Mau Mau Rebellion: History, Major Causes & Effects
Kenya’s location made it an ideal destination for many foreigners throughout history, from Arab to European settlers. However, the advent of colonialism brought large disparities between white settlers and the natives. In the early years of Britain’s colonization of this East African nation, many laws restricted the natives from owning properties, running businesses or improving the quality of their lives.
Scared for their fate and what their lives meant under colonial rule, members of Kenya’s Kikuyu tribe embarked on a movement vastly different from other previous nationalist movements. The Kikuyus were determined to use all means necessary, including violence, to get the rights and benefits they believed they deserved.
The Mau Mau Rebellion was a battle between the Kikuyus and the colonial government that started from 1952. It officially ended in 1960 and placed Kenya on the path to achieving independence.
But how did conditions become so bad for the natives of the land that they had to fight for it? What exactly were the Mau Mau fighting for? And how were the British eventually held accountable for the atrocities they committed in Kenya?
Read on to learn about the Mau Mau Rebellion and the events that caused it.
What’s in the name? Meaning of Mau Mau
No one knows for certain where the term “Mau Mau” originated from, especially since, according to former members of the rebel group, they preferred to call themselves the Kenya Land and Freedom Army (KLFA).
In Fred Madjalany’s book, “State of Emergency: The Full Story of Mau Mau”, he wrote that the term was likely to be an anagram of “Uma Uma”, which loosely translated to “Get out! Get out!” in English. But he also noted that the British might have adopted the term in a bid to reduce or mock the legitimacy of the KLFA at the international level.
Members of the Akamba or Kamba tribe in Kenya also believe that the term was a derivative of “Ma Umau”, which means “Our Grandfathers” and that it existed long before the uprising in 1952.
In 1938, the events of the Kamba Destocking Controversy saw a member of the Kamba tribe, Muindi Mbingu, lead a pastoralist rebellion against the British. During that time, the British had become infamous for seizing the livestock of local pastoralists. Livestock was the currency the Kamba traded with and had developed their local economy. Mbingu and several others protested heavily against the activity of the British and strongly urged the British to leave Kenya so the Kamba tribe could live as freely as their grandfathers had done in the past.
Wangara Maathai, who was the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize, also gave credence to another interesting story on the origin of “Mau Mau.” According to that story, members of the Kikuyu tribe, when making lists, always started by saying “maūndū ni mau” meaning “the main issues are…” They would then hold up three fingers to begin listing. Maathai believed that the Mau Mau Rebellion fought for three main issues: Kenya’s lands, independence, and self-rule.
Brief History of Kenya
Before highlighting the uprising and its events, it’s important to discuss Kenya’s history and how the British obtained absolute power:
It all begins as far back as 2000 BC when the Cushites, who originated from northern Africa, settled in East Africa, including modern-day Kenya. Thousands of years later (in the 1st century AD), the Kenyan coastline had become a thriving hub for Arab and Persian traders due to its proximity to the Arabian Peninsula. The Arabs established settlements and were later joined by members of the Bantu and Nilotic tribes, who settled inland.
Arrival of the Europeans
The Bantu and Arabs lived together, and through their interactions, mainly for trade, birthed the Swahili language. However, that all changed upon the arrival of the Portuguese in 1498, which placed the Arab influence in East Africa under threat.
The Portuguese focused immediately on gaining control of the prosperous region and started by destroying ships and settlements while building forts. But they were also hellbent on limiting the rising power of the Islamic world. The arrival of the Portuguese, as well as its effects, set the tone for other European powers to arrive in East Africa, including the British, who took over area in the late 19th century.
In 1885, the European superpowers assembled at the Berlin Conference. It was during that meeting that the Europeans divided East Africa into territories and shared it amongst themselves. By 1895, the British had turned Kenya into an East African Protectorate, and by 1903, many British settlers had moved to the fertile lands of the region, most of which were seized from the Africans. There, they built homes, raised their families, farmed, and reared livestock.
While thousands of British people flocked to Kenya, they were still much smaller in population than the natives. Yet, they had more properties and lands. The British passed the Crown Lands Ordinance Act of 1915, which helped them have complete control over Kenya’s lands. By the end of World War I, more British people had flocked into Kenya, with most of them being ex-soldiers that the government had agreed to settle in reward for their participation in the war.
The Kenyans were determined to not go down without a fight regarding the land seizures. They came together to form pressure groups and organizations such as the East African Association, which the British banned after a year, as well as the Kenyan African Union (KAU).
