Home » Who leased out Magadi land on behalf of the Kajiado Maasai?

Who leased out Magadi land on behalf of the Kajiado Maasai?

Africa's largest soda ash producer, Tata Chemicals Magadi Ltd.

A British company was allowed to mine soda in this corner of the former Southern Maasai Reserve as a result of a clause in the 1911 Maasai Agreement


The exploitation of soda deposits by foreign companies at Lake Magadi, Kenya, is the focus of one of many long-standing grievances by the Maasai community, according to scholar Lotte Hughes.

Hughes, in his doctoral dissertation, dwelt the land and other natural resource alienation in the colonial era.

A British company was allowed to mine soda in this corner of the former Southern Maasai Reserve as a result of a clause in the 1911 Maasai Agreement or Treaty, which was made between representatives of the Maasai community and the British government.

But there is compelling historical evidence to suggest that it had no legal right to do so.

Hughes’ article examines the early history of the East Africa Syndicate and Magadi Soda Company activities in British East Africa, the circumstances in which they obtained their early leases, and connections between these and the Maasai Agreements, signed within days of each other.

It traces the continuity of mineral exploitation to the present day, against a backdrop of historical and contemporary protest, placing these events in the broader historical context of early land policy, the resignation of Sir Charles Eliot in 1904, protests in the 1930s against the Native Lands Trust Ordinance, gold mining, and other commercial activities in “native reserves”.

On April 12, 1911, Sir Reginald Laurence signed a deal with William Hepworth, a crown agent of the East Africa Protectorate government, to lease off 222,778 acres of Lake Magadi. It was leased off for 99 years.

Hepworth worked for Whitehall Gardens in the City of Westminster as an agent of the colonies (also referred to as Crown Agents) acting for and on behalf of the East African Protectorate (Government) on the one hand and the Magadi Soda Company Ltd on the other.

Magadi Soda Company Ltd was incorporated pursuant to the Laws of England under the Companies (Consolidation) Act of 1908.

The Kajiado Maasai, according to records in our possession, were not part of the lease agreement between the company and British agents.

The lessee company’s registered office was premised at No. 25 and No. 27 Bishopgate in London.

In 1900, Sir Charles Eliot was appointed Commissioner of British East Africa.

The first application for land in British East Africa was made in April, 1902 by the East Africa Syndicate, a company in which financiers belonging to the British South Africa Company (where Cecil Rhodes was a prominent shareholder) were interested, which sought a grant of 500 square miles.

It was followed by other requests for considerable areas, including a large scheme for a proposed Jewish settlement.

From at least the mid-19th century, Britain recognised the East African highlands as Maasailand.

It appears Sir Charles believed the Maasai were so diabolical that they were irredeemable and the only solution was to dispatch them to the land of Lucifer.

While carrying out this policy of colonisation, Sir Charles and Lord Lansdowne disagreed and in a letter dated June 21, 1904, Sir Charles handed in his resignation, explaining: ‘‘Lord Lansdowne ordered me to refuse grants of land to certain private persons while giving a monopoly of land on unduly advantageous terms to the East Africa Syndicate. I have refused to execute these instructions which I consider to be unjust and impolitic.”

On the same day, Sir Donald William Stewart was appointed commissioner to replace Sir Charles.

However, rather than attempt outright conquest, a more practical approach was devised and an agreement dated August 10, 1904 was signed between Maasai chiefs led by Laibon Lenana and Sir Donald for the British Government, wherein the Maasai agreed to surrender large swathes of land in the Rift Valley for European settlement.

The Maasai were to move to reserves in Laikipia and the south of the Rift Valley. A further agreement was signed in 1911 alienating even more land to the settlers and creating what became popularly known as the “White Highlands”.

Under these so-called “treaties” of 1904 and 1911, the Maasai, purportedly of “their own free will”, agreed to give up the best-watered and most productive land in exchange for smaller reserves where they knew the land to be arid, unproductive and unfavourable to their way of life.

To add insult to injury, the British knew that the Maasai did not have a concept of land tenure in the western sense of the term.

In the mind of the Maasai, land was not defined by linear boundaries or individual ownership but by “the cattle upon a thousand hills”.

The Maasai are pastoralists, moving their cattle, sheep and goats to give the land a chance to regenerate and to find fresh pastures and water.

In 1913, the Maasai went to court to challenge the agreements of 1904 and 1911 but the case was thrown out on a technicality.

The Magadi Soda Company was incorporated in 1911 and started mining trona on the shores of Lake Magadi in the Rift Valley, about 120 km south of Nairobi. The lake is one of the largest and purest sources of trona in the world. Trona is converted into soda ash, which is used in baking and cosmetic applications.

After Kenya became a British Colony in 1920, Magadi Soda Company was granted a 99-year lease over 222,778 acres of land, hived off a Maasai reserve, around and including Lake Magadi in 1924 at an annual rent of Ksh20.

In the same year, the company was acquired by Brunner Mond, the Anglo-German company which would in 1926 merge with three others to form the appropriately named industrial giant, Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI).

Maasai men deemed themselves to be rather regal and therefore did not take up employment at the Magadi Soda plant, considering manual labour to be for lesser mortals.

The company employed Luos, Luhyas, Kambas and others who were quite happy to perform the manual tasks assigned to them.

In addition to paying rates, taxes and royalties to the government, the company also built a branch railway line linking Magadi with the main line at Konza, as well as a road link to Nairobi for transportation of their product and supplies. Magadi Soda Company provides housing, medical, recreational and school facilities for its staff and engages in social welfare activities for the surrounding Maasai community.

Tata Chemicals of India acquired the company in 2005 and changed its name to Tata Chemicals Magadi in 2011.

However, the question of wrongful alienation of land has continued to be a thorn in the flesh for Magadi Soda Company, with the Maasai unrelenting in pursuit of their rights. Several court battles have been fought but none has been entirely conclusive to date.

The Maasai have generated enormous interest from various quarters since their earliest contact with Europeans.

Like the Zulus, they have come to be known as the face of Africa. In general, the Maasai are considered by the West to be held in a time warp as archetypal noble savages.

Some Maasai subscribe to this image to satisfy tourist appetites and earn themselves some money, fully capitalising on Western conceptions of Africa.

Successive political regimes, chiefs, local governments and unscrupulous leaders of group ranches have not helped the cause of the Maasai, taking advantage of the vulnerability of a largely illiterate populace.

The forceful alienation of land in Kenya is not unique to the Maasai peoples, but other communities have perhaps handled the issue more adroitly.





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