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The Mau Mau Uprising was an insurgency by Kenyan rebels against the British colonial administration from 1952 to 1960. While the Uprising failed, it created a rift between the white settler community in Kenya and Home Office in London that set the stage for Kenyan independence a dozen years later. It is sometimes referred to as the Mau Mau Rebellion or the Mau Mau Revolt.
Mau Mau is a word of uncertain provenance. There is disagreement among sources as to whether it is an actual word, while some claim that it is the name of a range of hills and others claim that it was created by British settlers to demean the rebels and simplify the complicated organizational structure of the insurgents. Mau Mau may be an acronym of sorts: Mzungu Aende Ulaya — Mwafrika Apate Uhuru. This Swahili phrase translates in English to, "Let the white man go back abroad so the African can get his independence." Members of the Kikuyu tribe formed the core of the resistance along with smaller numbers of Embu and Meru, but the Kikuyu did not call the rebel movement Mau Mau. It was known to them variously as "Muingi/The Movement", "Muigwithania/The Unifier", "Muma wa Uiguano/The Oath of Unity" or simply "The KCA", after the Kikuyu Central Association that created the impetus for the insurgency.
Origins of the Mau Mau uprising
The Uprising occurred as a result of long simmering economic tensions coupled with the apparent lack of peaceful political solutions.
Economic deprivation of the Kikuyu
For several decades prior to the eruption of conflict the occupation of land by European settlers had been an increasingly bitter point of contention. Most of the land appropriated was in the central highlands of Kenya, which had a cool climate compared to the rest of the country but were also inhabited primarily by the Kikuyu tribe. By 1948, one and a quarter million Kikuyu were restricted to 2000 square miles (5,200 km²), while 30,000 settlers occupied 12,000 square miles (31,000 km²). The most desirable agricultural land was almost entirely in the hands of settlers.
During the course of the colonial period, settlers allowed about 120,000 Kikuyu to farm a patch of land on European farms in exchange for their labour. They were, in effect, tenant farmers who had no actual rights to the land they had squatted and worked. Between 1938 and 1946, settlers steadily demanded more days of labour for access to less land. It has been estimated that the real income of Kikuyu squatters fell by 30 to 40 percent during this period, and fell even more sharply during the late 1940s. This effort by settlers, which was essentially an attempt to turn the tenant farmers into agricultural labourers, engendered a bitter hatred of the white settlers among the squatters, who would later form the core of the highland Uprising.
As a result of the miserable situation in the highlands thousands of Kikuyu migrated into cities in search of work, contributing to the doubling of Nairobi's population between 1938 and 1952. At the same time, a class of Kikuyu landowners who consolidated Kikuyu lands and forged strong ties with the colonial administration was growing, leading to an economic rift within the Kikuyu. By 1953, almost half of all Kikuyus had no land claims at all. The result of this process was worsening poverty and unemployment, coupled with overpopulation. The economic bifurcation of the Kikuyu set the stage for what was essentially a civil war within the Kikuyu during the Mau Mau Revolt.
The KCA begins to organize the central highlands
While historical details remain elusive, sometime in the late 1940s the General Council of the banned Kikuyu Central Association (KCA) began to make preparations for a campaign of civil disobedience involving all of the Kikuyu in order to protest the land issue. The members of this initiative were bound together through oath rituals that were traditional among the Kikuyu and neighboring tribes. Those taking such oaths often believed that breaking them would result in death by supernatural forces.
The binding oaths were the focus of much speculation and gossip by settlers. There were stories about ritual cannibalism, zoophilia and necrophilia with goats, sexual orgies, ritual places that were decorated with intestines and goat eyes, and that oaths included promise to kill, dismember and burn settlers. While many of these stories were certainly wild exaggerations that helped convince the British government to send assistance to the settlers, the oath rituals often included animal sacrifice or the ingestion of blood and would certainly have seemed bizarre to the settlers. While later rituals obliged the oath taker to fight and kill Europeans, the original KCA oaths limited themselves to civil disobedience.
The East African Trades Union Congress
While the KCA continued its oath rituals and creation of secret committees throughout the so-called White Highlands, the center of the resistance moved towards the still-forming trade union movement in Nairobi. On 1 May 1949, six trade unions formed the East African Trades Union Congress (EATUC). In early 1950 the EATUC ran a campaign to boycott the celebrations over the granting of a Royal Charter to Nairobi, because of the undemocratic white-controlled council that ran the city. The campaign proved a great embarrassment to the colonial government. It also led to violent clashes between African radicals and loyalists.
