Mau Mau Revolution

No one likes to talk about war atrocities or the adverse effects of colonialism. Those topics aren’t polite conversation and are quickly forgotten in the history of the Western World. Only recently has Great Britian begun to atone for the actions of its Colonial Administration in Kenya. Kenya reached independence from English rule in 1960 but the decade prior was one of fear, repression, and violence. Great Britian was clinging to end of its empire and was reluctant to let Kenya go.

In 2013, victims from the Kenyan Emergency 1952-1960 sued the British government for reparations. The case was contentious as paying reparations would signify acknowledgement of wrongdoing, tarnishing the colonial memory. On June 6, 2013, foreign secretary William Hague announced that 5,228 elderly Kenyans would be receiving a settlement that totaled 19.9 million pounds.

The reparations paid to Kenyans who suffered dearly at the hands of colonial officers have created a resurgence of interest in the Kenyan Emergency and the mistreatment of the Kikuyu population but we are still left wondering, “what really happened” and “why did this happen?”

The British Colonial Government declared the Kenyan Emergency, sometimes also known as “The Mau Mau Emergency”, in 1952 due to unrest in the colony. The enemy was ‘Mau Mau’, a grassroots organization with a militant branch whose goal was to reclaim land and independence. The Kikuyu, Kenya’s largest ethnic group, were the most significantly affected by colonialism and responded with the nationalist movement that became known as Mau Mau. Although ninety percent of the Kikuyu population took the Mau Mau oaths to metaphorically “fight” for access to land settled by Europeans and freedom from colonial rule, most were not militants. Interpreting the movement as a threat, the British implemented a counterinsurgency campaign to quell the uprising and clear the country of Mau Mau.

After suppressing the militancy in the first two years of the Emergency, the British focused their efforts on civilians in order to prevent them from aiding the remaining Mau Mau guerilla fighters. They continued to repress the Kikuyu population through collective punishment, detainment, and torture to ‘cleanse’ them of their Mau Mau allegiance and ‘rehabilitate’ them. Interrogations of Mau Mau suspects included beatings, rape, burnings, electric shock and whippings. By the end of the Emergency, the Mau Mau had killed 1,700 loyalist Africans; while the British had killed 10,000 Kenyans and detained another 90,000 in detention camps, concentrated villages, and prisons.

The work of Historians Caroline Elkins, David Anderson, and Huw Bennett along with the 2011 discovery of previously ‘lost’ files on the Colonial Administration have made it clear that human rights violations that took place during the Emergency. It is not as easy to understand WHY British colonial officers and settlers perpetuated those acts and why in particular civilians were targeted. To answer this question, I look to contemporary British cultural “experts” and firsthand accounts from the Emergency. Misconceptions about the nature of the Mau Mau and the Kikuyu, as well as fear, led the British to attempt to both eliminate and modernize the ethnic group.

A tense relationship between Kenyan nationalists and the colonial administration erupted in violence when the British refused to acknowledge Kikuyu grievances as legitimate. They not only ignored Mau Mau grievances but also used them as evidence of the backwards nature of the Kikuyu. One contemporary source wrote:

Gratitude –with some very few exceptions– is simply not in African nature–yet. They have no equivalent terms for gratitude, love, honour, integrity, virtue: such words don’t exist in the language. Europeans had to invent words for them.

The Kikuyu were perceived as barbaric because of their supposed inability to farm for themselves, and because they resisted the positive influence of colonialism.

Mau Mau was also dismissed as a manipulative terrorist organization that used “common gangster methods.” The British believed the Mau Mau were coercing other Kikuyu to join them and that many Kikuyu were naïve about the actual sinister goals of the organization. This perspective allowed colonial settlers and officials to maintain their paternalistic approach and objective to modernized Kenya.

The foreign nature of Kikuyu religious and tribal practices led to more conflict because many white Kenyans interpreted their culture and lifestyle as barbaric. Although historians have found no conclusive evidence as to the meaning or origin of the term Mau Mau, one contemporary source described the origin as, “… an onomatopoeic Kikuyu word used—though not commonly nowadays—to imitate the half-snarling, half-gulping noise made by an animal when bolting food…”. With this analysis, Mau Mau nationalists are reduced to the status of beasts.

Lastly, it was fear that drove the British to implement such cruel tactics against the Kikuyu. They feared for the colony. If Kenyans achieved self-determination, Europeans could be cut off from the rest of the empire and left under the legislation of Africans. This would have been unacceptable in the context of the contemporary racial ideology. Most importantly though, they feared for their lives. Loyal Kikuyu servants had become the enemy as the murdering of white settlers began. Prominent settler Michael Blundell recounted the era saying that settlers kept pistols on hand and barricaded the doors on their houses. He said “The farmer and his wife would sit reading or quietly talking, each with their pistol ready, half listening all the time for noises outside the house.” Isolated settler estates in the highlands of Kenya had little protection against attacks by Mau Mau in the night. Feelings of fear and defenselessness against Mau Mau attack fueled the settler demands for aggressive repression, relocation, and detainment of Kikuyu during the Emergency.

This fear turned against all Kikuyu as colonial officials implemented an unofficial policy of collective guilt. Misconceptions about the pervasiveness of Mau Mau assumed that as many as 95% of the Kikuyu were actively involved with Mau Mau. Because of this, the British collectively punished civilians to make the cost of supporting the Mau Mau too high.

During the Kenyan Emergency, the British Colonial Government and British settlers mistreated thousands of Kenyans based on their racist and paternalistic tendencies as well as fear which caused them to label all Kikuyu as equally responsible for the conflict. The result of British understanding of the Mau Mau were declarations similar to that of Father Trevor Huddleston, an English Anglican Bishop. He is quoted saying, “There can be no compromise, no common ground, between Mau Mau and the rest of the civilized world. It must be utterly destroyed if the peoples of Kenya are to live together and build up their community.” Huddleston demonstrates the aggression with which the British confronted the Mau Mau as well as their contradictory intention towards Kenyans. His suggestion was to destroy the nationalist group to build up the nation.

The British vilified an entire ethnic group because they did not, and would not understand the Kikuyu way of life nor their demands. The violence and oppression committed by colonial forces during the Kenyan Emergency is not unique when examining the history of empire, but the systematic governmental sanctioning was. Evidence suggests that the violence was endorsed by officers all the way up to the Governor of Kenya, Evelyn Baring. Perhaps this is why the Kenyans received reparations? Or was it the testimonies of historians during the trial? Whatever the reason may be, this could just be the tip of the iceberg as victims from other former colonies step forward to tell their story.


For more information on the 2013 legal proceedings and their possible repercussions, see this New York Times article by Historian David Anderson or this article from The Guardian written by Caroline Elkins, whose research provided vital evidence during the lawsuit.

Claire Steffen

Claire is a senior double majoring in History and Anthropology with a certificate in Archaeology Her research interests include 20th century European warfare, colonialism, and midwestern archaeology. Following graduation, Claire will be attending the University of Colorado to pursue a master’s degree in Museum and Field Studies with the intent of becoming a museum professional.