The Mau Mau Rebellion Of Kenya And The Colonial Brutality Of The British In The 1950s


The Mau Mau rebellion is one among many resistances put up by various African peoples to kick out the Europeans who invaded Africa at the end of the 19th century. The Mau Mau uprising began in present-day Kenya, in 1952, when it was still controlled by the British.

The owners of the land, the indigenes, revolted against the inequalities and injustices they faced under British draconian colonization. The colonial administration, in retaliation and hope to assert their authority commenced a fierce crackdown on the rebels which led to many deaths and displacements.

The British, with better firepower, were able to crush the rebels in 1956, but one thing was certain, and that was that the people will not rest till the British left their lands and returned to Britain. This resolve by the Mau Mau militants was what led to their independence in 1963.

The Invasion By The British

The British officials, missionaries and companies arrived in Kenya at the end of the 19th century, just after the Berlin Conference of 1884-1885. The European nations sat together and planned to invade Africa and seize their lands. This process was later to be known as the “scramble for Africa.”

The African region we know today as Kenya was under the control and rule of the Sultan of Zanzibar. Pressure, military bullying, and operations by the British forced the Sultan to hand over the territory to the British empire. The Sultan, at the same, also handed over Tanganyika to the Germans.

The Berlin conference ended with an agreement for the European nations to forcefully take any African land and declare it their territory. This agreement saw the British gaining control of most of the Eastern part of Africa, rather brutally, and in what we call “Caucasian terrorism.”

A few years before the Berlin Conference, the British had already mapped out their strategy to invade Kenya (just like other African regions) and started advancing inland in 1890. Their major goal was to gain access to the highlands of the region, where they would assemble their forces and provide security for their newly possessed colony of Uganda.

To make their settlement on the highlands easy, they started to build a railway line from Mombasa to Kisumu. They accomplished this with Indian workers. The British Empire sent soldiers with the primary assignment of suppressing the locals who resisted the intrusion of their land. The natives who the railway line was to pass their lands were the Maasai, Kikuyu, and the Kamba people.

At first, the natives didn’t know what to make of the blatant aggression by the British. In the normal African hospitability, some of them welcomed the British; although others were hostile, and acted in defense of their land and heritage.

The British didn’t care about the feelings of the natives. They went about their show-of-force and made it a sport to shoot and kill the natives randomly. This devilish act led the natives to withdraw their welcome and resort to self-defense.

The Maasai people didn’t want to go to war with the British, so they avoided any confrontations with the soldiers. The Kikuyu, on the other hand, did not see themselves bowing to the British and giving up their land, so they formed a few resistances to the intrusion of the British forces.

The resistance by the Kikuyu people angered the British officials, who became genocidal, and started to hunt down the Kikuyu and Kamba people. They murdered and expelled the people from their lands. The campaign of murder and chaos by the British resulted in an outbreak of famine and disease. A rinderpest epidemic swept through the region.

The disease killed off almost the livestock of the people and contributed to the already devastating situation the British guns had put the people in. The British after subduing the Kikuyu, Maasai, and Kamba people with their weapons and murderous disposition, went on to make room for European settlers, who began to arrive in 1903. The British seized large expanse of land and gave them to the few European settlers, thereby adding to the crimes against the indigenous people.

The British engaged in a well-planned revocation of fertile land from the indigenous owners and reallocated them to the British farmers, who had moved down from Britain or South Africa. This was basically taking away the sources of food and livelihood of hundreds of thousands of Africans, and giving them to foreigners, with a threat to life.

This is nothing short of terrorism. The taking of massive lands belonging to the indigenous people caused great hatred for the British, and the next steps which the British took to uphold the land grab, set the tone for the various rebellions that would follow, up until independence, and beyond.

The British came up with a law which they called the “The Crown Lands Ordinance Act of 1915”, that took away the few remaining rights the native people had to their lands. To make matters worse, there was a huge influx of British settlers immediately after the First World War. The British government set up a scheme to resettle many ex-soldiers in Africa and give them stolen lands for agriculture.

The British didn’t see anything wrong with what they were doing, and since it was profitable to them, they continued their land seizure and oppressions. This was a major rallying force that brought together Kenyans to form organizations that campaigned for the restoration of land rights for the indigenous displaced people. These organizations included the East African Association (EAA), formed in 1921 but banned the following year, and the Kenyan African Union (KAU), formed in 1942.