Following a demand for Kenyan independence on 1 May 1950, the leadership of the EATUC was arrested. On 16 May, the remaining EATUC officers called for a general strike that paralyzed Nairobi for nine days and was broken only after 300 workers had been arrested and the British authorities made a show of overwhelming military force. The strike spread to other cities and may have involved 100,000 workers; Mombasa was paralyzed for two days. Nevertheless, the strike ultimately failed and the EATUC soon collapsed after its senior leadership was imprisoned.
The "Forty Group"
Following this setback, the remaining union leaders focused their efforts on the KCA oath campaign to set the basis for further action. They joined with the "Forty Group", which was a roughly cohesive group mostly comprised of African ex-servicemen circumcised in 1940 that included a broad spectrum of Nairobi from petty crooks to trade unionists. In contrast to the oaths used in the highlands, the oaths given by the Forty Group clearly foresaw a revolutionary movement dedicated to the violent overthrow of colonial rule. Sympathizers collected funds and even acquired ammunition and guns by various means.
The closing of political options
In May 1951, the British Colonial Secretary, James Griffith , visited Kenya, where the Kenya Africa Union (KAU) presented him with a list of demands ranging from the removal of discriminatory legislation to the inclusion of 12 elected black representatives on the Legislative Council that governed the colony's affairs. It appears that the settlers were not willing to give in completely, but expected Westminster to force some concessions. Instead, Griffith ignored the KAU's demands and proposed a Legislative Council in which the 30,000 white settlers received 14 representatives, the 100,000 Asians (mostly from South Asia) got six, the 24,000 Arabs one, and the five million Africans five representatives to be nominated by the government. This proposal removed the last African hopes that a fair and peaceful solution to their grievances was possible.
The KAU and the Central Committee
In June 1951, the urban radicals captured control of the formerly loyalist Nairobi KAU by packing KAU meetings with trade union members. They then created a secret Central Committee to organize the oath campaign throughout Nairobi. The Central Committee quickly formed armed squads to enforce its policies, protect members from the police, and kill informers and collaborators.
In November 1951 the Nairobi radicals attempted to take control of the national KAU at a countrywide conference, but were outmaneuvered by Jomo Kenyatta, who secured the election for himself. Nevertheless, pressure from the radicals forced the KAU to adopt a pro-independence position for the first time.
The Central Committee also began to extend its oath campaign outside of Nairobi. Their stance of active resistance won them many adherents in committees throughout the White Highlands and the Kikuyu reserves. As a result, the KCA's influence steadily fell until by the start of the actual Uprising it had authority only in Kiambu District. Central Committee activists grew bolder - often killing opponents in broad daylight. The houses of Europeans was set on fire and their livestock hamstrung. These warning signs were ignored by the Governor, Sir Philip Mitchell , who was only months away from retirement, and Mau Mau activities were not checked.
The first reaction against the resistance
In June 1952, Henry Potter replaced Sir Mitchell as Acting Governor. A month later he was informed by the colonial police that a Mau Mau plan for rebellion was in the works. Collective fines and punishments were levied on particularly unstable areas, oath givers were arrested and loyalist Kikuyu were encouraged to denounce the resistance. Several times in mid-1952 Jomo Kenyatta, who would go on to become the Kenya's first President, gave in to the pressure and gave speeches attacking the Mau Mau. This prompted the creation of at least two plots within the Nairobi Central Committee to assassinate Kenyatta as British collaborator before he was saved through his eventual arrest by the colonial authorities, who believed that Kenyatta was the head of the resistance.
On 17 August 1952, the Colonial Office in London received its first indication of the seriousness of the rebellion in a report from Acting Governor Potter. On 6 October, Sir Evelyn Baring arrived in Kenya to take over the post of Governor. Quickly realizing that he had a serious problem, on 20 October 1952 Governor Baring declared a State of Emergency. For the remainder of the revolt, members of the security forces would use torture not only to extract information but to terrorize the population.