Long before Kenya was officially declared a colony in 1920, these settlers had more say in the affairs of the land than the native Africans and Indians that had settled there. The British brought the Indians to Kenya to help construct the Kenya Uganda Railway Line and many of them ended up staying.
It wasn’t until 1944 that the Africans and Indians were allowed to hold government positions. But that wasn’t enough to stop tensions from flaring up between the natives and the British, something that had been brewing for several years.
Life after World War II, & Events that Sparked Nationalist Movements
On September 1 1938, Germany – under the leadership of the Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler- invaded Poland, a move which started World War II. Two days later, Britain and France responded to the invasion by declaring war against Germany. While the British army fought in the war, they also conscripted over 8.5 million men from their colonies worldwide, including Kenya.
The British officers that recruited in Kenya had a preference for men from the Kamba, Kalenjin, Luo, and Turkana tribes. They believed those tribes had the inner strengths to fight on the battlefield. Many of these native soldiers were promised pensions following the end of the war.
However, much to the soldiers’ disappointment, they never received any recognition nor pension when they returned home. But it wasn’t only the returning soldiers that felt the immense unhappiness and dissatisfaction. Many other Kenyans felt the same way. Most of them lived in poorly developed neighborhoods, had little to no access to basic amenities, as well as no education, jobs, nor rights.
It was a stark difference against the British and other European settlers. Even the Indians, who had been initially disregarded by the British, now had amassed some wealth and social status. Because of their elevation in society, they looked down on the Kenyans and mistreated them.
This large disparity between the natives of the land and the foreigners (along with many years living under oppression) brought forth the development of several nationalist movements, which eventually morphed into the Mau Mau Rebellion.
Early years of the Mau Mau Rebellion
From the mid-to-late 1940s to early 1950s, most of the nationalist movements focused largely on advocating for constitutional reform within the colony. But that all changed as more radical groups emerged. These were groups composed of much younger men, with most of them belonging to the Kikuyu tribe. They no longer wanted to use conservative and slow approaches in letting their voices be heard. And with their voices falling on deaf ears, the Kikuyus were prepared to use force to get what they wanted.
Most of the Kikuyus had migrated to big cities like Nairobi in search of jobs, and by 1952, Nairobi’s population had doubled. Regardless of the slight division amongst members of the tribe, they were still able to launch minor attacks on European properties.
As time went on, their activities garnered the support of other locals, who swore an oath to fight against colonial rule. By coming together, they formed the Mau Mau movement. Women were also key members in the group and most of their tasks involved ensuring supplies moved freely in and out of the group.
As their activities weren’t initially suspected by the colonial government, the leaders and organizers were able to travel around between local hideouts and deliver supplies to other members.
Even at the time when the movement gained a bit of popularity, the colonial government remained largely unbothered. Instead, Britain continued to oppress the people and introduced new laws that further took away the rights of Kenyans.
The Mau Mau were determined to take an armed stance against them but the British refused to recognize them and did not see them as a worthy opposition. Nonetheless, the Mau Mau remained true to their mission.
The first group of people they targeted were members of the Kikuyu tribe that had allied with the British. They assassinated many of those Kikuyus and also attacked other white people. In response, the police arrested a number of Kikuyus on the suspicion of them being members of the movement, but this move was largely discriminatory, as many people were arrested based on their affiliation to the Kikuyu tribe.
Many Kikuyus were detained in a bid to try and weaken the rebel group. However, the government hadn’t anticipated that their plan to disintegrate the group would backfire. Many other Kenyans instead threw in their support to the struggle. By the middle of 1952, about 95% of Kikuyu adults had sworn an oath to join the movement.
The colonial government resorted to their Kikuyu allies, such as the local chiefs, to speak out against the group and encourage dissenting members to partake in a “cleansing oath” designed to clear them of any other oath they had taken against colonial rule.
Nationalists like Jomo Kenyatta (later first president of Kenya), who was a member of the nationalist group, KAU, also criticized the Mau Mau movement, but he never fully condemned their actions. The movement found its toughest critic in Senior Chief Waruhiu, a Kikuyu who worked with the British government. His public condemnation of the group led to his assassination in October 1952.
Waruhiu’s death was a wake up call for the British government as they finally recognized the Mau Mau group as a serious threat to their power. Two weeks after the Waruhiu’s assassination, the British government declared a State of Emergency in Kenya.
