John Ainsworth, an early architect of Nairobi’s apartheid city plan DN2 John Ainsworth’s apartheid plans for the early Nairobi John Ainsworth left a checkered mark on Nairobi. For not only is he the man credited with building the city “from scratch”, he also had a rocky relationship with the natives, who may never forget that during his days in office some of the largest British land-grabs got underway. Photo/FILE John Ainsworth left a checkered mark on Nairobi. For not only is he the man credited with building the city “from scratch”, he also had a rocky relationship with the natives, who may never forget that during his days in office some of the largest British land-grabs got underway. Photo/FILE In Summary The colonial pioneer credited with establishing Nairobi’s current demarcations is also regarded as one of the most vociferous plunderers of African lands John Ainsworth may be best known for being “the man who built Nairobi” at the turn of the 20th century, when the town was little more than an ordinary railway stop on the line from Mombasa to Kampala. And indeed, during the eight years that Ainsworth served as one of the chief administrators in the colonial government, he achieved a great deal. Called from Machakos to serve as a top civil servant at the swampy town populated more by lions, zebra, waterbuck, dikdik and frogs than by European settlers, Ainsworth arrived in Nairobi in 1898, three years after the region had become a protectorate of the United Kingdom. At that time, the swamp, which came right up to where the Kenya National Theatre stands today, was “chock-full of croaking frogs that kept the town busy as they croaked in unison, while behind it was a barren, open land, where hippos gnarled at the Nairobi River,” according to the Kenya-based historian, Jan Hemsing, in her 2004 book, Nairobi’s Norfolk Hotel: The First Hundred Years. One of the more important things he did during his brief but eventful time working as London’s Chief Native Commissioner in Kenya was to plant Tasmanian Blue Gum (Eucalyptus) trees all along the edge of the swamp land since the species require gallons of water to grow well. But his was not just a green-handed forestation initiative of Nairobi; Ainsworth knew the trees would be an organic means of draining the swamp while simultaneously beautifying the town. He had seedlings brought in from Machakos and planted on the clear plains between what is now Upper Hill and State House Road, an area demarcated specially for European settlement. In fact, Ainsworth was responsible for the initial demarcation of Nairobi, even though his idea of delineation would eventually lead scholars to identify colonial Kenya with an apartheid system of settlement and administration. Seen by the Foreign Office as one of the most competent colonial civil servants in East Africa, Ainsworth stamped his segregationist authority in Nairobi by demarcating seven districts in the town. They were the Railway Centre, Indian Bazaar, Railway Quarters, European Business and Administration Centre, Dhobi Quarters, European Residential Areas, and the Military Barracks. Africans (apart from those working for the Railways) were left to fend for themselves on the east side of the town. He did not even include them in the overall town plan, which goes some distance in explaining why that sector of the city now known as Eastlands is filled with sprawling, unplanned informal settlements. He also began in 1900 to demarcate the first roads. They were initially situated in the Indian Bazaar and included Station Street, River Street, Punjabi Street, and Khoja Mohola Street. But the British author, Elsbeth Huxley, was not impressed. In her colonial classic, White Man’s Country (all about the achievements of the aristocratic Lord Delamere), she called Nairobi a town with “one-cart tracks”. But to his credit, it was during Ainsworth’s time in office that the first church was constructed, the first two hotels were born — the Stanley (established by Mayence Bent in 1902) and the Norfolk (constructed by Major Ringer and Aylman Winecurts) — and the first cash crop plantations were put into place, starting with sisal. The coffee, tea, pyrethrum, sugar, and cotton plantations would get established years after he had left. Ainsworth, together with Canon Harvey Leakey of the Church Missionary Society — the grandfather of palaeontologist-turned-politician Richard Leakey and father of esteemed archaeologist Louis Leakey — among other European settlers, started up the East African Natural History Society which would eventually become the National Museums of Kenya. He also established the East African Horticulture Society and did a good deal of experimental farming on lands he obtained while living and working in Nairobi. But Ainsworth is also the first colonial administrator to set aside “native reserves” where Africans, whose lands had already been taken from them by the colonisers, were meant to reside. Ainsworth is also one of those first-generation colonial representatives to be part of the historic 1904 “Agreement” between His Majesty’s Commission for the East African Protectorate and the chiefs of the Maasai, including Chief Lenana, to allow the British to take over huge tracts of Maasai land while removing the Maasai to the newly established “native reserves”. The Agreement further “allowed (the Maasai) to occupy land between the Mbagathi and Kiserian streams”, which of course was a fraction of what the Maasai elders essentially gave away. Ainsworth is also said to have been the