Black History Month: The Mau Mau Uprising

The Mau Mau uprising began in 1952 as a reaction to inequalities and injustices in British-controlled Kenya. The response of the colonial administration was a fiercecrackdown on the rebels, resulting in many deaths. By 1956 the uprising had effectively been crushed, but the extent of opposition to the British regime had clearly been demonstrated and Kenya was set on the path to independence, which was finally achieved in 1963.


The British colonial presence in Kenya began in the late 19th Century, as part of a trend of seizure of territory across the African continent by European nations that became known as the Scramble for Africa. The region today known as Kenya had previously been under the control of the Sultan of Zanzibar, but pressure from Britain and its military had forced the Sultan to hand over the territory to the British Empire, as well as neighbouring Tanganyika to Germany. Agreements over the regions claimed by the Europeans were negotiated in the 1884-5 Berlin Conference, with the British gaining control over most of the East African coast. From around 1890 the British began to move inland, hoping to gain access to the fertile highlands and provide greater security for Uganda, which had also been claimed as a British colony. In order to facilitate this, a railway line from Mombasa to Kisumu was built using Indian workers, and British forces were sent to suppress any resistance from the ethnic groups living in the central highlands – predominantly the Maasai, the Kikuyu and the Kamba. The response from the native African populace was initially mixed between hostility and welcome. However, British displays of force intended to intimidate locals into submission, such as shooting Africans at random, quickly led to the withdrawal of any hospitality from those living in the interior.[i] Whilst the Maasai generally avoided military confrontation with the British, the Kikuyu attempted to mount some resistance to the intrusion of imperial forces into their land. This resistance was met with brutality from the colonialists, who carried out executions and punitive expeditions to hunt down Kikuyu and Kamba people. These actions were also undertaken to elevate collaborators – Africans willing to cooperate with the British – to positions of power.[ii] This campaign of pacification, combined with the famine and disease that swept the region during this period, resulted in significant loss of life and property amongst the indigenous people. An epidemic of rinderpest, a disease that severely affects livestock, heavily contributed to the devastation of the local population.

The arrival of European settlers in 1903 added to the troubles of the indigenous people. Whilst the numbers of white immigrants were relatively few, they claimed a disproportionately large amount of land, the majority of which was seized from Africans. A policy of reallocation was undertaken, expropriating fertile land from locals in order to give it to white farmers, who mostly moved from Britain or South Africa. This process marked the start of a pattern that would define relations between Europeans and indigenous Kenyans for the first half of the 20th century. The Crown Lands Ordinance Act of 1915 removed the few remaining land rights of the native people, completing a process that essentially transformed them into an agricultural proletariat, dispossessed of their own land. The influx of settlers increased sharply after the end of the First World War, as the British government undertook a scheme to settle many ex-soldiers in the region. Continuing land seizures to provide for these settlers drove Africans to form organisations that campaigned for greater land rights for the indigenous inhabitants. These organisations included the East African Association (EAA), formed in 1921 but banned the following year, and the Kenyan African Union (KAU), formed in 1942.

After the end of the Second World War the discontentment amongst African Kenyans was intensified by the lack of progress. Hundreds of thousands of Kenyans lived in poverty in the slums around Nairobi, with little chance of employment or basic social justice. In comparison, most of the white Europeans and many of the Indians who had settled in Nairobi enjoyed a conspicuous level of wealth, and frequently treated indigenous Africans with hostility and contempt.[iii] A similar state of affairs existed in rural areas, where 3000 European families owned more land than the one million Kikuyu driven into reserves.[iv] This situation, the culmination of decades of mistreatment and oppression under British rule, created an atmosphere of discontentment that fed into the various Kenyan nationalist movements, and ultimately led to the Mau Mau uprising.

Mau Mau Emerges

By the early fifties, the younger, more radical elements of the nationalist movement in Kenya had begun to split away from those campaigning for constitutional reform. These Africans were generally Kikuyu who had been reduced to squatters on their own land by the laws introduced by the British and were increasingly disillusioned with the conservative change espoused by organisations like the KAU. Instead, they were prepared to resort to force to achieve their aims and in the years preceding the uprising they carried out a number of small-scale attacks and sabotage on European property.[v] These militant activists were able to quickly consolidate their support throughout the Kenyan highlands, using a campaign of oath-taking to commit others to the anti-colonial cause. The movement that emerged became known as the Mau Mau – the origin of this term is unknown, as it is an ambiguous name to which many have attached different meanings.[vi] As the Mau Mau movement grew, more moderate elements among the Kenyans were swept aside by popular pressure, with many branches of the KAU adopting a more radical position as a result.[vii] A Central Committee of Kikuyu activists in Nairobi loosely directed the Mau Mau. Despite awareness of the growth of the movement, the government and settler communities made no concessions aside from a few token measures, and instead continued existing policies of repression and even proposed new legislation to reduce the rights of the indigenous people even further. This inflexibility forced the Mau Mau into a period of armed resistance. The lack of recognition of the threat posed by the squatter movement demonstrated how the Europeans did not consider Kenyan nationalists to be capable of organising significant opposition to the colonial regime.