Hundreds of thousands of Kenyans lived in poverty and many lived in slums around Nairobi, while the foreigners (Europeans and Indians) lived wealthy lifestyles. The painful part was that the foreigners were hostile to the indigenous people and treated them with contempt.

In the rural areas, just 3000 European families owned more land than one million Kikuyu people, whom they drove into the reserves. This situation and many others set the anger of the people on a very high tempo and motivated the various nationalist movements, whose campaigns led to the Mau Mau uprising.

The Mau Mau Fire Spreads And Burns

By the beginning of the 1950s, the nationalist movements started to take a new turn, as there was more anger among the people. More and more of the Kikuyu people wanted an alternative means of tackling the oppression other than the constitutional reforms campaigned for by the older people of the nationalist movements such as the KAU.

Mau Mau Soldiers | Image Source: BBC.CO.UK

The Kikuyu became fierce in their approach and turned to violence as the only legitimate means to take back their land and country. In the years that followed they successfully carried out small-scale attacks on European settlements and properties.

The people supported their militant tactics and as the months went by more and more Kenyans joined the militants, who used a campaign of oath-taking to make others believe in their course and keep it a secret.

This was how the Mau Mau movement was born. The movement grew as the years went by, attracting other branches of the KAU to join their radical approach to freedom. While the Mau Mau grew in strength and agitations, the European government and settlers took no real interest in reducing their oppressive laws and rights. They continued to use the existing policies to steal land from the indigenes, and even propose new laws which would reduce the rights of the Kenyans even further.

This final move broke the camel’s back, and the Mau Mau movement was forced into an all-out armed resistance. Their first targets were the Kikuyu people who were collaborating with the Europeans, against their own people. They attacked and assassinated those who gave information to the colonial police regarding the Mau Mau movement in 1952. The prominent Kikuyu people who collaborated with the Europeans were killed, and a small number of white settlers were also attacked.

The colonial police went into action and started to round up Kikuyu people whom they suspected to be Mau Mau members. Hundreds were taken into detention to prevent them from associating with the Mau Mau movement. But that did not stop the Mau Mau movement from growing. By the middle of 1952, almost 90% of the Kikuyu adult had taken the Mau Mau oath and worked together to oust the Europeans.

The colonial governments made the Kikuyu chiefs to speak against the Mau Mau movement and organize “cleansing oaths” that was supposed to dissolve the initial oath-taking by the Mau Mau initiates. Jomo Kenyatta, who later became Kenya’s first president also spoke up against the Mau Mau, and till date, many Kenyans do believe he was a sell-out and a British puppet.

One Kikuyu chief, who was a major collaborator with the British, was assassinated near Nairobi, in October 1952. His name was Senior Chief Waruhiu. His death was celebrated greatly by the Mau Mau movement and the people. The British colonial government frowned at his assassination. The British government then declared a State of Emergency two weeks after the chief’s assassination.

After the colonial government declared the State of Emergency, they followed it up with a police crackdown and arrest of 187 Kikuyu people whom they considered to be the leaders of the Mau Mau. They called it Operation Jock Scott. The 187 arrested included some leaders of the KAU, but the colonial police failed to arrest the Mau Mau Central Committee.

The British deployed their soldiers in an attempt to intimidate the Mau Mau and halt their increasing attacks, but the opposite effect was achieved. The Mau Mau took another hard offensive and assassinated another senior Kikuyu chief and a group of European settlers. The Mau Mau then changed strategy and transformed into a full combatant force. They left their homes in their thousands and set up a military base in the forests of Aberdares and Mt. Kenya.

There they grew in number and strength, and formed their own government and army, with military commanders emerging from their midst. Some of the notable commanders were Waruhiu Itote and Dedan Kimathi. The British army and police were able to subdue the attacks coming from the Mau Mau camp for the rest of 1952.

The following year started with a vast scale attack on Europeans settlers and farmers, and also their African loyalists and sympathizers. The resumed waves of attacks sent a severe shock to the European population, who then mounted pressure on the government to take precise action to stop the Mau Mau.

The Kenyan security forces, under the command of the British army, set out to stop the Mau Mau. They surrounded the Mau Mau camps in the forest. While the army was surrounding the camps, the colonial government embarked on a large-scale eviction of the Kikuyu people from their lands, which was marked to be given to European farmers.

