Social Formations In Transitions: Social And Economic Change In The Lower Tana Valley, Kenya, 1850-1939

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




Alan K. Smith


African history

Subject Categories

African History


This is a study of the transition and transformation between 1850 and 1939 of social formations among the peoples of the lower Tana River Valley in what is now eastern Kenya. This region, which was viewed by outsiders in the nineteenth century as a rich, fertile Nile Valley of enormous potential, came to be viewed fifty years later as a peripheral area with too few people and too hostile an environment to merit attention. Extensive archival work in West Germany, England, and Kenya, coupled with oral interviews conducted throughout the lower Tana Valley, revealed that the transition to British colonial rule and the resulting transformation of Lower Pokomo society and economy were much more serious and damaging than most people believe. This research provides a case study for the way in which the particular circumstances of nineteenth century imperialist struggle, in this case for the lower Tana Valley, and the subsequent elaboration of colonial rule combine to destroy a working system of social and economic relations. The study also lays bare two myths which have had much to do with misunderstandings about life in the Tana Valley. The myths of the horrific environment and aggressive, oppressive neighbors are shown to have had colonial origins and to have served specific historical purposes.

The nineteenth century social formation of the Lower Pokomo was centered on the pivotal role of the male elders and their semi-secret associations ngadsi and wagangana. The elders used their position as heads of families, clans, and villages to maintain social and economic relations, admittedly to their own favor, to link to other Pokomo both internally and in inter-clan alliance relations. In addition, they controlled external trade to the coast and organized defence against potentially hostile neighbors.

Between c. 1860 and 1885 a great change in the course of the river, increasing warfare between Somali and Orma pastoralists, and a rise in trade on the river coincided with imperialist interest in the lower river valley. Anglo-German imperialist rivalry, initially focused on Witu, spread to include the Tana Valley, and came to involve Pokomo farmers. The British defeat of Witu and its German allies opened the way for a European administration in the valley, initially that of the Imperial British East Africa Company and then, after 1895, that of the East Africa Protectorate.

This study focuses on the impact of all these events and forces on the Lower Pokomo peoples. It reveals how their combined impact served to intensify the contradictions which existed in the nineteenth century social formation and helped to shape the transition to colonial rule. The increase in social conflict between male elders and young men, and all women, and the particular role played by Christian missions and colonial authorities throughout these years is documented as often possible at the village level.

The result of the elaboration of colonial rule by the late 1920s is shown to have been the construction of a framework for impoverishment within Tana Valley. Early colonial efforts to alter the river course to increase transport and trade set in motion a long-term process of the desiccation of the lower valley. At the same time colonial officials instituted a policy of revenue extraction while leaving trade and trading entirely in the hands of Arab and Indian traders who used their monopoly position to milk the people of the valley dry. This long-term undermining of the environmental, human, and financial capital of the lower river valley has left a legacy not yet overcome.


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