Academic journal article The International Journal of African Historical Studies

The Northey Forced Labor Crisis, 1920-1921: A Symptomatic Reading

Academic journal article The International Journal of African Historical Studies

The Northey Forced Labor Crisis, 1920-1921: A Symptomatic Reading

Article excerpt

In 1920 the issue of forced labor in colonial Kenya erupted into a public controversy among various humanitarian groups in London. That this debate occurred over Kenya and not another more "African" colony was not coincidental. As a settler colony with an even larger African population, Kenya was more problematic than any other British colony in Africa due to the conflicting goals of settler and indigenous peasant production.1 At issue was a labor circular2 that was written in 1919 by the governor of the East Africa Protectorate,3 Sir Edward Northey. This infamous labor circular explicitly stated that, "All government officials in charge of native areas must exercise every possible lawful influence to induce able-bodied male natives to go into the labour field."4 Although the wording was seemingly innocuous, the emphasis on pushing Africans into the labor market hinted at state coercion of African labor for private European interests, a policy that had been previously disavowed by the secretary of State for the Colonies Lewis Harcourt, in 1914.5

The promulgation of the circular brought swift criticism from concerned humanitarian groups in London, including the Anti-Slavery and Aborigines Protection Society (ASAPS) and the Conference of Missionary Societies.6 Eventually, humanitarian pressure upon the Colonial Office culminated in a parliamentary debate in the House of Lords on 14 July 1920, and a repudiation of the circulars. A later dispatch by secretary of State Winston Churchill, in 1921, expressly forbade forced labor for private individuals.

Despite this apparent closure, the forced labor controversy merely resulted in an attenuation of forced labor. Churchill's 1921 dispatch only disavowed forced labor for private individuals. It did not end all coercive labor practices. The state continued to extract communal forced labor from African peasants. This type of forced labor was defined and justified as a continuation of traditional duties that Africans would normally owe to their chiefs. The effect of Churchill's dispatch legitimized force under the ark of customary law.

This paper contends that the Northey crisis resulted in a more narrow definition of acceptable forced labor practices that included communal forced labor, justified as customary relic, while excluding forced labor for private individuals, which was suppressed as a harmful vestige of rabid progress. This strengthened the relative autonomy of the colonial state in Kenya as a, seemingly, neutral and impartial institution while furthering the exploitation of African labor under the veil of community.7 This point has been overlooked by most scholars of Kenyan labor history and forced labor.8

Ultimately, the Northey circular controversy represented more than just a labor crisis. It was the embodiment of a struggle over competing ideas about African development in Kenya Colony. To borrow from Bruce Herman and John Lonsdale, it represented one of the myriad contradictions of colonial rule in Kenya.9 This paper further examines the variegated contestations over African development embodied in the forced labor controversy. Ironically, despite the varying viewpoints over African development reflected in the Northey circular crisis, there was consensus among the various parties over the utility of government forced labor for communal purposes. The Northey circular crisis also showed that the hierarchy of command from the Colonial Office to the Administration was multi-faceted and evolved over time, representing differing visions of African development. To echo E.P. Thompson, but in a different vein, the colonial state was not a "thing" but a process of relationships of control that evolved historically.10

The Context of Forced Labor in Colonial Kenya

Much has been written of coerced labor under colonial rule in Kenya.11 European settlers lacked adequate capital to attract African labor without state intervention. The settlers offered low pay as incentives for Africans to experience the benefits of wage labor. …

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