Those initially targeted by the Mau Mau were Kikuyu who collaborated with the Europeans. In 1952 a wave of violence was directed at police witnesses who provided testimony against Africans, particularly in cases related to the Mau Mau. Prominent collaborators were assassinated and a small number of white settlers were also attacked. Police responded by initiating a mass campaign of arrests, arresting Kikuyu suspected of Mau Mau involvement and taking others into preventative detention, in an attempt to neutralise the support base of the Mau Mau. However, this indiscriminate repression had the opposite effect to what was intended and drove many more indigenous Kenyans to support the movement. By mid-1952 around ninety percent of Kikuyu adults had taken the Mau Mau oath.[viii] Kikuyu chiefs were encouraged by the government to speak out against Mau Mau and administer ‘cleansing oaths’, which would supposedly absolve Kenyans from the oaths taken to support the anti-colonial cause.[ix] KAU officials, including Jomo Kenyatta, also publically spoke out against the actions of the movement, although many stopped short of outright condemnation. In October 1952, Senior Chief Waruhiu, a prominent collaborator and the harshest critic of the Mau Mau among the Kikuyu chiefs, was assassinated near Nairobi. His death prompted celebration amongst Mau Mau supporters and consternation in government. The administration finally realised that the Mau Mau posed a serious threat to colonial rule in Kenya and the decision was taken to actively challenge and engage the rebels. Two weeks after Waruhiu’s death, the government declared a State of Emergency.

The Uprising

The Declaration of Emergency was accompanied by Operation Jock Scott, a coordinated police operation that arrested 187 Kikuyu who were considered by the government to be the leaders of the Mau Mau movement. This included leaders of the KAU, but failed to apprehend many members of the Mau Mau Central Committee.[x] Along with the deployment of British troops, this was hoped to be sufficient to disrupt and intimidate the rebels into submission. Mau Mau supporters responded by assassinating another senior Kikuyu chief and several white settlers. Thousands of Mau Mau left their homes and set up camp in the forests of the Aberdares and Mt. Kenya, creating a base of resistance to the government.[xi] These fighters soon began to organise and several military commanders emerged, including Waruhiu Itote and Dedan Kimathi. Hostilities were relatively subdued for the remainder of 1952, but the following year began with a series of violent killings of European farmers and loyalist Africans. This sufficiently shocked the white population into demanding that the government take more action to combat the Mau Mau, and so the Kenyan security forces were placed under the command of the British Army and began to surround the Mau Mau strongholds in the forests. This was accompanied by large-scale eviction of Kikuyu squatters from land that had been selected for European settlers. The government troops adopted a policy of collective punishment, which was again intended to undermine popular support of the Mau Mau. Under this policy, if a member of a village was found to be a Mau Mau supporter, then the entire village was treated as such.[xii] This led to the eviction of many Kikuyu, who were forced to abandon their homes and possessions and sent to areas designated as Kikuyu reserves. A particularly unpleasant element of the eviction policy was the use of concentration camps to process those suspected of Mau Mau involvement. Abuse and torture was commonplace in these camps, as British guards used beatings, sexual abuse and executions to extract information from prisoners and to force them to renounce their allegiance to the anti-colonial cause. The process of mass eviction furthered anger and fear among the Kikuyu who had already suffered through decades of land reallocation, and drove hundreds of squatters to join the Mau Mau fighters in the forest.[xiii].

A British Prison camp in Kenya, 1954. Image source
The uprising escalated further on March 26, when Mau Mau fighters carried out two major attacks. The first was an assault on the Naivasha police station, which resulted in a humiliating defeat for the police and the release of 173 prisoners, many of them Mau Mau, from an adjacent detention camp.[xiv] The second was the massacre of Kikuyu loyalists at Lari, in which at least 97 Kenyans were killed. The incident was used by the government to further characterise the Mau Mau as brutal savages, and no official mention was made of a similar number of Mau Mau prisoners who were machine gunned to death by government troops in the Aberdare forest.[xv] These attacks began a pattern of Mau Mau raids against police and loyalists that continued throughout 1953. The gradual organisation of the rebel forces in the forests created military units, although they were limited by a lack of weapons, supplies and training.

