A Zionist Night Shelter in Africa

by zunguzungu

One of the more strange little counterfactual might-have-been’s is if, in 1905, the Zionist Congress had decided to accept the formal offer made by Joseph Chamberlain in 1903 — then British colonial secretary  — to charter a Jewish colony in British East Africa.

It’s an interesting story: the offer was made in 1903 for a colonial charter of a six thousand square mile tract of land in the Uasin Gishu plateau, where present day Eldoret is located (see left). Uasin Gishu was then occupied by the Turkana, Nandi, and Pökoot peoples — in the borderlands between British East Africa and Uganda — but as pastoralists, their claims to the land were completely negligible, judged to be the sort of people who could simply be moved. The British sometimes treated the land-claims of settled, agricultural peoples — like the Gikuyu — with a certain minimal respect — and legislation required any land taken from settled natives had to be paid for (though such laws were often not enforced — but that rule simply didn’t apply to pastoral peoples, whose land was simply declared empty and open for colonization by immigrants from elsewhere.

And so, in 1903, the Foreign office dispatched this letter to the Jewish Colonial Trust, ltd:

It was not a particularly desirable concession, though — which the expedition sent in 1904 to look at it quickly realized — and in 1905, the Zionist Congress voted it down. A few years later, British East Africa would make it the site for settling a group of Afrikaner emigrants from South African (a group the British also regarded as somewhat undesirable), who would found the town of Eldoret in the center of their settlement.

Theodor Herzl was the primary proponent of the scheme. In a collection of documents from the ‘Uganda Controversy,” as it was called, Michael Heymann sets the scene:

When, in the summer of 1902, Herzl realized that his attempts to obtain a “Charter” for Palestine from the Turks had failed, at least for the time being, he directed his efforts towards acquiring a region outside the Sultan’s realm for Jewish settlement. Joseph Chamberlain and Lord Landsdowne, the British Colonial and Foreign Secretary respectively, perhaps not unmindful of their own problem of alien immigration, were sympathetic. The prospect of settlement in an area under British control, the Egyptian Sinai peninsula — not quite, but almost, Palestine, and there acceptable to any true “Lover of Zion” — awoke high hopes, which turned to keen disappointment when the British backed down and pronounced this so-called El-Arish scheme impracticable. By this time, May 1903, the Kishinev pogrom had just taken place. Overcome by a sense of urgency and fearing another wave of unorganized mass migration to the no longer uniformly hospitable Western countries, Herzl did not feel himself able to reject out of hand Chamberlain’s offer for a settlement in East Africa. Thus was born the East Africa — or as it was then commonly called, the Uganda — Project.

For Joseph Chamberlain in 1903, settling Jews in Africa would have seemed like it could solve several problems. One was that — as Heymann delicately suggests — genteel anti-Semites like Chamberlain and Landsdowne shared with Herzl a desire to discourage the mass migration of East European Jews into Western Europe. For Herzl, the fear was assimilation, and though it was the reverse fear for men like Chamberlain — non-assimilable Jews immigrating into Britain! Horrors! — they had in common the desire to find some other place for those migrants than Europe. And as pogroms in East Europe worsened — increasing the number of emigrating Jews even as the prospects of building a Jewish homeland in Palestine looked increasingly dim, Africa suddenly popped up as a possibility.

Of course, why anyone in Britain thought settling Europeans in East Africa was a good idea is an interesting story in itself, and worth a digression. It began with economics: the British had just completed a debt-financed railroad line connecting the East African coast to the Ugandan interior, and discovered, on doing so, that they had nothing to ship on it, and thus no way of making it pay back the massive debt it had built up in the construction. They had originally started building it for geopolitical reasons: in the 1890’s, they thought they needed it to solidify their hold on Uganda and protect it from German expansion — Uganda was the headwaters of the Nile, and thus, considered to be important for holding on to Egypt (and therefore India) — but the German threat diminished and the region would turn out not to have any meaningful mineral deposits (as did Rhodesia and South Africa), leaving the British to wake up one day with a pointless railroad to nowhere. Nothing that was grown or produced by Africans in the region was particularly viable as an export commodity, nor were Africans particularly interested in selling to export markets anyway, so the railroad deserved the name that was given to it, the “Lunatic Line.” As a solution to that problem, then, Britain tried to develop some kind of export-economy in their newly acquired territory in East Africa by sending settlers interested in developing commercial agriculture, and in 1903, it seemed plausible that resettled Eastern-European farmers might be part of that: interested only in making the railroad and the colony pay, any kind of settlers would do for men like Chamberlain. There was talk of settling Indians in East Africa, Afrikaners from South Africa made up much of the first wave, and Jews from Eastern Europe would have done just as nicely.