State of Emergency
On the same day as the Emergency was declared, troops and police arrested nearly 100 Kikuyu leaders, including Jomo Kenyatta, in an operation named Jock Scott. Up to 8,000 people were arrested during the first 25 days of the operation. It was thought that Operation Jock Scott would decapitate the rebel leadership and that the Emergency would be lifted in several weeks. The amount of violence increased, however; two weeks after the declaration of the Emergency the first European was killed.
While much of the senior leadership of the Nairobi Central Committee was arrested, the organization was already too well entrenched to be uprooted by the mass arrests. Local rebel committees took uncoordinated decisions to strike back over the next few weeks and there was an abrupt rise in the destruction of European property and attacks on loyalists. Also, a section of settlers had treated the declaration of Emergency as a license to carry out beatings, forced confessions and summary executions against Kikuyu, inspiring both fear and hatred.
British military presence
One battalion of the Lancashire Fusiliers was flown from the Middle East to Nairobi the first day of Operation Jock Scott. The 2nd Battalion of the King's African Rifles, already in Kenya, was reinforced with one battalion from Uganda and two companies from Tanganyika, part of current day Tanzania. The Royal Air Force sent pilots. The cruiser Kenya came to Mombasa harbor carrying Royal Marines. During the course of the conflict other British units such as the Royal Highland Regiment served for a short time. The British fielded 55,000 troops in total over the course of the conflict.
Initially British forces had little reliable intelligence on the strength and structure of the Mau Mau resistance. Senior British officers thought that the Mau Mau Uprising was a sideshow compared to the Malayan Emergency. Over the course of the conflict some soldiers either could not or would not differentiate between Mau Mau and non-combatants, and reportedly shot innocent Kenyans. Many soldiers were reported to have collected severed rebel hands for an unofficial 5-shilling bounty.
The Council of Freedom declares war
By January 1953, the Nairobi Central Committee had reconstituted its senior ranks and renamed itself the Council of Freedom. In a meeting it was decided to launch a war of liberation. In contrast to other liberation movements of the time, the urban Kenyan revolt was dominated by the blue collar class and lacked a socialist element. The network of secret committees was to be reorganized into the Passive Wing, and tasked with supplying weapons, ammunition, food, money, intelligence and recruits to the Active Wing, also known as the Land and Freedom Armies or, less accurately, the Land Army. The Land and Freedom Armies, named after the two issues that the Kikuyu felt were most important, were mostly equipped with spears, simis (longswords), kibokos (rhino hide whips) and pangas (a type of machete made of soft iron). The panga, a common agricultural tool, was most widely used. Some rebels also tried to make their own guns, to add to the 460 they already possessed, but many of the homemade guns exploded when fired.
This declaration may be seen as a strategic mistake that the Council of Freedom was pushed into by its more aggressive members. The resistance did not have a national strategy for victory, had no cadres trained in guerrilla warfare, had few modern weapons and no arrangements to get more, and had not spread beyond the tribes of the central highlands most affected by the settler presence. Nevertheless, the lack of large numbers of initial British troops, a high degree of popular support, and the low quality of colonial intelligence gave the Land and Freedom Armies the upper hand for the first half of 1953. Large bands were able to move around their bases in the highland forests of the Aberdare mountain range and Mount Kenya killing collaborators and attacking isolated police and Home Guard posts. Purportedly over 2000 loyalist Kikuyu, often wealthy landowners, were killed. Mau Mau attacked in darkness. They attacked isolated farms, but occasionally also households in suburbs of Nairobi. Only the lack of firearms prevented the rebels from inflicting severe casualties on the police and settler community, which may have altered the eventual outcome of the Uprising.
The Land and Freedom Armies had lookouts and stashes for clothes, weapons and even an armoury. Still they were short of equipment. They used pit traps to defend their hideouts in Mount Kenya forests. The rebels organized themselves with a cell structure but many armed bands also used British military ranks and organizations. They also had their own judges that could hand out fines and other penalties. Associating with non-Mau Mau was punishable by a fine or worse. An average Mau Mau band was about 100 strong. The different leaders of the Land and Freedom Armies rarely coordinated actions, reflecting the lack of cohesion to the entire rebellion. Three of the dominant Active Wing leaders were Stanley Mathenge ; Waruhiu Itote (known as General China), leader of Mount Kenya Mau Mau; and Dedan Kimathi, leader of Mau Mau of Aberdari forest.