The Mau Mau Rebellion: Kenya’s Bloodiest Period
The colonial police launched “Operation Jock Scott” following the State of Emergency declaration. Through this exercise, the police arrested 187 Kikuyus who were suspected of being the top brass of the rebellion. But the police were at a disadvantage because they were smaller in number compared to the Mau Mau fighters. The police also weren’t familiar with the colony’s tribal areas. So, in addition to the police, the British deployed troops to overpower the rebels and force them into submission.
The Mau Mau rebels refused to surrender and instead killed another chief, as well as many other white settlers. Many of the rebels had also fled from their homes and set up camps within the forests of the Aberdares and Mount Kenya. Some of the Mau Mau fighters that rose to local prominence during that period include Waruhiu Ihote and Dedan Kimathi.
For a while, there appeared to be a relative calm towards the end of 1952. But it was short-lived. The rebels began embarking on a bloody mission, killing many British government supporters and allies, as well as many other white people who got in their way.
The colonial government responded with more drastic approaches to gain control of the situation. They sacked all the Kikuyu squatters that had made their homes on predominantly white lands. They also introduced collective punishment. So, if one member of a village was found to be part of the movement, the entire village was held accountable. In some cases, entire villages were burnt down. It was also common for Kikuyus, whether rebels or not, to be sent to concentration camps.
Life for the detained Kikuyus in the camps was extremely bitter and difficult. The living conditions were poor and diseases spread quickly. There were also food shortages, with many prisoners going days without anything to eat. Many of the prisoners were also beaten, maimed, sexually abused, and eventually killed through efforts to get them to share any information. These brutal intimidation tactics were employed by the British to get the Kikuyus to withdraw their support of the rebellion.
It is a well-known fact that in addition to the human rights abuses in those concentration camps, the British committed many war crimes in their bid to crush the Mau Mau rebellion. Some notable events were the Chuka and Hola Massacres, which saw the brutal executions of captives.
Britain crushes the Mau Mau Rebellion
Majority of the British troops sent to defeat the Mau Mau rebels in the forests had little-to-no experience fighting in thick forests. Initially, their raids yielded poor results and the Royal Air Force dropped bombs without accurately locating the rebel camps.
The forests were also enshrouded in thick foliage, which also greatly reduced the impact of these bombs. However, the bombings were so frequent that it eventually shook the rebels.
During that time, Lieutenant-General Sir George Erskine was in charge of the colony’s security services. But the military and police’s lack of intelligence had put them at a great disadvantage. Instead of responding to violence with more violence this time, Erskine decided to use more covert approaches. First, he replaced the British troops with the Kenyan Army, including some from King’s African Rifles. He then consolidated the police and military into one body.
To reduce support for Mau Mau fighters, the British government also set out to address some of the issues the Kikuyus had raised earlier. They scaled up their efforts in the provision of medical treatments to some of the Kikuyus. This was done to win their favor and gather more intelligence on the movement of the rebels.
With the help of the government, the Kikuyu Home Guard was established. It consisted of 25,000 Kikuyu men who had allegedly been coerced into joining the Mau Mau movement. To gain their support instead, the government offered them protection, as well as agricultural lands. With these offers, the people supplied the British with all the information needed and were even prepared to fight against the rebels. The establishment of the Home Guard eased up pressure on the police and military, who continued to use violent strategies in their quest to gain more control in the situation.
Throughout 1953, several other unfolding events weakened the Mau Mau fighters. Compared to the military, police, and Home Guard, the rebels lacked weapons and supplies. By the end of the year, more than 2,800 rebels had been executed, about 1,000 captured (including Ihote), and nearly 100,000 supporters had been sent to concentration camps.
But the rebels persisted, carrying out attacks against their enemies, especially in Nairobi, where they still had a large support system. In the Lari Massacres, the fighters killed 97 people, including members of the Kikuyu Home Guard, as well as their families by throwing them into huts and burning them down.
Fearful that the movement would gather more strength, the colonial government launched “Operation Anvil” in 1954. The police raided Nairobi, arresting anyone they suspected of being a rebel and sending them to concentration camps. Many people were detained without knowing the crime they had committed.
The colonial government also started forcefully relocating most of the Kikuyus from their traditional homes into new villages they had built. Over one million Kikuyus were placed in these government-controlled villages, which often experienced severe famine and diseases. The re-settlement of the Kikuyus was a strategy to disrupt the Mau Mau fighters’ supply lines.
They British forces also conducted raids in the forests to sweep out any more of the fighters. One of the reasons why the British were more successful was that some officers who spoke the local language had disguised themselves as Kikuyu rebels and infiltrated their camps.