The Defeat of the Mau Mau

The British troops sent to Kenya had little experience of forest fighting, and after a short period of ineffectual engagement they were replaced with units from the Kenyan Army, whilst the British forces instead patrolled the periphery of the forests. British Army planes were also used to drop bombs on Mau Mau camps and strafe the forest with machine guns. Given the thick cover provided by the foliage, this had only a limited military impact, but the lengthy bombing campaign did serve to demoralise the Mau Mau fighters. A series of large scale engagements between the two side occurred during 1953, with the underequipped Mau Mau forces suffering heavy losses. By the end of the year, over 3,000 Mau Mau had been confirmed as killed and 1,000 captured (including Itote), and almost 100,000 alleged Mau Mau supporters had been arrested.[xvi] Despite this, the Mau Mau continued to pose an effective resistance to the colonial regime, persisting with the campaign of attacks on settlers and collaborators, particularly in Nairobi where the Mau Mau had a large, if largely clandestine support base. The British decided to undertake an operation to permanently crush the rebel presence in the city, and so in 1954 the aptly-named Operation Anvil began. Police moved through Nairobi in a brutal sweep, detaining anyone they considered suspicious. Tens of thousands of male Kikuyu were arrested and taken to concentration camps without explaining to them why they had been arrested or what crime they were accused of committing.[xvii] The government also began a policy of ‘villagisation’ – forcing rural Kikuyu to relocate from their traditional scattered homes to newly built villages under the control of the British.

British soldiers hold villagers at gunpoint whilst their homes are searched for evidence of cooperation with the Mau Mau. Image source

By the end of 1954, one million Kikuyu had been driven from their family homes and rehoused in these villages, which were little more than fenced camps and were prone to famine and disease.[xviii] These heavy-handed and ruthless strategies employed in Nairobi and the countryside were effective in cutting off much of the material and logistical support for the forest fighters.

In early 1955, British forces began a series of sweeps through the forests in an attempt to drive out the remaining Mau Mau, who by now were suffering from a lack of food and ammunition. This strategy had a limited effect on the Mau Mau fighters and only a handful were killed, but their position was tenuous enough that the constant disruption further weakened their forces. The government turned out the entire African population of some districts – in one case as many as 70,000 people – to work their way through the forest and kill any Mau Mau they found.[xix] By the end of the year, there were only an estimated 1500 Mau Mau fighters left in the forests, and they were in such a wretched condition that any further organised military campaigns were out of the question. The following year Kimathi, the most important of the remaining Mau Mau commanders, was captured and put on trial. The few fighters that remained were no longer capable of resisting the colonial regime in any meaningful way and instead were occupied with simple survival. This effectively marked the end of the Mau Mau uprising. British troops soon left Kenya, and although the State of Emergency remained in place until 1960, there was little cause for it. According to official government figures, the number of Mau Mau killed was 11,503, but there is little doubt that the true number was significantly higher. In comparison, the number of white civilians killed by Mau Mau attacks – the basis of British propaganda denouncing the uprising – was just 32.

The Effect of the Mau Mau on the Independence Struggle

Despite the defeat of the Mau Mau, the uprising had put Kenya on an inevitable path to independence from colonial rule. There were several reasons for this. The first was that it was made clear to the Kenyan population that the Europeans were far from invincible, and that their rule was more tenuous than previously realised. Consequently, the effective resistance to colonial rule shown by the Mau Mau accelerated the pace of nationalism in Kenya and throughout East Africa.[xx] The actions of the white settler community had demonstrated how fearful they were of indigenous opposition to their land seizures, and divisions emerged between extremists and moderates, weakening the political domination the community previously enjoyed.[xxi] In addition, the brutality shown by the government had been effective in driving a fresh wave of anti-colonialist sentiment in the country.

Also important was the financial impact of the Mau Mau uprising. The British were forced to spend a tremendous amount of money to combat the rebels, and with the lacklustre British economy still suffering from the effects of the Second World War, this expenditure doubtless sapped the British will to continue maintaining their colonial ambitions in the face of such determined opposition. In addition, the organised approach taken by the Mau Mau and the difficulties they posed for British troops challenged European assertions that Kenyan nationalists were incapable of effectively challenging colonial rule.

Perhaps the greatest impact that the Mau Mau uprising had on the struggle for Kenya’s independence was its role in politicising and mobilising the agrarian sectors, and shaping their political awareness and economic thinking.[xxii] By awakening this key section of Kenyan society to the damage and repression caused by colonial rule, the Mau Mau set in motion a popular movement for independence that captured the national consciousness of the economically disenfranchised Kenyan people like never before.

Author: Abu Bakarr Jalloh

Abu Bakarr Jalloh is a Sierra Leonean content writer, author, Neo Pan-African and founder of The African Dream, an online platform for inspiring, positive and compelling African stories. Contact: WhatsApp: +23276211583