Response of the settlers and government
On 24 January 1953 Mau Mau, possibly former servants, killed settlers Mr. and Mrs. Ruck, as well as their 6-year-old son, on their farm with pangas. White settlers reacted drastically to the insecurity. Many of them were upper middle class, and dismissed all of their Kikuyu servants because of fear that they could be Mau Mau sympathizers. Settlers, including women, armed themselves with any weapon they could find or smuggle, and in some cases built full-scale forts on their farms. Many white settlers also joined auxiliary units like the Kenya Police Reserve (which included an active air wing), and the Kenya Regiment , a territorial army militia regiment.
British colonial officials were also suspicious of the Kikuyu and took measures. They apparently initially thought the Kikuyu Central Association was the political wing of the resistance. They made carrying a gun and associating with Mau Mau a capital offence. In May 1953 the Kikuyu Home Guard became an official part of the security forces. It became the significant part of the anti-Mau Mau effort. Many were members of allied tribes or Africans converted to Christianity. They organized their own espionage network and made punitive raids to areas that were suspected of harboring or supporting Mau Mau.
The Lari massacre
On 25 March–26 March, 1953 nearly 3000 rebels attacked the loyalist village of Lari , where about seventy non-combatants were hacked to death. Most of them were the wives and children of Kikuyu Home Guards serving elsewhere. This raid was widely reported in the British media, contributing greatly to the stereotype of the Mau Mau as bloodthirsty savages. In the weeks that followed, hundreds of suspected rebels were summarily executed by police and loyalist Home Guards.
The urban resistance spreads
In April 1953, a Kamba Central Committee was formed. The Kamba rebels were all railwaymen and effectively controlled the railway workforce, and the Kamba were also the core of African units in the Army and Police. At the same time rebel Masai bands became active in Narok district before being crushed by soldiers and police who were tasked with preventing a further spread of the rebellion.
Despite a police roundup in April 1953, the Nairobi committees organized by the Council of Freedom continued to provide badly needed supplies and recruits to the Land and Freedom Armies operating in the central highlands.
Realizing that the blue collar unions were a hotbed of rebel activity, the colonial government created the Kenya Federation of Registered Trade Unions (KFRTU) for white collar unions as a moderating influence. By the end of 1953, it had gained a Luo general secretary who was a nationalist, but also opposed the revolt. Early in 1954 the KFRTU undermined a general strike that was called by the Central Committee.
The British gain the initiative
In June 1953 General Sir George Erskine arrived and took up the post of Director of Operations, where he revitalized the British effort. A military draft brought in 20,000 troops who were used aggressively. The Kikuyu reserves were designated "Special Areas", where anyone failing to halt when challenged could be shot. This was often used as an excuse for the shooting of suspects. The Aberdares Range and Mount Kenya were declared "Prohibited Areas", within which Africans would be shot on sight. The colonial government created so-called pseudo-gangs composed of de-oathed and turned ex-Mau Mau and allied Africans headed by white officers. They tried to infiltrate Mau Mau ranks and made search and destroy missions. Pseudo-gangs also included white settler volunteers who even tried to disguise themselves as Africans. In late 1953 security forces swept the Aberdare forest in the Operation Blitz and captured and killed 125 guerrillas. Despite such large-scale offensive operations, the British found themselves unable to stem the tide of insurgency.
Targeting the suppliers
It was not until the British realized the extent of the rebel organization, and the importance of the urban rebel committees and unions, that they gained a strategic success. On 24 April 1954, the Army launched "Operation Anvil" in Nairobi and the city was put under military control. Security forces screened 30,000 Africans and arrested 17,000 on suspicion of complicity, including many people that were later revealed to be innocent. The city remained under military control for the rest of the year. About 15,000 Kikuyu were detained without trial and thousands more were deported to the Kikuyu reserves in the highland. However, the heaviest weight fell on the unions. While the sweep was very inefficient, the sheer number was overwhelming. Entire rebel Passive Wing leadership structures, including the Council for Freedom, were swept away to detention camps and the most important source of supplies and recruits for the resistance evaporated.
