The origin of the present day Kenya Army may be traced from the King's African Rifles. The reasons that necessitated the recruitment and formation of troops that preceded the King's African Rifles and in essence the Kenya Army are as many as they are varied. It will be difficult to analyze them without tracing the events that were unfolding in the East African region during the last quarter of the 19 th Century. This period was characterized by active involvement of the British in the enforcement of abolition of slave trade in East Africa . In this effort they had the support of the Sultan of Zanzibar. The Sultan was under increasing pressure not only from independent minded subjects like the Mazrui family, but also from his own troops who like the Mazrui family didn't believe in the abolition of slave trade. The slave trade was one of the major sources of income during the material time.
During the same period other European nations were also developing an interest in acquiring spheres of influence in Africa . In this rivalry the British established the Imperial British East Africa Company to take care of its interests. As these interests developed and expanded, there was need to create a more formidable force to safeguard these interests and expansion. It is out of this that the first indigenous land forces in Kenya can be traced.
In 1873 the Sultan of Zanzibar, Seyyid Barghash signed the final treaty to abolish slave trade in all his dominions. The task of enforcing the abolition was vested on the British Royal Navy Fleet under Admiral Freeman Tie. The British Resident Consul Sir John Kirk and the Sultan realized that this could only be achieved through the establishment of a reliable Land Force, which could be used in the hinterland as opposed to the British Patrol boats whose operations were limited to the coastal region. At the same time the forces of the Sultan of Zanzibar comprised mainly of mercenaries drawn from Persia and Buluchi who held traditional beliefs that were at variance with the anti-slavery movement. At the same time the Sultan feared the growing influence of Khedive Ishmael of Egypt, who posed a threat to the Sultan's rule in the region due to his increased interest in the source of the Nile (Uganda).
In 1877 a Royal Navy Officer Lt Lloyd Matthews serving in the 'HMS London' formed a small force of 300 Zanzibaris for the purpose of combating slave trade. During the following year Lt Matthews was given leave to serve under the Sultan who appointed him Brigadier General in command of the newly established force. By 1880 the force had grown to 1300 men who were all Armed with snider rifles donated to the Sultan by the British Government. This force was also used to enforce the Sultan's will on the mainland. For instance in 1882 the force re-established the Sultan's authority over Chief Mbaruk of Gasi who had rebelled against his authority. This was the first known force in East Africa that had recruited indigenous Africans to serve under the British. It was this native force that was later to become the East African Rifles.
In 1877 Sultan Barghash offered a 70 years lease of his mainland dominions to a British Company, the British India Steam Navigation Company whose chairman was Sir William Mackinnon. This company had trading interests in East Africa and also ran mail between Zanzibar and Aden . When the scramble for Africa intensified, Sir Mackinnon and other prominent British subjects with interests in Africa formed the British Africa Company. This company had the authority to take care of British interests in the territory claimed by Britain after the Anglo-German Agreement of 1886.
On 8 Sep 1888 the British Africa Company was granted royal Charter and was charged with the responsibility of administering 'British East Africa' on the liens of a Crown colony. The name of the Company changed to Imperial British East Africa Company (IBEA). Sir Mackinnon saw the need for a force that would guarantee the security of the company's operations. During the initial stages the company used the force that had been formed by Lt Mathews, which was now under Capt Hatch as the Sultan had since appointed Lt Mathews First Minister.
This force, which had now been reorganized into 12 companys of 63 men each, was effective but inadequate. The IBEA Company was therefore forced to frequently seek the assistance of the Sultan's mercenaries (viroboto) to augment its resources. However, these mercenaries were arrogant, indisciplined and could not be relied upon without European supervision. This inadequacy led Mackinnon to seek authority to recruit more reliable soldiers from outside East Africa . After exploring various alternatives the company was granted permission to recruit from India .
In 1891 a contingent of 300 Indian troops was shipped to East Africa . Their major task was to garrison the coastal stations. The company relied on its own troops to protect its interior stations against the indigenous people like the Kikuyu, Nandi and sections of the Kamba who resented the company's rule. Where the situation demanded however, the officer in charge of each station recruited his own protection force, for instance, Ainsworth recruited Kamba militia for protection. On other occasions the company had to request assistance from the Royal Navy. Indeed in 1890 a naval force of 800 men was landed near Witu to help the company forces suppress the rebellion of the Sultan of Witu.
In 1893 the three-year contract with the Indian contingent came to an end. During the same period the company was experiencing serious financial problems that had led to the abandonment of Uganda and Jubaland infact, the company could barely police the coast. This development made the British Consul in Zanzibar at the time, Sir Athur Hardinge to notify the foreign office of his intention of taking over East Africa from the company. The British government accepted this and in November 1894 the IBEA company rights valued at 250,000 British pounds were bought by the foreign office. Consequently on 1 July 1895 a British protectorate was declared over all the areas previously administered by the company. The company troops were subsequently reorganized under Capt Hatch.
In August 1895 the British government sanctioned the establishment of a force composed of 300 Punjabi, 300 Swahili, 100 Sudanese and 200 soldiers from various ethnic groups in the region. This force was renamed East African Rifles and was formed from the former IBEA company force in Mombasa (Fort Jesus). The first task of this force was to quell the Mazrui rebellion in 1895 in which the officer who was the second in command Capt F C Lawrence was killed.