45.1 (2012): 57–80.

    A pithy examination of the forms taken and contexts of the racialized, brutal violence inflicted by settlers upon Africans. Shadle suggests that while the violence inflicted by whites on African women was primarily sexual and deserving of special attention, it was beyond the scope of this article. Rare examples of whites who spoke out against the use of violence are acknowledged, with a caveat that whites were most likely to speak out if they felt violence exceeded “acceptable levels” (p. 75).

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.