Having cleared Nairobi, the authorities repeated the exercise in other areas so that by the end of 1954 there were 77,000 Kikuyu in detention camps. About 100,000 Kikuyu squatters were deported back to the reserves. In June 1954, a policy of compulsory villagization was started in the reserves to allow more effective control and surveillance. When the program reached completion in October 1955, 1,077,500 Kikuyu had been resettled in 854 villages.
The beginning of the end
The inability of the rebels to protect their supply sources marked the beginning of the end. The Passive Wing in the cities had disintegrated under the roundups and the rural Passive Wing was in state of siege on the central highlands and reserves. Forced to spend all their energy to survive, and cut off from sources of new recruits, the Land and Freedom Armies withered.
In 1953 some 15,000 Mau Mau guerrillas were at large. In January 1954 the King's African Rifles began Operation Hammer. They combed the forests of Aberdare mountains but met very little resistance, most guerrillas had already left. Eventually the operation was moved to Mount Kenya area. There they captured 5,500 guerrillas and killed 24 of 51 band leaders. The Mau Mau were forced deeper into forest. By September 1956, only about 500 rebels remained.
Later in 1955, amnesty was declared. It both absolved Home Guard members from prosecution and gave rebel soldiers a chance to surrender. Peace talks with the rebels collapsed on May 20, 1955 and the Army begun its final offensive against Aberdare. Pseudo-gangs were used heavily in the operation, though by this time Mau Mau were practically out of ammunition.
The last Mau Mau leader, Dedan Kimathi, was captured by Kikuyu pseudo-gang police on October 21, 1956 in Nyeri with 13 remaining guerrillas, and was subsequently hanged in early 1957. His capture marked the effective end of the Uprising, though the Emergency remained in effect until January 1960.
Political and social concessions by the British
Despite the fact that the British military had won a clear victory, Kenyans had been granted nearly all of the demands made by the KAU in 1951 as the carrot to the military's stick. In June 1956, a program of land reform consolidated the land holdings of the Kikuyu with the aim of dividing the Kikuyu into middle-class land owners and landless laborers, thereby expanding the number of Kikuyu allied with the colonial government. This was coupled with an relaxation of the ban on Africans growing coffee, a primary cash crop, leading to a drastic rise in the income of small farmers over the next ten years.
In the cities the colonial authorities decided to dispel tensions after Operation Anvil by raising urban wages, thereby strengthening the hand of moderate union organizations like the KFRTU. By 1956, the British had granted direct election of African members of the Legislative Assembly, followed shortly thereafter by an increase in the number of African seats to fourteen. A Parliamentary conference in January 1960 indicated that the British would accept "one person-one vote" majority rule.
These political measures were taken to end the instability of the Uprising by appeasing Africans both in the cities and country and encouraging the creation of a stable African middle class, but also required the abandonment of settler interests. This was possible because while the settlers dominated the colony politically, they owned less than 20% of the assets invested in Kenya. The remainder belonged to various corporations who were willing to deal with an African majority government as long as the security situation stabilized. The choice that the authorities in London faced was between an unstable colony, which was costing a fortune in military expenses, run by settlers who contributed little to the economic growth of the Empire, or a stable colony run by Africans that contributed to the coffers of the Empire. The latter option was the one, in effect, taken..
The official number of rebels killed is 11,503 but estimates of the actual number, which include those that died of their wounds or were killed extralegally by security forces or settlers, go as high as 50,000. 63 British soldiers and police, 3 Asians and 524 loyalist Africans were killed. Despite the predominant image of primitive rebels savaging defenseless white settlers during the Uprising, a total of 32 settlers were killed, less than the number of settlers who died in traffic accidents in Nairobi over the same period.
Of particular note is the number of executions authorized by the courts. In the first eight months of the Emergency only 35 rebels were hanged, but by November 1954 756 had been hanged, 508 for offenses less than murder. By the end of 1954 over 900 rebels and rebel sympathizers had been hanged, and by the end of the Emergency the total was over 1,000. In comparison, during the Zionist rebellion in Palestine the British had hanged a total of eight guerrillas.
- Anderson, David, Histories of the Hanged: The Dirty War in Kenya and the End of Empire, ISBN 0393059863
- Elkins, Caroline, Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of the End of Empire in Kenya, ISBN 0805076530 (in Britain published as Britain's Gulag: The Brutal End of Empire in Kenya, ISBN 022407363X)