In 1895, the British Government formed the British East African Protectorate over what are now the independent countries of Kenya and Uganda. What was to become Kenya was populated by a number of different African peoples with their own languages and cultures. Officially British rule was only justified because it existed to protect
the rights of the “natives” from exploitation. In reality there were
many British people who saw the potential to create a profitable way
of life for themselves, largely at African expense.
In 1901, a large railway was built across the country. One of its
stations eventually became the capital city of Nairobi. To make the railway worthwhile, its British investors decided to attract European settlers with ridiculously cheap tracts of fertile land, confiscated from Africans. These new British and white South African settlers employed Africans to work the land for them and allowed them to farm on their estates as squatters with no land rights. The settlers also relied on Indians from the British Indian Empire to run shops and provide other services for them. The relationship between the small numbers of European settlers and the British Government was usually difficult. The settlers were anxious to defend their privileges against Indians
and Africans alike and tried to force British governments to always
side with themselves.
In 1920, part of the protectorate was turned into the British Crown Colony of Kenya with its own governor. This gave greater power to
the European settlers. Laws were introduced forcing Africans to carry identity passes and both they and Indians were banned from post offices, hospitals, schools, cinemas, railways, hotels etc... There were also separate toilets based on skin colour. Ony Europeans could vote.
Many settlers lived an extravagant and idle existence, notorious
around the world for their drinking, parties and love affairs.
In the meantime, Africans continue to lose land. The settlers, afraid
that the squatters on their estates might start to claim land rights,
tried to force more African farmers off their land. By 1945 some 3,000 European settlers owned 43,000 square kilometres of the best land, of which they only cultivated 6%. This contrasts with the over five
million Africans who owned less than 135,000 square kilometres of the poorest land. The oppression of the African population and the blatant inequality of land ownership convinced some Africans to resist British rule. The politicians of the Kenya Africa National Union sought to achieve this through peaceful means but others, particularly the poor and landless sought to change things through violence.
1952-1953: The most resistance came from the important Kikuyu people. A secret organisation called the Land Freedom Army grew in its support, sometimes by forcing kikuyu people to take its fierce oath.
A former supporter Jacob Njanji recalled “We swore we would not let white men rule us forever. We would fight them even down to our last man, so that man could live in freedom”.
The importance of the oath was reinforced by it being part of a ceremony which used traditional African religion. This might include taking seven bites from the heart and lungs of a goat and then drinking a potion which included its blood. The oathtakers (known as the Mau Mau - a phrase with no clear meaning) were prepared to use ruthless violence against British rule, and particularly against Africans who co-operated with the British. On 7th October 1952, the pro-British Chief Waruhuri was assassinated after speaking out against the rebels. Faced with increasing but so far random violence, the British declared a state of emergency on 21st Oct 1952.
It is possible that the emergency itself actually converted the rebels into a proper guerrilla army. The leaders of the peaceful Kenyan African National Union were arrested and found guilty of being
secret leaders of the rebellion although this was untrue.
The Mau Mau movement was divided into two wings, the Land Freedom Army which organised acts of violence and the Passive
Wing which supplied fighters with food, money, recruits and information (intelligence). Although the British Governor requested and got British troops (e.g. the 1st Lancashire Fusiliers from the Suez Canal Zone) and African forces (the King`s African Rifles from
Uganda and Tanganyika) to enforce the emergency, he had no clear strategy for defeating the Mau Mau. On January 24th 1953, settler and British opinion were deeply shocked by the murder of a popular young settler family. Mr and Mrs Rudd were hacked to death on the lawn of their farmhouse by previously trusted African servants. Their terrified six year old son was also killed in his bedroom. Angry and fearful settlers stormed government buildings in Nairobi demanding action.
In March 1953, the Mau Mau attacked the African village of Lari
which was loyal to the British, burning its huts and murdering over a hundred people including women and children. It is said that twice as many Mau Mau sympathisers were murdered in retaliation by government supporters.
In May 1953, British Prime Minister, Sir Winston Churchill appointed General Sir George Erskine to lead operations. The British campaign against the Mau Mau grew tougher. There were reports of an
unofficial reward of five shillings for the severed hand of each dead rebel given in. Troops harassed the population, arresting and deporting suspected Kikuyu. Suspects were paraded before hooded government supporters for identification. The beating and sometimes torture of suspects was allowed. This could include beatings, electric shocks, burnings, near drownings and sexual abuse. The Governor,
Sir Evelyn Baring ordered construction of a mobile gallows which toured Kenya, hanging those considered guilty. Bodies were exhibited as a warning in public places. The use of ruthless interrogation with additional information from the loyal Kenyan Home Guard and confessions from captured guerrillas improved British knowledge of their enemy but the Mau Mau remained undefeated by the end of 1953 with its structure still a mystery.
A turning point in the war came on Jan 15th 1954, when the British captured Warahui Itote, a Mau Mau leader codenamed General China. After 68 hours of continuous interrogation he revealed that the Mau Mau were supplied by a Passive Wing, that they grew no food in their forest hideouts and were running short of ammunition. Itote helped set up three months of negotiations between the government and the
Mau Mau but the lull in fighting helped the government collect valuable intelligence. Three days after the collapse of talks, over a thousand Mau Mau supporters were arrested, particularly from the Passive Wing.
In April 1954, Erskine launched Operation Anvil. Troops surrounded the capital Nairobi preventing rebel supplies getting into the city.
The population were screened and over 20,000 alleged Mau Mau supporters including Kikuyu women and children were deported to special camps. By the end of 1954 around 70, 000 africans were
detained or confined in over 50 camps. An area of countryside
normally controlled by the Mau Mau was cleared of over a million people, some of whose homes were looted and burned by the Home Guard. The people were confined to strictly controlled fortified villages which operated a 23 hour curfew. Corruption and brutality against civilians were common, particularly among the Home Guard.
”Special Forces Teams”, mostly former guerrilas lead by settlers launched ruthless raids against rebel hideouts in the forest.