Fort Smith and origins of resistance

by Julie Ngigi

In Ndumbu-ini village, Kiambu County, one of the oldest and iconic early resistance monuments, Fort Smith, lies desolate.

In its heydays, Fort Smith marked the origin of Africans’ struggle against domination by colonialists and stands in place still awaiting recognition.

Over the years, Fort Smith’s significance in the liberation struggle has faded; eroded by years of abandonment. Inside the building, the wall paint is no longer visible. Layers of dust and mold compete for attention. The woodwork intermittently whines against the blowing wind as if to awaken its import from years of slumber. The outside environment has bowed to the vagrancies of time; an overgrown labyrinth of vegetation dots the compound.

It is unimagined that this building served as a theatre, where one of the most important historical events in the history of Kenyan’s struggle against white rule started.

It all started in the late 19th century when Fredrick Lugard, of Imperial British East Africa Company (IBEAC), and his convoy passed by Kikuyu land on their way to Uganda. The IBEAC was a commercial association founded to develop African trade in areas under the British Empire.

Like other visitors, explorers and traders before them, Lugard required some form of protection and permission to pass through various territories. South Kikuyu territory was under the leadership of Waiyaki wa Hinga. Waiyaki was Muthamaki wa Njama a term connoting a high-ranking leader or king of his people.

Lugard and Waiyaki entered into a unity treaty meant to guide their relations. To facilitate IBEAC’s mission in the region, they agreed that the company would build a fort and administrative center where the British stopped to replenish supplies.

In the book, Muthamaki Waiyaki wa Hinga, lawyer Njoroge Regeru and a seventh generation descendant of Waiyaki wa Hinga states, “by all accounts, the relationship between Waiyaki and Lugard was cordial.”

Njoroge Regeru, Author of the book Waiyaki wa Hinga: The untold story

Lugard appointed his assistant George Wilson, an Australian national, to oversee operations at the fort building. When Lugard left, Wilson and his men went on a spree stealing crops. They were also accused of raping women and mistreating Africans. This infuriated the people, especially Muthamaki Waiyaki. In 1891, Waiyaki led warriors in burning the Fort in protest of the atrocities committed against the Agikuyu.

The attack is said to have claimed five European lives. A number of Kikuyus died as well. For Wilson, and other survivors, the place had become hostile. He fled to Machakos and later went to Mombasa.

A year after the attack, Major Erick Smith started rebuilding the Fort on instructions from the British Government. However, the context this time was different. The government applied force in subjecting people into submission.

Major Smith was one-handed and was thus nicknamed ‘Gikono’ by the locals. Using clay bricks, he oversaw the arduous task of building the new Fort in Greco-Roman style. The government succeeded in completing renovation work.

Upon completion, the building had cemented floors, corrugated iron sheets for the roof, front port supported by columns, and white washed walled. The new fort was christened ‘Fort Smith’.

At the time of finishing Fort Smith, the cordial relations between the Kikuyu and British had dissipated. Tension, suspicion, and violent confrontation became prominent features of the relationship.

Waiyaki’s disdain for the British was never in doubt. He saw their presence as disrespect on his societal standing. His approach and dealings in nibbling into British dominance are documented in a myriad of documents. Exact events that culminated in a physical fight between Waiyaki and a British representative called W.P Purkis differ depending on the source. 

What is clear, however, is that Purkis who was in charge of the Kikuyu administrative province and Muthamaki Waiyaki exchanged blows. Waiyaki overpowered Purkis but the British could not stand the humiliation, especially from an African. The latter ordered his guards to beat Waiyaki and torture him. The British had been rattled and needed to demonstrate their real selves; they were not in Africa for small political feuds. They were here to colonize, grow wealth and for self-interests too.

In pure show of raw and brute force, the British tied Waiyaki on a tree overnight. The following day, Waiyaki, in front of his brothers, was tried and sentenced. The verdict was straightforward. He was to be isolated in the Fort’s courthouse and taken to prison far away from Kiambu.

Regeru describes the courthouse “as a place that looked like a prison cell. When we visited this place for the first time in 2014, we christened that place.” It looks like the International Criminal Court at The Hague, Netherlands according to Regeru.

After the trial, Waiyaki’s was escorted to Mombasa in a convoy. He remained in shackles. Reportedly, Waiyaki fell sick at Kibwezi and died. Other reports indicate that he died from the injuries he sustained on the head when he was beaten by Purkis and his guards. While other accounts indicate he was buried alive, upside down. The general agreement is that he was buried in Kibwezi after his death. When Purkis died, he was buried in Kibwezi next to Muthamaki Waiyaki.

Waiyaki died a martyr, the father of British resistance that later took shape in Mau Mau war in the 1950s. His life and death, despite being highly shrouded in mystery, are preserved in the Kikuyu lore through songs and oral tradition.

Waiyaki’s arrest and death inspired a generation of other great leaders who rebelled against the British imperialists.

In recognition of the historical value, Fort Smith was gazetted as a national monument in 2005. To date, nothing much has happened to regain its glory covered by years of neglect. Currently, the land on which Fort Smith sits on is under private ownership with no access to people who would like to visit the historic building.

This is probably why Fort Smith, despite its historic value in the independence war, remains unknown to many people. It is now falling apart and with it, the historic significance is slowly eroding into commercial interests. 

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