Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

Anthropos into Humanitas: Civilizing Violence, Scientific Forestry, and the 'Dorobo Question' in Eastern Africa

Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

Anthropos into Humanitas: Civilizing Violence, Scientific Forestry, and the 'Dorobo Question' in Eastern Africa

Article excerpt


Early interactions between state administrators and forest-dwelling communities in eastern Africa yield significant insight into colonial attempts to grapple with difference across hierarchically conceptualized 'races', classes, tribes, and radically alternative livelihoods. In particular, uncertainties related to the governance of forest-dwellers resulted in a problematic known as the 'Dorobo question' in Kenya Colony, the former word being a corruption of the Maasai term for the poor, the sinful--and hence--the cattle-less. Drawing upon archival research in Kenya and the United Kingdom, I argue that halting attempts to govern such communities illuminate an historically and geographically specific dimension of late imperial Britain's apparently 'liberal' biopolitics, which entailed not the 'abandonment' of populations, per se, but rather the elimination and subsequent transformation of livelihoods, ontologies, and sustainablities perceived as fiscally barren or otherwise of little use to the colonial state. Far from being resolved, however, the afterlives of these logics of elimination highlight the stakes of contemporary struggles over eastern African forests, and particularly so in the context of an emergent transition to ostensibly 'green' forms of capitalism in the region.


Biopolitics, colonialism, race, violence, historical political ecology, territory

The ascent of man to a higher plane of intelligence, self-control, and responsibility is a process not unattended by pain. (Lugard, 1922: 91)

Introduction: Civilizing violence

The young Winston Churchill (1909: 41) did not hold 'wood-squirrels' in particularly high regard. This much is obvious from his writings during an early 20th-century journey through the ostensible 'protectorate' of British East Africa. Yet the squirrels to which he referred were not some African version of the common English rodent, but to scattered groups of people--initially thought by certain Europeans, variously, to be dubiously, partially, or prototypically human--that were collectively known as 'the Dorobo'.

The word 'Dorobo' is an English corruption of the Maasai term il-torobo, which the latter still occasionally and pejoratively use in reference to the sinful, the poor-- and hence--the cattle-less (Chang, 1982). Amongst a society in which both wealth and status are principally measured in livestock, an absolute shortage of the latter denotes both abject poverty and perhaps also a kind of moral vice not unlike that implied by the doctrine of Protestant industriousness. Somewhat unsurprisingly, then, the term gained traction with British colonial administrations in eastern Africa, becoming the dominant exogenous label for primarily hunting and gathering communities residing in forests throughout the region, whether in the Maasai (il-torobo) or corrupted English (dorobo) version. Thus, in his account of a journey throughout East Africa that was almost identical to Churchill's, it was possible for Theodore Roosevelt (1910: 246), for example, to simply conclude that the Dorobo were 'wild hunter-savages of the wilderness, who are more primitive in their ways of life than any other tribes of this region.'

Churchill and Roosevelt's ruminations on the East African forest communities that they encountered decidedly tell us precious little of enduring value about the region's indigenous politics, resource management systems, or cultural mosaic. Conversely, however, these and similar accounts do grant us significant insight into the relationship between forest ecosystems, their inhabitants, and what we might call 'the colonial mind' in the late 19th and early 20th century. (1) Accordingly, the focus of this paper is less on the 'impacts' of British colonialism on forest-dwellers in what is now Kenya, as it is on what the colonial state's policies toward these communities tell us about the 'culture' of its administrators, their peculiar biopolitics, and their corresponding technologies of government. …

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