Uganda Scheme

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A newspaper with a greeting on the occasion of the opening of the sixth Zionist Congress and an illustration of Theodor Herzl on the balcony of the "Three Angels" hotel in Basel.

The Uganda Scheme was a proposal by British Colonial Secretary Joseph Chamberlain to create a Jewish homeland in a portion of British East Africa. It was presented at the Sixth World Zionist Congress in Basel in 1903 by Theodor Herzl, the founder of the modern Zionist movement. He presented it as a temporary refuge for Jews to escape rising antisemitism in Europe. The proposal faced opposition from both the Zionist movement and the British Colony.[1][2]


East Africa protectorate and the British interests[edit]

The British were involved in the scramble for (East) Africa to safeguard a range of British interests, such as commercial superiority, the crusade against the East African Slave trade, apprehension over the control of territory that served as a route to India, and rivalry with the German and French governments. They opted to exercise indirect control over East Africa by establishing the Imperial British East Africa Company (IBEA) led by William Mackinnon in 1888.[3][4][5][6]

Despite significant investments, the Imperial British East Africa Company (IBEA) began to fail by mid-1895. Poor infrastructure, financial instability, huge debts, and inadequate management led to this downfall.[5][6][3] As a result, the British government proclaimed the protectorate, and its administration was transferred to the Foreign Office. With the aim of exploiting the commercial potential of the interior regions, the British built the Uganda Railway, which ended up costing taxpayers a total of £5,244,000.[6] Unfortunately, the return on investment from the railway was not as substantial as anticipated. This shortfall, combined with the Anglo-Boer War in South Africa, sparked growing unease within the Foreign Office. Immigration to the protectorate was viewed as a potential solution to the mounting debt.[6][7]

In summary, the British had the following motive in offering the protectorate to the Zionists:

  1. There was a desire to control the influx of Jewish refugees to the United Kingdom after the pogroms in Eastern Europe to protect British workers.
  2. The Uganda Railway constructed with British taxpayer money needed to generate a return on investment and reduce the deficit, and the Zionists could bring money and people into the protectorate.
  3. Gaining Jewish support was considered crucial for post-Boer War policies in South Africa.
  4. There was genuine concern for the welfare of Jews in Eastern Europe after the Kishinev pogrom.[6][7][8][9]


"Just the country for Dr. Herzl"[edit]

Joseph Chamberlain and Theodor Herzl were acquainted through the Rothschild brothers.[6][7] Initially, Herzl proposed a plan to the Colonial Secretary for Jewish settlement in Cyprus, the Sinai peninsula, or El Arish. However, Chamberlain deemed Herzl's proposal impractical since these territories were either inhabited or not under British control.[1][7][9] Nevertheless, he agreed to discuss the El Arish plan with Lord Lansdowne, the Foreign Secretary, believing it could gain the support of world Jewry for Britain. Chamberlain left London in December 1902 to tour South Africa and stopped in Mombasa before continuing to South Africa.[6][7]

After a warm welcome, White British settlers in the region presented their grievances to the Colonial Secretary about the Foreign Office's failure to attract a significant number of hardworking settlers to the area, hindering the profitability of the railway.[7] Additionally, during a journey on the Uganda Railway through what was described as "the white man country" in East Africa (modern Kenya), Chamberlain's opinion on the suitability of the tropical climate for Europeans changed.[6][8][9] While on the trip, Chamberlain thought that this "would be just the country for Dr. Herzl"[10] and even proposed the idea of a Jewish homeland in East Africa to Dr. Herzl but did not pursue it further, assuming Herzl's interest would lie only in Palestine or nearby.[7][1][9][11]

Initial negotiations[edit]

Initially, Herzl wasn't interested in the offer of a Jewish homeland in East Africa, as his focus was primarily on Palestine and its surrounding area. However, everything changed after the Kishnev Pogrom after which he redoubled his efforts to secure a Jewish homeland.[1][6][7][8][9] Leopold Greenberg acted as Herzl's main representative in the negotiations, and together they hoped to gain de facto diplomatic recognition from Great Britain, making the proposal's political value immense.[7] Despite East Africa's lack of moral and historical significance to Jews, the East Africa plan held the most promise compared to the other plans.[6][7][12] Greenberg successfully obtained a letter from the Foreign Office expressing the British government's willingness to establish a Jewish colony with considerable land, local autonomy, and religious and domestic freedom under its general control. In the Sixth Zionist Congress, which took place in 1903 in Basel, Herzl presented the proposal and the Congress voted in favor of sending a fact-finding group to East Africa with 295 delegates in favor and 178 against.[1][7][9]

