The Mau Mau Uprising

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Following the conclusion of the Second World War, the British Empire began to disintegrate. Although many British politicians recognised that they would have to yield control of India and their Middle Eastern holdings, there was a general hope that their imperial African possessions might be maintained. However, many Africans wished for national independence, and sporadic rebellions occurred throughout the 1950s. Perhaps the most famous of these was the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya. Despite its notoriety, however, the legacy of the insurgency is hardly clear cut, and many today debate whether turning to violence and rebellion was the right decision or whether the independence movement would have been better left to negotiators and native politicians.

The British occupation had firmly established native Kenyans as second-class citizens by the 1930s. Through ‘forceful expropriation’, white settlers came to dominate the farming sector, owning a vastly disproportionate share of land and reducing many native Kenyans to manual labourers. In 1934, in the Nyanza province, more than a million native Kenyans were restricted to 18,430 square kilometers, while 17,000 whites were allowed 43,000 square kilometers. Native control of the land was also undercut by ‘soft’ measures. Government assistance (in the form of building rail and road networks and giving out tax benefits and loans) was almost entirely directed towards white farmers at the expense of black farmers. Because of this and the land partition of 1934, which gave white farmers the most fertile land, black-owned farms tended to fail at a far higher rate than white-owned ones. When black farms failed, white landowners were ready to snap them up, increasing the disparity in the amount of land owned by the two populations. 

As well as being stripped of their economic power, natives were stripped of their privacy, independence and dignity when they were forced to wear a case around their necks containing a ‘kipande’, a document recording their name, fingerprints and employment history. In theory, this document was meant to make record-keeping easier. In practice, it was used to stop natives being able to freely move around the country. The injustice of British rule fuelled a number of rebellions aiming to expel the occupiers. Between 1890 and 1906, the Nandi branch of the Kalenjin ethnic group took up arms against the colonists. The rebellion ended when the British invited Samoei, the leader of the resistance, and his subordinates to a peace conference, at which they settled tensions between themselves and the native population by slaughtering Samoei and his men. In 1912, the government forced many Giriama people to provide forced labour for British plantation owners on the Kenyan coast. Predictably, life for these forced labourers was grim, with flogging being the most common form of punishment, despite it having been theoretically outlawed. The Giriama tried to rise up against the British, but were swiftly defeated. 

On 1 October 1944, the first political movement for black representation began with the founding of the Kenya African Study Union (KASU), which was rebranded in 1946 as the Kenya African Union (KAU). The KAU soon developed a militant wing, predominantly drawn from the Kikuyu ethnic group, known as the Mau Mau. This faction argued that the British should be expelled by force instead of being convinced to leave or to award the natives greater rights. It is still unknown where the name ‘Mau Mau’ comes from; one theory claims that it was a mishearing of ‘ma umau’ (which translates as ‘our grandfathers’), the implication being that the group wanted to have the same freedoms and to live the same lifestyles that their grandfathers had. 

As the peaceful elements in the KAU failed to achieve meaningful change, the Mau Mau resolved to act. On 3 October 1952, they stabbed a European woman to death and began a campaign targeting the imperial police force, known as the Home Guard. Lacking any heavy military equipment such as tanks, armoured cars or planes, the Mau Mau were forced to rely on night-time guerrilla attacks. Because many loyalists were well-known as such in their communities, the Mau Mau were able to surgically target pro-British elements. The Mau Mau general Gatunga was able to cause considerable damage when he orchestrated the assassinations of local leaders whom he had known while he had taught in the region. 

The British, confident in their superior equipment and training, initially underestimated the rebels and thought that the insurrection could be easily crushed. On 20 October, they launched Operation Jock Scott, a plan to capture the entire Mau Mau leadership in one fell swoop. However, the plan’s details were leaked, meaning that while the more docile rebels accepted British arrest, thousands of the fiercest fighters fled to the forests. Thus, the British attempt to decapitate the rebellion failed; the real troublemakers had escaped their grasp.

The Mau Mau were primarily based in the Aberdare mountain range and Mount Kenya. They were supplied by well-wishers in Nairobi, who ferried them arms and goods. They used these weapons to continue raiding British forces in Nairobi and elsewhere. The British reasoned that they could end the rebellion by cutting the Mau Mau off from their suppliers. To this end, General George Erskine, the head of British forces, began Operation Anvil. On 24 April 1954, at 4:30 in the morning, the British sealed off all roads leading in and out of Nairobi. All native Kenyans in the city were deported to barb-wire camps, and members of the Kikuyu were subjected to screening. Anyone recognised as a rebel by informants was immediately arrested. 

Some of the worst crimes of the conflict were committed during British interrogations of suspected civilians. Thousands were subject to sexual abuse and torture with the intent of extracting confessions. Hussein Onyango Obama, Barack Obama’s grandfather, was stabbed with pins and had his testicles squeezed between metal rods. Those who were not Kikuyu were permitted to return to the city. Depriving the Mau Mau of many of their crucial provisions by arresting their most well-known suppliers (as well as tens of thousands of others to be sure) the British successfully limited the scope of Mau Mau actions around Nairobi. Without supplies, the rebels were unable to remain camped in the forest for long periods. 

The British followed up on their success with a villagisation program, which was inspired by similar counter-insurgency measures in Malaya. A million Kikuyu were taken from the capital and forcibly settled into 230,000 huts, spread over 804 villages. The term ‘villagisation’ was a euphemism; the ‘villages’ the Kikuyu were forced into were effectively detention camps, enclosed by barbed wire and watch towers. The British were now able to monitor every Kikuyu individual and convoy that might be headed for the forests and could seize anything that might be useful for the Mau Mau. Starved of supplies, the Mau Mau movement withered away. By the end of 1955, the group had almost seized to exist, and the size of the British army was reduced to almost pre-war levels.

Even though the British defeated the Mau Mau, they could not defeat the spirit of Kenyan nationalism. The villagisation program only further antagonised the Kikuyu and intensified the clamour for independence. Despite the Mau Mau defeat, the KAU achieved their ultimate aim when, in 1963, the British finally withdrew. 

The impact of the Mau Mau Uprising has been hard to quantify; some claim they were an important factor in the road to independence, others argue they were merely an unsuccessful rebellious group. In 1956, the Kenyan Minister of Defence, Munagi, weighed in when he said, “They are now outlaws, who will be pursued and brought to punishment. They must be outlawed as well in the minds of all the people of Kenya.” Whether or not his assessment is true depends, as do so many questions regarding those who claim to be freedom fighters, on perspective.

Bennett, H., 2012. Fighting the Mau Mau: The British Army and Counter-Insurgency in the Kenya Emergency. Cambridge University Press

Elkins, C., 2005. Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain’s Gulag in Kenya. Henry Holt