Calls are mounting in Kenya for Britain to return the head of a revered tribal leader who led a bloody resistance movement against colonial rule more than a century ago, after the death of Queen Elizabeth II.
Koitalel Arap Samoei spearheaded fierce opposition to the construction of the so-called “Lunatic Express,” a railway from Kenya’s Indian Ocean port of Mombasa through Nandi in the Rift Valley to Lake Victoria in Uganda.
Many thousands of people are believed to have been killed in the more than decade-long struggle that began in 1895 when surveyors first marked out land in Nandi as a route for the railway.
Kenyan historians say British colonial authorities lured Samoei to a meeting in October 1905 ostensibly to negotiate a truce but instead he and a number of fellow warriors were shot dead.
Samoei, an Orkoiyot or spiritual leader of the Nandi people, was decapitated and his head taken to England as a war trophy, according to Nandi elders.
The death on Thursday of Queen Elizabeth II, who was on a visit to Kenya in 1952 when she became monarch, has reignited demands for Britain to face up to the horrors of its colonial past.
Nandi County government attorney George Tarus told AFP the Nandi people wanted Samoei’s head returned to his ancestral homeland for a proper burial, a call echoed widely on social media in Kenya.
The queen “meant so much to so many people… despite the history of the British empire and its atrocities”, he said, highlighting the strong relations between Britain and Kenya today.
“But as the world is mourning the passing of Queen Elizabeth II maybe now is the right time to implore the British government to do what is only right — return the head of Koitalel Samoei and issue an apology publicly to the people of Nandi.”
‘Black snake spitting fire’
Tarus said 20,000 people were killed during the uprising and thousands more displaced when British authorities seized 140,000 acres of fertile land in Nandi now used for tea plantations by British multinationals.
“To this date there hasn’t been any compensation from the British government,” said Tarus, who is leading legal efforts to seek justice for the Nandi community.
He said this was despite Britain agreeing in 2013 to compensate over 5,000 Kenyans who had suffered abuse during the 1950s Mau Mau rebellion against colonial rule.
AFP has contacted the British government for comment.
In 2006, heirs of colonial-era British army colonel Richard Henry Meinertzhagen, said to be the man who killed Samoei, returned a walking stick and baton to Kenya that had belonged to the tribal leader.
Samoei launched his unsuccessful and ultimately fatal struggle after foretelling that a black snake spitting fire – a steam engine – would pass through Nandi, destroying tribal culture and disenfranchising local farmers and cattle herders.
Tarus said he believed the British took Samoei’s head not only as a trophy but also to study.
“I think they wanted to find out how… he could resist the British for 11 years with their sophisticated weapons while the Nandi were only using mainly bows and arrows.”