The British created concentration camps where they put whole villages of the Kikuyu people if they found one person from the village to be a Mau Mau member. This was to dissuade them from joining the Mau Mau army. The concentration camps were pure evil, as the British used all forms of abuse, torture and sexual molestation to extract information from the Kikuyu prisoners. This angered the Kikuyu more and forced hundreds of them to join the Mau Mau fighters in the forest.

By this time, there was serious fighting between the Mau Mau army and the British army. On March 26 of 1963, the Mau Mau army launched two attacks that were of high impact. The first attack was on a colonial police station in Naivasha, where over 173 Kikuyu prisoners were released and which marked a humiliating defeat for the British. The second attack was the killing of 97 Kikuyu people who were loyal to the British, at Lari.

The British took revenge and machine-gunned hundreds of Mau Mau prisoners at the camp in Abardare forest. This, in turn, angered the Mau Mau further, and they continued their raids on police and military outfits throughout the rest of 1953.

British concentration camps in Kenya | Image source: New York Times

The End Of The Road For The Mau Mau Rebellion

The British troops that were deployed to Kenya to stop the rebellion were doing a bad job since they had no guerilla fighting training. They were then replaced with units from the Kenyan army, British soldiers who had spent considerable time in Kenya, who have experience in bush fighting.

The British forces used Army planes to drop bombs on the Mau Mau camps and strafe the forest with their machine guns. The forest’s thick cover assisted the Mau Mau rebels, but the bombing by the army planes was so intense that it started to demoralize the Mau Mau fighters. Both sides had a few large-scale battles and engagements in 1953, and the Mau Mau suffered at the hands of the British machine guns.

By the end of 1953, the Mau Mau had suffered great casualties. More than 3,000 of them were killed, 1,000 was captured, and around 100,000 of their supporters had been arrested and placed in concentration camps. This did not stop the Mau Mau from forming a formidable resistance to the colonial regime and British wickedness. They continued attacking European settlers and their Kenyan collaborators, especially in Nairobi where they had overwhelming presence and support.

The British, in a final move to complete the suppression of the original owners of the lands which they stole, launched operation Anvil. The soldiers and police moved from house to house an arrested anyone whom they suspected of Mau Mau’s involvement. Those arrested were thrown into prison and concentration camps, without explaining to them what their crimes were. The government followed this with a ‘villagization’ policy, which uprooted Kikuyu people from their villages and lands and put them in newly built villages which were controlled by the British.

By the last months of 1954, the British had succeeded in displacing over one million Kikuyu people. They took them away from their ancestral lands and homes and placed them in semi concentration camps (villages), which were prone to disease and famine. This strategy was effective in cutting the supply chain to the Mau Mau in the forest, who were still fighting.

In 1955, the British forces started to sweep through the forest to flush out the remaining Mau Mau fighters. They didn’t make many gains with this strategy, so they turned out entire African villages to go into the forest and kill any Mau Mau rebels they saw. This was basically turning brother against brother – that has been one of Europe’s many tricks to destabilize Africa. On one occasion, as many as 70,000 Kenyans were sent into the forest to face the Mau Mau.

By the end of 1955, there were just about 1500 Mau Mau fighters left. The British arrested their last commander, Kimathi, and put him on trial. The fighters who were left did not have the power and organizational strength to fight the British. This marked the end of the Mau Mau rebellion. The people had fought a long and hard fight for the soul of their ancestral lands and freedom. They stared vile hatred and draconian rule in the face and stood together to defend their right to life.

Shortly after that, the murderous British matched their troops out of Kenya, while continuing to uphold and enforce the State of Emergency up till 1960.

The British government published the number of the Mau Mau killed as 11,503, but from all indications they are false. The Kenyans killed in the forests and in the concentration camps, including those who died from disease and famine would have run into their tens of thousands. We would not fully get that figure, because as usual, it is the victor who writes the history of the battle.

The British had won the gun battle over the Mau Mau, but the Mau Mau had won the hearts of their people and that of other East African nationalists. The ability of the Mau Mau to deal certain blows to the British government demystified the British power and reduced the reverence and fear which some of the people had for them.

The Mau Mau uprising then set a high tempo for the struggle towards independence. The brutality which the British showed in their engagement of the Mau Mau generated a renewed anti-colonialist consciousness among the people of Kenya. This would continue until they gained independence on June 1, 1963.   

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