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As Ripe for Sport as for Cultivation: White Sport in Kenya and the British World

From the early years of the twentieth century, the pages of the East African Standard—Kenya’s most prominent white newspaper—carried reports of regular cricket matches in the colony, including an annual “Country Cup Competition” modeled on English cricket’s County Championship, football cups bearing the names of local colonial scions, European-style men’s and women’s tennis tournaments, golf tournaments at one of the thirty-five courses opened in the colony before World War II, and rugby bouts between the colony’s European schools. Beginning in the 1920s, the paper heralded, with great delight, the sporting agendas of royal and other colonial visitors; likewise, after 1929, the paper eagerly followed the Kenya Kongonis Cricket Club’s tours to England as the “representative” Kenyan squad. These reports in the Standard suggest that the white community in Kenya—a mix of settlers, members of the business community, civil employees, police and military personnel, and colonial administrators—found Kenya as ripe for sport as for cultivation. For the dominions such as Australia and South Africa, importing and cultivating British sport—both its forms and its moral code of Christian masculinity, fair play, and deference to authority—had been an important part of creating and legitimizing unique cultural colonial nationalisms for themselves but also the metropole. Many of the members of the white community self-consciously followed the historical example of these dominions as they eagerly imagined Kenya as Britain’s next white dominion. Sport appeared almost naturally as a means of confirming whites in Kenya as Britons and asserting themselves as an emerging cultural nation.

Especially after the 1923 Devonshire Declaration enshrined the primacy of indigenous interests in the colony, the white community’s uncertainty of the land, the neighboring indigenous communities, and the economic and political future of white life in Kenya made cultivating a colonial British sporting culture a crucial way of grounding themselves in a shared set of cultural rituals within the British World—the global web of British networks of empire, commerce, and movement across which British people and culture travelled and through which Britons were able to construct and negotiate relationships and identities. In fact, without a legitimate pathway to white self-rule, cultivating sports and sporting relationships was one of the white community’s only viable opportunities to imagine and project themselves as an integral part of this world.

A black and white photograph shows a long driveway leading up to a colonial style building in Kenya. The building is the Muthaiga Club.
Matson Photo Service. “Kenya Colony. Nairobi. The Muthaiga Club, exterior.” 1936. Photograph. G. Eric and Edith Matson Photograph Collection, Library of Congress.

Extending Benedict Anderson’s idea of the imagined community, Barbara Keys suggests that global and international sporting networks, much like those crisscrossing the British World, helped construct an “imagined world” that was “governed by distinctive laws and practices, linked by its own repertoire of invented symbols and traditions, [and] referr[ed] to a common past and common heroes.” The nature of Britain’s particular world history certainly provided these aplenty, and the historical example of Australia and South Africa suggested to whites in Kenya that sporting ties with the British World were the fields on which identarian and cultural challenges for self-rule were staged. Nonetheless, the metropole, and most of the British World, was largely uninterested in playing this game with the white Kenyan community. This one sidedness appeared in sharpest relief in the colony’s lukewarm (at best) cricketing relationship with the metropole.

The most significant sporting connection white Kenyans could hope to forge with Britain itself was a meaningful cricketing relationship. In 1929, the Kenya Kongonis Cricket Club, embarked on their first tour to England to compete in the “imperial game” with the mother country. According to Cecil James Juxon Barton, a Kenyan colonial official and later governor of Fiji, the desire for a sporting relationship between Britain and “not only Kenya but East African Cricketers” was mutual. But Barton chastised his fellow colonials for their form and for not bringing enough players in general or practicing enough, a self-critique that suggests anxiety that Kenya’s sporting culture was not yet developed enough by British standards to compete on a level of parity. Additionally, though the Standard occasionally referred to these matches in England as “tests,” the Kongonis did not play against the English national side during these tours, nor were the Kongonis recognized by the English or international cricket bodies as truly representative of Kenya. In fact, it seems that British papers did not even bother to report on these matches.

Clearly, Kenya’s white community’s cricketing relationship with the metropole was tepid at best; however, the significance of their hopes to send a representative white Kenyan team to tour in the British World should not be missed. Eric Hobsbawm suggests that a feature of nationally representative teams is their ability to make the imagined community “more real as a team of eleven named people.” Thus, the white community’s desire to style their teams as “representative” of the colony, the urge to compete in England and follow the example of Australia or South Africa, and the self-critique of their performance is indicative of the efforts of white Kenyans to imagine and present themselves as, at the very least, a cultural nation of sport-playing white settlers and perform a “Kenyan” version of British culture for the mother country and the British World.

The one-sided impact of this cricket tour is emblematic of the British World’s ambivalence toward the white community in Kenya and the aspirational cultural nationalism they articulated through sport. The white community experienced some success: white golfers lobbied the Prince of Wales to bestow the title of “royal” on the Nairobi golf club, linking them to networks of other royal institutions across the British World, and a 1925 tour of rugby players from a South African university produced vows for further cultural ties between the colonies. However, disappointment was far more common. The South African university rugby team never returned to Kenya and a 1934 attempt to arrange a tour by South African tennis players was abandoned; Kenya was not invited to participate in the reborn British Empire Games held in 1930; white Kenyans dreamt of a British Empire Olympics team but this never materialized; nor did an English cricket tour to East Africa before the post-war period. In light of colonial aspirations, a 1937 London Times article exploring cricket across the empire, with nothing more to say about Kenyan cricket than the briefest mention of the annual Settlers versus Officials matches, quite neatly sums up the one-sidedness of white Kenyans relationship to the British World.

The British were clearly not interested in pursuing the same deep sporting ties with white Kenyans as they had with Australia or South Africa. Kenya was, according to the metropole, an African dependency, and the “imagined world” of sport was populated by nations, a status to which whites in Kenya could ultimately only make aspirational and imaginary claims. It would have been hypocritical for representative institutions in Britain or the world to accept a team “fully representative of Kenya” that was entirely white, but those who saw the future of the colony as a white Kenyan dominion continued to build a sporting future that would show the power of British culture in Kenya and the world. Australians and South Africans were able to articulate a cultural nationalism through sport in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth because Britain’s imperial objectives involved the creation of “new Britains” across the world. By the 1920s and ‘30s, however, these objectives had shifted toward civilizing and developing colonized peoples. In this environment, the proto-sporting nationalism exhibited by the white community in Kenya ran afoul of these objectives. As sports for non-whites in Kenya and elsewhere developed rapidly by the late 1930s, the “imagined world” of sport of the British World would come to be filled by new nations of sporting Africans and Asians, not new nations of colonial Britons.


Maxwell Abbott is a doctoral student and graduate teaching assistant at West Virginia University studying British imperial history and sports in the British World during the twentieth century. His research explores how international and global sporting networks and events—like those represented by FIFA, the International Cricket Council, and the Olympics—offered members of the British World opportunities to creatively reimagine and redefine their membership within this cultural community in light of twentieth-century experiences with empire, decolonization, and globalization.


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