Half a century on, Kenyans tortured by the British colonial authorities during the Mau Mau Uprising received from the UK government payouts totalling £20m. The High Court had previously rejected the government’s claim that too much time had passed for there to be a fair trial. But what was the Mau Mau Uprising?
After the Second World War, Britain had begun the difficult and lengthy process of decolonisation. In African countries that were entirely black in population, such as Ghana, the process was relatively straightforward. Where it was more difficult were the nations that had sizeable population of white settlers. Rhodesia being an example of this latter category, as was Kenya.
The Crown Colony
Kenya’s official association with Britain had started in 1895, when the country became British East Africa. The British government encouraged the settlement of Kenya’s fertile highlands by Europeans, utilising the labour of the very peoples they had dispossessed, such as the traditional tribes of the Kikuyu. In 1920, British East Africa became an official crown colony of the British Empire, renamed the Colony of Kenya. The white settlers were given preference in all spheres of politics, administration and society, and Africans were barred from political involvement until 1944 when a small number were appointed (not elected) onto the legislature.
Resentment of white expansion and settlement deepened. During the late 1940s, the Kikuyu established a secret society bound by oaths whose aim was the eventual expulsion of the white settlers by means of force. The society was known as the Mau Mau.
The Mau Mau entered the stage on 20 October 1952 with a series of violent attacks on whites, including murder and arson. The British authorities responded by introducing a state of emergency, rounding up thousands of alleged Mau Mau members and subjecting many to torture, including, as we’ve heard in the news these last few days, rape and castration.
The man the British suspected of being the Mau Mau leader, although he himself denied it, was Jomo Kenyatta (pictured), leader of the Kenya African National Union (KANU). Kenyatta, a graduate from University College London and once an extra in a film directed by Alexander Korda, became the focal point of the uprising. His sentence of seven years hard labour, which he served almost in its entirety, only elevated his standing among the rebels.
But the primarily targets and victims of the Mau Mau’s insurgence over the next four years were not so much the whites but fellow Kikuyu and Africans whom they suspected of collaborating with the British. Thus the Mau Mau alienated the support of many of their countrymen. Many Africans, victims themselves and appalled by the level of violence, sided with the British.
The Hola Camp Massacre
By 1956, the British had all but squashed the uprising but its detainees were detained further until the state of emergency was finally lifted in January 1960. The British treatment of its prisoners was harsh and brought widespread condemnation. The British massacre at the Hola Camp in 1959 being an example of colonial abuse. The camp in the town of Hola in the south east of the country, contained what the British considered the ‘hardcore’ insurgents and their aim was to brainwash these detainees into accepting the right of the British to rule. When on 29 March 1959, eighty-eight prisoners refused to carry out labour as ordered by their captives, guards set upon them with clubs, killing eleven and severely injuring the rest.
The Hola incident, although it gained particular coverage, was only one of many and the camp at Hola only one of about 150 across the country holding some 150,000 Mau Mau suspects. The Kenya Human Rights Commission says up to 90,000 Kenyans were executed, tortured or maimed during the uprising.
Following the defeat of the Mau Mau, the British authorities in Kenya reformed land tenure, allowing greater number of Kenyans access to and ownership of land. In 1957, the authorities staged the first direct elections for Africans to the Legislative Council but based on a limited suffrage, too fearful to permit universal suffrage. Finally, on 12 December 1963, Kenya was handed its independence with Jomo Kenyatta its first president. Kenya, which two years later was declared a republic, had become a member of the British Commonwealth.
But the scars inflicted on the Mau Mau ran deep and, as we have seen from the news media, are still felt today. “I would like to like to make clear now, and for the first time on behalf of Her Majesty’s government,” said William Hague today to the House of Commons, “that we understand the pain and grievance felt by those who were involved in the events of the emergency in Kenya.”
Rupert Colley’s compelling novel, This Time Tomorrow, set during World War One, is now available.
Join the mailing list for digests of history articles or new releases by Rupert Colley: