Linguistic Imperialism: A Tool for Control in the British Empire

History Sep 02, 2019

By Tama Mule
Published 2019-03-16


In his 1902 novel Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad wrote; “They were no colonists; their administration was merely a squeeze and nothing more, I suspect. They were conquerors,” in relation to the concept of colonialism at the turn of the century. The term Colonialism was a thin veil for the actions being carried out by Europe in the so called “scramble for Africa” and its true name was Imperialism. And this Imperialism was not just in terms of the acquisition on territories and all their natural resources, but also an imperialism of culture, in which the conquering nations would use their languages and cultures as tools purposed with the eradication of the cultural identities of the nations they took.

At its peak, the British empire held sway over about 458 million people, covering almost one quarter of the land on the globe and in these territories. Colonial regimes took great measures to supplant local cultures and practices with their own, as a method of exerting control and dominance over the people they ruled. In this paper, I will attempt to shed some light on how the British colonial regimes controlled the people in their territories using language by focusing on colonial experiences in Kenya.

1. The Nature of Kenya’s Colonial Administration

In 1895, the British Empire seized land within the interior of Kenya as far west as Lake Naivasha and set up the British East African Protectorate. In 1902, the border was extended to modern day Uganda. Kenya finally became a colony of the crown in 1920, known as the Kenya Colony.

One of the primary reasons for the foundation of this colony was to secure Uganda from any German invasion seeking to dam the headwaters of the Nile, which in turn would parch the Nile and in particular, the Suez Canal. The British reasoned that without the Suez Canal they would lose access to the most coveted of colonies and the Jewel of the British Empire, India. This fear drove the British to the belief that they would have to be prepared in any instance for the German invasion, and so the Uganda Railway was born. It extended from the port of Mombasa to beyond Lake Victoria.

In addition to offering protection from invasion, the railway opened the interior to white settlement. The settlement of whites was the first step in a mission mirrored in every corner of every empire resultant of the 19th century European imperialist era, the bringing of “civilisation.” This was primarily the economic, political and cultural exertion of dominance over the colonised peoples of Kenya. In his speech “The Imperialism of Language,” Ngugi wa Thiongo explained this phenomemon: “The French faithful to the philosophical and aesthetic traditions of their culture, had given the whole process a name: assimilation. The British, less aesthetically and philosophically inclined, simply called it education.” The government at the time even reasoned that the Uganda railway would help “civilse East Africa by facilitating the spread of Christianity and the destruction of the slave trade.” This racist ideology was held by every level of white governance within the colony. It created an air of white superiority among the colonial whites. They took upon themselves the “white mans burden” as Rudyard Kipling put it in his 1899 poem and felt the need to “civilise” the “backward heathens” of Kenya. What began as the British “saviour complex” to bring the Kenyans out of the dark and into the white Christian light inevitably developed into something more akin to self-importance and arrogance.

The immediate result of this inflated superiority complex was that the white settlers began making extortionate demands from the colonial government, especially in regards to land. The whites demanded reduced interest rates, government subsidies for their crops, reduced freight costs and managed to wind lease extensions on their land in the Kenyan highlands from 99 years to 999 years among other things. All the land the government granted the settlers was taken from native Kenyan tribes, and those most affected were the Kikuyu who lived primarily in the highlands, an area the whites favoured due to its climate which was most suitable for growing cash crops such as tea, coffee, and tobacco. The colonial government demonstrated with great frequency that they would put the needs and wants of the white settlers over those of the natives. Caroline Elkins says in her 2004 book Imperial Reckoning: “It was not the inherent strength of their agricultural productivity that entitled the settlers to racial privilege and political power , but rather a highly interventionist colonial government that did everything it could to promote the settlers economic success…”

2. Linguistic and Cultural Control

English became a key tool of control for social indoctrination within Kenya. The British government took great steps to ensure that they implanted English as the premier language of the state and to make clear, especially to the native blacks, that English was the be all and end all of society and culture. To do this, the English had to focus this effort into two main branches: education and administration.

The Education system that the British installed was highly Eurocentric. In an average black student’s education, the first years were taught in their tribal language. They learned the History and Geography of their tribe primarily. Then, in the fourth year, English began to take priority. Students learned English so that by the fifth year all classes were taught in English and students were examined in English. Before students could learn any subjects they would have to learn Swahili, and more importantly, English. The high school curriculum was structured so that students had to learn 8 subjects: Swahili, Religios Education, History, Geography, Mathematics, Science, English Language and English Literature. English took up 25% of the curriculum. In addition, when you finished your high school education and took the post-secondary school examinations (Cambridge Overseas School Certificate), an English credit was required to attend Makerere University, the only University in East Africa at the time. This meant that even if a student passed all other classes and failed English, they would be unable to attain a higher education.

To make social advancement even more difficult for blacks, education was made highly selective. By 1950, there were only 5 schools in the country offering secondary education diplomas to African students (Kakamega, Masema, Alliance, Mangu and Kagumo), each with a graduating class of about 40. The population of Kenya at the time was 6,055,000. This meant that in the country at the time only 0.003% of the population could receive a university education, assuming that every single student from every single class from every black secondary school graduated and was accepted to Makerere.

This restriction on the widespread use of English among the black population led the use of English to be placed in very high regard. It was associated with knowledge and intelligence, allowing those who could speak it to automatically reach higher on the social ladder than those who only spoke African languages. This social reverence of the English language made it easier for the British to impose control on Africans. This reverence translated easily to complacency, because people would easily accept anything to do with English governance due to a high regard for the English language.

This complacency is illustrated very prominently in Ngugi wa Thiongo’s novel, The River Between. The character Joshua is used by Ngugi as a symbol for this complacency to English and its culture. Joshua was a Kikuyu man who abandoned his culture and traditions to become a conduit for Christianity in his homeland. Ngugi uses Joshua to represent the interpretation of English and its implication for the complacent black people. In the text, Ngugi describes Joshua’s experience with white culture: “In Siriana he found a sanctuary and the white man’s power and magic. He learnt to read and write. The new faith worked in him till it came to possess him wholly. He renounced his tribe’s magic, power and ritual. He turned to and felt the deep presence of the one God. Had he not given the white man power over all?”

Ngugi shows expertly through Joshua the effect of the European eduction system on Africans. In this, Joshua is both a symbol for the indoctrinated African, shown by his constant referral to the whites and their culture with reverence: “The unerring white man had called the Gikuyu god the prince of darkness,” and a microcosm for the British use of education as a tool of control. This is because within the story, Joshua’s main objective is to convert the Kikuyu of his region to the white man’s religion, culture, and language, and separating them from their own cultures by convincing them to leave home and attain an education at the Siriana missionary center. Ngugis message through Joshua is more centred on religion, but the overarching theme mirrors the white pursuit of linguistic and cultural control within the Kenya colony.

In terms of administration, English was made the official language of the country from the beginning of the Kenya Colony to independence. English was the language of government: any communication from the government to the people had to be given in English and translated, otherwise it was unofficial. Government officials would only communicate with natives in English, even if they did know native languages. The way English was used in the case of administration associated the English language with both political and social power, and this made people who spoke English especially powerful with the colonial administration. This association with power put the colonial administration in a position where it would be easier for them to abuse this power to control Africans.

3. Divide and Conquer

One of the cornerstones of British control throughout the empire was the infamous divide and rule tactic. It was used by Britain to divide the people of the colonies they inhabited to prevent the formation of strong foundations for rebellion and to keep the natives oppressed. In Kenya, the divide and conquer tactic took shape in the tribal system.

Before the British came to Kenya, ethnic groups, more popularly known as tribes, existed living within their own geographical locations within the country, but in a much more loosely defined state than today. The British quickly capitalised on this concept to their advantage. Although many tribes had their own geographical locations, where large populations of people from that specific tribe lived, there were areas which had a mix of ethnicities. One example of this was Nairobi, which, before colonialism, had been an area of impermanent settlement and had a mixture of the Kikuyu and Masaai tribes who intermarried and lived mostly peacefully.

When the British took control of Kenya, they solidified the geographical boundaries for each tribe, consigning them to certain reserves. Kenya began to be administered in terms of Provincial Rule. There were initially three provinces: Nyanza Province, Central Province and Coastal Province. In the provinces there were- in descending order- districts, divisions, locations and sub locations. The British set up reserves in which each tribe was expected to live separately from each other. For example, the Kikuyu had reserves in the Central Province districts of Fort Hall, Nyeri and Kiambu. This solidified the geographical locations of the tribes and prevented them from interacting with each other as they did in areas like Nairobi pre-colonisation.

The provinces usually had more than one tribe within them for coordination purposes; however, because the tribal reserves encompassed certain districts within provinces, many districts began to run along tribal lines. Members of certain tribes travelling from their reserves to that of another tribe was forbidden by the government. For example, the Kikuyu were not allowed to travel to Maasai reserves and vice-versa, and this was done to promote ethnic differences and divides. By 1920, any men wishing to leave their reserves had to carry a kipande, or identification card, stating name, tribe, fingerprint and past employment details.

This method of governance had the express intention of restricting the formation of strong social and political bonds within the black community in Kenya. It ensured that Africans could not come together to create a viable social or political force that could seize any power within the country. Indeed, this was further displayed by the British policy of only dealing with African political parties that consisted of only one tribe. The British separated tribes to create a sense of isolation that would prevent a strong social and political African force from being able to seize control of Kenya during the colonial era.

In short, the British Empire, while brutally violent and economically exploitative, relied most heavily on cultural subversion as a means of exerting territorial control over their colonies. This meant the educational and administrative supremacy of English, as well as the infamous divide and conquer method of pitting indigenous tribes against each other in order to prevent the kind of national cohesiveness that could have led to a successful anti-colonial revolt.

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