Britain invaded Eastern Africa in multiple stages in the last years of the nineteenth-century. They conquered many different peoples and destroyed traditional societies which had existed for centuries.
The territory between the Indian Ocean and Lake Victoria was soon named Kenya. To maximise British profits, several thousand white settlers were invited by the new colonial government and granted land and trading licences. The settlers concentrated in the fertile central highlands.
They displaced tens of thousands of indigenous Kenyans, especially the largest ethnic group, the Gikuyu. They were pushed into so-called ‘Reserves’ and barred from owning land in the white areas. Many Gikuyu lived and worked on white-owned farms, or migrated to the capital Nairobi, where many lived impoverished and hazardous lives.
Unsurprisingly then, it was among the Gikuyu (as well as the closely related Embu and Meru groups) that organised resistance to colonial rule began. From the 1920s they protested land seizures, racist policies, an education system run by Christian missions, and other impositions, such as the attempted prohibition of female circumcision.
Captured Mau Mau suspect
Members of a British Army patrol search a captured Mau Mau suspect.
During the Second World War many black Kenyans served in the British Army, especially in the Southeast Asian theatre. This raised expectations of being rewarded for loyal service and they were also inspired by the Indian nationalist movement. From the end of the war, anger increased as racist policies continued and Africans were refused political representation. Moderate political activism was centred on the Kenya African Union, led by the British-educated Jomo Kenyatta.
However, several more radical anti-colonial activists were disillusioned by the failure of the colonial government to make any concessions. They attempted to unify the Gikuyu, Embu and Meru using traditional oaths, which swore the participants to secrecy. Several individuals from other ethnic communities also joined. At first this group had no unifying name, but over the course of the early 1950s came to be known as Mau Mau. By 1952, they had oathed upwards of ninety percent of the Gikuyu, Embu and Meru.
This organised secret society began to seriously worry the colonial state when they were linked to attacks and murders of Gikuyu loyal to the government. This group, known as Loyalists, included colonial Chiefs, many mission-educated Gikuyu and traditional elders.
This crescendo of local violence within the community came to a head when a formal ‘state of emergency’ was declared by the Governor Evelyn Baring in October 1952. Leading members of the Mau Mau organisation, as well as KAU leaders like Jomo Kenyatta, were detained by the authorities.
In the jungle in Kenya
British Army soldiers in the jungle in Kenya during the Mau Mau uprising in 1952 or 1953.
Only after the Emergency was declared did Mau Mau, as an armed insurgency, seriously begin. Several thousand oathed Gikuyu, Embu and Meru took to the forests of Mount Kenya and the Aberdares to protect themselves from arrest and attack the bases of colonial power in the Reserves.
They were soon joined by thousands more who had been evicted by white settlers from farms where they had been working, sometimes for generations. In their attacks, Mau Mau relied on home-made firearms and traditional weaponry or tried to steal precision weapons from settler farms.
To suppress this insurgency the government brought in regular units from Britain, beginning with the Lancashire Fusiliers. However, the bulk of regular British units in Kenya remained African, most especially the King’s African Rifles (including the future Ugandan President Idi Amin). The bulk of the early conflict was centred on so-called ‘Home Guard’ posts in the Reserves, as Mau Mau ‘gangs’ attacked the fortified bases built by the colonial administration to protect their supporters.
Mau Mau improvised firearms
These rudimentary firearms were constructed in improvised factories in the forests by dedicated Mau Mau craftsmen. They were built with very rudimentary equipment like irrigation piping. While of dubious use as weapons of war, they were also prestigious items that cemented guerrilla’s authority as the armed wing of an anti-colonial political movement for ‘land and freedom’.
This local conflict culminated in the attack on the village of Lari in March 1953. There, Mau Mau killed around 75 civilians to terrify the supporters of loyalist Chief Luka. Afterwards, at least twice as many civilians were killed by Home Guards in reprisal attacks.
Loyalist Gikuyu, members of a pseudo-gang tracking down Mau Mau insurgents. The work of pseudo- or counter-gangs included impersonating Mau Mau to track down the remaining guerrillas in the latter years of the Emergency.
