Tax Resistance in Colonial Kenya

W. McGregor Ross was part of the colonial administration in Kenya . In his book Kenya From Within, he discusses how the colonists imposed a tax on native Kenyans in order to force them to work for currency, and also how white colonists in Keyna later revolted when the eye of the tax collector settled on them.

Ross begins his chapter by saying ruefully that “The White Man’s Burden is to-day being borne manfully — but by black men.” He noted that in native Kenyans were paying over half a million pounds in taxes while European settlers were paying less than nine thousand pounds.

He describes the evolution of colonial taxation in Kenya this way:

In a small hut tax was instituted. It only reached about 5% of Kenyans, and could be paid either in cash or in goods like fiber or livestock.

But by a new theory of taxation began to be prominent: “The coloured races must labour,” and taxation was a way to force them to do this (other ways were to restrict the native population’s access to land so that they would need currency to obtain their basic survival needs, and for government to cartelize businesses and encourage them to keep their wages down, or to reduce their wages, so more hours of labor would be necessary to earn the tax). The amount of the tax was raised and it was gradually extended throughout Kenya.

Kenyans adopted passive resistance tactics against the hut tax, for instance building larger huts that could house multiple families; but the government responded by changing the law to make such tactics non-viable. In the government said every adult male owed the tax, hut or no hut. The practice of allowing payment via goods was also discouraged, but Kenyans could pay the tax with one month of labor (or more, as time went on).

This was followed in with laws authorizing a three-month prison term and fine for Kenyan males who failed to carry a receipt proving they had paid their tax. A separate poll tax on non-native adult males was also established in .

The native poll tax was raised by 67% in , and then hiked again in . This and other measures led to a protest movement that was brutally repressed, but which succeeded in getting the government to stop bearing down on the crank for a while. A decision was also made by the colonial administration that non-native Kenyans would have to start paying their share; the white-dominated colonists’ council initially quashed this idea but they were eventually strong-armed into going along.

But a “European Taxpayers’ Protection League” quickly formed:

[S]ubscriptions were invited for obtaining eminent legal opinion in England as to whether it was constitutional or not to impose direct taxation upon Europeans as long as the elected members did not control the Legislature. The League would also assist members locally if they were put in court by the Commissioner of Income Tax.

The methods advocated by the new League were: refusal to pay the tax, refusal to fill in any returns or forms, and concerted action by all Europeans, “shoulder to shoulder, to put every obstacle possible in the way of the Government.” The League made an appeal to the Settlers’ Convention, and, as they felt moved to do this in , there was the customary display of March oratory: “the traditions of our fathers,” Magna Charta, Charles Darwin, the first law of nature, and “official bleating,” all being made to do duty in an attack on “the most dangerous and pernicious form of taxation” imposed by “an unsympathetic and rapacious oligarchy.” Gentlemen loudly proclaimed their intention of going to jail rather than pay. Lord Delamere thought it would be better even if everyone refused to send in returns. “You might think that is unconstitutional,” said he, “but I believe the tax itself is unconstitutional.” (Applause)… Next month Lord Delamere was appointed a member of the Executive Council of the Colony.

They managed to convince the government to rescind the income tax on European colonists, replacing it with customs duties that were supposed to result in equivalent revenue and were supposed to fall largely on non-native purses. The first of those promises was apparently somewhat laughable from the get-go, and certainly didn’t pan out when the accounting was finally done. The second didn’t look very realistic under inspection either. In short, the burden of taxation was successfully shifted back to the shoulders of native Kenyans. A variety of deceptions were used to conceal this, but, according to Ross, “[t]he explanation of all adroit attempts to prove that the Europeans in Kenya pay a reasonable share of taxation (in view of the benefits they receive and the wealth that they make) is that they do not. At a variety of points they are subsidized from State funds procured from Africans.”