By the end of 1954, about 1,500 rebels remained in the forests. In 1955, Kimathi was arrested and tried. As a result of such high-profile arrest, the number of rebel forces began to dwindle so much that they were no longer a threat to the British.
The British troops left Kenya by 1956. Up until 1960, the State of Emergency remained in order to flush out any remaining fighters.
How many people died as result of the Mau Mau Rebellion?
The number of Kikuyu casualties that occurred during the eight-year rebellion remains widely contested. The British government recorded slightly over 11,000 deaths, but it was rumored to have been significantly more than that. Wangara Maathai believes that the numbers exceeded 100,000. Regardless of the true number, it was still a stark contrast to the number of white casualties (around 32) that were used to justify Britain’s brutal retaliation.
Effects of the Mau Mau Uprising
The following events that took place from 1960 and beyond came as a result of the rebellion:
Kenya’s Road to Independence
Following the crushing of the Mau Mau rebellion, it took another four years before Kenya started the transition from colonial rule to independence. In January 1960, the First Lancaster House Conference established the Kenyan majority rule, effectively placing more Kenyans into positions of power.
Some historians have long disputed the rebellion’s influence on Kenya’s independence. One school of thought strongly believed that the colony’s independence was as a result of the British realizing that they needed to use much more force to continue ruling, something which the British public back home would have disapproved of strongly.
It’s also been argued that Kenya’s nationalist activities following World War II made a huge impact. Those activities caused the British government be more welcoming to collaborating with the locals.
However, the indifference towards the effects of the rebellion might have been part of British propaganda to limit just how much influence the rebellion had. But it’s also likely that the rebellion inspired change for Kenya or at the very least ensured that the Kenyans had majority rule upon the departure of the British.
After a long struggle, Kenya attained independence on December 12, 1963, with Jomo Kenyatta as the country’s first president.
Public Opinion of the Mau Mau Fighters
On Kenya’s first independence anniversary, Kenyatta granted amnesty to any remaining Mau Mau rebels willing to surrender to the government. In response, some of the rebels requested lands and the opportunity to serve in Kenya’s army or civil service.
In 1965, Kenyatta sent the army to Meru district to kill the fighters and their leaders. The then-Minister for Defence, Dr Njoroge Mungai, described them as “outlaws.” The Mau Mau movement remained banned until 2003.
As the decades have rolled by, there has been a positive shift in the public opinion of the Mau Mau movement. In 2001, many important Mau Mau landmarks were turned into national monuments. In 2010, the Kenyan government instituted Mashujaa Day. The holiday is observed every October 20th in recognition of when the State of Emergency was declared. Kenyans use this day to honor the movement and its fighters.
In 1999, some former fighters of the movement, who called themselves the Mau Mau Original Group, attempted to seek £5-billion compensation package from the British government. They argued that those reparations were need considering all the maltreatment and abuses they suffered at the hands of Britain.
In 2002, a welfare group for the surviving members called the Mau Mau Trust also tried to sue the British government for the gross human rights violations that transpired during the Mau Mau Uprising.
When the ban on the movement was lifted in 2003, many of fighters who had been tortured and castrated in the concentration camps collaborated with the Kenya Human Rights Commission to seek reparations yet again. Eventually, the government reached a settlement in 2013 and paid just over 5,200 survivors, totalling £19.9 million. In 2015, the British also erected a memorial statue in Nairobi’s Uhuru Park “as a symbol of reconciliation…”
Did you know?
In the years after the rebellion, the British government failed to properly address those colonial injustices. It’s even be alleged that top officials of the government tried to destroy or sweep under the carpet, so to speak, official records that documented the fierce crackdown on those Mau Mau freedom fighters.
The death of Britain’s longest-reigning monarch Queen Elizabeth II in September 2022 evoked mixed feelings among many people in Africa, especially in Kenya. There are some Kenyans who believe that the deceased monarch did not do enough to stop the widespread abuses that were meted out to Kenyans during the Mau Mau Rebellion. Interestingly, Elizabeth was on a trip to Kenya with her husband Philip when news reached her of the death of her father, George VI, on February 6, 1952.
In fairness, the queen did spend a bulk part of her reign trying to make amends, using diplomacy and the Commonwealth, for the ills that the colonial government caused not just in Kenya, but across the African continent. However, there is no doubt that it will take some more time for Kenya to overcome the brutalities that happened during the rebellion.