Mau Mau Rebellion
1950 – 1963
In the late 1800s, the British presence was still relatively new to the Kenyans and the tribes functioned independently so they responded differently to the encroaching British colonists. Some groups were welcoming while others were skeptical and even confrontational. The British on the other hand were very willing to utilize force to control the Africans. Random shootings and execution campaigns were carried out to terrorize the locals. And Africans who collaborated with the British were granted not just protection but also power and resources.
As in South Africa, when the colonists began to settle in the area, they pushed Africans off the land which they then claimed for themselves. No longer relying solely on violence, laws were then introduced to further transfer the ownership of fertile land to colonists. The Crown Lands Ordinance Act of 1915 dropped all pretense and stripped native Africans of their land rights.
By the 1940s, Kenya was overrun by Europeans who had arrived in waves following each of the world wars as well as Indians who had initially come to Africa to work on various construction projects. Most Europeans and Indians lived relatively comfortable lives with some enjoying great wealth in Nairobi. Throughout the country, huge tracts of land were owned by a few thousand European families.
Meanwhile, a sizable portion of the native Kenyan population was struggling to survive. They were treated as second-class citizens in their own country with few opportunities or basic rights. Though forming the majority of the population, Kenyans were relegated to overcrowded slums located on the outskirts of Nairobi. And rural Kenyans were forced to live on reserves.
In 1942, the Kenyan African Union (KAU) was formed and within a few years, Jomo Kenyatta and other members were advocating for reform. But, frustrated by the lack of progress, militant activists within the KAU formed a secret society called the Mau Mau. Due to its secrecy, exact details about the group’s founding are unclear.
On a basic level, by 1950 the Kikuyu tribe’s population was estimated at over one million making them Kenya’s largest ethnic group. Dating back to early colonialism, this was one of the groups that had been targeted by the British execution campaigns. They suffered greatly under colonialism and had lost large amounts of their ancestral lands. Rumors began to emerge about secret meetings in the forests on Nairobi’s outskirts. Members of the Kikuyu tribe and later members of other ethnic groups joined together and made pledges to drive out the colonists.
Things came to a head in the second half of 1952 when the homes of Africans who refused to join the Mau Mau became the targets of arsonists and a senior chief was assassinated after criticizing Mau Mau tactics. The government declared a state of emergency and British troops were deployed to help maintain control. Over the next few months, various strategies would be used to arrest those who were suspected of being Mau Mau activists and led to the arrest of Kenyatta.
The Mau Mau were not yet prepared to directly engage the government and colonial powers but launched their rebellion shortly after the arrest of Kenyatta. Waging what amounted to guerilla war, the Mau Mau were primarily young men and the poor who had been robbed of their land and left destitute. The Mau Mau was a loosely formed movement that did not have any centralized leadership or external allies. They were poorly equipped for a fight against the local and colonial military establishment but were still committed to fighting no matter the odds.
Attempts were made to have one of the captured Mau Mau generals write letters to persuade the other leaders to stop fighting. The scheme didn’t work and the fighting continued. At one point the colonial governor offered a reduced sentence of imprisonment instead of the death penalty to any Mau Mau who turned themselves in. Yet the Mau Mau continued their activities and the offer was eventually withdrawn.
The Mau Mau were overpowered militarily but also because so many of the activists were illiterate they were unable to print and distribute any kind of literature about the movement. This allowed the government to spin the situation and misrepresent the movement as desperate acts committed by ignorant Africans who were unable to adapt to civilization. By downplaying the economic realities that were the true causes of the conflict, the government was able to scapegoat the Mau Mau and paint them as savages.
Beyond crushing the uprising, the government propaganda extended to re-education programs of sorts that were meant to get captured Mau Mau to leave the movement. Efforts were made to bring the Kikuyu in particular into the fold through outreach at prison camps and the reservations. Kenyans who had remained loyal to the colonialist powers were rewarded and received government backing.
While the Mau Mau Rebellion did not overthrow the government or force colonial powers out of the area it did bring about some change. The Mau Mau were badly beaten but their willingness to fight showed that the Europeans did not have absolute control over the area and could be touched. Tactics used in the fight in comparison to the damage caused by the Mau Mau seemed overboard and increased support for anti-colonialism. Likewise, back in Britain, the general public was not happy about having to finance the military support needed to maintain colonies.
The outlaw of African political parties was lifted in 1955 and the state of emergency ended in November 1959. During the conflict, an estimated 70-100,000+ suspected Mau Mau were arrested while an estimated 10-13,000 were killed. African leaders negotiated the release of Kenyatta and he became the country’s first president when it gained its independence in 1963.
- Bilow, Ali. 2019. “Mau Mau (1952-1960).” Blackpast.org. September 3, 2019. https://www.blackpast.org/global-african-history/mau-mau-1952-1960/.
- Boddy-Evans, Alistair. 2019. “What Caused the Mau Mau Rebellion in Kenya?” ThoughtCo. November 18, 2019. https://www.thoughtco.com/timeline-mau-mau-rebellion-44230.
- “The Mau Mau Uprising.” n.d. South African History Online. Accessed January 28, 2021. https://www.sahistory.org.za/article/mau-mau-uprising.
- “Mau Mau Uprising: Bloody History of Kenya Conflict.” 2011. BBC News. BBC. April 7, 2011. https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-12997138.
- “Mau Mau.” 2021. Encyclopedia.com. January 12, 2021. https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/asia-and-africa/african-history/mau-mau.
- Patrice Lumumba
- A Brief History of Colonists in South Africa
- Apartheid in South Africa
- Walter Sisulu
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Awesome to see! Any good things to read or listen on ancient Kenya and medieval Kenya? Would love to learn more about pre-European contact time. Thanks for the great work