Moskowitz on Osborne, 'Ethnicity and Empire in Kenya: Loyalty and Martial Race among the Kamba, c. 1800 to the Present'

Myles Osborne
Kara A. Moskowitz

Myles Osborne. Ethnicity and Empire in Kenya: Loyalty and Martial Race among the Kamba, c. 1800 to the Present. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014. 289 pp. $113.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-107-06104-0.

Reviewed by Kara A. Moskowitz (University of Missouri-St. Louis) Published on H-War (July, 2019) Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air University)

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Ethnicity and Empire traces the development of the Kamba ethnic group, “a Bantu-speaking people living in modern-day central and eastern Kenya” (p. 2). Despite colonial designation in the late nineteenth century, it was not until the 1940s, Myles Osborne argues, that a majority of Africans “who alone could give the ‘tribal’ units genuine meaning” ascribed to this identity (p. 6).

For the Kamba, histories of hunting and warfare were especially central to processes of identity building. Not only did Kikamba-speaking peoples hold such things in common, but these experiences also determined notions of authority and leadership and, over time, played a part in shaping communal values on virtue and honor. Though the British colonial state would attempt to constrain Kamba movement, and thus, men’s ability to engage in raiding, colonial actors would also label the Kamba a “martial race.” Ultimately, the Kamba would comprise a disproportionate number of Kenya’s colonial military and police and would fight in both world wars. While these positions differed dramatically from those of precolonial warriors and hunters, local debates about martial service would play a critical role in deciding what lay at the heart of being Kamba.

Osborne’s work contributes to the long-established focus on ethnogenesis and ethnic identity within the Africanist historiography. Influenced by the work of John Lonsdale, and especially his notion of moral ethnicity, Osborne, too, explores fundamental questions about societal values and social relations.[1] Still, this book makes many original interventions, providing the first ever “comprehensive history” of the Kamba (p. 4). Using a wide range of evidence from the precolonial, colonial, and postcolonial periods, this book offers a long exploration of the development, and evolution, of identity and community. Osborne draws on unique sources, such as European anthropologists’ field research, missionaries’ translations of Bible passages, Kamba proverbs, and over 150 oral histories, alongside the more conventional colonial and postcolonial government records.

The book’s eight chapters are organized chronologically, covering two hundred years. The vast majority of this work, however, focuses on the mid-twentieth century, when men and women, Christians and non-Christians, urban and rural dwellers, old and young vigorously debated what it meant to be Kamba. The first two chapters explore the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, revealing the cultural foundations for Kamba identity, borne from trading, warfare, hunting, migration, famine, and colonial conquest. Chapters 3 and 4 cover World War I and the interwar period, revealing both how Kamba people began to reframe ideas of respect and honor through colonial martial service and how they used these same ideas to question chiefly authority and to contest colonial state policies. Chapters 5 and 6 focus on World War II and the early postwar era, when veterans began to occupy positions of authority, Kamba identity became broadly popular, ethnic leaders made demands on the state using the language of loyalty, and women protested chiefs’ restrictions on their autonomy. Chapter 7 takes up some similar themes, showing how—in the context of Mau Mau—the Kamba negotiated enormous development assistance in exchange for their loyalty, while chapter 8 reveals how a vulnerable Jomo Kenyatta excised the Kamba from the military, ultimately precipitating their political decline and renewing debates about honor.

The threads connecting the different chapters deeply enrich this book. Osborne clearly demonstrates the flexibility of identity prior to World War II, perhaps most vividly in his account of thirty-five thousand people moving across tribal boundaries in 1929. Over several chapters, the author also highlights the continuing debates among the Kamba over the meaning and use of the word iwi (variously translated as obedient and loyalty). In tracing these debates over time, Osborne deftly shows how questions of honor and virtue became central and also how these questions became highly gendered. At times, though, the female actors in this book come across as an undifferentiated bloc simply opposed to male elites. Even so, the intersection of gender and ethnicity has too frequently been overlooked in both the Africanist and martial race historiography, and Osborne’s emphasis on women and gender is important. This is a well-researched and engaging piece of scholarship, which makes an invaluable contribution to African, imperial, and military history.


[1]. Lonsdale elaborates on the idea of moral ethnicity in various pieces of scholarship, but perhaps most fully in John Lonsdale, “Moral Ethnicity, Ethnic Nationalism and Political Tribalism: The Case of the Kikuyu,” in Staat und Gesellschaft in Afrika: Erosions und Reformprozesse, ed. Peter Meyns (Hamburg: Lit Verlag, 1996), 93-106.

Citation: Kara A. Moskowitz. Review of Osborne, Myles, Ethnicity and Empire in Kenya: Loyalty and Martial Race among the Kamba, c. 1800 to the Present. H-War, H-Net Reviews. July, 2019. URL:

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