In the bowels of the Imperial War Museum, or to be specific in a climate-controlled warehouse in Cambridgeshire, one can find a wealth of private papers. Among these are a few dozen typescript pages of storytelling, narrating thirteen months of conflict in colonial Kenya. Sources considering late-colonial wars still overwhelmingly originate from white administrators, but as this article will show, there are items in IWM’s collections that allow for intertwining narratives and a more perceptive understanding of such insurgencies.

These stories take place in the midst of the Mau Mau Uprising, the war that devastated Kenya from 1952 to 1956, one of the most violent episodes in Britain’s retreat from Empire. The conflict pitted insurgents belonging to the Gikuyu tribe, fighting for ‘land and freedom’, against the British colonial administration and Chief-led loyalists. After a violent colonial conquest in the 1890s and traumatised by decades of land seizures and racial injustice, thousands of Kenyans took to the forest, from where they waged a desperate insurgency. While the conflict was marked by mass detentions, the private histories this article recounts, collated by colonial official Willoughby Thompson, concern the conflict in a single district from April 1953 to May 1954. Amongst Thompson’s files are a History of the Kikuyu Guard and A Book of Forest History. The former is a colonial narrative, recounting the heroism of loyalists, while the latter is a remarkable account of the Mau Mau ‘gang’ that Thompson was fighting, who were captured in a raid, and whose own testimony provides a remarkable example of the story as told from the Mau Mau perspective.

© IWM MAU 702, Home Guards serving as trackers for British troops
© IWM MAU 702, Home Guards serving as trackers for British troops

The intertwining narratives reveal how the opposing armies pursued overlapping strategies of memorialisation, staking a claim to the future of Kenya. The colonial state airbrushed Mau Mau’s objectives, depicting it as a bestial cult of tribal psychopaths, but sources like the Forest History reveal more nuanced motives. The loyalist history is equally concerned with historical memory, hoping to show that the conflict was not a racial war, but rather a moral struggle, where the colonists stood alongside Gikuyu loyalists who buttressed ‘Western Christian Civilisation’. Both accounts are in English, the language of colonial administration and mission education in the Colony. This is remarkable because it illustrates how the Mau Mau used their oppressor’s language to validate their claim to statehood, due to English’s perceived respectability and association with wealth and opportunity in Kenya.

These histories thus stake alternative claims, but remarkably do this through references to the same events. The loyalist account of the ‘bloody month of May’ emphasises the heroic efforts of Samuel Githu and Migwe Chege, who, for shooting multiple ‘terrorists’, were given the Queen’s Commendation and George Medal respectively. Decorations illustrate the use of European forms of commemoration, memorialising individuals through bureaucratic procedure and associating heroism with the state. Referring to the same attack in the Forest History, Mbogo Githaiga is remembered for his courage in scaring off a European, armed with a Bren Gun, with only his machete. Mwangi Kibuku is sanctified because he ‘showed [us] how to hide’. The Mau Mau thus go beyond commemorating martial bravery, but also essential guerrilla skills like camouflage. Through these specific inscriptions, the authors hope to create a pantheon of national icons for a post-colonial Kenya.

© IWM BF 10958, Two Gikuyu arrested by security forces
© IWM BF 10958, Two Gikuyu arrested by security forces.

Just as the History stresses entire communities backing the loyalists, the Forest History wishes to specifically memorialise ‘the great help we got from those small boys, girls and all the women’. Both accounts claim the right to speak for all Gikuyu. The loyalists do this through official recognition, while guerrillas do so through recording their state-in-formation. The Forest History recounts in detail how the guerrillas codified rules, elected a Council of Elders, and attended summits with other bands. The proto-state is accompanied by an elaborate military hierarchy, from Sergeants to Field Marshals. Remarkably, while the colonial administration did little to understand the Mau Mau in the context of Gikuyu history, the guerrillas try to place their uprising in the longue durée of British history. For the Mau Mau, ‘the Europeans had taken an oath when they were asking Self-Government from the Romans’ and ‘stayed in the forest for about 120 years’. English history, placed within the Gikuyu idioms of oaths and resistance, legitimises the rebellion through historical narration.

There is also some levity in the histories. The Forest History mentions when ‘Thompson came and our Gen. Kago… started abusing one another’. Thompson himself remembers that when his Land Rover was ambushed, he discovered that ‘General Kago had as great, if not greater command of four-letter words than myself’. His driver had ‘his mission education back several years’. Amidst the brutality, the mutual humanity of both guerrilla General and colonial administrator is revealed.

To conclude, these intertwining narratives reveal how personal histories of conflict can be used to claim legitimacy for the post-war future. In Kenya, loyalist histories stayed hegemonic, with Home Guards reaping the rewards of land reform and Mau Mau excised from national memory. This only makes it more important to discover those subaltern narratives which envisioned an alternative future. Such voices require space within British museums, as they form an essential part of the story of Britain’s past. They are best heard not in isolation, but in mutually reinforcing narratives. Only then can colonial conflict be memorialised honestly and can both Kenyans and Britons begin to deal with late-Empire’s violent legacies.

© IWM MAU 726, Home Guards man a Bren gun whilst on patrol in dense forest © IWM MAU 726, Home Guards man a Bren gun whilst on patrol in dense forest.


Niels Boender

Collaborative Doctoral Partnership Student