Charles Eliot, the commissioner who oversaw the beginnings of the settlement project, was of a different opinion, as was the political lobby of the aristocratic white settlers whose settlement he worked to prioritize. For these people, British East Africa was to be a “White Man’s Country,” and neither Indians nor Jews were any part of that vision. As soon as Lord Delamere — the settler leader — discovered that plans were afoot to settle Jews in the colony, they organized against it:

When word of Chamberlain’s offer reached East Africa there was immediate opposition from the settlers. Lord Delamere sent a telegram to The Times and a meeting was convened in Nairobi at which the Revd PA Bennett maintained that missionaries violently opposed the scheme. Some speakers at the meeting objected to the poverty of the Jews and their supposed lack of agricultural knowledge. Delamere wrote a pamphlet, Lord Hindlip joined the protests, and the African Standard waged a virulent anti-Semitic campaign.

Charles Eliot was subtler, though, and it was he who most effectively scuttled the project by choosing a truly undesirable piece of land to offer to the Zionists. While it all might have seemed the same to Chamberlain in London, Eliot would have understood quite well that that the Uasin Gishu was not only isolated and unserviced by the railway (64 miles away, in fact), but the native peoples were also sufficiently “unpacified” in 1903 to make its colonization seem a risky proposition. And so, when the Zionist expedition got a look at what they were being offered, they came to exactly the conclusion that Eliot had hoped they would come to: this was a pretty shitty offer.

In his 1914 book Zionism, Richard Gottheil recalls the deliberations over the offer:

The commission which went out to East Africa in December, 1903, made its report to the Central Committee in May, 1904. The territory examined and delimited by the British Government at Herzl’s request comprised an area covering some six thousand square miles, and was known as the Guas Ngishu Plateau. Although the members of the commission did not agree upon all points, the general view seemed to be that the territory would be insufficient for any large number of Jewish settlers, and that the ground was fit rather for grazing than for agriculture. In addition, a strong opposition to the grant had developed in the East African Protectorate itself. Telegrams from Lord Delamere, the High Commissioner of British East Africa, from Lord Hindlipp, and from Sir H. H. Johnston arrived at the Foreign Office couched in terms that showed the difficulties such a settlement would have had to encounter.” All this was meat for the Palestinian enthusiasts.

It would have taken a lot to sway the members of the Zionist Congress who insisted on Palestine, and this was not very much. And so, after hearing the commission’s report, the Seventh Zionist Congress in 1905 voted the proposition down.

In retrospect, it’s unclear how seriously they ever actually took the notion, or if there was ever any chance of it being accepted. Even Herzl might not have been solidly in favor; he died before the issue really came up for debate, and he surely calculated that failing to even consider the offer might jeopardize future negotiations with the British over more desirable territories. And Gottheil suggests that it might also have been a political tactic: since negotiations which [Herzl] had been conducting in Constantinople seemed to have reached a blind alley…[t]he offers made to him by the Sultan at various times were such as he could not accept,” it might be possible to use the offer as a bargaining tool, to “perhaps open the eye of the Sultan to the fact that places other than Palestine were possible for a Jewish ‘home.’” Finally, in his appeal to the Central Committee, (Gottheil writes) Herzl “tried to make it clear that this was not an alternative for Palestine, that East Africa could not be Zion.” His associate Max Nordau even coined the expression Nachtasyl — “night shelter” — to emphasize that the settlement would simply be a way station, a temporary refuge on the way to Zion. And when the Congress rejected the proposition in 1905 — after Herzl’s death the year earlier — leadership passed ever more securely into the branch of the movement which would see the Jewish state only in Palestine.