one responsible for translating details of the Agreement for the Africans. But one cannot help but wonder how much of the Maasai language he actually understood well enough to translate such an important document so that the “natives” would truly understand the implications of their actions. It was Ainsworth who wrote frankly in his memoir: “I can assure you that it [was] at times uphill and tiring work breaking down the walls of barbaric ignorance and superstition and introducing in their places an acceptable form of civilisation.” John Dawson Ainsworth was born in 1864 in the UK and lived to be 100, passing on in 1964. He was 25 in 1889 when he first landed in Mombasa, an employee of the Imperial British East African Company Prior to his arrival, British land surveyors had already come to Kenya and identified much of the most fertile land as “unpopulated” and ripe for colonial settlement. There was no knowledge among the Europeans of African land ownership systems, such as the Kikuyu system of gethaka, where certain areas belonged to specific families. Nor were colonial civil servants aware of the fact that in the early 1890s, there had been famine and a series of epidemics — rinderpest and smallpox — leading to the decimation of Maasai herds and human beings as well. According the Jens Finke, the Kikuyu had also been profoundly affected by these calamities such that they had withdrawn from the very lands that European surveyors described as “empty” and ripe for colonial settlement. These included lands in Nairobi, Kiambu, Thika, and Ruiru. According to Finke, Kikuyu elders who witnessed the early appropriation (theft) of their lands by the British reported this crime to Ainsworth, who had just recently arrived from Ukambani. Understandably, he sided with his kinsmen and basically informed the Africans that they had little choice but to understand that times had changed and conditions were different now. Just before Ainsworth had arrived, the new administration representing the Protectorate had responded pro-actively to the African “threat”. They had sent out small military expeditions to keep track of both the Kikuyu and the Kamba, whose trade routes they had disrupted during Ainsworth’s days serving in Ukambani. Scholars of Kenyan history now believe that there had been thriving trade relations between the Kikuyu, Kamba, and Maasai, but that they had been “shattered”, according to Finke and others, by British overlords. Apparently, Ainsworth had been a bit more benign towards the Africans when he was an employee of the Imperial British East African Company. Arriving in the region in 1889, his initial job was being in charge of the company’s transport and supply department. But he quickly proved himself to be exceedingly competent such that before he left Ukambani, he was the commanding officer for IBEAC in Machakos, a town which was established as the original supply station for the railways. What the British apparently liked about the area was the well-developed trading networks that the Kamba had already established. Initially, Ainsworth had only praise for the Kamba, whom he assured his bosses based at Mombasa were willing and ready to work for the colonial regime. Ainsworth even supplied them with munitions to protect the British food supply lines from the Maasai. However, the IBEAC became increasingly uncomfortable with the Kambas’ involvement in the East African slave trade. The company’s attempts to disrupt the trade, including the Kambas’ activities in it, is part of the reason the London Foreign Office chose to take over direct control of Kenya and make it a Protectorate in 1895. Ironically, this led to the programme of constructing the railway using the very same caravan lines that the Kamba had created while conducting their trade. In other words, the Kamba were not terribly pleased with Ainsworth before he left for Nairobi. Their trade relations had been shattered and their activities were now being monitored by British troops who were already feeling Africans’ resistance to colonial rule. But it was the Kikuyu who may have felt the most pain under the new colonial regime, which had already begun fencing off the best land and excluding both Maasai and Kikuyu from entering what had previously been either Maasais’ grazing grounds or lands that the Kikuyu had cultivated for generations. According to Finke, the Kikuyu were dispossessed of between 30 and 70 per cent of their prime properties by British settlers who fenced off ranches and farms, especially in the area subsequently known as the White Highlands, around the Aberdares or the Nyandarua mountain range. Before Ainsworth left Nairobi in 1906, he had become one of the most powerful officers in the British East African Protectorate. Operating out of what is now frequently referred to as “the old PC’s office”, the space that was called the Nairobi Gallery until quite recently when it became another site where Joseph and Sheila Murumbi’s Africana Collections reside, Ainsworth left Nairobi before Kenya officially became a colony of the British Empire and the Colonial Governor’s position had been established. But as the most dynamic of the first generation of British overseas officers, he made a checkered mark on Nairobi. For not only is he the man credited with building the city “from scratch”, he also had a rocky relationship with the Africans who may never forget that during his days in office, some of the largest British land-grabs got underway.


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