Reaction to the offer[edit]

Herzl's announcement sparked a heated debate that challenged fundamental beliefs and sparked passionate reactions. Some delegates viewed it as a betrayal of the Basel Program and a conflict between Palestine and Uganda.[1][8][9] The discord threatened to divide the organization, with some Eastern European delegates dramatically walking out of the meeting and others expressing their loss of trust in Herzl and the steering committee. The emotional tension remained high, with some delegates falling on each other's necks, weeping, and a young student fainting.[7][9] However, Herzl reassured delegates that Palestine would remain Zion and threatened to resign, preventing the organization's division.[1][9][12] Though he believed the attachment to Palestine was remarkable, he thought the reaction was unreasonable.  "These people have a rope around their necks, but they still refuse," Herzl commented.[1] Despite concerns about the East Africa scheme, the Jewish World was willing to take the risk, particularly in light of the Kishinev incident.[7] However, some members, such as Reverend Dr. Moses Gaster and Lucien Wolf, strongly opposed the plan, believing it went against the principles of Zionism and was an unwise experiment with Jewish self-government.[7][9]

The Zionists' proposal was met with equal controversy in the British colony.[6][7] The white British settlers were openly hostile toward the offer and formed the "Anti-Zionist Immigration Committee," which rejected the proposal through the African Standard. They believed that British poor people deserved the land more than the Jews and expressed concerns about how the black natives would react to the Jewish immigrants. Furthermore, there were worries about granting a special territory to an alien community after the troubles in Canada with the Doukhobors, and doubts about Jews' ability to engage in profitable farming. The British media also joined in the objection, amplifying these concerns. The response of the native population to the offer is unknown, and the Indians who came to build the Uganda Railway did not entirely reject the proposal.[6][7][13]

The Zionist expedition to East Africa[edit]

In December 1904, the Zionist Organization dispatched a special commission to Guas Ngishu to assess if the conditions were suitable for Jewish settlement. The commission was composed of Major Alfred St Hill Gibbons, a British veteran of the Boer War and a well-known explorer; Alfred Kaiser, a Swiss orientalist and advisor for the Northwest Cameroon Company; and Nachum Wilbush, a Zionist engineer.[7][8] Although there were disparities in their final reports, with the climate used to argue for and against the Jewish settlement, the main reason for the rejection of the Plan in 1905 was partly due to the opposition by the former high commissioner of East Africa and the white settlers in the area. This led the British to withdraw the offer.[6][8]

Implications of the offer[edit]

The East Africa plan was a significant turning point in Zionist history. Despite its rejection in 1905, the plan paved the way for the emergence of the territorialist ideology and the establishment of the Jewish Territorial Organisation (ITO). The ITO emphasized the pressing need to find a solution to the Jewish problem, even if it meant giving up the return to the Land of Israel.[12][14]

In fiction[edit]

