The Mau Mau Uprising

On the 24th April, the British launched "Operation Anvil" when some 25,000 Imperial troops and Home Guard units, plus 1,000 police, made a series of dawn raids and rounded up and arrested nearly 40,000 Kikuyu. Two days later a band of rebels burnt down the famous Treetops Hotel, the lodge where Princess Elizabeth was staying in 1952 when she received the news of her father's death and her succession to the throne.

In January 1955, the Governor General of Kenya, Sir Evelyn Baring, offered an amnesty to the Mau Mau, albeit a qualified one. The offer was that none will face the death penalty for rebellion, but they may still be imprisoned for their crimes. Unsurprisingly the offer was rejected, but, as a side effect, did infuriate the white settlers.

Mau Mau killings continued and in April, two English schoolboys were murdered in a particularly gruesome fashion.  Nine rebels were caught and tried for the crime. All were found guilty and sentenced to death and with the amnesty offer now withdrawn, were hanged in June.

During these operations some 20,000 suspects had been taken to Langata screening camp and another 30,000 had been forced into other centres or designated reserves.  So many so called “screening camps” were being set up that the authorities were forced to appoint settlers as temporary District Officers to run them. Conditions in the camps were cruel with all detainees being categorised into white/grey/black. Whites were co-operative detainees and were repatriated to the reserves, greys were rebels who had taken the Mau Mau oath, but were reasonably compliant and were moved to work camps and blacks were considered hard core Mau Mau and were sent to special detention camps. Dealing with such large numbers, the screening and interrogations were haphazard and often brutal.

The villagisation scheme was designed primarily to break the Mau Mau hold on villagers and also protect loyalist Kikuyu. The villages were surrounded by deep spike bottomed trenches and barbed wire and the people themselves were watched over by Home Guard members who were often neighbours or relatives. Taking such large numbers from their traditional lands and customs soon resulted in food shortages with many areas reporting starvation and malnutrition. The Red Cross did what they could to mitigate the situation but were ordered to prioritise loyalist areas. Reports began to emerge about the "The alarming number of deaths occurring among children in the punitive villagers" and the" politicisation" of the Red Cross.

The Mau Mau leadership had established themselves in the wild country of Aberdare and Mount Kenya from where they would make their raids. The RAF searched for and bombed rebel encampments, dropping some 6 million bombs over the entire campaign and this, coupled with the aggressive search and destroy missions of the British was beginning to turn the tide in the government's favour.

The British realised however, that a political solution to the conflict was vital and in June 1956, began a series of reforms including relaxing the ban on natives growing coffee, a primary cash crop hitherto restricted to whites. Land reforms were introduced to give the Kikuyu greater rights to farm and in the cities the local authorities raised urban wages, thereby strengthening the hand of moderate unions. Later that year they granted direct elections of Africans to the Legislative Authority and increased the number of African seats to fourteen. By 1960, the state of emergency ended and the government indicated that it would accept the principle of "one person, one vote" majority rule.

Britain then convened a Kenyan Constitutional Conference in London, but it was boycotted by African Nationalist leaders until agreement was reached on the release of Jomo Kenyata. In May 1963, Kenyata was elected Prime Minister in Kenya's first multi racial election.

In December 18964, Kenya was declared a republic and Kenyata was elected as President.

There are conflicting estimates of the casualties in this very dirty war. Most historians reckon on a figure between 15,000 to 20,000 Mau Mau dead. Whether these were all rebels is open to some conjecture. The number of native deaths at the hands of the Mau Mau is calculated at some 2,500, while government losses were 200 soldiers and Home Guard killed and 579 wounded.

In 2013, some former Mau Mau detainees were successful in extracting compensation from the British government for ill treatment during the uprising. While there is no doubt that some ill treatment did occur, it should be remembered that the authorities were being faced with a major insurrection involving thousands of rebels carrying out some atrocious acts of brutality.

You will no doubt have your own view of ambulance chasing lawyers encouraging claims based on oral testimony some 60 years after the event. It is not surprising to note that some 5,200 claimants have come forward and are reportedly in line to receive about £2,500 each in compensation. A government spokesmen stated recently that the settlement would cost Britain twenty million pounds. The difference in these two sums presumably being a very profitable day's work for the legal profession.

About The Author

Since his retirement Jim Keys has indulged his passion for history, writing two books on Britain’s past: The Dark Ages and The Bloody Crown. He is currently writing the last of the trilogy, Fighting Brits which covers Britain’s military struggles from the Armada to Afghanistan. Read more about Jim »

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