In the early 1950s, many parts of Africa were looking to throw off the colonial rule of their European masters and seek independence.
In the British colony of Kenya, local Kikuyu tribesmen formed a resistance group, calling themselves the Kenya Land and Freedom Army (KLFA). Their unofficial name of Mau Mau, is believed to be an anagram of the Kikuyu word “Uma Uma” (Get Out! Get Out!).
This was not the first time that the British and the native inhabitants had clashed. In the great European expansion into Africa of the 1800s, the British had fought with the warlike Kikuyu many times as they both sought to expand territory. The uneven struggle between spear carrying tribesmen and modern European weaponry resulted in huge native casualties prompting some public concern in England. Norman Leys, the well known anti imperialist recorded at the time, “always hopeless failures. Naked spearmen fall in swathes before machine guns without inflicting a single casualty in return. Meanwhile, the troops burn all the huts and collect all the livestock within reach”. Even the British MP Charles Dilke was moved to remark “The only person up to the present time who has benefitted from our enterprise in the heart of Africa is Mr Hiram Maxim”.
Once subdued, the British granted gifts of land to white settlers and on the 1st January 1895 claimed Kenya as a British protectorate, declaring it a full colony in 1920. The settlers were given vast tracts of the most fertile land and the native tribes were dispossessed, often being forcibly moved to other areas. This caused great resentment and resulted in a number of uprisings, notably, the Nandi Revolt of 1895 – 1902, the Giriama Uprising in 1913 and the Muranga Revolt of 1947.
The situation was not helped by the fact that the settler regime in Kenya, even before any uprising, was considered the most brutally racist in the British Empire with the settlers violently determined to retain their grip on power with the utmost aggression, earning themselves later the title “The White Mau Mau” among some Europeans. Although many tribes were affected it was the Kikuyu who lost most of the fertile land and in 1951, word began to get back to the British authorities that the Mau Mau were holding secret meetings in the forest around Nairobi and recruiting Kikuyu tribesmen into a rebel force to drive out white settlers.
The rebel candidates were made to swear an oath, often forced on them at the point of a knife, to kill all Europeans and, as their numbers grew, began to terrorise the local areas and burn the dwellings of Kikuyu who would not join the uprising. The situation got so bad that the Kenyan government imposed a curfew in many areas and also formed a pro government Home Guard Force to protect local townships. Despite these measures, sporadic attacks on the townships and on the Europeans continued until October 1952 when a pro government tribal chief called Waruhui was assassinated in broad daylight in Nairobi causing the British government to announce that it would send British troops to put down the escalating rebellion. The first to arrive were three battalions of the King’s African Rifles, recalled from Uganda, Tanganyika and Mauritius, but the settlers objected to black soldiers and a battalion of the Lancashire Fusiliers were hurriedly flown in from Egypt.
The British hoped to bring a quick end to the uprising by cutting off its head and swiftly rounded up 180 suspected rebel leaders and subjected six of them to a show trial, but with little effect as details of the round up had been leaked and many escaped to the forest.
By the 21st October and after some 40 gruesome murders in a month, the government declared a state of emergency and officially denounced the Mau Mau as terrorists. They also arrested Jomo Kenyata a leading nationalist and President of the Kenya African Union for alleged Mau Mau activities. With the aid of the newly arrived troops, the authorities arrested over 500 suspected Mau Mau activists and temporarily closed down all schools in Kikuyu areas. They also charged Kenyata with leading the uprising and flew him to Kapenguria, a remote and isolated station in the bush where he was held incommunicado. The Mau Mau leaders responded by declaring open rebellion against British rule in Kenya.
The British operated a policy of “divide and rule”, using the police and home guard to garrison townships and villages. This forced the Mau Mau to operate mainly at night when with the aid of informers, they would sneak into villages and kill pro British Kikuyu as well as attacking isolated farms owned by the whites. The British responded by imposing collective fines on villages and confiscation of their livestock. The harshness of these measures was, however, having a negative effect on many previously uncommitted Kikuyu and drove them to support the Mau Mau. Atrocities were committed by both sides and there are many authenticated stories of the upmost cruelty being visited on the white farmers and their families including torture and rape.
Similarly, the authorities would be equally brutal in retaliation. Without the support of the population, the Mau Mau could not win and they went to great lengths to persuade the loyal Kikuyu to join them. If unsuccessful, they would punish swiftly as in the case of the massacre at Lari where in March 1953, the local headman Chief Luka and his people refused to join. A large force of Mau Mau arrived in the night and attacked the village killing 97 inhabitants, burning the buildings and raping and mutilating the survivors. RAF planes dropped leaflets in the area showing graphic pictures of the women and children who had been hacked to death by the so called freedom fighters. In April, British troops were deployed into the area and killed 24 Mau Mau suspects and capturing 36 more. In the same month Jomo Kenyata (known as Burning Spear to his followers) was sentenced to seven years hard labour, together with five of his supporters.
Keeping up the pressure, British troops rounded up over 1,000 Mau Mau suspects in the Nairobi area, keeping them under guard in camps. The Mau Mau retaliated by attacking a Home Guard base and killing nineteen Kikuyu members.
In May, the authorities announced that they intend to cordon off all Kikuyu tribal land to restrict the movements of suspected terrorists. They also embarked on huge programmes of so called “villagisation”, forcibly moving groups of tribesmen to designated areas where they could be kept under observation. British troops patrolling these areas killed more than 100 suspected Mau Mau in July alone. The harsh and sometimes pitiless response of the British to the rebellion caused much suffering among Kikuyu civilians. Many were accused of belonging to the Mau Mau merely by being in the wrong place as British troops carried out sweeps. They were herded into camps and held without trial. From the British Tommy’s point of view, he was dealing with bloodthirsty savages who had destroyed settlers’ farms and raped white women, tales and rumours of which were widely circulated to justify government action.
The efficiency of the British military was gradually winning the struggle and in January 1954, the Mau Mau second in command, General China was wounded and captured during a fire fight and in March, General Gatunga, another senior rebel was taken. A short while later, a third rebel leader, General Tanganyika, surrendered to the British and was persuaded to make a plea to the remaining rebels urging them to surrender, but he was ignored and the attempt failed.