The Mau Mau Rebellion

by Daniel Russ on August 28, 2010

Kikuyu Tribesmen (Mau Maus)

The end of World War II brought a worldwide anti colonial movement to the forefront. Perhaps it was because Japan and Germany had spent so much time terrorizing others in their own backyard. Or perhaps it was the fact that troops around the world had to be garrisoned in other people’s countries such that it seemed like an occupation. Whatever the impetus for this it spread all the way down the African continent. In the waning years of the British Empire, it was necessary to divest the crown of foreign holdings. The country was broken quite literally and figuratively from the struggle against the Nazis. One of those protectorates was Kenya. Of course the British were really interested in Uganda, which controlled the headwaters of the Nile. In fact, Britain had built a railway during the beginning of the century that stretched from the Indian Ocean to Uganda. As with all their holdings, this one would prove more and more expensive and locals were beginning to resent white rule.

British General George Erskine

That all said the British were not the most enlightened leaders when it came to administering to non-technological people. Like many white people around the world, the British simply felt that they were the obvious superiors of Africans. The great white hunter Robert Ruark, known for his travel writing about safaris once quipped “Before we came- less than fifty years ago- they were all eating each other and murdering each other for fun.” Furthermore, those administering to the occupied also felt a burgeoning human rights movement. F. D. Corfield, the British attaché who wrote the official history of the British adventure in Kenya said “I doubt whether those who have not served in Africa realized the very great disabilities under which all colonial governments have to function in an age obsessed with human rights.”

It’s not surprising that the fever for self-government swept through the Kikuyu people in central Kenya in the early 1950s. They started to rebel. Organized loosely into a group called the Kikuyu Central Organization, they brought Jomo Kenyatta, a leader, into their fold and he spent the next 15 years representing the Kenyans in London. He did himself and his country no favors apparently. He was a Bon vivant and married a white woman at a time when it was anathema across England. He hung out with communist writers and thinkers. He partied, but eventually he returned to Africa to lead his country. Like Mandela, Kenyatta scared the colonial government and ended up in jail. Like Mandela, he emerged and became the president of his country. In fact, Kenyatta served for life in that role.

Jomo Kenyatta

The Kikuyu people held a core resistance group that swore an oath to Kenya, an oath called a muma. Those who swore out the oath would serve as a protector of Kenya. Of course the British police kept watch on these rabble-rousers. Muma is probably the source of the term Mau Mau. It sounded a lot more frightening to the British than Land Freedom Force. It sounded foreign and repetitive like most African tongues sounded to those who weren’t familiar with them. Hollywood of course created imagery that looked like the night are of all British Empire stories: white settlers attacks by primitive natives. In fact, by the end of the uprising some five years later, only 32 British settlers were killed by Mau Maus. The Mau Mau were the latest Imperialist bogeyman for the British. This is not implying that there were no bloody incidents. With good use of news and propaganda, the British brought home the vicious nature of these attacks, especially when a white settler Roger Ruck and Esme, his wife, also a physician were hacked to detain with Kikuyu pangas. They entered the home and smeared blood over the piano and walls. The imagery settled in the minds of the British that is was us versus blood thirsty savages, not freedom fighters.

General China, Mau Mau Leader, In Manacles

What started as a homegrown anti occupation force of raids and protests blossomed into a bloody war. The British encouraged whites to settle and held land for them to settle on. These were the first targets of the Mau Maus, land taken from them by foreign occupiers. The British, flush with the new wins after WWII, and bristling with newly trained troops and new weapons had quite a bit of firepower to bear. One of the organizations the British had were the Kings African Rifles, a paid and well trained regimental army organized by the British occupational forces, that could be called upon not only to fight, but to find trails, translate and otherwise help British forces navigate through the difficult local tribal laws and customs. The Brits had 400 KAF forces and quite a few other forces. They had 10,000 British regulars, a police force of 20,000, and a Home Guard of 20,000 made up primarily of white settlers.

The British also feared that the Kikuyus they were fighting would infiltrate their own villages. The Mau Maus were operating from Mount Kenya and Mount Aderbare. Some 12,000 warriors mostly armed with panga machetes and bolt action rifles. So thousands of Kikuyus were forcibly resettled.

General China In Custody Of KAR

The war itself began with Mau Mau raids that came thundering out of the mountains. They raided livestock, burned police stations, and killed many African loyalists, and sought to strike back at the appropriation of Kenyan lands for White settlers only. The British commander, Erkine, ran two massive counter operations in 1953 and 1954. In Operation Hammer and Operation Flute, Mau Mau outfoxed British forces that had surrounded them and slipped off into the surrounding countryside. A more brutal encounter in Operation Anvil consisted of a massive sweep through Nairobi and incarceration of 16,500 Africans thought to be supporting the insurrection. Erskine wanted. Major set piece engagements with the Mau Maus, but was denied. Hiring help from locals, he dug ditches around the passes below the mountains, covered it with barbed wire and then proceeded to bomb and shell the areas where the Mau Maus were hiding. Also, rural Kenyans had to prove their allegiance and before long the British were up to their necks in an insurgency not unlike our own experience in Vietnam where modern weapons are used in complex and unforgiving jungles.

Mau Mau Rebels

The four year war saw about 12,000 dead Africans and less than 200 dead British and British auxiliaries. But the news and propaganda that fed the notion that the Mau Maus were a Boogeyman also showed a modern, oppressive army killing people living in their own backyards. The British public, tiring of constant warfare held little sympathy for another occupation. Like all colonial powers, the cost of holding all this territory was hardly worth it. Stories of Kenyans beaten to death and worked to death in British custody became their own Abu Gharaib.
By 1963, the British were under pressure to release Jomo Kenyatta and to stop prosecuting the muma oath takers. The bombing and shelling had stopped and on December 12th 1963, The British lowered their flag and declared Kenya an independent nation.


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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Simon Farmer November 13, 2010 at 9:33 pm

My father, who recently passed away, served in Kenya (against the Mau mau) for the British Army. He left me a collection of his uniform buttons and badges and I was hoping to find out more about them. I know that there are some ‘Bath Stars” hich seem to be quite common. There are two diffenet sizes and some are enamelled whilst others arent. There is also a collecton of round brass buttos in 3 different sizes all bearing a crown and a canon. There are two brass bbadges which I think went on his lapelle which bear the word “UBIQUE” which I have since learned means Everwhere. There is also a brass badge for his hat with the same word on it. There is also a badge which loks like the NIKE swish, however a liile more elaborate which seems like a 3 with a tick. If it is more convenient, maybe I can photograph them and send that to you if it will assist. Anyway, any information would be greatly appreciated as I want to have the mounted with descriptions for my family to enjoy.
Many thanks, Simon Farmer

Matthew Humphries May 29, 2011 at 12:48 pm

The badge with the word UBIQUE is the badge of the Royal Artillery.

Daniel Russ May 29, 2011 at 2:41 pm

thank you

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