Protecting the loyalists and controlling the so-called 'Passive Wing’, civilian supporters of the Mau Mau, meant the colonial state initiated a massive program of villagisation. This involved uprooting over a million Gikuyu, Embu and Meru into new villages.
Here they could be supervised and controlled by colonial officers and loyalists. Life was especially hard for women and children, subjected to daily back-breaking forced labour and everyday violence in the villages surrounded by barbed wire.
Taken by Major William Wilkinson, our collections image shows an Emergency Village during the Emergency, to concentrate the Gikuyu population. The houses are geometrically spaced and surrounded by stakes, supposedly to keep out Mau Mau searching for food, but also to keep the population confined.
In the forests, large-scale sweeps by British forces took place in the Aberdare and Mount Kenya areas from 1954 to 1956. While successful due to their use of much more advanced weaponry, including bombing raids by the RAF, they were faced by an elaborate organisation. Mau Mau attempted to develop an alternative Government to the British colonial state.
They codified disciplinary rules and had a sophisticated communication system with post-boxes and messengers. However, facing military defeats, the organisation began to crumble from 1955. Many Mau Mau independently accepted surrender offers and ended up joining so-called pseudo-gangs.
These were small groups of former Mau Mau, who led British troops to their old bases. In 1956, the British captured, tried and hanged the most prominent Mau Mau leader, Dedan Kimathi. Thereafter, the ‘shooting war’ was effectively over.
Mau Mau handstamp
This document stamp bears a depiction of Mount Kenya (spiritual centre of Gikuyu culture) with traditional weapons superimposed and text: 'MUTURI NIWE NGO YA RURIRI’. This illustrates how Mau Mau tried to establish an alternative regime by copying items related to bureaucratic government.
'Muturi Niwe Ngo ya Ruriri’ is a Gĩkũyũ proverb, literally meaning 'A Blacksmith is the shield of the tribe'. In the context of the Mau Mau, it would signify the role of blacksmith in producing equipment (including shield, arrows, and improvised firearms) to protect the community against the colonial army.
Alongside villagisation and the war in the forest, tens of thousands of Kenyan men and women were detained for alleged Mau Mau support. While this began from 1952, numbers of detainees escalated with ‘Operation Anvil’. Nairobi was emptied of Gikuyu, Embu and Meru who were all systematically ‘screened’ (interrogated) and tens of thousands sent into detention.
For the next few years these men and women were passed around a network of dozens of detention camps in which torture, forced labour and isolation were regular occurrences. Those deemed ‘irreconcilable’ were exiled to far-flung corners of the colony, for example at Hola. There, eleven detainees were beaten to death in March 1959; a scandal that played a key role in ending the emergency and pushing Kenya towards eventual independence.
During his time as a detainee at Karatina Works Camp in Kenya, Simon Peter Ngatia Macheria (also known as 'Lieutenant General Dr Russia'), wrote letters, dated September 1956, concerning his treatment by the camp authorities.
To ‘rehabilitate’ the tens of thousands of detainees in the camps the Emergency was extended into 1960. By that time much of Africa was on the way to independence and a non-Gikuyu generation of anti-colonial leaders in Kenya had emerged.
While the numbers remain unclear, it is clear that tens of thousands of Kenyans lost their lives during the Emergency. Many of there were civilians and children who suffered in the villages. Within a few years the remaining Mau Mau detainees had been released after political pressure, including in Britain. Kenya itself would become independent in 1963, under the Presidency of Jomo Kenyatta, the KAU leader who had been accused of leading Mau Mau. Most Mau Mau felt they were not rewarded for their struggle for independence, as Kenyatta preached a doctrine of ‘forgetting the past’. Many loyalists remained in powerful positions in government.
Only in recent years this has begun to change, for example with the 2011 court case by former Mau Mau detainees in the British courts, alleging torture. This led to the British paying compensation and a formal apology by the then-Foreign Secretary, William Hague.