  • In 1890, Theodor Hertzka published Freeland: A Social Anticipation - a novel which predated the Uganda Scheme by twelve years but built on many similar themes. In the book, Jewish adventurers work alongside Kenyans to build an egalitarian society in the Kenyan Highlands.[15]
  • The story of the 1904 expedition, as well as an imagined vision of a Jewish state in Uasin Gishu, is told in Lavie Tidhar's novelette "Uganda", in his 2007 collection HebrewPunk.[16] This is also a theme in Tidhar's 2018 novel Unholy Land, in which a Jewish state called Palestina is established in Africa after the 1904 expedition returns a positive report. Unholy Land was shortlisted for several awards, including the Sidewise Award for Alternate History.[17]
  • Adam Rovner's "What If the Jewish State Had Been Established in East Africa", a travel guide for the fictional Jewish homeland of New Judea, located in present-day Uganda, won the 2016 Sidewise Award for Alternate History award for short form alternate history.[18] According to Adam Rovner the plan was appealing to early Zionists as it "twinned the adventures of [Henry Morton] Stanley with the adventurism of the Age of Empire, stagecraft with statecraft."[15]
  • Another Alternate History treatment is Yoav Avni's novel "Herzl Amar" , הרצל אמר (Herzl Said it) in which the Jewish state in East Africa is called Israel and has many features similar to the actual Israel - it has a big city called Tel Aviv, its army is called the Israeli Defence Forces, its Prime Minister in the 2010s is Ariel Sharon and the opposition leader is Shimon Peres; at its south, near the border with Tanzania, is an impoverished strip similar to the Gaza Strip, dotted with refugee camps of Masai tribesman who were earlier displaced from the more central parts of the country and who like Palestinians are seething with rebellion against Israeli rule. But a highly significant difference from actual history is that, though there had been an antisemitic German leader named Adolf Hitler, WWII ended in an Allied victory much sooner than in actual history and European Jews were spared the Holocaust.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h Birnbaum, Ervin (1990). In the shadow of the struggle (1st ed.). Jerusalem: Gefen Publishing House. pp. 40–43. ISBN 965-229-037-8. OCLC 23184270. Retrieved 11 August 2023 – via Internet Archive.
  2. ^ Mitchell, Thomas G. (2013). Israel/Palestine and the politics of a two-state solution. Jefferson, North Carolina. ISBN 978-0-7864-7597-1. OCLC 823897667.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link)
  3. ^ a b Oliver, Roland (1951). "Some factors in the British occupation of East Africa, 1884-1894". Uganda Journal. 15 (1): 49–64.
  4. ^ "British East Africa". Retrieved 2023-05-02.
  5. ^ a b "British East Africa Company". Retrieved 2023-05-02.
  6. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m Cliansmith, Michael (1974). "The Uganda Offer, 1902-1905: A Study of Settlement Concessions in British East Africa". Ufahamu: A Journal of African Studies. 5 (1). doi:10.5070/F751017515. ISSN 2150-5802.
  7. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q "African Zion: The Attempt to Establish a Jewish Colony in the East Africa Protectorate, 1903–1905. By Robert G. Weisbord. (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America. 1968. Pp. viii, 347. $6.00.)". The American Historical Review. February 1969. doi:10.1086/ahr/74.3.1057. ISSN 1937-5239.
  8. ^ a b c d e f Cohen, Netta (2021-12-31). "Shades of White: African Climate and Jewish European Bodies, 1903–1905". The Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History. 50 (2): 298–316. doi:10.1080/03086534.2021.2020406. ISSN 0308-6534. S2CID 245618899.
  9. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Wohlgelernter, Maurice (1964). Israel Zangwill. Columbia University Press. doi:10.7312/wohl91636. ISBN 9780231884716.
  10. ^ Herzl, Theodor (1960). Patai, Raphael (ed.). The Complete Diaries Of Theodor Herzl. Translated by Zohn, Harry. New York: Herzl Press and Thomas Yoseloff. p. 1473. OCLC 726924 – via Internet Archive.
  11. ^ Amery, Julian (1951). The Life Of Joseph Chamberlain Volume IV 1901-1903. London: Macmillan. pp. 256–70 – via Internet Archive.
  12. ^ a b c "THE EMERGENCE OF THE ZIONIST MOVEMENT", Israel, Brandeis University Press, pp. 3–26, 2012-11-08, doi:10.2307/j.ctv102bfrj.6, retrieved 2023-05-06
  13. ^ Freeman-Maloy, Dan (2017-10-06). "Remembering Balfour: empire, race and propaganda". Race & Class. 59 (3): 3–19. doi:10.1177/0306396817733877. ISSN 0306-3968. S2CID 149183462.
  14. ^ Alroey, Gur (2011). ""Zionism without Zion"? Territorialist Ideology and the Zionist Movement, 1882–1956". Jewish Social Studies. 18 (1): 1. doi:10.2979/jewisocistud.18.1.1. ISSN 0021-6704. S2CID 154121434.
  15. ^ a b Rovner, Adam (2014-12-12). In the Shadow of Zion: Promised Lands Before Israel. NYU Press. ISBN 978-1-4798-1748-1.
  16. ^ "Blog on American Literature". Retrieved 2023-05-06.
  17. ^ "This 'Unholy Land' May Not Even Be Real". Retrieved 2023-05-06.
  18. ^ Rovner, Adam (2016-01-01), "What if the Jewish state had been established in East Africa?*", What Ifs of Jewish History, Cambridge University Press, pp. 165–186, doi:10.1017/9781139794718.009, ISBN 9781139794718, retrieved 2023-05-06